What’s the best picture not to have won Best Picture at the Oscars? The Heiress (1949) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) sprang immediately to mind; via Twitter, critic Edward Copeland mentioned Citizen Kane (1941) and The Social Network (2010). Cabaret (1972) is a unique case, in that it fended off formidable competition (including, for the top prize, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and Sounder, a phenomenal year) to win eight of its ten nominations. But The Godfather, no slouch either, made the Academy an offer it couldn’t refuse, and Cabaret fell short.
That was disappointing. Worse, the movie has suffered terribly on home video. My laserdisc was inadequate–which is to say, better than the DVD released (or let out) all the way back in 1998, a disc with good supplementary content flanking a miserable non-anamorphic transfer. An economically made independent production whose original negative had disappeared, Cabaret has had to make do with mediocre elements, and among other indignities the DVD image is plagued with a persistent vertical scratch.
Fortunately its distributor, Warner Bros., has stepped up with a magnificent restoration on Blu-ray. I got a sneak peek last Thursday, at a screening held at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, where the movie originally premiered. It was my first time seeing Cabaret on the big screen (the biggest in the city, no less) and as I was accompanied by my wife, a Bob Fosse fan who had never seen it, to say it was a thrill is an understatement. My experience of the film was all small screen, first on pre-cable era TV, where, like Chinatown (1974), it held my interest despite innumerable commercial breaks, then many times on HBO and Cinemax. What drew me to it as a kid? My mania to see “Oscar movies,” for one thing, and the presence of Michael York, the star of Logan’s Run (1976), which was all the rage among 11-year-olds then. Fosse? Liza? Who they? That shows you where my priorities were back then.
I wouldn’t become a big fan of musicals, stage or film, until my late 20s, when I worked for an entertainment trade magazine in the city that was steeped in them. Cabaret is known as the movie musical that people who hate movie musicals love, which is unfair to the form. Fosse, a protean talent, knew the great tradition by heart (look at the clips of him dancing in the new documentary on the Blu-ray) and recognized that Cabaret simply wouldn’t work as a film in that style; he didn’t throw out the MGM “rulebook” just to spite the rules. It’s a daring adaptation, every risk of which pays off, which is why musical lovers and musical haters respond so strongly. With one stunning exception the numbers are restricted to the Kit Kat Klub, and all are performed by Minnelli and Joel Grey; the book of the 1966 stage musical, which had been a Tony-winning sensation in its own right, was overhauled into a much different screenplay by Jay Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), with characters and songs added and dropped; Nazism, anti-Semitism, abortion, and bisexuality are handled as forthrightly as the PG rating (wasn’t that a time?) would allow; the dynamic editing, paralleling the boisterous club atmosphere with the festering social conditions of Weimar Germany in the early 30s, provides razor-sharp transitions and contrasts; and the movie reeks of sensuality, moral confusion, decadence. In an interview on the Blu-ray, composer John Kander says Cabaret, itself an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s stories and a John Van Druten play, is about “falling in love with something dangerous”–and at a tender age I fell hard. It was a revelation. (As was Sam Mendes’ scabbier, dirtier Broadway revival of 1998, with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming, which put another spin on material that has proven elastic over decades.)
To watch the Blu-ray is to see it anew. (If you haven’t taken the plunge, this is that essential disc that warrants a player purchase.) Every Oscar-winning element is enhanced and revivified: Geoffrey Unsworth’s rich yet delicate lighting, a muddle on DVD; David Bretherton’s bravura editing; the period-precise art direction and set design, on location in Berlin, by Rolf Zehetbauer, Hans Jurgen Kiebach, and Herbert Strabel; and Robert Knudson and David Hildyard’s pulse-quickening sound. Rallying these elements was Fosse, coming off the film flop of Sweet Charity (1969); Francis Ford Coppola co-won that year for The Godfather’s screenplay, and would take Best Director for its sequel two years later, but the Blu-ray proves that the statue was Fosse’s to lose. What a show. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Grey recreated his Tony-winning performance as the inscrutably impish master of ceremonies, and that Minnelli–well, Sally Bowles is her in all her glory, irresistible. This is Liza, not with a Z, but an A+. (I’ll add that York, who drew me to the film in the first place, gives a brave and outstanding performance. It’s hard to make innate decency interesting; he goes one better and makes it sexy.)
Minnelli, Grey, York and co-star Marisa Berenson were all at the Ziegfeld for a pre-show chat with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. (York’s recollection of auditioning for a role widely mooted as the “Michael York part” was particularly funny.) Some of their stories can be heard on the Blu-ray, either in the informative new documentary or the extras carried over from the DVD, plus what looks to have been outtake footage from those 25th anniversary sessions. (Kander doesn’t seem to have aged at all.) Stephen Tropiano, author of Cabaret: Music on Film, provides a track that is especially good at showing how the songs, acrid yet toe-tappable, comment on the storyline.
My only quibble with the Blu-ray is that the musical numbers aren’t given their own chapter stops. Sometimes you want Cabaret in full, other times a quick hit of “Mein Herr” or “The Money Song.” Still, willkommen back, Cabaret–you’ve been missed.