Friday, July 31, 2015

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY 1972

An urban classist xenophobist socioeconomic commentary supernatural occult suspense thriller 

One big reason I adore the films of the 1970s so much is because at no other time in the history of motion pictures can one find so many mainstream films that are just so off-the-chart, batshit crazy. For reasons both cultural and industry-related, it was a freer, more risk-taking time, resulting in a slew of exhilaratingly oddball feature films wholly deserving of the attribution, “Only in the 70s!”
Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson
Perry King as Joel Delaney
Miriam Colon as Veronica
Lovelady Powell as Erika Lorenz
Edmundo Rivera Alvarez as Don Pedro
Barbara Trentham as Sherry Talbot
When I was a teen, San Francisco’s Market Street was the weekend movie-going destination for me and my friends. The bustling commercial boulevard was lined with one movie house after another offering a staggering selection to choose from, virtually all double or triple features, at kid-friendly matinee prices ($.75 cents). Memorable for the elaborate, hyperbole-laden promotional displays and cutouts featured in the glass cases that flanked the ticket booths of their recessed outer lobbies, most were second-run movie theaters like The Embassy (with its Ten-O-Win wheel spin giveaways) and The Strand; others, like The Warfield and The Crest, were full-on grindhouses showcasing the best in exploitation: kung-fu action films, westerns, blaxploitation, and those inexplicably popular doberman movies.

I first became aware of the occult thriller, The Possession of Joel Delaney, while walking on Market Street one saturday in 1972 and being stopped in my tracks by the sight of this arresting poster staring out at me from of a theater’s “Coming Soon” display case:
I still have this poster, which I purchased back in 1974
Gadzooks! What a cool poster!
Not only was I seized by the eye-catching graphic and provocative tagline, but here was a genre film (I was very much into scary movies at the time) headlined by an Oscar-nominated, A-list actress, whose name was commonly associated with light comedies, musicals, and the occasional serious drama. I was stoked!

Always peripherally aware of Shirley MacLaine growing up, I was never what you’d call a fan. I remember she always seemed to be impersonating Japanese women in her movies (My Geisha -1962 / Gambit -1966), and while I thought she was funny enough in froth like Ask Any Girl (1959) and All in a Night’s Work (1961), her being so consistently cast as the object of sexual desire confused me. Was she supposed to be sexy? (This was back in the Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Totie Fields era when,  in order to considered funny, women were encouraged to be the opposite of sexually appealing). So, while MacLaine always exuded a kind of pert and personable screen personality, she just didn’t seem to register with me very strongly

That indifference changed in 1969 when I fell in love with her in Sweet Charity, after which she became a lasting favorite. So much so that I subsequently caught up with a lot of her old films on The Late Show, and even subjected myself to her short-lived, fairly awful, 1971 TV series, Shirley’s World.
Worlds Apart
African tribal masks, divested of their spiritual and cultural significance, are mere
decorative objects d'art in this swank Manhattan Penthouse

So, when did I see The Possession of Joel Delaney? I didn’t.

That is to say, I didn’t get to see it when I really wanted to. I saw it in the early 1980s, not back when I was fourteen, impressionable, and easily scared. When this darkly intense, exceptionally creepy little thriller could have really done a number on my head.

