Sunday, April 11, 2021

Vital Viewing (Weimar Republic Edition)


Actor-singer-dancer Joel Grey was born on this day in 1932. Diana Ross and James Coburn invite the Cleveland native up on stage in this clip from the 45th Academy Awards (held in 1973 for movies made in 1972):


It was an unusual Oscars presentation that year. There was Native-American activist Sacheen Littlefeather famously, or, in the subsequent onstage opinions of Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood, infamously, turning down the Best Actor award on behalf of no-show Marlon Brando. Eastwood himself was on stage twice that night, planned and unplanned. Planned was his reading of the Best Picture nominees (The Godfather, starring Brando, won.) Unplanned, Eastwood was pressed into service earlier that night when it looked like Charlton Heston might not show up to read the voting rules because of a flat tire on his way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (after a few Ten Commandment jokes obviously not written with Eastwood in mind, Heston showed up and took over.) Of course, neither Littlefeather or Eastwood is in the above clip. So what I find unusual is that year's Oscars set direction. I don't mean who won for Best Set Direction. I mean Diana Ross' and James Coburn's immediate surroundings. They look like they're backstage or in the wings or something, don't they? That was kind of the idea. The opening musical number had a plainly-dressed Angela Lansbury informing us, via song and dance, that moviemaking is really just another job and the stars are merely working stiffs. It's actually an entertaining little number, and I might show it here sometime, that ends with Lansbury, now all gussied up in a glamorous gown, singing "make a little magic." Except once she's finished, we're stuck with the nonmagical faux-backstage set, and have to rely on occasional shots of the star-studded audience for gussied-up glamour. Unless those stars come up on stage to accept or hand out awards. And just how glamorously gussied-up do you find Ross (who had hoped to both accept and hand out but ended up only doing the latter) in that tuxedo? I have absolutely nothing against unisex fashions but the normally super-femme Miss Ross is the last person who I would expect to see take up crossdressing. But Ross is no Marlene Dietrich. Rather than provocative, she comes across as merely a cute curiosity. Still, it's appropriate that she would be dressed such a way when presenting an Oscar to Joel Grey, who himself was both provocative and unisexual in the film that won a whole bevy of Oscars that night.


Another one of those Oscars went to Liza Minnelli (she beat out the aforementioned Ross, nominated for Lady Sings the Blues), allowing her to finally, and deservedly, emerge from the shadow of her famous mother. I'll examine her signature performance at some later date. For now the man of the hour (or for however long it takes you to peruse this post) is Grey. A mainstay of the New York stage for about 20 years at that point (despite looking like he was still in his 20s), the Cabaret win made him, for a time, a household name, though the character he played, the nameless Master of Ceremonies of a between-the-world-wars Berlin nightclub, isn't one you would have found hanging around very many American households. Watch:

 


The movie does not exploit decadence; rather, it gives it its due.

--Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Before it was a movie musical, Cabaret was a stage musical (and before that a stage play and before that a book of interrelated short stories by Christopher Isherwood.) Among its feature players was a woman who a few years earlier tried but failed to kill James Bond in From Russia with Love, a man who at the same time he was appearing in hit Broadway musicals also appeared in a series of Cracker Jack commercials on TV, a woman who spent the 1970s appearing in British-made horror films and doing guest shots on American TV crime shows like Baretta and Vega$, and a man who later hosted the game show Tattletales (I admit to being fascinated by performers career arcs.) And then there's Joel Grey, the only one to appear in both the stage and film versions. And for good reason. Though on the original Broadway poster his name appears below the actors I just mentioned, the critics of the day praised his performance, which brought audiences into the theater, and he was and is seen as the main reason the stage version became a hit in the first place.

Here's a blurry clip from the 21st Tony Awards (held in 1967 for productions that debuted in 1966.) That's Larry Hagman's mom who introduces a legendary husband-and-wife dance team (though not so legendary they didn't eventually divorce), who in turn have come up on stage the then-35-going-on-19 Grey:


Joel Grey more-or-less reprised his Master of Ceremonies role for television in 1976. The atmosphere is much less decadent, but, to paraphrase Ms. Kael, it gives whimsy its due:

 

I have a sudden craving for a Kit Kat bar.

16 comments:

  1. Fun to see all this. What a role and what perfect casting. Joel Grey is a phenomenon.

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    1. And Mitchell, he was one quite a while before Cabaret. Here Grey is at the very beginning of his career:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ount6RP4ws

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    2. Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I'd never seen Joel Grey so early in his career. I'd also wondered what he looked like before the nose job.

