Sunday, August 27, 2017

1972 - Cabaret

Oscar season is not too far away now. Some might even say it's begun already. I've somehow managed to get to the movies a number of times recently, and while there have been some films I've really loved (Baby Driver, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West, The Big Sick), probably the only real Oscar contender among them is Dunkirk. If it can keep up the momentum, it seems like a good shot for a Best Picture nomination. And if it can convert that into a win, it would be the first 70mm film to do so since Patton in 1970.

But enough of the useless Oscars trivia. Next up, we take a look at another nominee from 1972's Best Picture contest...

Bob Fosse
Jay Presson Allen
(based on the musical play by Joe Masteroff, also based on a play by John Van Druten, also based on stories by Christopher Isherwood)
Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
8 wins, including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Grey)

Berlin, 1931. American Sally Bowles (Minnelli) works as a cabaret singer at the bohemian Kit Kat Club. She befriends Englishman Brian Roberts (York), who teaches English to the locals while he works on his doctorate. The two flirt with romance before eventually taking the plunge, but when a charming baron (Grieme) enters their lives, a complicated threesome is born. All the while, the Nazi party becomes an increasingly violent presence in the city and in the club.

Like most musical films, a TV screen seems too confining for the theatrically extravagant numbers of Cabaret. It's certainly another movie I'd like to be able to catch on the big screen one day. In any case, no matter the size of the screen, all of the songs, right from the opening number, are passionate and emotive. Not to mention toe-tapping. Literally. My toe was involuntarily bouncing to the beat often. And Cabaret is not just a treat for your ears. Your eyes can also feast on the snazzy costumes, moody cinematography and snappy editing. Most of that visual and aural entertainment is limited to the musical numbers in the cabaret club, a setting which obviously allows for such flashiness. However, the narrative story is also very moving and emotional, exploring elements of the human condition in a way that isn't touched upon often, or at least wasn't in 1972.

As I often mention, stage productions that are brought to the screen often fail to appropriately adapt the material for film, but thankfully, that's not the case with Cabaret. While there are still a few lengthy scenes full of only dialogue, the musical scenes in particular make clever use of the medium. David Bretherton's editing deftly splices the cabaret performances together with snippets of germane events taking place outside the club. Bob Fosse also made the brilliant decision to remove all the songs from the stage version that didn't actually take place on the cabaret stage. The result is a musical that retains the sense of realism that is usually lost when characters unrealistically burst into song. Here, the singing only occurs as it would in real life: on a stage in front of an audience.

While the songs symbolically comment on the surrounding scenes, the only direct connection between the cabaret performances and the narrative story is Sally Bowles, and even then, we never actually see her interact offstage with any of the other cabaret performers (apart from a brief suggestive look from the Emcee). On the one hand, this creates a mildly disjointed feeling that we're watching two starkly separate movies. On the other hand, the two movies are cleverly related in that they explore the same themes using opposite techniques - one is a chronological narrative, the other is a series of bitingly satirical musical numbers.

After such engaging passion, the ending is perhaps a little unsatisfying. Not that I'm suggesting a happy ending would have been appropriate, but despite the fact that the mismatched lovers were inevitably not meant to be, the decline of their relationship seemed somewhat sudden. Plus, all the political tension that infuses the film never develops into anything more. I was half expecting the Nazis to storm the club and shut it down in a dramatic climax, but instead, the film ends with only a whimper. Then again, that may very well be the point of it all. The vibrant Berlin culture of the early 1930s never got a proper goodbye. It was gradually diminished as Hitler took over. Perhaps this is symbolised in the final moments of the film as the Emcee sings a suspended farewell that is missing its final musical phrase. He bows and briskly exits the stage as the camera pans to see the distorted reflections of several Nazis in uniform in the audience.

Liza Minnelli is naturally bubbly and energetic in perhaps her most memorable role, earning herself a Best Actress Oscar in the process. Also winning on Oscar night was Best Supporting Actor Joel Grey (pictured) as the Emcee. At first, Grey seems a little over the top, but once you accept that he's playing the part of a vaudevillian cabaret artist, it's actually perfect. I desperately wanted to see his character actually interact with someone off the stage, but nonetheless, he's delightfully naughty and suggestive, precise and detailed in every movement. That's probably in large part due to Fosse's intricate choreography, which is sublimely provocative on many levels. Some of the shapes he makes his dancers take are so unique that I often felt like I'd never seen a person make that move before. And his direction is nothing to be sneezed at either. He won the Best Director Oscar for it, after all. A notable and fascinating feature of his style in this film is his penchant for allowing his characters to communicate without saying anything. It's clear he wasn't afraid to have his actors stare at each other silently for long periods of time. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, a face is worth a thousand words.

Then, of course, there's the music and lyrics. Kander and Ebb are simply masters of the form, both individually and together. The toe-tapping, emotive music combined with witty and moving lyrics is the perfect pairing. They wrote three songs specifically for the movie, but the one that seemed like it would be the most likely to be nominated for an Oscar, "Maybe This Time", was actually adapted from a song they'd written previously, making it ineligible. So in the end, Cabaret didn't receive a Best Original Song nod, but it did find itself nominated in 10 other categories, winning a total of 8 Oscars, the most for any film that didn't also win Best Picture.

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