Showing posts sorted by relevance for query the sterile cuckoo. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query the sterile cuckoo. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Before I saw The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969, I had only the vaguest impression of Liza Minnelli. I had a dim memory of her as this somewhat hyperactive, inauthentic personality who popped up occasionally on her mother’s variety TV show, and another as an over-earnest Red Riding Hood in a 1965 musical TV special titled The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood. Having missed her film debut in the 1967 Albert Finney vehicle Charlie Bubbles, The Sterile Cuckoo marked my first encounter with Liza Minnelli, the actress, and, in the character of Pookie Adams, my first exposure to what eventually evolved into Liza Minnelli, the screen persona.
Liza Minnelli as Mary Ann "Pookie" Adams
Wendell Burton as Jerry Payne
The Sterile Cuckoo, the first film effort by late director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Starting Over) is a fairly straightforward, bittersweet tale of first love presented as a touching, coming-of-age character study. Soft-spoken biology major Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) encounters bespectacled oddball Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli) as both are waiting for a bus to take them to their first semesters at neighboring colleges. The extroverted but socially awkward Pookie, who either misinterprets Jerry's passive malleability as interest or willfully disregards what is more apt to be amused indifference, insists that the two have instantly bonded and share a mutual attraction ("We got along terrifically on the bus!" she asserts).

Pookie, an outcast who aggressively overcompensates and guards her lonely vulnerability behind the labeling of others as “creeps,” “weirdos,” or “bad eggs,” is clearly drawn to the nice, button-down sweetness of the biology major, but one senses that she's a type that habitually latches onto strangers. For his part, the overwhelmed Jerry doesn't so much warm to Pookie’s charms as succumbs to the force of her persistent will.
Pookie worms her way into yet another heart
Yet in that strange way in which a relationship is often forged from an individual of somewhat amorphous character being drawn/surrendering to the superficially dominant character of another; the very dissimilar Pookie and Jerry embark upon a swift but tenuous romance. Taking place over the course of one school year, The Sterile Cuckoo follows the couple’s evolution and eventual dissolution as Jerry begins to grow into himself just as Pookie’s love-starved neediness starts to reveal itself to be part of larger, more deeply rooted emotional problems.
Tim McIntire plays Jerry's roommate Charles Schumacher (or Shoonover...the film can't seem to make up its mind), a typically macho, hard-drinkin' fratboy given to an excess of sexual braggadocio. On the surface. The reality of this ostensibly "popular" character's life underscore The Sterile Cuckoo's theme that all teens struggle to find their identities. Pookie's self-absorbed wallowing in her own problems blinds her to an awareness of  the feelings of others. 

As a 12-year-old kid enamored of too-mature films I scarcely understood, The Sterile Cuckoo was one of the few movies I saw during this period that didn't feel like a two-hour excursion into the uncharted territory of mysterious adulthood. Although the characters are supposed to be 18 or 19, the issues plaguing Pookie and Jerry (friendships, identity, loneliness, peer group acceptance) were, for the most part, things to which I could both relate and recognize within myself. I identified with Jerry’s timidity and deliberate, watchful approach to others. Likewise, as a gay youth, I empathized both with Pookie’s perception of herself as an outsider and her reject-them-before-they-reject-you, knee-jerk defense mechanisms.
The painful paradox of finding yourself snubbed by the very group you profess to have no interest in being a part of is brought to almost excruciating life by Minnelli in this scene at a campus hangout. Hoping to have found someone with whom she can share her outcast isolation, Pookie is unnerved to discover that Jerry, by all appearances a quiet loner, is actually rather socially poised and liked by others.

But what I think I responded to most was the film’s insight into the dynamics of a relationship between two loner personalities drawn together in their isolation. Both Pookie and Jerry are insecure, but each responds to their circumstances differently. Pookie’s insecurity causes her to alienate all others except the one person she selects to smother with all the love she has, all the while emotionally draining them with demands for all the love she needs. Jerry lacks confidence as well, but as his insecurity is neither fear-based nor self-defensive, he's capable of recognizing that most everyone is a little afraid to reach out to others, and that what matters is that one make a little effort.
Unlike the offensive message behind the beloved 1978 musical Grease, whose moral is to encourage teenage girls to change everything about themselves in order to gain peer acceptance, The Sterile Cuckoo is not a film about the need to conform... it's about the inevitability of growing up.
"Pookie, maybe they aren't all so bad. Maybe everybody's just a little cautious of everybody."

