We Talk With “Cabaret” Stars Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York

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Editor’s Note: This Sunday 7/6c, Logo’s Cocktails & Classics presents Cabaret. The film always ranks on our 100 Greatest Gay Movie list and back in 2013 our own Brian Juergens even caught up with its stars to discuss the film.

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I could not pass up an invite to attend the 40th(-ish) anniversary screening of Cabaret at the historic Ziegfield Theater and to chat with some of its legendary cast on the red carpet. If anything was reason enough for me to freeze my tail feathers off on a winter night, it was the chance to meet Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York in the cold flesh. (Speaking of tail feathers, I’m fairly sure the poor little woman next to me on the carpet kept trying to climb up on top of my feet, March of the Penguins style, to protect herself from the chill. Or maybe she was just drunk.) Our time with the celebs was understandably cut short by the fact that they were rapidly merging into a fabulous, EGOT-winning iceberg before our very eyes – but I did manage to get a few words from between their sets of brilliant white, chattering teeth.


(L-R) Michael York, Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Robert Osborne and Marisa Berenson attend the
“Cabaret” 40th Anniversary New York Screening at Ziegfeld Theatre on January 31, 2013.
(Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

Michael York

Cabaret is really a vanguard in the sense that it was one of the of the first blockbuster films to have a lead character who wasn’t entirely straight. Did you have any concerns about taking the role?

Michael York: No, I didn’t – it was only afterward that people said, “Did you have concerns?” This is humanity, you know – he was bisexual, but now of course it’s quite tame. No, not at all. And I think the love story was genuine, but it just doesn’t work out for them.

Have things changed much in Hollywood? Do you think people would have the same reaction today to an actor taking a role like this?

MY: I don’t think so, no. Because we have a whole gay world on TV now – but this pushed the envelope forty years ago, which is a good thing.

Looking back, your character and performance were an inspiration to many young gay men. How does it feel to have potentially have been a role model for viewers who weren’t used to seeing themselves up on screen?

MY: Well, how very nice of you to say so. Well, that feels good. Life is a cabaret, but it’s such a mixture of all types that should be represented. I was lucky to be able to do this.

What are you most looking forward to tonight?

MY: Just being a part of the crowd – seeing how they react.

Joel Grey

From this to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dancer in the Dark to Anything Goes on Broadway – what’s the secret to your career trajectory? How do you pick your roles?

Joel Grey: That’s a good question, because I’ve never really thought about it – I always just go with my gut. And for the most part I end up doing something that I’m proud of and I like.

This film is really a part of a sexual revolution. How does it feel to be a part of something that inspired a generation to think differently?

JG: It makes me happy that I’m a part of something that matters to people on a number of levels. It’s a responsibility and a joy.

Have you had people tell you that it inspired or influenced them?

JG: I do, actually. A lot of people tell me that when they saw it it changed their lives. Not me, but the film.

Liza Minnelli

Every gay man I know either wants to be you or Sally Bowles – sometimes it’s hard to tell which.

Liza Minnelli: Ha!

What is it about Sally that makes people love the character so ferociously?

Well, I don’t know – that’s up for you to decide!

Looking back, what was the hardest part about playing the character?

[pauses] Nothing.

It was smooth sailing all along?

I knew her, I was directed brilliantly. I loved doing it. And it was so different and dark and mysterious – you gotta see it!

Oh, believe me, I’ve seen it!

 

Poor Liza was rushed into the warmth of the Ziegfield before I could throw any more questions at her, but before the screening (I spotted Alan Cumming, Bernadette Peters, and Tony Danza in the crowd) TCM’s Robert Osborne brought the cast on stage for a quick chat about the film.

Robert Osborne: What was it like making the film in Germany?

Liza Minnelli: The way Fosse envisioned it, and working with Michael, Marisa and Joel – you can’t beat it. It was one of the best beginning-to-end experiences I ever had.

RO: You were actually attached to this before Bob Fosse, right?

LM: Yeah – I was the first one hired. And I remember one of the things that I talked about with our producer was – he said, “Tell me what you think of the story.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “I think that the man should be gay. So that leads that wonderful relationship, and it just opens up all sorts of emotions that couldn’t have been there in the play.” And he said, “I’m with you.” And Fosse of course loved that.

[audience laughter]

RO: Well, you also have to say, because in that era, that wasn’t a common thing to do in movies. So that was a very daring thing to do.

LM: Well, they didn’t do it on Broadway!

RO: Right.

LM: So we were takin’ chances all over the place. All over – Fosse would get notes from the studio: “Too much smoke in the cabaret, it’ll break up in drive-ins.”

[audience laughs]

LM: …and he’d tear it up and throw it over his shoulder. But to be with that cast – heck, we were so close. We were in a world of our own. And I think that it shows. And I’m so proud of what we did.

RO: Joel, I have to ask you because you were in the original play, and the movie is so different than the play. Bob Fosse and the script writers dropped two major characters and added others – was that a big adjustment for you? It was a very different project.