What did me in was my still-existent habit of repeat-watching movies I like. 1972 saw the release of Cabaret, The Godfather, What’s Up, Doc?, Lady Sings the Blues, The Poseidon Adventure, The Getaway, and Sleuth. All faves I saw numerous times, always telling myself I’d see Shirley MacLaine’s film “next weekend....” Well, when a film performs as poorly at the boxoffice as The Possession of Joel Delaney, “next weekend” is over before you know it. I snoozed and I lost.
But the wait was worth it.
Wealthy divorcee Norah Benson (MacLaine) lives an insular, privileged life in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment she shares with her two pre-teen children, Peter and Carrie (David Elliot & Lisa Kohane). When not lording despotically over Puerto Rican domestic, Veronica (Mariam Colon), Norah dotes obsessively and possessively over her aimless younger brother, Joel (King). Much to Norah’s chagrin, Joel, whose social principles are very much at odds with those of his sister, has denounced the advantages of their family’s wealth. Instead he has chosen to live in a shabby apartment in the East Village given to him by his friend, Tonio Perez. A young man unknown to Norah of whom Joel says, “He’s just about the only close friend I ever had. He stands for everything Norah hates.”
After Joel suffers a violent episode that lands him in Bellevue (a physical assault he has no recollection of committing), Norah, suspecting drug use, insists he move in with her (“It’ll be just like old times, Joel. We’ll have such fun together!”), and see psychiatrist and family friend, Ericka Lorenz (Lovelady Powell).
"Joel, why do you live down there with those people?"
Norah's children, Carrie (Lisa Kohane) and Peter (David Elliot), listen in as Norah
 obsesses over Joel's whereabout

While Norah’s almost incestuous preoccupation with her brother is appeased by their new living arrangement, Joel’s own behavior grows increasingly uncharacteristic and erratic. Dangerously so. He erupts in outbursts of Spanish profanities, afterward claiming he doesn't speak the language. He grows possessive and sexually violent with his girlfriend, Sherry (Trentham), behaves inappropriately with his sister and nephews, and overall seems changed by his inexplicably close friendship with Perez. A young man suspected by police to be involved in a rash of beheadings in Central Park.
Tonio Perez (Jose Fernandez) shares Joel's contempt for the upper classes
They also share a deep-rooted resentment of women perceived to be dominating
Without divulging more of the plot than the film’s own title affirms, suffice it to say that on the topic of living arrangements, Joel’s body can be said to have become an involuntary sublet to a particularly twisted homicidal maniac.
On the way to its tense, almost unwatchably disturbing climax, The Possession of Joel Delaney reveals itself to be a fairy riveting mix of suspense and social commentary.
Both a worthy offspring of Rosemary’s Baby’s religion-as-cult urban horror, and a fittingly grisly (albeit comparatively subdued) exorcism precursor to 1973s game changer, The Exorcist.
Urban Jungle

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In an earlier essay on the classic film Rosemary’s Baby, I related how so many of my favorite horror films are those which derive from or reflect upon the anxieties and tensions of the time. These films, serving as shrouded emotional outlets, allow for the safe venting of fears hidden deep within the collective psyche. Fears usually rendered inaccessible by virtue of their immediacy. Taking the position that all horror films are all in some way socially revealing, The Possession of Joel Delaney then provides an ideal time-capsule glimpse into the race/class tensions of big cities in the 1970s.  
New York during this time was, from a humanity viewpoint, a real-life horror story and something of a tragedy. The city - destitute, decaying dangerous under the weight of political, economic, and racial tensions too labyrinthine to go into here – was on the brink of social and economic collapse. 
Hispanic Panic
Norah's excursion to Spanish Harlem results in a full-throttle attack of xenophobia
While white flight, labor unions, and classism contributed to the wealth divide pitting the haves against the have nots; the close confines of the city, coupled with the great disparity in the quality of life experienced by its ethnic populations, fed urban fear amongst New York's advantaged whites. Specifically in regard to the city’s Puerto Rican population, which increased following “The Great Migration” of the 50s.
The squalor of 70s-era New York has played a role, either significant or atmospheric, in American movies as diverse as: Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Out-of-Towners (1970),  Little Murders (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971),  Klute (1971), and MacLaine's own 1971 drama, Desperate Characters, which plays something like a prequel to this. But The Possession of Joel Delaney (so gritty Travis Bickle could have been the cinematographer) is the first film to put classist race-fear and the city’s socioeconomic divide in service of the horror genre.
In this film about spirit possession, Christian beliefs are replaced by the voodoo-like rituals of Puerto Rican Santeria. Norah finds her skepticism challenged in this harrowing exorcism scene

PERFORMANCES
As probably everybody knows by now, William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, wrote the character of actress Chris MacNeil for and about Shirley MacLaine. Reagan was sketchily based on MacLaine's daughter, Sachi (although, contrary to what her mother claims, Sachi denies the blurry photo of a girl on the cover of the hardback is her). MacLaine was offered the the opportunity to play herself in the film version (a role which went to Ellen Burstyn), but being as she was under contract to Sir Lew Grade (producer of this film, her TV series, and Desperate Characters) she had to decline.