Always a sucker for movies about vulnerable characters (and movies that make me cry), I fell in love with The Sterile Cuckoo and saw it about six times back in 1969. It sold me on Liza Minnelli as a genuinely talented actress, and inspired me to read the surprisingly different-in-tone John Nichols novel. For the longest time I harbored a memory of The Sterile Cuckoo as just a sad/funny look at first love, and perhaps that’s all it's intended to be. But seeing the film today, in light of all we've come to learn about mental illness (coupled with our culture’s obsession with medicating all idiosyncrasies out of the human personality); I’m struck by how seriously disturbed Pookie seems to me now. That certainly wasn't the case when I was young. She starts out as some kind of early exemplar of the Manic Pixie Girl cliché, but what with her self-delusions, pathological lying, death-obsession, mood swings, and crippling persecution complex, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Pookie is considerably more than just a wounded misfit in search of someone to love her.
Death-fixated Pookie likes to hang out in cemeteries
Liza Minnelli deservedly won an Oscar nomination for her intense and deeply committed performance in The Sterile Cuckoo. Cynics and the industry savvy might take issue and label such an ostentatiously underdog role as Pookie Adams--significantly altered and made more sympathetic (pathetic?) than in the novel--to be just the sort of calculated Oscar-bait to attract Academy attention. But given that a similar gambit didn't work for Shirley MacLaine that same year for what many consider to be an equally manipulative and maudlin turn in Sweet Charity; I think it’s fair to say that Minnelli put this one over in spite of Pakula’s and screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s (Paper Moon, Ordinary People) determination to stack the emotional deck so heavily in her favor.
The character of Pookie Adams was conceived for the screen as one far more tragic than depicted in the novel.  

It’s popular to dismiss the less-showy work of newcomer Wendell Burton in the reactive, relatively thankless role of Jerry Payne, but I think his low-key naturalism and likability provide the perfect contrast to the nervous hyperactivity of Minnelli’s character (it’s impossible to watch her Pookie Adams and not think of Anne Hathaway's legendary eagerness to please). His character’s subtle growth is very well played, and to Burton’s credit, he’s never wiped off the screen by Minnelli (no easy feat, that). At the time of The Sterile Cuckoo's release, Burton appeared poised for stardom. But after next appearing in an almost identical role as a soft-spoken prison inmate in Fortune & Men’s Eyes (1971) he worked primarily in TV before retiring from acting in the late 1980s.

Earlier I mentioned how The Sterile Cuckoo marked my introduction to Liza Minnelli, the screen persona. By this I mean that for all intents and purposes, one can find the genesis of the entirety of Liza Minnelli's adapted screen persona in The Sterile Cuckoo’s Pookie Adams. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its similarities to her Oscar-winning role in Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1971). Fans of that film are apt to recognize in Pookie Adams a nascent version of Sally Bowles.
Pookie & Sally: A Comparison
1. Both sport waifish, gamine bobs.
2. Both mask their inherent insecurity behind displays of delusional self-confidence. 
3. Both win over reluctant, passive men through the sheer force of their personalities.
4. Both suffer from neglectful fathers.
5. Each has a big emotional breakdown scene that virtually screams, “Give that girl an Oscar!”
6. Both have pregnancy scares.
7. Both have gaydar issues. Pookie thinks (perhaps correctly) that Jerry’s roommate is gay, while Sally fails to detect that her boyfriend and her lover are bisexual.
8. Both wind up scaring off their lovers.
Come-on: Would you like to peel a tomato?
Come-on: "Doesn't my body drive you wild with desire?"
The Sterile Cuckoo (top) and Cabaret (bottom) share scenes of Liza Minnelli as the sexual aggressor. Here she attempts to seduce lookalike males with her supine figure.

