Liza Minnelli has cited Cabaret, the film for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1972, as the first real adult musical, and she's right. But the movie's settingthe tatty, amoral Kit Kat Club in Berlin in 1931 amidst the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi party, and its taboo subject matterhad a lot to do with my resistance to it when I first caught it during a screening while in college. Even with its openly gay characters (a musical first) and sexy, unapologetic approach, Cabaret seemed too unnerving, too acrid upon first encounter. I recognized its brilliance but wasn't ready for its dark reality. I adhered to the old line that musicals were supposed to transport one to another placea fantasy, phony place at that.
It was no surprise then that I much preferred 1976's A Star Is Bornwhich purported to show the dark side of the glitzy yet grimy world of rock 'n' roll, and starred Barbra Streisand (in one of her biggest box-office hits) as the singer on the rise as well as bearded, beastie, impossibly hunky Kris Kristofferson as a debauched rock star and her improbable love interest, who was heading for a swift decline via the familiar liquor-slicked, drug-fueled fast lane. The hipster rock setting for the Streisand picture, a fourth remake of material that dated back to the early 1930s, seemed very in-the-moment; emotionally, the movie reeled the viewer in, stayed true to Hollywood's musical formula and seemed to offer Streisand a genuine triumph as she belted out song after song.
Watching both again, however, in their new, handsomely packed Blu-ray editions from Warner Home Video, it's immediately apparent that one of the basic truths about movies definitely applies to these two efforts: Some movies get better with time and some, well, some do not.
Cabaret, winner of multiple Academy Awards and an instant triumph, is clearly the masterpiece that it has always been hailed as while A Star Is Born, which also won an Oscar (for Best Song for "Evergreen"), is a movie that is so rooted in place, time and the tightly controlled grip of its star and executive producer, Streisand, as to be almost unwatchable today. Talk about a movie that hasn't aged well. And this assessment comes from a man who stood in line on opening day in 1976 and then went back to see ithappily, ecstaticallyseven more times! I loved it then but think it's just about awful now.
True, when Streisand raises that one-in-a-million voice in song there are distinctive pleasures to be hadthe lovely, overlooked "Everything" and "Lost Inside of You" are still highlights as is the playful vocal teasing between she and Kristofferson on "Evergreen"and Kristofferson's burned-out-but-still-sexy rock star hits home. There are some nice supporting turnsby Gary Busey, Paul Mazursky and Marta Heflin. But everything elsethe things I overlooked back then during my "Barbra Is a Goddess" periodnow seem so patently fake, overdone (especially Streisand's performance) and illogical (beginning with what draws the two leading characters together to begin with) that the movie seems interminablea testament to the ego of Streisand and her then-lover and fellow producer, Jon Peters. It really is the over-the-top home movie the press tagged the picture with upon its release.
Cabaret, on the other hand, has not lost an ounce of its stylish panache. It certainly influenced later musicals tackling adult themesChicago being the most prominentbut part of its greatness is that it stands alone at the pinnacle of the form and it really hasn't ever been equaled. It has been beautifully restored for this 40th-anniversary edition, and Geoffrey Unsworth's gorgeous, dark cinematography (one of the film's eight Oscar wins) is as lustrous as I remember it.
The material had been the subject of many previous adaptations of gay writer Christopher Isherwood's memoir The Berlin Stories. Stage producer Hal Prince was set to make his film debut, after having successfully shepherded the 1967 Broadway musical version; however, scheduling conflicts got in the way, and both he and the film's producer Cy Feuer decided to take a chance on director-choreographer Bob Fosse, even though Fosse's film version of Sweet Charity had been a monumental flop.
Fosse and his collaborators made the brilliant decision to excise any musical numbers from the story that diverted from reality, retaining only the songs commenting indirectly on the character's lives. That meant a big subplot of the stage vehicle had to be jettisoned, replaced by more Kit Kat club numbers (by John Kander and Fred Ebb) and more emphasis on the relationship between Brian (played by the impossibly handsome and sweet Michael York in his best movie role), who becomes fast friends and briefly, the lover to "that international singing sensation, fraulein Sally Bowles"the incomparable, madcap Sally with the Louise Brooks bowl cut and the divinely decadent green fingernails. Minnelli, fresh from her Oscar-nominated performance in The Sterile Cuckoo, was signed to the role and loved Fosse's determination to make something smart, brittle and electrifying.
Under Fosse's exacting tutelage both Minnelli and Yorkalong with the fantastic Joel Grey (also an Oscar winner) as the uber-creepy (and equally irresistible) MC of the Kit Kat Clubdid just that, and Cabaret entertains with its audacity and unsentimental approach from the moment Fosse shoots the Kit Kat customers through the distorted mirrors of the club at the film's outset. Minnelli and Grey kill one song after another, and Fosse dazzles with the razor-sharp cutting of his inventive camera angles focusing on Sally and the Kit Kat girls in their stockings, garters and bowler hats. The numbers, intercut with the often abhorrent actions of the Nazis outside the club, also beautifully move the story along, deepening the songs and story. Minnelli enchantsa triple threat who sings, dances and acts with quirky, breathless assurance masking uncontrolled vulnerability. In the process, she became the enduring gay icon she remains. (Last week she, York, Grey, and co-star Marisa Berenson all attended a screening of the film in New York.)
Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen was given the directive to reinstate the homosexuality of the character of Brian (this had been removed from the Broadway version), making him again the unapologetically gay man portrayed in Isherwood's stories. The movie's blurring of sexual boundaries is incredibly potent throughout, especially during a scene in which Brian and Sally hook up with the handsome bisexual German baron (played by the late gay actor Helmut Griem) and the trio drunkenly entwines, dancing in the living room of the baron's country estate. (He later seduces them both.) It's just one memorable sequence in a film that is made of them.
Maryam Keshavarz's 2011 eye-opening film Circumstance, which traces the course of a forbidden romance between two 16-year-old Iranian teenage girls, is showing as part of Sharon Zurek's Dyke Delicious series on Saturday, Feb. 9, at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St. The terrific film, which has been banned in Iran, was one of my top 10 LGBT movies for 2011. A 7 p.m. social hour will precede the 8 p.m. screening. Presented by Black Cat Productions and Reeling. The film will also be screened as part of the Chicago Filmmakers series at Columbia College in Hokin Hall (623 S. Wabash Ave.) tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 7:30pm. www.chicagofilmmakers.org
The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., presents an encore screening of John Lithgow in the Victorian farce The Magistrate, part of its National Theatre Live series, on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website