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So OK, Your Boyfriend's Bisexual, But Don't Take It Out on the Nazis

Cabaret at the Gary

By Gregg J. Kilday

DONT LET THEM kid you.

Movies about decadence are as American as apple pie. It is no wonder that Cabaret has transformed Sally Bowles, the wayward English schoolgirl of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, into an offbeat American princess, and that America, in loving recognition, has responded by placing Liza Minelli, the reigning Sally Bowles, on the covers of both its major news magazines.

Cabaret's treatment of decadence, however, signals only one major change in the Hollywood mentality. Where the movies once had to turn to towns like Sodom and Gomorrah for titillating and moralistic examples of vice unfettered, they now need go no further than the early days of the Third Reich. Movies as different as Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools. Lucino Visconti's The Damned. Hal Prince's Something for Everyone and Bertolluci's The Conformist have begun to pick and prod the corpses of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in search of moral parallels to our own, none-too-healthy times. (And, though it's true Visconti and Bertolluci can hardly be dismissed as Hollywood hacks, the very fact that their films, once made, were eagerly distributed by major American studios, shows that Hollywood's new corporate moguls liked what they saw.)

Hollywood, though, is not entirely to blame: look no further than your own local campus, where, for some time now, the kids have called their professors Fascists and the professors have spurned their students as Nazis, and you have some idea of how compelling the Nazi parallel is to Americans suffering their own special kinds of sturm and drang. America is no longer sure of her own moral rectitude, and Nazi Germany offers a convenient--and haunting--example of how wrong things can go.

Now, the last thing you might expect to find amid such hypercharged emotionalism is an affecting musical. And Cabaret, in dealing with the beginning of the Nazi end, takes a good many chances. Its hopes is that decadence can be at once entertaining and instructive, and that its historical milieu can provide a poignant contrast to the lives of its characters. The danger is that the decadence will shine forth as either bogus or overwhelming, and that the historical setting will overshadow the characters poised before it. Cabaret gambles on the trade and, I fear, it loses. But though it fails to execute the move completely it's still one of the deftest entertainments around.

* * * *

CABARET WAS a watershed of a musical and it is even more of an achievement as a film. Produced by Hal Prince, directed by Joe Masteroff, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Cabaret appeared on Broadway in 1966 to deliver a telling blow to the old-fashioned Broadway musical where songs served merely as dialogue and the songs cue was king. Ever since Oklahoma' had hit the scene in the forties, musicals were presumed to be merely souped up dramas. Lyrics had to advance the plot and dances were expected to serve some dramatic function. Cabaret was one of the few musicals of the middle sixties to say that needn't be so. Although Cabaret did retain many vestiges of the traditional musical--it had a plot all right and its characters still sang their thoughts to each other whenever that plot hit a crucial junction--it also introduced seemingly non-integrated throwaway numbers that commented on the plot rather than advance it. It all looked innocent enough--since Sally Bowles, the play's heroine, sings in a sleazy Berlin nightclub, the Kit Kat Klub, it was only natural that the musical would utilize some of the numbers she would have sung on the job. The effect, however, proved far more insidious.

The Kit Kat Klub--underneath its rouged and mascaraed exterior--possesses a knowing intelligence in the character of its Master of Ceremonies--as played by Joel Grey, a wicked little man who as readily agrees to pinch-hit as a chorus girl in drag as he assumes the role of death's subaltern on earth, doing both with a manic enthusiasm that belongs only to the dying and damned. With Grey's M.C. on hand, the conventional half of Cabaret was never even in the running.

Cabaret was a musical with both intelligence and style and what more could a body want. Its importance was made all the clearer when it spawned such other Hal Prince efforts as Zorba, where the commentator's role was taken over by the musical's entire ensemble: Company, which the cane-stomping choreography of a number like Cabaret's "Wilkommen" reappears in "Side by Side" and "What Would We Do Without You?"; and Follies, in whose case Cabaret's final ghost-ridden moments give way to a whole production hung halfway between the present and the past.