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  2. A Kit Kat bar would no go down well with me if I was drinking in Berlin underground bar. My favourite movie? Maybe. While I love the movie for itself, I was young and a bit ignorant when I first watched it. It educated me about Nazism but especially how average people could swayed when the Hitler Youth lad stood up and sang. Thanks for all the background and links.

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    1. Andrew, it's pretty eerie at the end of the film when you see the Nazis in the audience. Had I done this post six months ago, I probably would have shown that and thrown in some Donald Trump-Proud Boys jokes. Fortunately, I no longer have to. At least not for the time being.

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  3. Hi, Kirk!

    Happy 89th birthday to Joel Grey!

    My first wife and I went to see the film version of Cabaret upon its release to theaters in 1972, and the clip you posted brought it back. I enjoyed the Oscar night clip with Diana Ross as presenter and an ecstatic Liza in the audience leading the applause for Joel as he was declared the winner in the Best Supporting Actor category.

    I well remember Lotte Lenya as SPECTRE operative Colonel Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. Trust me, you don't want to cross her. The first thing I thought of when I saw the name Burt Convy on that poster was rock & roll. Before Burt became famous as the host of Tattletales and other TV game shows, he was a member of The Cheers, a novelty oriented rock & roll vocal group of the 50s that scored a hit with "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots." Wiki describes the million selling single as: << a song about a wild-living leather-jacketed motorcyclist >> and << an important forerunner of the teenage tragedy song phenomenon that emerged in the early 1960s. >>

    My first exposure to J.R.'s mother Mary Martin was in 1955 when I watched her on television in the title role in Peter Pan. As IMDB explains: << This 1955 musical production of the classic children's tale made history as the first Broadway musical adapted to TV with the entire cast and crew intact. >>

    I appreciated Joel's acceptance speeches. They were articulate and gracious and he kept them brief. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Joel didn't hog the spotlight and ramble on and on until the band finally played cutting them off. I'm sure Joel still has his boyish good looks as he approaches the 90 year stage of his life. Thanks for paying tribute to him on his b-day, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. Shady, I had a response to your comment, but just looked up now and see it didn't take. I catch you later tonight.

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    2. Ok, Shady, I'll try again...

      Oh, yeah, Liza was ecstatic about Grey's win, not just clapping but rocking back and forth in her seat. By the way, if you blinked at the wrong second you would have missed it, but that's Liza's father Vincente seated next to her. He got to see his daughter bring home her own Oscar that night.

      Well, Shady, I learned something new today. I had no idea Bert Convy was an early rock'n'roller. I just now went to YouTube and gave "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" a listen. Pretty good. I see it's written by Leiber and Stoller, who composed many an early rock'n'roll song. The earliest I've ever seen Bert Convy in anything was the 1959 Roger Corman low-budget horror classic, A Bucket of Blood, where he played an undercover cop (A Bucket of Blood was the movie where cult film actor Dick Miller first played a character named "Walter Paisley". Miller would go on, though not until much later in his career, to play five more otherwise unrelated characters with that same name, as a kind of tribute paid to Blood by young filmmakers who were fans of that movie.)

      While I can't say it was ever on TV when I was a kid, because it plays into this blog's shadow motif I have a picture of Mary Martin-as-Peter Pan in the sidebar to the right. It's the second one from the top.

      Age eventually catches up with the best of us, Shady. If Joel Grey is almost 90, then I'm sure today he looks no younger than 65, though I can't be sure of that.



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  4. I love the movie "Cabaret" and the Christopher Isherwood books it was based on. Joel Grey was amazing as the Emcee and certainly "owned" the role until the 1998 Broadway revival when Alan Cumming took over the role and was brilliant too. I saw a local stage production based on the revival and the Emcee's role was MUCH more explicitly queer than they dared to make it in the 1972 movie, even though that was "shocking" for its day.

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    1. Debra, I've seen Alan Cumming's version on YouTube. He's very good, though I think he borrowed some of his moves from Madonna.

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  5. You would have to mention Kit Kat bars. I gotta go. See ya!

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    1. Mike, I'll keep that in mind in case I ever do a post about Alexander Dumas, as I hear one of his books was similarly coopted.

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  6. Hello Kirk, Joel Grey's performance in Cabaret was uncanny and mesmerizing, a lot different from most supporting actor roles. This was underscored by the way his appearances linked the film together, and seemed to embody all the evil and decadence under the skull-grinning surface of that era.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, it makes me feel kind of sorry for Michael York, who was technically the male lead in that movie, but it's hard not to think of it as a Minnelli and Grey picture.

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  7. I love that clip of him from 1951, remarkable talent!

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    1. Very energetic performer, isn't he, Jenny?

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