Column: I Am A Camera

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Christopher Isherwood was a novelist, playwright, screen-writer, autobiographer, and diarist. He was also gay and made this a theme of some of his writing. He was born near Manchester in the north of England in 1904, became a U.S. citizen in 1946, and died in 1986.

“I Am a Camera” is a 1951 Broadway play by John Van Druten adapted from Christopher Isherwood's novel Goodbye to Berlin, which is part of The Berlin Stories.

The title is a quote taken from the novel's first page: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking..... Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

The original production was staged by John Van Druten, with scenic and lighting design by Boris Aronson and costumes by Ellen Goldsborough. It opened at the Empire Theatre in New York City on November 28, 1951 and ran for 214 performances before closing on July 12, 1952.

The production was a critically acclaimed success for both Julie Harris as the insouciant Sally Bowles, winning her the first of five Tony Awards of her career for Best Leading Actress in a play, and for Marian Winters, who won both the Theater World Award and Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play. The play also won for John Van Druten the New York Drama Critics' Circle for Best American Play (1952). It also earned the famous review by Walter Kerr, "Me no Leica."

The story served as the inspiration for the acclaimed musical and then movie "Cabaret."

In 1931 Berlin, young American Sally Bowles performs at the Kit Kat Klub. A new British arrival in the city, Brian Roberts, moves into the boarding house where Sally lives. Sally tries seducing Brian and suspects he may be gay. Brian tells Sally that on three previous occasions he has tried to have physical relationships with women, all of which failed. They become friends, and Brian witnesses Sally's anarchic, bohemian life in the last days of the German Weimar Republic. Sally and Brian become lovers despite their earlier reservations; they conclude that his previous failures with women were because they were "the wrong three girls."

Sally befriends Maximilian von Heune, a rich playboy baron who takes her and Brian to his country estate; it becomes ambiguous which of the duo Max is seducing. After a sexual experience with Brian, Max loses interest in the two and departs for Argentina. During an argument, when Sally tells Brian that she has been having sex with Max, Brian reveals that he has as well. Brian and Sally later reconcile, and Sally reveals that Max left them money and mockingly compares the sum with what a professional prostitute gets.

Although less explicit compared to other films made in the 1970s, Cabaret dealt explicitly with topics like corruption, sexual ambiguity, false dreams and Nazism.

Tim Dirks at Filmsite.org notes: "The sexually-charged, semi-controversial, kinky musical was the first one ever to be given an X rating (although later re-rated) with its numerous sexual flings and hedonistic club life. There was considerable sexual innuendo, profanity, casual sex talk (homosexual and heterosexual), some evidence of anti-Semitism, and even an abortion in the film."

It was also rated X in the UK and later re-rated as 15-plus. The film has been listed as one of the most important for queer cinema for its depictions of homosexuality, revolutionary at the time of its release. It turned Liza Minnelli into a gay icon. Film blogs have elected it as "the gayest winner in the history of the Academy."


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