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'Cabaret' Anniversary: Joel Grey And Michael York Recall Movie's Gay, Gender-Bending Content

02/06/2013 10:10 am 10:10:38 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

At the time of its 1972 release, “Cabaret” shattered the saccharine reputation of the movie musical with its edgy take on anti-Semitism, Nazism, abortion and even repressed homosexuality.

But as daring as the material was, actor Michael York says he wasn’t concerned about tackling the role of Brian Roberts, a reserved English academic with a secret fondness for men.

At a press event before a star-studded reunion screening at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater (where “Cabaret” had its original premiere), York recalled, “People did say to me afterward, 'Didn’t you think twice about what [playing a bisexual man] would do to your career?'”

Pointing to the fact that both the stage and film versions of “Cabaret” used gay author Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 book Goodbye To Berlin as their original source material, York added, “The whole reason, of course, that Isherwood was in Berlin was for the sex, which was pretty available … our job [as actors] is interpret life in every aspect, so no, it didn’t occur to me, frankly.”

To commemorate the 41st anniversary of “Cabaret,” a lovingly restored version of the movie -- which nabbed Liza Minnelli an Oscar for Best Actress in 1973, and seven other Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joel Grey and Best Director for Bob Fosse –- has just been released by Warner Bros in a Blu-ray edition. It is packed with some stunning features that will surprise even the most ardent fans.

Of course, the depiction of sexuality in “Cabaret” is just one of the now-iconic movie’s more daring aspects. Set in Weimar era Germany, the film centers on the relationship between Berlin cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and Roberts. As Bowles and Roberts endure their personal highs and lows -- which include an unplanned pregnancy in addition to the aforementioned bisexual escapades (a point apparently enhanced in the script after Minnelli's suggestion) -- the political threat in 1930s Berlin looms.

VIew photos of "Cabaret" stars then and now, then scroll down to keep reading:

'Cabaret' Memories

Then, of course, there are the unforgettable musical numbers, which feature Fosse’s slinky choreography and tunes written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the Broadway songwriting team also behind “Chicago.”

In addition to Minnelli, the musical sequences are perhaps most memorable for the presence of Grey as the sinister Emcee. That androgynous character, which Grey also portrayed in the original Broadway production of “Cabaret,” has long been one of the film’s most puzzling and controversial figures. Throughout the film, he performs a vaudeville-style number about a threesome (“Two Ladies”), croons a barely-disguised ode to anti-Semitism (“If You Could See Her”) and, of course, appears amidst a pack of chorus girls while wearing a corset, fishnets and stiletto heels.

Like his co-star York, Grey said at the press event last week that he wasn’t deterred by the film’s envelope-pushing content, even though Fosse purposely left the actor to his own devices when it came to creating a backstory for his character.

“I made a whole life for myself because there was no text, and there was really no description of who [the Emcee] was,” says Grey, who prepared for the role by studying a lot of German Expressionist paintings and listening to music of the Weimar era. “I was terrified, because I thought it was going to be a musical comedy, just four or five numbers … [but] I wanted it to be really horrifying.”

Actress Marisa Berenson, who portrayed Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer, didn’t have any musical numbers of her own, but nonetheless described her own set of challenges faced during filming in Germany.

“[German officials] would come into the studio in Munich, where we were shooting the cabaret numbers, and sometimes they would want to forbid certain things from being said,” she said, sitting with her fellow co-stars at the event. Shooting on location “gave the movie an added dimension … it really captured the dangers and horrors of what was going on in those days.”

To a lesser degree, playing a man who slept with men did have some unexpected consequences for York, who has been married to Patricia McCallum since 1968.

“For years afterward, I had every script involving a repressed English homosexual teacher,” he said with a laugh. “So I was so glad I could do ‘The Three Musketeers' [in 1973], screwing every skirt in sight!”

"Cabaret" is out on Blu-ray now.

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