More's the pity, for if her performance in The Possession of Joel Delaney is any indication of what she could deliver as Linda Blair's mom, she would really have given the devil his due,.
MacLaine is the emotional lynchpin in The Possession of Joel Delaney, and her performance is one of my favorites. There's an art to playing an unsympathetic, sympathetic character, and MacLaine finds that narrow line and walks it like a tightrope. She really is outstanding, and the film belongs to her. I especially like the ease with which she inhabits all sides of her character. The good, the bad, and the slightly icky.
Simpatico Siblings
In his first major feature film role, Perry King, who at times resembles, alternately, Jodie Foster and Bridget Fonda, is fine when called upon to mercurially shift from nice guy to nut case.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
No matter how clever or provocative the framework upon which the premise of a horror film is draped, the proof of any good thriller is if it works. And this one does. The Possession of Joel Delaney is, to paraphrase Clifford Odets, a cookie full of arsenic and a vitriol valentine to urban class conflict. All balanced precariously between being the realization of a racist’s worst nightmare, and an ethnic-culture revenge fantasy.
Alas, it's a balance the film, for all its effectiveness a spellbindingly claustrophobic chiller, is not completely successful in maintaining.
Warhol star Pat Ast has a brief bit as a Bellevue patient appreciative of Norah's fur coat

A movie fashioned as an indictment of classism and race-fear runs the same risk as a film designed to condemn sexism or violence against women: if not handled delicately, said film can wind up actually BEING the very thing it attempts to excoriate. For example, on initial release, Bryan Forbes’ brilliant The Stepford Wives (1973) was misinterpreted as being sexist, in spite of the entire thrust of the narrative being a sendup of the absurdity of sexism. 
In spite of frequent attempts to present Norah's regressive, racist attitudes in the most negative light possible, The Possession of Joel Delaney is considered by many to be unappetizingly racist in its depiction of Puerto Ricans as mysterious and inherently dangerous “others.”
A valid point, but one I attribute more to flaws in direction than in the film itself. For the most part, the events of The Possession of Joel Delaney are seen from the perspective of Norah Benson, a character we know to be the worst kind of upper class snob (To Joel:“Look, I’m not naïve. I know there’s poverty around, but one doesn’t have to seek it out. I don’t have to and you don’t have to either”).
The Possession of Joel Delaney would have benefitted from more scenes like the one where Norah seeks assistance from her maid, Veronica. The deferential domestic is revealed to be a self-assured woman wise to the realities of class disparity.

Had the film remained true to this initial setup and presented events as unfolding exclusively from Norah’s narrow-minded point of view, The Possession of Joel Delaney, in my judgement, could have achieved what I think it set out to do: to show that Norah’s fear and mistrust of Puerto Ricans is a barrier between her fully comprehending (or taking seriously) what is happening.
Unfortunately, The Possession of Joel Delaney occasionally drops the subjective perspective and shifts to the omniscient eye of the observer. We're shown things Norah would never be privy to (Joel's psychiatric sessions, his aggressive treatment of his girlfriend, his staking out his psychiatrist's apartment). Since the depiction of Puerto Ricans as threatening, impenetrably mysterious "others" doesn't change, the point of view of the entire film morphs into that of a character we have been shown to to be, at best, a casual racist.
It's obvious to me this isn't what the filmmakers were going for at all (in fact, quite the opposite) but a failure to understand narrative perspective plays havoc with The Possession of Joel Delaney's socially conscious intentions.
Ramona Stewart's 1970 novel was adapted for the screen by the late African-American writer / producer / actor, Matthew Robinson (in collaboration with Irene Kamp). Robinson was one of the original developers and producers of Sesame Street, appearing onscreen as the character, Gordon, and giving voice to the puppet, Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson later went on to become a writer and producer on The Cosby Show for seven years. 
Rounding out this "R"-rated film's curious, Sesame Street connection, The Possession of Joel Delaney has a score written by Academy Award-nominee, Joe (It's Not Easy Being Green) Raposo. Composer for The Great Muppet Caper and TV's Sesame Street and The Electric Company.
If anyone has a problem with this movie, it usually has to do with its concluding fifteen minutes.
Even as much as I like it, I'm not always up to rewatching it to the end.
Excessive to some, unnecessarily cruel to others, its a fine example of how disturbing a film can be without having to resort to gore.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The failure of The Possession of Joel Delaney to add much depth or dimension to its ethnic characters prevents its social-commentary subtext from registering with the same impact as its authentically conveyed race-fear. But the film’s inability to land its target doesn’t stop me from admiring that it took the shot in the first place. 

