Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Me, Liza, and Herr Issyvoo

Christopher Isherwood (Christopher Isherwood; photo from an exhibition at The Huntington)

Me, Liza, and Herr Issyvoo

I tape the Rachael Ray show each day because, while I vastly enjoy her quick meal preparation tips, I usually cannot abide the rest of what she airs. Taping lets me fast-forward to the EVOO section, as I think of it.

This week, however, she's had Rosie O'Donnell on a couple of times, and I've been watching them interact, thinking about how much Italian and Irish immigrants shaped American culture and g*d bless us all for their contributions. Rosie is hawking a prime time variety special tonight. I hope it works. I grew up on variety shows and miss them. I also miss Hollywood musicals. Maybe once we fix the economy, stop the wars, and get us all health care, we can outlaw most so-called reality TV and bring back intelligent TV on a grand scale.

I heard this week they've canceled Pushing Daisies. Figures, they also canceled Dead Like Me and Firefly.

Rosie glowed as she announced the opening number would be with Liza Minelli. I was glad to see Liza not treated like a joke for once. It was hard to suffer through the whole David Gest debacle. I feel a special kinship to Liza Minelli because my mother felt a special kinship for Judy Garland and I more or less inherited cutting these women some slack. When I was 14, I was present at the birth of a hyperactive puppy whom I named Liza and who became my devoted companion for 15 years. I went to more than one Liza Minelli concert, back in my stomping dyke days (on the quiet, of course). When Rosie burst out into "It's Liza with a Z, not Lisa with an S -- " I knew all the lyrics. I have every Heloise book, and when I use the word "rawther", I imagine Liza as a frantic, neglected child trying to garner adult attention with hypervolubility.

Then in 1972, my senior year in high school, Liza won the Oscar for Cabaret. I drove to Wichita Falls, an hour away, to see it with an older woman I was soon to seduce. It was my first time to see an openly gay character on screen -- even though Cliff Bradshaw, as butchered by the screenplay, was a watered-down version of gay. I was electrified. The earth's axis tilted in a new direction.

Liza Minelli in Cabaret It wasn't simply the queerness. It was the entire portrayal of a so-called decadent culture (but one I would have given my eyeteeth to live among) right before Nazis commenced their slaughter. And, in particular, it was how Art could be used to comment on what was happening, to laugh in the face of fascists, with survival of ideas if not individuals. My 17-year-old self could not shut up about it.

Also, when Liza as Sally Bowles sang about her former roommate Elsie (with whom she shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea), when she talked about the death of the druggie whore and how "the neighbors came to snicker", the bitterness of her voice flooded me with the realization that Liza was defending her mother. Standing up for Judy. Of course they gave her the Oscar for that.

My closeted English teacher, Miss Duff, informed me the screenplay was based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood, who had in fact known the real Sally Bowles and lived in Berlin as an out gay man as Hitler rose to power. She also told me Isherwood had been friends since boyhood with W.H. Auden.

I knew about Auden. My mother had read me his poetry since I was a baby, and only a couple of years earlier, I'd read an article about him in The Saturday Review which hinted strongly that he was a Homosexual. I felt something like a divine hand, leading me.

Somehow I found The Berlin Stories at a library in that exceedingly rural, exceedingly fundamentalist region of North Texas.

There are some books whose opening lines create such emotion in you, it's possible you would wipe their memory from your brain in order to experience them for the first time again. Like:


No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You Tom!"

No answer.

Or: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Well, among those eternal openings for me is the plunge into The Berlin Stories:

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

I knew, in every cell of my body, what he was talking about. He was an Outsider, who accepted his exile but would not cede his dignity or his right to witness, and who was now exercising his right to tell the tale. He handed me a way to live, in that instant. I wasn't going to be Sally Bowles, and certainly not Elsie -- I was going to be the camera, the one who got out alive with a record to give the world later.

Thank you, Herr Issyvoo. Thank you, Liza, and Rosie, and Miss Duff. It's time for me to make a meal and go watch a variety show, thinking about the possibilities of cabaret and commentary. Thank you all, for not snickering.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (Christopher Isherwood, left, and Don Bachardy, a couple chronicled in "Chris and Don", in the early 1980s; photo by Jack Shear -- Zeitgeist Films)