Joel Grey: I thought it was the right thing to do. They were making a new form of movie musical, and it was so… it had never been done before. And we all felt that we were at the beginning of something special and something big, and I thought that the script was brilliant and I knew that Liza would be great, and I had another number, actually – yes, “Money Money” was a different number on Broadway, it was “My mother needs money, my father needs money” – we couldn’t have done that. Not good.

[Liza shakes her head]

JG: So Bob told John Kander and Fred Ebb to write this duet for us, Liza and myself, and we rehearsed, and we rehearsed, and Bob likes to rehearse with costumes. So he put Liza in a lovely dress…

LM: It was a lot of scarves and just things – that zipped.

JG: We did three different versions…

LM: Well tell ’em about your coat.

JG: Oh right! Well, we were rehearsing, and Liza had her dress, and I needed to have a tailcoat. And of course they hadn’t made my costume yet, so they got one from stock, whatever it was. And I wanna tell you about this coat – it was the Coat of a Thousand Men. It had come from stock, and it had been worn by many many actors for many many years.

LM: And it was never washed.

JG: And that was waaaay before anyone knew anything about … you know, “Keepin’ it nice.” So I put this coat on, and the two of us started to do this number, and as soon as I started to get warm… all the lives of these other actors, dancers or whoever – she was dancing with 25 people.

LM: I kept looking at him going, “What the…?”

JG: Hello? We had a good time.

LM: We had a wonderful time.

JG: However, if you see a kind of tension between us? It came from that.

LM: No it didn’t! What was so funny, and I think why we enjoyed rehearsing it so much – like I said, Fosse was SO provocative. And we would be standing there in these made-up things, these sloppy costumes, and he would say very seriously to both of us, he said, “Money – when kids say money, ’Make money’, it means ’go to the bathroom’. Money. Sex. Sex and money.” Sex and money. And he turned to Joel and he said, “I want you to imagine through this whole number, that like the Africans in certain places, you have a HUGE horn for a penis.” And then he’d say to me, “And this is your money.” [grabs breasts] And he really was very serious about it. But finally we did it – and it is funny. I mean…

JG: I was such a slow learner.

 

At this point co-stars Marisa Berenson and Michael York joined Minnelli and Grey on stage. Osborne asked them about their experience filming, and how they came to get their roles.

Marisa Berenson: I learned so much from Bob Fosse, who was a great actor’s director. He brought the best out in one – he challenged you constantly. He played tricks on me – he used to whisper erotic things in my ear before a scene so that I would kind of blush and feel strange, which I did. All of that to get a good performance, and so I learned a lot, and it was really wonderful.

JG: He called me Mr. Porno.

Michael York: I was in London, and the telegram came out that Bob Fosse was in London casting for his film version of Cabaret. And for the main role they were looking for a “Michael York type.” So with some consternation I called my agent and I said, “Do you think I could ever pass as a Michael York type?” And he said, “Well, you can try?”

Bob and his wonderful producer Cy Feuer were in London. I went straight to the Dorchester Hotel and auditioned for Bob and Cy – Cy playing Sally Bowles, byt the way, which was something remarkable – and I was the lucky one to get the part. And I repeat that, lucky. It was a wonderful experience.

RO: Tell us about the Oscars.

LM: Well I was sitting with my dad, who was the quietest man, and he helped me so much with the look of Sally. I had thought that Sally should look like Marlene Dietrich. I thought, that’s what the ’30s was! But my dad said “No, no” and he showed me pictures of Louise Brooks, Louise Glaum, Theda Bara – so I got interested in it. And I designed the makeup before I went over there.

MB: This wasn’t a big budget movie, so you had to use a lot of your own clothes.

LM: Remember? The apple jacket that Sally wore. The lady who was designing the clothes – everything had big shoulders. Which is ’40s! and I kept saying to her, “Isn’t this the wrong era? Isn’t this after the war?” And she literally looked at me and said, [in a thick German accent] “Vat var?”

“Oh, nothing!”

RO: But tell us about your father on Oscar night, because it really is very funny.

LM: He was so sweet. And I really thought Diana was going to win – Diana Ross. And I had adjusted to that. And they said my name, and my father screamed so loudly – screamed in my ear – that I still have tinnitus. I do! I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

JG: I didn’t think that I was gonna win either – I was sure that Al Pacino was gonna win. And so uh… [pauses] Did he?

RO: No.

JG: My next-door neighbor was the late, great Larry Hagman. We spent the day together before I went to the awards ceremony, and he said, “Don’t worry about anything, don’t think about it – just have a good time.” And so I came home that night, and on my doorstep was this enormous statue. And it was engraved: “To the best f*cking neighbor I ever had.” He was afraid I would come home empty-handed – you gotta love a guy like that.

After that, the film rolled and the audience was treated to Bob Fosse’s audacious, biting and brilliant musical – which still packs the same punch today as it did in 1972. We hope you have a chance to revisit this Cabaret again soon – because like its wonderfully warm stars, it’s still a kick.

* An earlier version of this article ran in January, 2103

Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched CampBlood.org, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.