The idea that, in the 20 years since CABARET, STEPPING OUT is only Liza Minnelli's second movie musical seems like a sick joke. What's even more amazing is that, despite this vacuum, Minnelli has managed to grow as an icon. STEPPING OUT, while by no means the masterpiece of CABARET or the
chance-taker of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, presents itself well, and presents Liza in full legendary form.
Mavis Turner (Minnelli) is a former Broadway chorine who never got her break but got close ("I even auditioned for Bob Fosse once.") before falling in love with Patrick (Luke Reilly) and abandoning the Great White Way to try to make it on his terms, singing country music to his guitar. Meanwhile,
she has a "hobby," teaching tap-dancing to a bunch of losers in a reconverted church. (Bet the suspense is killing ya, huh?) The movie tells the story of this group, from soon after its formation, through its inclusion in a charity performance by a condescending matron (Nora Dunn), to that
performance. On the way, we see the losers grow in confidence, mutual understanding and--gradually and believably--dancing skill.
Lewis Gilbert, who's enjoyed great success recently with the film adaptations of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, both plays dealing with female self-actualization, stays in that mode, to STEPPING OUT's health and detriment. Gilbert is so in love with the stagier aspects of Harris's play
that the early parts of the movie become almost unbearably corny and contrived. While the story includes a number of painfully shy characters, Gilbert exploits it to a degree where half the cast seems to have graduated from the Didi Conn school of big-eyes-pursed-lips. He often has the actors,
Minnelli especially, play their exchanged lines almost directly towards the camera, creating the uncomfortable feeling that they're speaking to us. Beyond that, the characters themselves are so damnably two-dimensional that some real talent goes unnoticed. (Was it really necessary to have the
black woman be fat, sassy, and dancing in her kitchen shaking a spatula and quaking the whole house?!) And when Maxine (Ellen Greene) yells "Show business, I love it!" you feel the pain Greene must have experienced getting it out. The acting feels artificial from everyone; even Minnelli seems
trapped by her theatrical mannerisms. This is augmented by a delayed timing, fine for stage but all wrong for the heightened realism demanded in a film. In fact, for a good part of the movie, it seems as though the audience is going to leave disappointed, having seen nothing but straight, though
But suddenly, the movie changes course. The big performance that we've all been waiting for is ... just okay! The class makes a few goofs, but we, and the charity audience, love them. We're as teary-eyed as Liza as we watch them doing "their best." And then, as a wonderful reward, we get a
one-year-later flash-forward number, the big brash experience we've waited two hours for, in which Mavis plays a bored housewife who "steps out," in full theatrical regalia. And, of course, meanwhile we watch Mavis herself step out, and the improved dancers we've learned to care for step out as
well (most notably Bill Irwin, whose earlier clumsiness develops into a Ray Bolger-Buddy Ebsen style of goofy grace), and it's just fabulous.
Liza Minnelli in sequins, tights, and hat is probably the closest thing we have to Astaire, in his later days, pulling out tails and a cane. Again, we're not just watching singing and dancing. We're watching iconography. Poor Liza's been saddled her whole life with living up to parents who define
the absolute heights of the musical motion picture. She's been an icon since she was born. And whatever pain it may have taken for her to live that, it sure is glorious to see her do it well. During parts of this movie--the finale, an earlier solo dance--she does it better than anyone else
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: PG
- Review: The idea that, in the 20 years since CABARET, STEPPING OUT is only Liza Minnelli's second movie musical seems like a sick joke. What's even more amazing is that, despite this vacuum, Minnelli has managed to grow as an icon. STEPPING OUT, while by no means… (more)