Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Savannah Guthrie is very lucky.  She had to the opportunity to interview cast members of the Oscar-winning film, Cabaret, this morning on NBC's "TODAY" show.  Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Marisa Berenson and Michael York were present to honor the 40th anniversary of that ground-breaking musical drama directed by the late Bob Fosse.  The director took us to 1931 Berlin to meet characters amusing themselves and others in a popular nightclub.  They party inside as the Nazi Party gains power outside.
Minnelli won the Oscar for Best Actress.  Joel Grey won for Best Supporting Actor.  Fosse won for Best Director and the film was nominated for Best Picture of 1972.
No offense to Ms. Guthrie but I wish I'd done the interview.  Or that I'd been her segment producer.  Was she aware of the source material, the stories by Christopher Isherwood, that inspired the original Broadway musical?  Was she aware of Joel Grey's long show biz history before he made the movie?  Did she know that Minnelli had Broadway credits and one Oscar nomination under her Halston belt before she won the Oscar for Cabaret?
Minnelli was not the first actress to play Isherwood's Sally Bowles on film.  Julie Harris starred as Sally opposite Laurence Harvey in the 1955 British film, I am a Camera.  The lady Marisa Berenson played in Cabaret was done by Shelley Winters in the 1955 drama.

I am a Camera and Cabaret are based on "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood...just as the original movie musical, Gigi, was based on a short story by the French author, Colette.  Gigi won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1958.  Liza's father won the Oscar for Best Director.  I add that because Ms. Guthrie innocently mentioned the thing that "irritates" viewers of pre-Cabaret musicals is that people would burst into song.  Liza's mother, Judy Garland, and her father made some of Hollywood's best and most iconic "irritating" MGM musicals.  Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris, a Gershwin musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1951.  Fosse's previous film was the movie version of his hit Broadway musical comedy, Sweet Charity (1969).  It wasn't a big hit but, obviously, Fosse learned a lot.  Society was changing.  The 1960s was a rough, revolutionary decade filled with shadow and light.  The sudden deaths of political heroes, the birth of The Beatles, the Vietnam War, Woodstock.  The Stonewall Riots of 1969 that were a major cry for Gay Rights.  Young audiences were seeing movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, M*A*S*H, Midnight Cowboy and the first film to bring Liza an Oscar nomination, The Sterile Cuckoo.  They were moving away from the traditional big budget, bright Hollywood musicals like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly!  With its provocative sexual frankness, its dark political undercurrent and its realism by placing the musical numbers in the cabaret itself, Fosse's adaptation broke new ground in movie-making and came out at just the right time socially.  Young viewers went to see it more than once.  They quoted Sally Bowles saying "Divine decadence."  Cabaret spoke to the frivolity, fears and sexual freedom of a new generation.  It also gave us unforgettable musical moments.
Liza Minnelli was the bridge between the Old World and the New World of movie musicals.  Her first screen appearance was at the end of a top MGM musical comedy, In The Good Old Summertime, starring her mother.  She watched her father direct his legendary musicals.  Under Fosse's direction, she got an Oscar nomination for making a musical drama.  Very few actresses achieve that.  Her mother did   with the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, a film that blends Hollywood fame, true love, physical violence, alcoholism, self-loathing, suicide and showtunes into one tender story.  Judy Garland deserved that Best Actress Academy Award nomination.  Liza deserved hers.  Yes, I love seeing her do the "Mein Herr" number and her rendition of the title tune at the end is a knock-out.  But don't forget her dramatic scenes ... like when Sally has been stood-up by her father.  Funny, how life can imitate art.  That same thing happened to me when I tried to have dinner with my father, whom I'd not seen in 20 years.  Minnelli understood and revealed the essential sadness in Sally's heart covered up by her "shocking" behavior.
The effects of Cabaret are still felt.  When I was a VH1 veejay in the late 1980s, when the network still played music, I could see the influence of Fosse's editing in new MTV and VH1 music videos.  We saw its effects in the Best Picture of 2002, Chicago, based on a Bob Fosse Broadway hit.  We can see the influence of his innovative editing style, choreography and staging on current TV shows like Glee and NBC's Smash.

My first TV job in New York City was on WPIX/Channel 11.  I loved doing entertainment features on its weekday local magazine show.  I had the opportunity to interview Joel Grey live in the studio.  His real name is Joel Katz.  He's the son of Mickey Katz, a 1940s entertainer called "The Yiddish Spike Jones."  Joel won his Oscar for playing the Nazi-friendly Emcee.  I asked him how he felt, being a Jew, when he arrived to make a movie such as that in Germany where so many atrocities against Jews had been committed in the 1930s and '40s.  The actor appreciated the question and gave me a rich, honest answer.  He was quite emotionally moved upon arrival for that very reason.
Before his Oscar, Joel Grey won a Tony Award for his 1967 performance as the Master of Ceremonies in the original Broadway cast of Cabaret.  I would've loved to have interviewed him again this morning.  Savannah Guthrie was very lucky to be with the four stars of that 4-star classic musical.  A special Blu-ray edition of Cabaret comes out February 5th thanks to Warner Bros. home entertainment.

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