Where The Possession of Joel Delaney hits the jackpot is in being a totally out-there, risk-takingly offbeat occult thriller, with the soul of a 70s art film.
Flirting with everything from incest to insanity; white guilt to wealth privilege; the socioeconomic roots of violence and the willful impressionability of culture- The Possession of Joel Delaney is worth checking out for anyone interested in seeing what horror with something on its mind looks like.

BONUS MATERIAL
The Possession of Joel Delaney - Complete film - on YouTube

Read a review of The Possession of Joel Delaney DVD on Joe's View

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, July 17, 2015

CABARET 1972

Divine Decadence, Indeed

For me, Cabaret occupies an honored spot at the top of a very short list of radically-altered movie adaptations of Broadway musicals (Hair, Paint Your Wagon, and Bye Bye Birdie being among the others) that succeed in being vastly superior to their source material.

Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966, a fact which always catches me off guard somehow, given that its title song – performed ceaselessly on TV variety shows during my youth –  feels as though it’s been around for at least as long as The Star Spangled Banner. (A sentiment contributing to my astonishment when contemporary theater audiences and revival house habitués still gasp and laugh in surprised amusement at the punchline lyric, “She was the happiest corpse I’ve ever seen!”)

Bob Fosse’s award winning, by-now iconic, 1972 movie musical is actually the fourth dramatization and second big screen incarnation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 Berlin Stories. The characters and events of Isherwood’s two-volume autobiographical novel collection (Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin) chronicling his experiences in 1930s Germany before the start of the Third Reich, first served as the basis for John Van Druten’s non-musical stage play, I Am a Camera. Four years later,  I Am a Camera was made into a somewhat defanged, poorly-received feature film (that is actually much better than its reputation) starring Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey.

In 1966, the very same year Bob Fosse 's Sweet Charity premiered Broadway, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb collaborated with playwright Joe Masteroff on the Broadway musical, Cabaret; a reshaped, bleaker version of Van Druten’s play that ultimately went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Come 1972, with the movie musical genre on life support from too many failed, bloated attempts to recreate the success of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, a film adaptation of Cabaret was green-lit with a modest budget ($6 million); no-name cast (while known in films, Minnelli and York were hardly considered stars at the time); and an on-probation director/choreographer. After the megabudget flop of  his 1969 screen version of Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse was persona non grata in Hollywood. In fact, at the time Cabaret came to his attention, Fosse was set to direct the horror film, Burnt Offerings, which  Dan Curtis ultimately made into a film with Karen Black in 1976.

Producers Cy Feuer & Martin Baum, rumored principally to only have been interested in Fosse for his musical staging, "settled" on the desperate-to-make-it-in films director by making it clear they were going to keep him on a tight rein. For instance, dictating casting (Minnelli and Grey were the producer's "Do it with them or don't do it," absolutes), vetoing Fosse's choice of cinematographer (Charity's Robert Surtees), and maintaining final edit of the film upon completion.

