There exist a multitude of constraints that prohibit me from witnessing first-run films in theatres. Time and finances are the strongest of those constraints. And when I do have the time and money, more often than not I see films with my children. So Frozen (2013) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) take precedence over films such as Gravity (2013), Nebraska (2013), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). In an effort to feed my film watching fix, I resort to Turner Classic Movies and my disparate DVD collection.
When choosing DVDs, I like to do so randomly, as though I am surprising myself. My method of random selection led to my viewing of Soylent Green (1973) on Christmas Day. Few things radiate a joyous holiday spirit more than Charlton Heston discovering the horrible truth about Soylent Green’s gruesome origins. (But then again, Soylent Green probably had fewer contaminants and more nutritional value than Wyngz, Gogurt, or Cool Ranch Doritos.) My random selections can also lead to rather surprising conclusions, including how films that would seemingly have nothing in common are quite similar. This is what I discovered when I viewed Ben-Hur (1959) and Cabaret (1972) back to back. These two films appear most incongruous. It is difficult to imagine meshing any parts of either film into the other. The directors, actors, and scripts are all at odds. It is almost impossible to imagine Bob Fosse directing Ben-Hur or Heston attempting to seduce Liza Minnelli and Michael York.
Still, these vastly incongruous films rang more similar than different in a variety of ways. Both of these films are older than my forty year-old self, and while I still feel that they hold up impressively well, I could not help but think that both films would have a terrible time getting produced today. Or if either were made/re-made, current cinematic impulses would ruin each. I do not know of a studio that would willing allow Ben-Hur’s famous and amazing chariot race scene to be filmed with actual horses and chariots. What makes the entire sequence so fantastic are the actual people, animals, and props involved. Yes, Peter Jackson and his ilk can do impressive things with CGI, but imagine how much more impressive those battle scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) would have been had all the horses and animals been real rather than computer images.
Similarly, not only would the sexually and romantically complex relationships in Cabaret be neutered in today’s Hollywood, but the wonderfully decadent and sexy burlesque scenes would no doubt become boring and horribly unsexy with efforts to make them into clichéd Vegas stripper shows: something that the dudes from The Hangover (2009) would think is totally awesome but actually totally sucks because those guys really are not that bright. Both Ben-Hur and Cabaret demonstrate that despite that vast number of films produced, fewer possibilities for innovation and risk-taking exist. And that which poses as innovation and risk-taking is actually formulaic clap-trap.
The final bizarre similarity between Cabaret and Ben-Hur rests in the career arcs of their Oscar-winning stars: Heston and Minnelli. While an eager individual might be able to connect these two via a six degrees of Kevin Bacon game, it would be difficult to find to more divergent Hollywood personas. Yet while as silly as it is to imagine Heston and Minnelli opposite each other, they could probably relate to each other’s careers. Each had tremendous success early in their careers, with the previously mentioned films representing their pinnacles of cinematic achievement. Yet the qualities that made each actor so successful in those roles proved to be, if not their undoing, the chains that limited them.
Heston’s absolute earnestness and ability to avoid any and all irony served him well as Judah Ben-Hur. He is brave, resilient, and valiant. Yet these same qualities, particularly visible in his later sci-fi adventures, turn him into a figure of fun, one to be mocked. Indeed, my first real exposure to Heston was through former Saturday Night Live comedian Phil Hartman’s impersonations of Heston. Hartman’s Heston is drawn not from Ben-Hur, but from Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes (1968). This caricature of Heston became even further reified through his cryptic statements made while a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) helped substantiate that image of Heston.
Minnelli suffers from a similar fate. While her caricatured figure possesses radically different politics, she has still been reduced from her former glory into a thin representation of what she once was. As Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, Minelli is funny, witty, vulnerable, sexy, and likeable. However, this range has slowly been reduced. Now, she exists solely as a gay-themed songstress, one who has given birth to countless Liza Minnelli impersonators. In fact, Minnelli is now hardly much more than an impersonation of her own impersonators. See Sex and the City 2 (2010). It is hard to now watch Minnelli and not think of her simulacrum in the same way that Heston’s interview with Michael Moore resembles those Phil Hartman SNL skits.
So while each are similar in how their former glory has been distilled into silly comic fodder, I would like to remember that both also share histories and performances that are far greater than their current representations would have us believe.
– Todd Starkweather