The Sterile Cuckoo is one of those forgotten movies in need of rediscovery. It’s more character-based than story-driven, so it's not heavy on plot; Pookie’s character can prove more annoying than poignant to some; and if you take a dislike to the film’s Oscar-nominated theme song “Come Saturday Morning,” you’re likely to be sent screaming into the streets, for it comprises the totality of the film’s soundtrack. But to me, it’s a perfectly wonderful film of humor, sensitivity, and considerable emotional insight. Beautifully shot and an authentic-feeling record of the late '60s, The Sterile Cuckoo has standout performances throughout (Minnelli is at times phenomenal in this), and I think the conveyance of the brief romance is beautifully handled...both its beginning and its painful end. Definitely worth a look.
Oh, and as to the significance of the title? Nowhere to be found in the film (allegedly cut), but referenced in the novel as a poem Pookie writes about herself.
At the start of the film, we don't understand the silence between the two characters sitting on a bench waiting for the arrival of a bus. When this image is echoed at the end, we have a better understanding of the pattern of Pookie's life and a sense that this has been-- and will continue to be--a scenario she'll play out again and again.

Mark, at Random Ramblings, Thoughts & Fiction and a few Internet friends have all shared with me tales of having had encounters with a real-life Pookie Adams, so I figured I should share my own.
My particular Pookie was a bit of an outcast, wore glasses, and was ragingly funny. She was keenly perceptive and cutting when it came to the shortcomings of others, yet oblivious to her own. She was a deeply loyal friend, but somewhat suffocating in that if you were her friend, you had to be only HER friend. There was no room for anybody else. She was happiest in having the two of us share all of our time together sitting apart from others and putting them down. In my own insecurity, this felt for a time like a kind of strength to me, too, but it wasn't long before I recognized what a self-defeating, one-way street this attitude was. We were an insulated, impregnable world of two, but it was a world of cowards. As much as I enjoyed her company, the ultimately toxic nature of her mean-spirited humor (it was so obvious that she was in pain and so afraid of others) drove us apart.  I see in The Sterile Cuckoo and Liza Minnelli's excellent performance an exacting depiction of a certain kind of wounded personality. One I'm learning is not as unique as I'd once thought.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 -2013

Friday, June 27, 2014


"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."
Christopher Isherwood  - The Berlin Stories 1945

I've wanted to see I Am a Camera for 42 years. That's the length of time I've been aware ofyet unable to lay eyes uponthis little-known, rarely-televised, not-available-on DVD, all-but-forgotten adaptation of the successful Broadway play that inspired the Broadway & film musical Cabaret and gave the screen its very first Sally Bowles.
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles
Laurence Harvey as Christopher Isherwood
Shelley Winters as Natalia Landauer
Anton Diffring as Fritz Wendel
Forty-two years ago: It was 1972, I was a freshman in high school, and Cabaret had just opened nationally. I was eager to see the film on the strength of my fascination with Bob Fosse's choreography in Sweet Charity (1969) and my infatuation with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), but in order to persuade my family to select it for a night out at the movies, I had to rely on the scores of critical raves quoted in the newspaper ads. Which was all for the good because I knew next to nothing about just what Cabaret was.

I had absolutely no foreknowledge of Christopher Isherwood's 1945 novelized twin-memoir: The Berlin Stories; I was in the dark about playwright John Van Druten (I Remember Mama) adapting one of those short novelsGoodbye to Berlin—into the 1951 play I Am a Camera (prompting theater critic Walter Kerr's terse, too-oft-quoted review, "Me no Leica"); and I was thoroughly unaware that said seriocomic play had served as the structural source for the 1966 musical Cabaret…the original Broadway production serving as merely the launchpad for Fosse's significantly reworked movie adaptation.

