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Viewer Guide: “Cabaret” and “Big Eyes”

April 13, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | CABARET

Cabaret (1972).

This week’s double feature begins with Cabaret, the 1972 musical drama, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. 

 A groundbreaking classic in the evolution of the movie musical, Cabaret was adapted from the 1966 Broadway show with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which in turn had been adapted from the 1951 play I am a Camera, based on author Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical “Berlin Stories.” Famously launching Liza Minnelli to superstardom with an Oscar-winning performance, Cabaret enters the demimonde of 1931 Berlin with the arrival of Brian Roberts, a British writer played by Michael York who is seeking to work on his writing—and broaden his life experience. Taking a room at a threadbare boarding house, Brian meets Sally Bowles, a bohemian American expat played by Minnelli. An aspiring actress, Sally performs at the tawdry Kit Kat Club, presided over by a ghoulish master of ceremonies portrayed in another Oscar-winning performance by Joel Grey. But if the quality of entertainment at the Kit Kat Club seems sordid, it’s only a reflection of the jaded audiences during the waning days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, with the rising threat of the impending Nazi takeover signaling the rapid ending of an era. However, Brian and Sally are too distracted by their unlikely romance to take much notice of the world around them. To make ends meet, Brian establishes himself as an English tutor, with his students including an impoverished German, played by Fritz Wepper, and an elegant Jewish heiress, played by Marisa Berenson. And when Sally catches the eye of a wealthy baron, played by Helmut Griem, for a while life really does seem like it’s a cabaret—until the party must come to its inevitable end. 

 After the failure of his movie directing debut with Sweet Charity in 1969, Bob Fosse was desperate for another chance at the movies, and aggressively pursued directing the film version of Cabaret. Although Jay Presson Allen is credited with Cabaret’s screenplay, Fosse undertook major script changes, scrapping the original Broadway subplot involving Sally’s landlady and her Jewish suitor and returning to Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” for the story of the Jewish heiress. Determined to create a realistic movie musical that was the opposite of the glossy MGM extravaganzas of Liza Minnelli’s parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Fosse retained only the songs performed on stage at the Kit Kat Club—with the exception of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—and used them to comment on the dramatic action, which required Kander and Ebb to write “Mein Herr” and “Money” for the movie. Reprising his Tony Award-winning Broadway performance, Joel Grey was the only original cast member to return for the film; ironically, Liza Minnelli had been turned down to play the British Sally Bowles on Broadway for being “too American,” a problem easily remedied for the film by changing the character’s nationality. Minnelli later stated that she drew inspiration for her screen image from silent screen icon Louise Brooks at the suggestion of her father. A box office hit, Cabaret garnered ten Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, and Best Director for Bob Fosse, making him the only director to win the “triple crown” of top directing honors in the same year with a Tony Award for Pippin and an Emmy Award for Liza With A Z. 

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | BIG EYES

Big Eyes (2014).

This week’s double feature continues with the 2014 biographical drama Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton.   

Big Eyes recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of Margaret and Walter Keane, whose increasingly abusive marriage masked the truth behind one of the most successful yet divisive art world phenomenona of the 1960s. Opening in 1958, the film stars Amy Adams as Margaret Ulbrich, a recently divorced single mother in San Francisco pursuing her love of painting at weekend art shows, where she displays her arresting portraits of waif-like children with enormous eyes. Margaret’s work doesn’t attract much attention, except from Walter Keane, another “Sunday painter” played by Christoph Waltz. Outgoing and charming as Margaret is shy and self-effacing, Walter becomes Margaret’s protector and provider, using his gifts for self-promotion to get “the painting Keanes” noticed. When an opportunity to display their work at the “hungry-i” nightclub mushrooms into a runaway success, it all seems like a dream come true—except for Margaret. She discovers that Walter has been passing her work off as his own. Yet caught up by the commercial popularity of the paintings, Margaret labors in secret for years, until her resentful tolerance of Walter’s relentless exploitation finally reaches a breaking point.  

Also featured in cameo roles are Danny Huston as a gossip-minded columnist, Terence Stamp as a New York Times art critic, Jason Schwartzman as a snobby gallery owner, and Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s increasingly suspicious friend.   

Margaret Keane had initially been reluctant to authorize a film version of her story, but eventually granted movie rights to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski as a way of offering a public apology for allowing her husband’s deception to continue for as long as it did. With Alexander and Karaszewski originally intending to co-direct themselves, the script languished in development for 11 years, with various stars including Kate Hudson, Thomas Haden Church, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds in discussion to play Margaret and Walter. Director Tim Burton—an avid collector of Margaret Keane’s paintings—initially joined the project as a producer, having previously collaborated with Alexander and Karaszewski in 1994 to direct Ed Wood. Eventually, in 2013,  he took over as director. In the final film, Margaret Keane makes a cameo appearance sitting on the park bench behind Amy Adams in the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts location sequence. Margaret’s “Keane Eyes Gallery” is located on Geary Street near San Francisco’s Union Square.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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