Michael York has had a long and prolific film and television career. On top of the myriad roles that he has played onscreen (and onstage), he is probably best known to the masses as Brian Roberts in Cabaret, Logan in Logan’s Run and Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers trilogy. I recently spoke to Mr. York for MSN Movies about the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of Cabaret — yes, it’s actually been 41 years, but the film had a scratched reel that needed some serious restoration — and during our half-hour chat prior to last week’s Ziegfeld screening of the film, he discussed Cabaret, Logan’s Run and other films and ideas.
I watched Logan’s Run again recently. I love that movie.
Yes, it’s become sort of a cult classic. I would certainly love it to have a print like this one [Cabaret] on its 40th anniversary.
The Blu-Ray looks great.
Yeah, it does.
You got to act with Jenny Agutter, who I adore.
Dear Jenny, yes.
Have you stayed in touch with her?
No, because I’m here [in California] and she’s in London. But you can see her every weekend on PBS. She plays a nun in a wartime series [Call The Midwife].
The ’70s offered a big time for change in cinema. People tried radical things, and watching Cabaret again, you can really see how vastly different a lot of the themes were from your standard musical or Hollywood film at that point.
Well, that was such a departure. I don’t think anyone had quite any idea… The idea of a musical about Nazi Germany, it was like a Mel Brooks “Springtime for Hitler” skit, although I must say they don’t dodge away from the background. I love the way the acts in the cabaret itself reflect what is going on in life outside.
When you first read the script, what were your thoughts?
I was enormously pleased to be working on something that was a classical work. Christopher Isherwood, who was actually a friend, his Berlin stories generated so much — I Am A Camera and the Hal Prince musical Cabaret. This was another extension of it, little knowing how transformed the stage musical would be under [Bob] Fosse’s genius.
Considering what has been going on in America during the last 12 years, Cabaret is pretty relevant again.
Yes, I’m glad you said it.
We’ve gotten to the point again where many people can’t recognize when something bad is gestating in society. America has become this decadent culture that isn’t aware of what’s going on around it. I was thinking that people could watch Cabaret and interpret the idea that the decadence in Germany then caused the rise of the Nazis. But did it cause the rise of the Nazis, or did the Nazis use that as a way to insinuate themselves into the society and take over?
Yes, it’s very subtly done, apart from the beating up, which is not. Then again, it’s great that what’s going on the cabaret prefigures what’s going on in the streets outside. The wonderful schlappendance that Joel [Grey] has is an artistic interpretation of the schlappendance in the street where people get beaten up, including myself. [Composer] John Kander refers to this himself, where he’ll seduce people with a number, then once he’s charmed them give them an absolute punch in the throat, like the scene in the biergarten when the young boy gets up and sings “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. This anthem to what? Suddenly you realize, with horror, that it’s a Nazi warsong as the Nazis rise to their feet and sing this provocative anthem.
“Now with the multiplicity of channels and the need to fill them, films are not hidden away in the closet anymore. Someone’s going to show them.”
It’s insidious stuff. I don’t see this film as a straight narrative. It’s got this slice of life quality where your character is in this romantic triangle with social changes happening around him. What are your recollections of working with Liza Minnelli on a lot of your scenes together?
We just hit it off from day one. We just loved being in each other’s company on the set. She was a real working partner. You notice that when you’re off-camera and your performance is just as strong and just as engaging as when you’re on camera. Then you know you’re working with a professional. It was obviously hard work for her, my God. I think for any Kit Kat club dancer, what Bob put them through… As she says, you never know what you’ve got. Certainly I’d learned by then that often the big studio pictures were the ones that fell by the wayside and the small independents were the ones that caught fire.
How did a lot of the Germans react to the making of Cabaret when you were shooting in Berlin and Bavaria? What was the political climate like in Germany in the early ’70s?