Well, as if to prove the adage "ignorance is bliss," a byproduct of my state of unenlightenment was that it afforded me the rare opportunity of enjoying Cabaret free of the usual burdens that come with seeing a beloved stage and/or literary work adapted into another medium. That feeling of never fully being "in the moment" born of anticipating the omission or mishandling of some favored line or bit of business. Sometimes it's a ceaseless, almost involuntary process of comparison and sizing up which goes on in your head as you watch, hoping expectation doesn't outpace execution.
Lea Seidl as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady
Ron Randell as Clive Mortimer, the rich American playboy

Like most everyone who saw it at the time, I was utterly blown away by Cabaret. Especially its stylish, darkly atmospheric depiction of the social and moral decay of pre-Nazi Germany in the '30s…so ideally suited to Bob Fosse's particular brand of razzle-dazzle cynicism. In an attempt to rectify my prior obliviousness, I subsequently took to reading everything I could about the film.

My first discovery was that it was the rare Cabaret review or feature article which didn't reference the film version of I am A Camera. Always unfavorably. Some remarked on the film's failure to do justice to Van Druten's play, others complained that it didn't successfully bring to life Isherwood's colorful characters, all cited it as the first on-screen incarnation of Sally Bowles. While it definitely came as a surprise to me to learn that Fräulein Bowles (who to this day is difficult to envision as anyone other than Liza Minnelli) appeared on film a whopping 17 years before Cabaret even existed, what really knocked me for a loop was that it was in the startlingly against-type personage of Julie Harris.

I couldn't imagine two actresses with less in common than Liza Minnelli and Julie Harris. Even in the most democratic of fantasies, I'm hard-pressed to envision any point at which the talents of these two very gifted ladies might intersect to make feasible the notion of their being cast in the same role. One's a jackhammer, the other a tap on the shoulder. It piqued my interest no end to discover that it was Harris (an actress I adored, but always associated with reserved, Plain Jane roles like in The Haunting, East of Eden, and You're a Big Boy Now) who originated the role of one of literature's most flamboyant extroverts...and won a Tony Award for it in the bargain!
Divine Decadence
Sally bares her emerald-green nails (and tigress snarl)
Suddenly, I am A Camera became a movie I absolutely had to see. In 1972, I hoped the popularity of Cabaret would occasion a resurfacing of it on late-night TV or at a local revival theater…but no such luck. My frustration knew no bounds. In those pre-cable/pre-DVD days, it certainly wasn't out of the ordinary to have to wait a long time for a favored old movie to make the rounds, but I am A Camera was a unique case in that absolutely no one I knew (not my parents nor my older sister, who was a Late Show maven if ever there was one) had ever heard of it, much less seen it.
Years passed (decades, actually), and I am A Camera eventually became one of those films (like Andy Warhol's L'Amour) I resigned myself to never seeing. Then, two weeks ago, just as I'd all but forgotten all about it, what do you know?... there it was, big as life on YouTube!!!!

So it's true, good things come to those who wait...for a VERY long time!

Having read so little that was encouraging about I Am a Camera, I'm afraid that when the time came for me to finally see it, I did so more out of curiosity than conviction. After it was over, I wanted to give each of those early critics a solid trouncing over the head (myself included, for believing them), for to my great surprise, I found I Am a Camera to be a thorough and utter delight. Maybe I wouldn't have thought so back in 1972 when the air of solemnity Fosse brought to Cabaret rode the then-popular wave of pessimism of so many Nixon-era films (which flattered my adolescent self-seriousness); but today, I Am a Camera's unremittingly old-fashioned, studio-bound, almost farcical, light-comic approach distinguishes it so significantly from every other adaptation of Isherwood's memoirs I've seen, that it stands far and apart from comparison and represents to me, a work unique unto itself.