Bob Fosse--in bringing Cabaret to the screen--has done well to sacrifice none of these innovations. The core of his film is still the cabaret numbers themselves, played out on a cramped, cluttered stage given depth and dimension only by Geoffrey Unsworth's cleverly stark lighting effects. Throughout, Fosse's own particular wit as a choreographer of decadence--his "Rich Man's Frug" was one of the best things in his earlier staging of Sweet Charity--serves to summon up a wealth of period references--the tinkly, jarring music of Kurt Weill, the angular, fantastic interiors of Dr. Caligari, the smoky torch songs of Blue Angel, and the bloated Bacchanites of George Grosz. In fact, his effects are occasionally so persuasive as to be claustrophobic--particularly when you add the excess of close-ups Fosse uses to tell his story.

However, Fosse does not do so well in capturing the essence of Fraulein Sally Bowles. As the unsinkable Sally, Liza Minelli is asked to play an American girl abroad, a bit of a nightclub performer and a bit more of a whore. Sporting green fingernails ("Divine Decadence," she purrs to guests in explanation), downing Prairie Cocktails (raw eggs, whisky and worchestershire designed to get rid of the "worst hangovers") and always looking for that one lay which will bring her fortune and fame. Sally is a desperate character whose high spirits are the only assurance she has that she can keep from being a loser. Given half a chance, I suspect that Miss Minnelli might have had the range for such a part--but that half a chance isn't given her. Instead she is forced into another replay of the kooky Pookie Adams she played in The Sterile Cuckoo--a spirited, imaginative unhappy little girl who's never recovered from the debilitating effects of an unloving father. Only in her musical numbers and in one comic scene--a teaparty meeting between the theatrically slutty Miss Minnelli and a proper Jewish girl (Marisa Berenson)--is she able to project a kind of adult authority.

It's all very sad. One suspects that the chief reason Miss Minnelli is asked, and consents, to play her role is that she lacks conventional beauty. On screen, she is continually apologizing for her appearance, asking "Doesn't my body drive you wild?" in self-deprecating good spirits, and mugging incessantly as if she thinks she is any the more attractive in a state of perpetual motion. Miss Minnelli is simply another victim of a double standard that remains anachronistically true of today's movies: while actors who aren't conventionally handsome--Alan Arkin. Dustin Hoffman. Eliot Gould--are permitted to admit to a certain degree of sexual attractiveness, actresses who aren't conventionally beautiful--Minnelli. Barbra Streisand--must play it strictly for laughs. (And meanwhile, the irony of it is that the "conventionally" attractive actor or actress is no longer in particular demand.)

Michael York is the type of actor who has to overcome his conventional good looks before he can begin to make an actor's claims on your attention. As Brian Roberts, the Isherwood stand-in, a Cambridge graduate student who seems constantly in danger of prematurely becoming an English Don. York offers a soft-spoken, understated performance that appears deceptively serene in its controlled use of nuance and shading. In contrast, Joel Grey's shtick has picked up an added touch of the grotesque along the way. There are moments when it loses some of its original spontaneity--Grey now reads his punch lines as if he is a Cassandra who Knows, but isn't telling--but the overall effect remains seductive and riveting.

It is really Fosse's supple use of editing that holds the film together though. Its best moment, in my mind, occurs as Minnelli and York kiss and begin to make love while the camera threatens to fade into the phoney discreteness of a rain-soaked window. Suddenly, the rain becomes the smokey white light of the cabaret and Miss Minnelli's head returns to view as she begins to sing "Maybe This Time," a lovely Judy Garland type song that meshes perfectly with the previous scene. In achieving a balanced counterpoint between movie "reality" and movie "artifice," Cabaret saves itself from the cloying theatricality that mars most movie musicals.

* * * *

BUT SINCE, by its own self-admission. Cabaret "is more than a musical," consideration must be paid to the themes the film develops, matters in which the movie is not at all convincing. Going from Isherwood's first-person narration to the camera's more omniscient eye. Cabaret promises to give us a more complete, balanced view of its characters. By restricting its musical numbers to the cabaret setting, it clears the board for increased attention to the relatively straightforward plot that occurs in between the songs. As a result, one ends up demanding more of an intellectual hard-headedness from the movie than it is prepared to offer.

