Thursday, October 02, 2014

Minnelli in Cabaret

When I was looking up items about Weimar Germany, one thing that caught my eye was a 21st century essay that said American perception of Weimar culture and life is mostly based on the depiction in the movie Cabaret. That is an absolute shame, but hardly a surprise since Americans are ignorant of their own history so why should I expect them to know anything about another nation, even one as significant to 20th century world history as Germany. Cabaret is a great film, and one of the few musicals I enjoy. My wife the dancer, dance teacher and amateur dance historian (we have too many Isadora Duncan books) loves Fosse's film and work, so it is one we can watch together. It is a musical that they adapted well to the screen, and the keys are Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli's work. I figured out the secret to Liza Minnelli's Oscar winning performance.

Liza plays Sally Bowles the cabaret performer or small time star. She is a triple threat: singing, dancing and, ever hoping to be in film, acting. She also is a hypersexual entity in Weimar's decadent, anything goes era. It literally was "Anything Goes" as that musical came out in 1934, which is just a few years after this story takes place and reflects the general feeling of the time. Sex is a weapon, not just for her but for everyone in that film. The reveal in the "Screw Maximilian" exchange was scandalous for '72, and Liza's reaction sells the shock (love Michael York's laugh + pause). The movie's story, more than the play, is doused with sex as sex and sexual pairings moves the plot along. If you pay attention to plot pivot points, starts and finishes, it all comes back to sex. Liza's Sally is the feminine center of it all.

Minnelli did turn into a parody of a star by the '80s, but in this film can nail the vamp who thinks she has it locked down but is really in above their head. She nails the try hard small timer. She nails the woman who overestimates her own sexual marketplace value. She does all of this because Liza Minnelli actually thinks she is far more talented than she is, far more classy than she is, and far more attractive than she is. Audiences did not know it in 1972, but we know it now, this was the role perfectly paired to her personality. That's the secret. No one could really admit then because we did not see her future. Minnelli is talented, and has an Emmy, Oscar and Tony; just a Grammy away from a GOTE. She also is not versatile. Is she ever not "Liza!". That is what is so great about the Sally role. No one, or few, knew it then, but she was just being "Liza!". She shows up on Arrested Development thirty years later, and she practically plays Sally again for her scenes with Gob. She was playing herself, but at that point "Liza!" is herself.

Now this is not to denigrate her performance in Cabaret. She has a great singing voice that is on display in songs like "Money", "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret". She is a ham, as was Sally's role. There is one specific spot where as she is acting, maybe a bit of Liza's true misery comes out. As Brian leaves and Sally is left for the final number glum, after the impish little cabaret host feels her up, she puts on her game face and goes out to perform the finale "Cabaret". There is that moment in the song where she sings about her friend and slows up, pleading with the audience. She's pleading for them to believe her story of Elsie who raged it but died young and how she made that choice to rage it, too. "And as for me, and as for me", is a plea where Sally sells the crowd and by mode of film, us the audience, that this is her choice. By bye Brian, bye bye baby, give me the lights and thin layer of glam the cabaret provides. Looking at Liza in 2014, that plea in 1972 is sold so well and feels so emotional because it's Liza giving us a peek, pouring a bit of herself into the role, and telling us all how she is going to live.


Anonymous said...

A musical review? Let no one ever say you're a one trick pony.

peterike said...

As a fan of musicals, I've always had a soft spot for Liza. Such a great voice, all that potential. Such a waste, ultimately. One of my faves of hers is "One Good Break" from "Flora the Red Menace," where a 19 year old Liza belts it out and you can just hear the freshness in her voice, before it all caved in.

As for "Cabaret," it does a nice job of showing the depravity of the Weimar years, but of course it has the usual Jewish entertainment tropes: one of the main Jewish characters is a fruit shop owner. Of course! Always, always, always the Jewish characters are portrayed as the haberdasher, the small businessman, rather than the banker, the newspaper magnate, the psychiatrist, the industrialist, the pornographer -- which of course is what so many in Germany were. And naturally in the film they are the victims of the depravity, rather than the progenitors and instigators of it.

But ironically, in the faux Nazi anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," they do such a good job of making it appealing that you are actually drawn to it. And indeed, it's a rousing song. The traditional oompah-style music contrasted to the decadent jazz, the clean cut young man contrasted to the freakish Joel Grey character. We're supposed to be creeped out by it, but I find it thrilling.

And of course, in short order Hitler had cleaned up all the depravity. It's easy when you've the will.

Such a pity Hitler was drawn into the war (yes, that's what I just said), and then his increasing mania kept it going to the ultimate destruction of Germany. For a number of years before the war he was probably the greatest leader a Western country had ever known, and by this I mean a leader for the German people, whose lives improved immeasurably under his watch. He should have just stuck to growing Germany's economic power. He could have ruled Europe by proxy anyway, and brought much of his social vision to bear. He could have teamed with the British, who he always admired, but for the corrupt little warthog Churchill, flunky of Jewish finance power, and a vicious little killer to boot. Well, nobody came out of that war with much honor intact. Too bad we only get told one side of it.

peterike said...

If you want to see Liza at the peak of her looks and voice, this is a good little concert film from France. Mainly the first 20 minutes or so, before it descends into a terrible dance number. A bit of a comeback at the end, too. But it's that first segment where you really can see the girl could sing, even if her song selection isn't very good.

nikcrit said...

He could have ruled Europe by proxy anyway, and brought much of his social vision to bear. He could have teamed with the British, who he always admired, but for the corrupt little warthog Churchill, flunky of Jewish finance power, and a vicious little killer to boot. Well, nobody came out of that war with much honor intact. Too bad we only get told one side of it.

Yes, and if the fuhrer could've held back a tad and Europe would've gotten a bit more of his civic aesthetic instilled, you can bet that Aryan distinction would've moved into "inter-Aryan" distinction and soon enough the volk would've begun tearing up each other.
That, despite its being rarely told but clearly evident, is the end logic of Hitler's Reich and republic, Weimar-esque or not-so-much.

nikcrit said...


Since you appear to be a vigorous follwer of the classic occidental arts, specifically of the NY higher-brow aesthetic,
I wondered if you caught this story today; interesting to me in that she's not going the esteemed-university emeritus-arts-professor course, which is par for most retiring classical dancers and musicians.

peterike said...

Nik, no I don't care a fig for dance or ballet. It's one art form that's always left me cold. Really, dance of any kind bores me, except the Fred Astaire variety. If I watch ballet I mostly think, "I have no idea what the point of this is!"

Modern dance? Fugghedaboutit!

Toddy Cat said...

Of course, the best course of all would have been to have avoided World War One, and none of the whole sorry mess would have occurred. Hitler would have ended his days as the German Thomas Kincaid, Churchill would have been this odd political gadfly, Mussolini would have been an editor, and Joseph Kennedy would have been our first Catholic president in 1936. A different world indeed...