Presented in the form of an extended flashback told to fellow writing associates by "confirmed bachelor," now successful author Christopher Isherwood (Harvey), I Am a Camera recalls the years Isherwood spent as a struggling writer in Berlin in the 1930s. In vignette style, the film recounts his platonic, life-changing friendship with free-spirit Sally Bowles (Harris), a modestly talented cabaret singer and self-styled bohemian whose flighty manner and impulsive behavior propel him into adventures that ultimately serve as the basis and inspiration for his early writing successes. A subplot involving his only-slightly-worldlier friend, Fritz (Diffring), a would-be gigolo and closet Jew, wooing a department-store heiress (Winters), introduces a bit of drama and brings Germany's mounting Nazi threat to the forefront.
The Nazi Intrusion
Sally, Clive, and Christopher momentarily have their spirits dampened by a Jewish funeral procession  

I Am a Camera doesn't deviate significantly from the basic plot of Cabaret, its chief point of departure being merely one of approach. While Minnelli's Sally Bowles symbolized the kind of I'm-dancing-as-fast-as-I can, willful self-deception that allowed the Nazis to take over a Depression-era Germany by salving its sorrows with decadence. I Am a Camera presents Isherwood's adventures as a lighthearted coming-of-age story and depicts Bowles as something of an early incarnation of that genre staple: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (thank you, Nathan Rabin) – the quirky, childlike female character who brings chaos into the orderly life of a sensitive, button-down type, only to leave him a better, more-matured artist for it.

Katherine Hepburn played one in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and so did Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968). Certainly, Minnelli's Pookie Adams from The Sterile Cuckoo qualifies (although the word "nightmare" might be more appropriate than dream), and the characters of Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis from Hello, Dolly! and Auntie Mame, respectively, are nothing if not the Manic Pixie Dream Matron. Of course, the great Grande Diva of Manic Pixie Dream Girls is Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and ultimately it is this film, not Cabaret, which I Am a Camera most recalls.
One of the setpieces of I Am a Camera is a raucous, remarkably staged party scene that predates Blake Edwards' iconic cocktail party sequence in Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (published in 1958) and Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (published in 1939) are novelized memoirs by gay men recalling their transformative friendships with quirky, unconventional women of liberated sexuality. Whereas Tiffany's was converted into a romantic comedy (even Cabaret imposed a false romance), Camera leaves Isherwood's homosexuality as coded as the '50s would allow (his declaration, "I suppose I'm not the marrying kind," is tantamount to coming out). 

Whether or not one cares for I Am a Camera's lighthearted touch and bittersweet Hollywood happy ending (which still feels more honest than making the Isherwood character bisexual [the movie musical] or straight [the stage musical]), I can't imagine any fan of classic cinema not being enchanted by the sight of so many brilliant dramatic actors displaying such a talent for comedy.
British actor Laurence Harvey, long a favorite of mine yet so unaccountably stiff and affectless in so many of his American roles, is appealingly naïf and boyish as Isherwood. I've always harbored a big crush on him, so perhaps I'm not exactly what you'd call an objective judge, but I'd easily rank his work in I Am a Camera alongside Room at the Top and Expresso Bongo as among Harvey's best film performances.
In a reversal of her role in 1951's A Place in the Sun, Shelley Winters
 plays an heiress wooed by a fortune-hunter 

As for the strikingly handsome Anton Diffring, so chilling as the villain in Fahrenheit 451 and an actor who literally made a career out of playing cold-hearted Nazis, I never would have guessed he'd be so charming a light comedy player. Honestly, I think this is the first film I've ever seen him smile! Several years away from the grating, undisciplined performances that would later brand her a camp film favorite, Shelley Winters has a surprisingly small role and displays a worrisome German accent, but she is endearing beyond belief. It's easy to forget what an accomplished comedienne she could be.

But hands-down, Julie Harris walks off with my highest praise. She's nothing short of sensational. I've seen Harris in many things over the years (even on Hollywood Squares, of all places), but I've never EVER seen her this perky and playful. I had no idea she could be such a flirtatious, funny, physical, and a vivacious personality. Her versatility is on full display here, capturing the many shades of Sally's mercurial personality, from her childlike vulnerability to her flashes of self-interested callousness. Speaking in that rapid-fire manner I associate with George Cukor movies, her Sally Bowles is less a bohemian iconoclast and reminds me more of Kathryn Hepburn's Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933): all self-centered chatter and ostentatious show, but ultimately touching.
I found not a single moment of Harris' performance wanting, save for the poorly-matched dubbed singing voice she's given during her big cabaret number--the languid vocalist fails to capture the sprightliness of Harris' physical interpretation (I'm reminded of the too-calm dubbed voice attributed to Rita Moreno in West Side Story). Harris doesn't appear to be lip-syncing, leaving me to suspect the other voice was added post-production. i remember hearing Harris sing on the cast album of the 1965 Broadway musical Skyscraper ... she mostly went the Rex Harrison talk-sing route.

