Theater, Cigarettes, Sex and Cinema. A Brilliant Movie Is Revived. The TCM Classic Movie Festival, Part 1

April 12, 2012

In the annals of film history, 1972 will forever be associated with “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s huge popular and critical success. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, and rightfully so.

And yet. For only the second time in history, the director — in this case Coppola — who had nabbed the Director’s Guild’s top prize for Best Director did not also win the Academy Award for Best Direction.

That prize went to Bob Fosse for directing the musical “Cabaret.” And oddly enough, that was also rightfully so.

Of course it seems absurd that the director of a film that wins Best Picture does not also win Best Director.

My contention is that “The Godfather” and “Cabaret” probably both should have won Best Picture Oscars that year.

In the past 40 years there in no doubt that “The Godfather” has remained a pop culture icon, and its influence continues today.

The movie version of “Cabaret,” on the other hand, if not almost entirely forgotten, is certainly not in the same league as “The Godfather” in our culture, high or low.

And yet. It is one of a handful of films that I would say are brilliant. Just as “The Godfather” transcends the gangster genre to speak to bigger issues about America, “Cabaret” is a musical like no other, as it transcends the genre to become a fascinating portrait of pre-World War II Berlin and a statement about decadence and where that can lead.

The movie of “Cabaret” takes place in Germany, beginning in 1931. It’s about a nightclub performer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), and the characters who populate her world, as the Nazis are getting stronger and stronger.

All of the musical numbers, save one, are performed in the cabaret, where Joel Grey is the emcee.

Cinematography and film editing are two hallmarks of “The Godfather.” Likewise, the photography of Geoffrey Unsworth and the film editing of David Bretherton are equally memorable in “Cabaret.”

Another thing I’ve read over the years is that both “The Godfather” and “Cabaret” were projects that were not easy to put together, despite the fact that “The Godfather” was based upon a mega-bestselling novel and “Cabaret” was based upon a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Neither Coppola nor Fosse was first choice to direct their respective films. Nor were they the second or third choices either.

And the problems making the films didn’t stop there.

Coppola, for example, had huge fights with the studio executives over casting particularly, as they wanted Ernest Borgnine to play Don Corelone instead of Marlon Brando.

Fosse, for instance, was not pleased with the script by Jay Presson Allen, and brought in a friend of hers, Hugh Wheeler, for a rewrite. Furthermore, the initial preview screening of “Cabaret” was a bust, so the movie was re-edited before release.

One of the big surprises I had a number of years after “Cabaret” came out was seeing the stage production for the first time. The stage musical of “Cabaret” is not nearly as good as the movie version. Fosse, who also directed the original Broadway production back in 1966, clearly saw a vision of how he could use the medium of film to make “Cabaret” a far richer work of art. Part of that included having the team that wrote the songs for the stage musical–John Kander and Fred Ebb–deemphasize some songs in the movie version, while including some addional songs. Another part of that vision was going back to the source material that the stage musical was based upon: Christopher Isherwood’s "Berlin Stories," and "I Am a Camera," a play–by John Van Druten–based on Isherwood’s stories.

Another distinguishing feature of “The Godfather” is the vivid performances Coppola elicited from Brando, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Richard Castellano and the rest of the cast. Likewise, Fosse was able to draw out dazzling performances from Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem and other players in the movie. It’s by far the best Minnelli or York has been on the silver screen.

"Cabaret ended up winning eight Oscars–the most a movie has ever won that was not also named Best Picture.

Unlike Coppola, who’s made many movies, the chain-smoking Fosse — who died in 1987 at age 60 — only made five movies. Besides “Cabaret,” his autobiographical film “All That Jazz” is also a must-see.

The great Italian movie maker Federico Fellini once said, according to Vanity Fair, that his movies, like his life, could be summed up in “circus, spaghetti, sex and cinema.” For Fosse it would be in theater, cigarettes, sex and cinema.

Tonight, April 12, 2012, in Hollywood, at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, you can see a restored “Cabaret,” at the opening event of the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival. It’s well worth the effort to try and see it on the big screen.

Also scheduled to be shown tonight at the TCM movie jubilee is a wonderfully gritty film noir standard that rarely plays on the big screen. From 1948, it’s “Criss Cross,” starring Burt Lancaster in an early role that mesmerizes. His co-star is Yvonne De Carlo, best known to TV audiences as the mother in “The Munsters.” Here she’s the treacherous femme fatale monster. Also on board is the prodigious Dan Duryea, whose nasty roles were a noir staple. The heist in this picture is still one of the best ever captured on celluloid, and the movie’s director, Robert Siodmak, is one who should be much better known. A lot of film noirs, in my experience, fall apart at the end. This is one ending, however, that doesn’t disappoint or betray this fatalistic genre.

This is TCM’s third go-round presenting a film festival of classic movies here in L.A. Two years ago I saw a sumptuous print of “Sweet Smell of Success,” (1957) which contains Lancaster’s best role. Last year I had a lot of fun seeing, for the first time on the big screen, the remarkable “Dodsworth” (1936) starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor.

I’m not sure which movie or movies I’ll see at the festival in the next few days, but TCM has really outdone itself with its expanded offerings this year. In tomorrow’s column I’ll write about some of the other gems at this grand TCM moviefest.

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