But while Cabaret's inception may have been a far cry from the auteurist ideal prompted by films in the 70s, the end result manages to look spectacularly like the creative result of Fosse's singular artistic vision. This is thanks, in large part to Allied Artists CEO, Emmanuel Wolf, one of the few in Fosse's corner from the outset, and one of the creative visionaries that helped shape the final film. Working from a marvelous screenplay by Jay Presson Allen and an unbilled Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music), this Cabaret jettisons many songs, subplots, characters from the Broadway show, and in their place, employs a stylized naturalism and stark recreation of seedy, decadent Weimar-era Germany that is much more in keeping with the dark tone and themes of Isherwood’s original novels. 
Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles
Michael York as Brian Roberts
Joel Grey as The Master of Ceremonies
Marisa Berenson as Natalia Landauer
Fritz Wepper as Fritz Wendel
Helmut Griem as Baron Maximilian von Heune
A significant part of the stylized naturalism Fosse brought to Cabaret was the then-novel device of framing all of the show’s musical numbers within the relatively “realistic” construct of performance and source. This meant that whether it was incidental music emanating from a Victrola (the fate of many of the excised songs from the stage production), an anthem sung in a sunlit German beer garden (Tomorrow Belongs to Me), or the tantalizingly tawdry musical performances staged within the smoky bowels of the Kit Kat Klub; all the music in Cabaret arose exclusively out of situations and sources consistent to real life. 
And unless you were around in those grit &realism-fixated days of 70s cinema, you have no idea how significant a role this played in Cabaret’s success. In the Hollywood of the 70s, happy endings were passé, sentiment was old-fashioned, and disillusioned cynicism was the clarion call of the true creative artist.

Fosse’s elephantine screen version of Sweet Charity, all zoom-lens razzle-dazzle while coyly skirting the issue of Charity’s prostitution, exemplified everything that no longer worked in American movies. Not only did the “Tell it like it is” generation blanch at the sight of characters bursting into song and dance in natural settings, but innocent, waifish whores of the sort popularized by Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were rendered quaint clichés after Jane Fonda’s candid portrayal of a street-tough NY prostitute in Klute (1971). 
Material Girl
Cabaret doesn't shy away from showing Sally's opportunistic side
Armed with a desire to make Cabaret “The first adult musical, Fosse devoted himself to what many saw as the uglification of the material, but what he and the cast and crew knew to be the key to making the film work at all: authenticity.

In keeping with that aspiration, Minnelli’s Sally Bowles is portrayed as selfish, superficial, and brazenly comfortable about sleeping with anyone she feels can advance her career. Similarly, the homosexuality of Isherwood’s proxy character – hinted at in I Am a Camera and thoroughly subverted in the stage musical – is at least depicted as bisexuality in Cabaret. Which, as David Bowie, Elton John, and Madonna can all attest, is a great way of being daring while still playing it safe.

Shot on location in Munich and West Berlin, there’s very little of what could be labeled “Hollywood” in the look and feel of Cabaret. Sure, Sally is wildly over-talented for such a rundown dive, and Fosse’s choreography, while appropriately modest, is far too snazzy for what one would expect from such an establishment, but this to me, is quibbling. In every meaningful way, from the lived-in faces of the extras, the baggy period clothing, the monstrous/beautiful fleshiness of the performers at the Kit Kat Klub (all unshaved armpits and death-mask makeup); Cabaret’s aesthetics evoke stark realism more than artifice.
The look for the Kit Kat Klub sequences was inspired by the works of German Expressionists. 
here Fosse recreates Otto Dix's 1926, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden

I’ve resisted summarizing the plot of Cabaret because, like that of its Academy Award rival, The Godfather (both films tied for 10 nominations each, Cabaret winning 8 to The Godfather’s 3, still a heated bone of contention among Godfather fans), I think its story so well-known you’re bound to be familiar with it you’ve never seen the film. But for the uninitiated, I invite you to read my plot summary of I Am a Camera here, merely inserting a sexual relationship for Harris and Harvey’s platonic one, and a bisexual love triangle for the pair's bipartite friendship with playboy Ron Randell.
Twosies Beats Onesies, But Nothing Beats Threes