In the end, what pleased and surprised me most about Harris as Sally Bowles is the manner in which she tackles the role with such ease and command, inhabiting her character so winningly and completely that she resists comparisons to Liza Minnelli, making the part her own. No easy task, that.
"I remembered your eyes. It was as if they were asking me to look at you and yet not see you!"

It's believed that Julie Harris' outstanding performance was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because I Am a Camera--a British production that failed to punish its sexually promiscuous heroine or delete mention of abortion--was denied a Production Code Seal, resulting in many theaters refusing to screen it, and some newspapers refusing to carry ads. In the UK, it was given the "Certificate X" rating.

While devoid of anything like Cabaret's "bumsen" scene, I Am a Camera is remarkably frank on the topics of sex, abortion, prostitution, and, depending on one's susceptibility to gay coding in old films, homosexuality. Considered risqué for its time, I was amused by just how much they were able to allude to in this 1955 film (a gay couple is briefly glimpsed in the nightclub scene) and enjoyed noting how many little details of style and content would later show up in Fosse's Cabaret.
This Sally sings at The Lady Windermere, but its clientele is pure Kit Kat Klub, 
as are its wall caricatures
Partaking of Sally's favorite pick-me-up: Prairie Oysters 
The Threesome...
...The Twosome
Laurence Harvey + rectal thermometer = sexiest scene in the film 
"I mean, I may not be absolutely exactly what some people call a virgin... ."

For all the charismatic dominance of Sally Bowles and Julie Harris' standout performance, I Am a Camera ultimately manages to make good on its first-person title by being a story of one man's coming of age. The increased presence of the Nazis in Berlin challenges Isherwood's determination to just be a spectator in life, his ultimate inability to ignore its evil facilitates his growth as both a man and an artist.

For me, the poignancy of I Am a Camera is found in its final moments when it becomes clear (to us, if not the characters involved) that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Christopher has possessed all along what he'd sought to find. As the only person to take pity on the abandoned Sally that first night in the club; to be the one individual who offered her shelter without the want of anything in return; to have remained by her side during a crisis, even going so far as to propose marriage and lose a promising job opportunity--Christopher was an "involved" participant in life from the very start. He was never for a moment the apathetic, unthinking "camera" he imagined himself to be.
Christopher ceases being the passive observer

Author Armistead Maupin in his 2008 introduction to Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories (and if you haven't read The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend it), makes the observation that Isherwood's narrative device of assuming the role of the "camera" in his memoirs--the impartial, uninvolved recorder of events--was the author's way of protecting himself. A method of intentionally keeping his homosexuality out of his autobiographical stories for fear that its mere inclusion would distract from everything else in the text. 
A necessity at the time, but one rectified by Isherwood himself in his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, in which the very same pre-war Berlin years documented in this film are recounted with a proud acceptance of his sexuality and an acknowledgment of its profound influence on his life and his art. 

I Am a Camera; a film shrouded in period-mandated gay coding (the aforementioned "confirmed bachelor" line) and starring a closeted gay actor portraying an asexual/sexually ambiguous character; is a product of its time, yet nevertheless contains a timeless message. Especially for the LGBTQ community, which has been so much a part of Christopher Isherwood's enduring legacy. Society, when not actively seeking to eradicate, has always encouraged gay people to "hide in plain sight." To, in effect, protect ourselves through anonymity and the acceptance of a non-participatory role as a "camera" on the periphery of life.
I Am a Camera - (inadvertently perhaps, but I'd like to think by way of the innate humanity of Isherwood and his characters)--exposes inauthenticity as an obstruction to growth (Sally, a woman defined by artifice, never changes). It promotes the necessity of being true to oneself (Fritz finds love and is compelled to reveal his true self to Natalia), and it affirms the absolute necessity that we must all be active participants in matter how complicated things become.
Since I consider Bob Fosse's Cabaret to be such a perfect film and wasn't really hoping to find a movie to compare it to or replace it with, I rejoiced in I Am a Camera turning out to be so comprehensively and refreshingly different. Making up for those 42 years of longing, I've already seen it three times and marvel at what a splendid lost gem it is. To quote Sally Bowles, I think I Am a Camera is "Most strange and extraordinary!"