The Wall was up, and it was a divided time. Germany’s miracle economy was just coming in. I had been going to Germany since the age of 13 — I used to go there on my bicycle, I knew it well — so it was no surprise to me, unlike many of our American cast who came over and were seeing it for the first time. I think that was important element — not because it made it cheaper to shoot in the Bavarian studios — but because it gave it a little more of an edge than had it been done in Hollywood.
It was one of those Hollywood movies that wasn’t so Hollywood.
And also the fact that we went to Berlin, there were still streets you could film on that looked right, that were cobble, and houses that hadn’t been burned up or blown up. Of course, the Baron’s castle was authentic.
Even though you didn’t have scenes together, did you get to interact well with Joel Grey during production?
No, we didn’t have a scene together except we were in the club together. But Bob Fosse sent me a wonderful letter. I was doing a film in Yugoslavia when he was doing the dubbing, so I had to go to Zagreb to do it on an old Soviet piece of equipment. He sent me a letter with complete details of what he wanted, and at the end, he wrote, “P.S., I’ve been trying to persuade them to put in a dance number for you, but they don’t understand. The fools!” We became friends. I rented a house not far from the studio, and after a long, long day he would come for dinner. And we stayed friends.
What do you think is the biggest legacy of Cabaret?
That it’s still around. Honestly, I’m serious. There are films that fall by the wayside. Case in point, just after making Cabaret I went to Yugoslavia again to make a film based on the Graham Greene novel England Made Me. Again, it was low budget and made with great inventiveness and so on, and I almost didn’t do it because it was [about] Nazi Germany, but the great Peter Finch was in it. I’m so glad I did it because Graham Greene thought it was the best adaptation of any of his novels on screen, and it’s a film that hardly exists. I think there’s one print, and I’ve been trying to get it at least preserved as a DVD. It seems unthinkable to me that a film, a work of art, something that would give pleasure and was worthwhile, should fade away. [Editor’s note: A Spanish DVD exists, but nothing in North America.]
I’m glad that Logan’s Run is still around. The recent Justin Timberlake movie In Time kind of cribbed from that.
Oh yes. Like Cabaret set off a lot of…not copycats, but you could see its influence was everywhere, which is nice. It’s a tribute.
There has been talk about remaking Logan’s Run, and it has a theme that is relevant to society today because we have such a youth-oriented culture, and people many are afraid of acting over 30 now.
Yeah, you’re right. And also the currency of plastic surgery, drugs and New You and all this whole hedonism. As you say, very, very relevant, and there’s ageism. They find an old man and don’t really know what he is.
“It’s great that what’s going on the cabaret prefigures what’s going on in the streets outside. The wonderful schlappendance that Joel has is an artistic interpretation of the schlappendance in the street where people get beaten up, including myself.”
Are there any recollections you have of making that film?
Oh yes. It was one of those films that was tremendously enjoyable to make. It took on a life of its own, and the wonderful director and producer allowed it to make its own way. Case in point: the oldest man in the world, Peter Ustinov. He more or less invented everything that came out of his mouth, this wonderful dialogue.
You’ve been in so many films, and now with the DVD and Blu-ray revolution, so much back catalog has been resurrected.
Now with the multiplicity of channels and the need to fill them, films are not hidden away in the closet anymore. Someone’s going to show them. It’s always pleasant to see a film that was made some time ago but one hadn’t seen for a long time being revived. For some films I haven’t seen for years and years, I can’t remember what happens next, and that is always agreeable.
Is there any title of yours that you think more people should see?
I’ve already mentioned it: England Made Me. It’s a great role, great acting, Peter Finch, great direction. It still works extremely well, and Graham Greene liked it.
You’re coming in for the Cabaret screening in NYC?
I’m coming in on Tuesday, and then there’s the red carpet thing at the Ziegfeld, where the film first premiered. The red carpet having become more important than the screening itself now. I simply can’t believe it.
There are simply too many films out there now for people to keep up with. I don’t know how people make choices anymore.
And you have all these award shows now. The Oscars must be so pissed off with all these look-alike awards, [like] the Golden Globes. In my day, the Golden Globes was a joke. Nobody showed up, [but] now it’s taken so seriously.