Monday, September 26, 2016

Musical Monday - Two Ladies by Joel Grey

Two Ladies is the point in the movie Cabaret where the numbers performed in the Kit-Kat Klub very pointedly start mirroring and enhancing the plot of the action outside the club. At this point in the movie, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is living in the same boarding house as Brian Roberts (Michael York), and has been trying to start a romantic relationship with him, although he has been somewhat lukewarm in response. Their relationship is somewhat complicated by Sally's interest in the aristocratic Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), although it turns out that Brian is also interested in Maximilian. Much of the early part of the movie is taken up with the intense and complicated dance the three engage in, and this song serves as a comic, almost mocking counterpoint.

The Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) takes to the stage with two of the Kit-Kat Dancers to extol the virtues of a three-way relationship. It is notable, however, the differences in the relationship portrayed on stage, and the actual relationship between Sally, Brian, and Maximilian. On stage, the relationship is between a man and two women, with a lesbian relationship implied, but heterosexual sex clearly is at the forefront. The on-stage trio occupy pretty standard gender roles as well, with the women staying home and the man setting out to "earn their daily bread". Sure, Grey's character is somewhat ambiguously androgynous, but they make clear in the song that he has a penis, and that he is basically the most important member of the group. By contrast, the actual relationship between Sally, Brian, and Maximilian clearly involves male homosexuality, and of the three, Sally is the only one with a regular paying job that involves leaving the home - working as a singer at the Kit-Kat Klub. Everything about the song is dedicated to reinforcing a mainstream notion about polyamorous relationships, while everything about the actual one presented in the film undercuts that.

Most critically, this portion of the movie - both as presented in song and in the "real" world - normalizes homosexuality by showing the characters as normal. Even in the song, which is clearly an over-the-top parody meant to titillate the Klub's audience with its risque theme, presents the three-way relationship as revolving around a domestic life of cooking, making beds, and working a regular job. Outside the club, Sally, Brian, and Maximilian are presented as flawed but generally decent characters, especially Brian, who is an academic, writer, and English teacher. Sally may be a little bit too bohemian to be "normal", but she is shown as being full of life and love. Maximilian is possibly the least likable of the three, but even he is shown to be entrenched in the German political structure, although his desire to control the burgeoning Nazi movement for his own political gain counts as a serious strike against him.

How these characters relate to the ever-present Nazi menace is a critical element in this movie. Though they are mostly in the background, the Nazi Party always looms over the characters, becoming more and more dangerously concrete a threat as the film goes on. The key here is that Maximilian's disdain for the Nazi's and desire to use them to his own advantage is the best reaction anyone has to the Nazis. Sally doesn't care about politics and tries to ignore them. The Master of Ceremonies mocks them repeatedly throughout the movie, while Brian works against them as much as he can, at one point getting into a futile fistfight with some Nazis on the street. Think about this: Cabaret was made in 1972, and the most prominent anti-Nazi characters on the screen are pretty much all some stripe along the Quiltbag spectrum. Not only that, they are, for the most part, presented as normal people living normal lives. They make bad decisions to be sure, but they care about one another. They have empathy for and are friends with the Jewish characters that show up in the story, even when it is dangerous to do so. They are, to the extent the movie has any, the heroes.

I first watched Cabaret when I was thirteen or fourteen. I don't remember exactly when, but I do remember where: When I was living in what was then called Zaire. I am certain that I missed a lot of the subtext of the story that time, but one thing I didn't miss was that the colorful, unconventional, and non-heterosexual characters were lined up against the Nazis. I haven't been perfect on acceptance of alternative sexualities in my life, but I credit this movie (and, actually, All That Jazz, which I watched in roughly the same time frame) with opening my eyes and pointing me in the right direction. This is the power of art and the power of representation: Who you present in a piece of fiction and how you present them matters. You never know who is going to see what you make and take a step into a wider world as a result.

Previous Musical Monday: Mein Herr by Liza Minnelli
Subsequent Musical Monday: Money, Money by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli

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