The tune Sally Bowles sings in her cabaret act is the 1951 German song, "Ich Hab Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin" (I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin), written by Ralph Maria Siegel. In this film, the song is given new English lyrics by Paul Dehn, the title changing to: "I Saw Him in a Café in Berlin."
You can Hear Marlene Dietrich sing the original song HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014

Friday, July 17, 2015


Divine Decadence, Indeed

For me, Cabaret occupies an honored spot atop a very short list of radically altered movie adaptations of Broadway musicals (among them: Hair, Paint Your Wagon, and Bye Bye Birdie ) 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 how its title songperformed ceaselessly on TV variety shows during my youthfeels as though it’s been around for at least as long as The Star-Spangled Banner. (A sentiment no doubt contributing to my astonishment each time 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 adaptation 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 chronicling his experiences in 1930s Germany before the start of the Third Reich (Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin) 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 (which 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 on 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 eventually helmed in 1976 with Karen Black and Oliver Reed.

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 more influential creative visionaries helping to 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 diegetic 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 with 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 characterhinted at in I Am a Camera and thoroughly subverted in the stage musicalis 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 fairly 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 is so well-known you’re bound to be familiar with it even if you’ve never even 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

That Cabaret continues to be regarded by many musical fans as more a drama with music than a full-on musical is perhaps the best 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, recreating his Tony Award-winning role and practically oozing showbiz smarm)commenting upon and foreshadowing the events of the filmwith 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 scenesscenes 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. Meanwhile,  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!" —with tears in her eyes and a little too forcefullyI don't get the sense she believes what she's saying so much as she NEEDS to believe what she's saying. The song becomes, much 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

I’m not sure anyone familiar with the show-bizzy, Vegas-y Liza of today can 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 was 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, star-making 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 star 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, often 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 or musical interlude of his own, he manages to avoid being eclipsed by the luster of either Minnelli or Grey.
The first film I ever saw Michael York in was the film Something for Everyone (1970) starring Angela Lansbury. A black comedy that recalls Pier Pasolini's Teorema, in it York is again portraying a bisexual--albeit a far less ambivalent one. With 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 she takes to the stage to perform Mein Herr, that gag-inducing backstage grope of her bosom).

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.
Contemporary attempts to recreate Fosse's style often adopt a standard-issue notion of sexiness that's straight out of Frederick's of Hollywood. The best of Fosse's style employed blank-faced, dull-eyed dancers going through the rote, mechanized gyrations of bored 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 also sang the song on her debut 1964 album Liza! Liza!, 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.   

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.

Lisi With an S and Liza With a Z
The iconic purple dress Sally Bowles wears as she sings the film's title song first made its appearance a year earlier on the body of Italian film star Virna Lisi in the 1971 French/Italian melodrama Love Me Strangely (aka A Strange Love Affair or ). The gown is not the work of Cabaret's Oscar-nominated costume designer Charlotte Flemming. When the dress was put up for auction in December of 2018, the catalog noted the label inside the dress read: Loris Azzaro, Paris. 
The Italian designer was popular in the late '60s and designed fashions for men and women, and he had his own fragrance line.  See Virna Lisi make her entrance in Un Beau Monstre HERE.

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 herself, drawing inspiration from 1920s femme fatales ( r.) Lia de Puti, Louise Brooks, and Louise Glaum.

Joel Grey - 1984
Liza Minnelli - 1977
Marisa Berenson - 1980
Michael York - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 -2015