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
That Cabaret continues to be regarded by many musical fans as more a drama with music than a full-on musical, is perhaps a testament to the film’s seamless blending of the real with the abstract. What I find fairly ingenious is how Fosse juxtaposes the almost surreal, theatrical conceit of his Expressionistic vision of the Kit Kat Klub and its creepily androgynous Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, practically oozing showbiz smarm, recreating his Tony Award winning role) – commenting upon and foreshadowing the events of the film  –  with the fairly straightforward presentation of the dramatic scenes. Scenes rich in the kind of depth of performance and characterization rarely associated with musicals.
Self-made Siren, Sally Bowles
All the world's a stage in Cabaret, where the harsh realities of life can incite the need
 for illusion and self-deception as strongly as the call of the footlights

A familiar Fosse trope is to explore the close link between show business's innate falseness and the various subterfuges people employ in an effort to cope with the pain of facing reality. Cabaret's brilliance lies in the manner in which its “realistic” dramatic scenes – scenes populated with individuals caught up in various degrees of pretense, self-deception, and denial (Sally averts her eyes and changes the subject when confronted with scenes of Nazi violence) – are contrasted with the so-called “escapist” entertainment provided at the Kit Kat Klub. In this refuge of excess where you’re invited to “Leave your troubles outside.” the club’s ostensibly harmless musical numbers and theatrical diversions (mud wrestling, erotic shadow tableaus, etc.) in fact reveal themselves to be the nightmarish compliance to Germany’s encroaching fate.
So, out in the real world, Sally, Brian, and Fritz distract themselves to avoid facing the truth about what's happening to Germany, while in the world of show biz and fantasy, the unctuous Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub actually adapts to and accepts the Nazi peril, using showbiz razzle dazzle to mask the subversive menace lurking behind his racist (If You Could See Her Through My Eyes) and fascist (Tiller Girls) stage performances.

At the end of the film when the Emcee says, "We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful!"  there is no doubt that he's lying and that he knows it. But when Sally sings "Life is a cabaret, ol' chum!" - a little too forcefully, and with tears in her eyes - I don't get the sense that she believes what she's saying so much as she NEEDS to believe what she's saying. The song becomes, like the story about her Ambassador father, an act of wishful thinking and willful self-deception. She sings not of a philosophy to live by, but a philosophy for survival.

The Face of Evil
The decadent spirit of Cabaret's Emcee, a vacuous entity for whom evil is just sideshow fodder, can be found on today's hate-mongering Fox News, and in the bloviating buffoonery of Donald Trump


PERFORMANCES
I’m not sure anyone who didn’t grow up in the 70s can fully appreciate what it was like seeing Liza Minnelli in Cabaret for the first time. Then we didn’t know that her haircut, look, and indeed her entire screen persona were going to be her “act” for the next forty years. Back in 1972 it was just Judy Garland’s gawky daughter knocking our socks off with an alarmingly assured, powerhouse display of song, dance and acting that was, regardless of one’s personal like or dislike of Liza herself, the kind of a triple-threat, starmaking turn the likes of which the laid-back New Hollywood of the 70s had never seen.
Although Cabaret was released in February of 1972, I only saw it after the September 10, 1972 broadcast of the iconic Minnelli/Fosse TV collaboration, Liza With a Z.  Two such flawless displays of performance virtuosity made Minnelli THE girl of the moment, virtually assuring her the Oscar that year. And those who still engage in debate over how she could have won over Diana Ross' equally stupendous performance in Lady Sings the Blues, forget that when it comes to getting caught up in the hype of the flavor-of-the-month, the Academy often displays all the objective discernment of a Comic-Con fanboy.

The story goes that Christopher Isherwood's only complaint about the many liberties taken with his novel in adapting Cabaret for the screen, was in having his surrogate, Michael York, depicted as a bisexual. Declaring after a screening, "It's a goddamn lie! I've never slept with a woman in my life!" 
Cabaret rightfully catapulted the handsome and likable Michael York to stardom as well, his performance being sensitive and surprisingly forceful given that, with nary a song, he escapes being eclipsed by the luster of either Minnelli or Grey.
The first time I ever saw Michael York was in the must-see Angela Lansbury black comedy, Something For Everyone (1970). In this film, York is again portraying a bisexual (albeit a far less ambivalent one), its R-rating affording  him lots of opportunities to run around in various states of undress, and, best of all, grace us York fans with what we were denied in Cabaret: a passionate lip-lock with his male co-star (in this instance, actor Anthony Higgins).