On stage, Cabaret seemed such a seemless musical web that you didn't stop to sort out the explanations it threw at you so self-confidently; its intelligence was one of style and atmosphere rather than of intellectual argument. On film, the vision is more focused, less intimidating and also less impressive. For example, the film has traded in the subplot of the German landlady for a far less interesting romance between a Jewish girl, daughter of a Berlin department store owner, and her would-be suitor. The affair is as boring as it is trite, and, if it weren't for the audience's guilt-ridden apprehensions. I don't think they'd give it a second look. Screenwriter Jay Allen shamelessly uses the threat of the concentration camp--there is an occasional shock cut to street violence and we also see the girl's pet dog beaten by Nazi toughs--to force us to pay attention to the doomed relationship. But he fails to follow his material through to its logical conclusions, allowing the subplot to be resolved in a sentimental wedding sequence that betrays no consciousness of the lovers' more probable fate.

CABARET excepts its audience to have such stock responses to decadence and Nazism that it never really bothers to pin down the exact relationship between the two. At moments, it suggests that a general disgust with the moral latitude of thirties Germany drove the middle classes into Hitler's protective arms. Elsewhere, it would appear that the vicarious thrills provided by the cabaret entertainments were identical to the satisfaction some Germans took in the brutal performances of the Nazis. And there is also the intimation that the cabaret was merely the soporific decoy that permitted the Third Reich to rise unnoticed. On these matters, Fosse's editing serves only to confuse issues without ever bothering to define them.

Curiously, the only villain of the piece is a handsome, young Baron (Helmut Griem) who sets out to seduce both Sally and Brain with the aid of caviar, fur coats and gold cigarette cases. The source of the Baron's corrupting influence is his money and not his sexual tastes. But the audience soon forgets that fact, as the Baron's pursuit of Brain--and not the seductiveness of his wealth--becomes the movie's one fate markedly worse than death. Again, no effort is made to pinpoint the suggested relationship between the discrete deviance presented in the film and the power of the Nazi appeal.

While, pretending to take an enlightened and understanding approach to its material (for Brian turns out to be every bit as bi as the Baron), Cabaret ends up a straight-laced condemnation of sexuality at large. It is no coincidence that the few bisexual characters who have appeared in recent movies have all been presented as evil. Michael York in Something for Everyone and Terence Stamp in Feorema and Entertaining Mr. Sloan victimize the families they visit with their domineering sexual attractiveness, while Murray Head's characterization in Sunday Bloody Sunday is that of a callous and irresponsible drifter. Where movies have never experienced many qualms in dismissing homosexuality by equating it with impotency (except, of course, when a child entered the room--for only then did the homosexual become a clear and present danger), when dealing with bisexuality, they retreat in fear. Since sex in the movies has most often been presented as nothing more than a contest between the strong and the weak, the bisexual, double-sexed as he is assumed to be, is especially dangerous; he is thought to be driven by unquenchable passions and all are expected to keep out of his sight lest they should submit to his power. Cabaret only confirms such a stereotype--throwing in parallel suggestions of political corruption for damning good measure.

The matter is of some importance because if audiences are going to view a film like Cabaret as a moral for our times the forces of sexual liberation might just be defeated before they've even begun their fight. It's not just the folks in Kansas who are shocked and confused by the current goings-on. A few months ago, as supposedly hip a publication as Rolling Stone took time, in an article on the Cockettes, to review San Francisco's sexual underground, concluding. "We are seeing the beginning of the 21st century here, and it feels like sitting ground zero during an explosion of sexuality and hedonism and dope and sensation-seeking unparalleled in American history. "Their tone was one more of condemnation than of delight.

Admittedly, the onward march of sexual liberation can be expected to leave behind a good many bizarre scouting parties in its wake. But it's still too early to issue apocalyptic judgments, even if they come in as attractive and stylish a package as Cabaret's "historically-grounded" warnings. There is no simple connection between sexual experimentation and political dictatorship--and out own present crises can't be so blithely associated with crises of the past. Cabaret is fine when it sticks to what it knows best--its song and dance--but when it ventures into sexual politics it must surrender its claim on out attention. Sally and her friends aren't to be condemned that easily--for Sally, at least, would never forgive us.

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