Fosse gets standout performances from his entire cast, the screenplay affording each at least one moment to shine and emerge as a dimensional character. (The English lesson scene is a particular favorite, Berenson and Wepper being especially effective and ultimately, endearing.) Of course, Cabaret is unimaginable without the indelible contribution of Joel Grey, whose nameless Emcee is vulgarity personified. I have no idea what the role looked like on paper back when he developed it on Broadway, but there is a clarity of intent to his performance that comes through even when we're not exactly sure who he is (it's like he exists only within the walls of the cabaret) or what he represents (I love that he seems to have some kind of sinister hold over Sally. That little whisper in her ear before Mein Herr, that gag-inducing grope of her bosom before going onstage...).

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Ever the master of sinuous sleaze and burlesque flash, Bob Fosse's evocative choreography and staging (serving up debauched detachment or eager-to-please pathos with equal aplomb) is ideally suited to the Kurt Weill-inspired tunes of Kander & Ebb. Special credit to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Superman) whose versatile camera (it seems to be everywhere at once) achieves a choreographed virtuosity of its own.
If I have one complaint about contemporary attempts to recreate Fosse's style, it's that the mechanized notion of sexiness today is straight out of Frederick's of Hollywood. The best of Fosse's style employed blank faced, dull-eyed dancers going through the rote gyrations of sex workers. 
If Liza only did one number in her lifetime, Mein Herr would more than suffice. Although my own body aches just watching the contortions Fosse puts his dancers through, by the end of the number Liza has the audience in the palm of her hand. She's stupendous in this.
The ballad, Maybe This Time was written for and introduced by singer/actress Kaye Ballard.
Liza sung it on her first album in 1964, and it was ultimately resurrected for Cabaret
The delightful duet, Money- highlighting two professionals at the top of their game 
Any doubts about Fosse's talents as a director were laid to rest with his unsettling
staging of the song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me 
As Cabaret became Minnelli's signature song, and the look she devised for Sally Bowles became her personal style, the line between actress and character eventually disappeared.   

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I'm a member of the camp that considers Cabaret to be a near-perfect musical. Near-perfect because I can't say I've ever much liked the fabricated, Oscar-bait sequence where Sally is stood up by her uncaring father. Not just because it reads like a page from Pookie  Adams' diary in The Sterile Cuckoo, but because it feels like such an obvious ploy to give Sally vulnerability. Certainly it's a catalyst for bringing Brian and Sally together, but with Minnelli oozing vulnerability from every pore, the scene always felt like the least truthful moment in the film. (Although when I was fourteen, the scene gave me waterworks...which clues you in on how far below the sentimentality belt the scene is aiming.)

That little gripe aside, Cabaret is what I call a "full meal" musical. A la carte musicals are musicals I enjoy for their separate elements: preferring the music to the script in one film, favoring the choreography and staging over the performances in another. Cabaret is a true rarity- a wholly satisfying musical with great songs, excellent performances, a dynamite script, brilliant choreography, and more than a few ideas up its sleeve.

Even after all these years I'm amazed at how well it holds up. The word "classic" is bandied about pretty freely these days, too often meaning a film an audience has liked for all of eight or nine months. But Cabaret, in every facet of its execution, is the genuine article. A true one-of-a-kind, never to see the likes of this again in my lifetime, musical classic.


BONUS MATERIAL
A couple of shots of early makeup and hairdo tests for Sally Bowles. Minnelli claims to have come up with the look for her character as she appears in the film. A look strongly influenced by 1920s femme fatales (l.to r.) Lia de Puti, Louise Brooks, and Louise Glaum

1972 episode of The David Frost Show featuring the cast of Cabaret

I Am A Camera (1955) - the complete film

Something for Everyone (1970) - the complete film in installments 

Copyright © Ken Anderson