CABARET (1972)

  • Director: Bob Fosse
  • Writers: Jay Allen, based on the stage musical by Joe Masteroff, with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
  • Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper, and Marisa Berenson
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#63), 8 Oscars (Best Director – Bob Fosse, Best Actress – Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor – Joel Grey, Best Adapted Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Sound), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Hoopla (library app), buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Cabaret has been called “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.” I would suggest that this could just as easily be turned around to say something like, “just because you like musicals, doesn’t mean you’ll like this one.” The songs are all limited to the stage at the “Kit Kat Klub” (nobody randomly bursts into song in the middle of everyday life here). Legendary Broadway director Bob Fosse even shoots the musical numbers in such a way as to put us in the audience. We’re looking up at the performers from the crowd. The movie even begins and ends with “The Emcee” (Joel Grey), the raucous, uncouth center of attention at the Klub, singing directly into the camera.

I am someone who does like musicals, but in the end I found that Cabaret mostly did work for me. The plot between the songs hits all the beats of a pre-World War II melodrama, there are romances, lovers’ quarrels, looming Nazi-ism, even a main character getting an abortion. Yet it somehow has a light enough touch throughout to keep from being crushed under its own weight. This is a musical with a downbeat ending where most of the characters are depressed for one reason or another. It’s amazing what a handful of great songs and a steadfast refusal to show us the parts of the drama that we’re actually expecting does for this movie.

For those who are not hooked into the several subsections of the culture where this movie is legendary, it is set in 1930s Berlin, which has thrown itself into hedonism with heedless abandon. An bisexual Englishman from Cambridge (Michael York) arrives in town and meets the cabaret singer and aspiring actress Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) when he rents a room in her building. The two of them become friends, and maybe more than friends, and at one point there is an attempted romance with a rich Baron (Helmut Griem). Which of them is the Baron romancing? That is left ambiguous for quite some time. Meanwhile, the drama is occasionally intercut with musical numbers at the Klub, several of them performed with reckless abandon by Grey’s Emcee.

No actual sex, nudity, or swearing (at least in English) actually occurs in Cabaret, yet you will sometimes hear that it is the first musical to receive an X rating. This was true in the UK, where the ratings board in 1972 apparently just could not handle the fact that the main characters are basically two-thirds of a throuple for a decent section of this movie. In fact, the plot could not be portrayed as it is in the film when the stage musical debuted only five years earlier. The Broadway version had not been allowed to have a bisexual male protagonist, or even to use the final punchline of one of the songs, “If you were to see her through my eyes/She doesn’t look Jewish at all.”

Sally Bowles turned out to be the defining role of Liza Minnelli’s career. It was the first time she sang on screen, and after she wasn’t allowed to do much but play versions of her character here, vivacious and bit self-involved. She was the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, who had directed Garland in several of her hit musicals. Liza actually consulted with her father about how to portray a glamorous girl in the 1930s, and he suggested the character’s signature hairstyle, a knock-off of silent film femme fatale Louise Brooks. It works because Sally Bowles is, in the end, a wannabe. At one point Michael’s York’s character tells her, “You think you’re a femme fatale, but you’re no more fatale than a breath mint.”

Yet Liza also gets to belt out a couple of truly spectacular bring-the-house-down songs, and the idea that she somehow has no real chance of “making it” in this weird 1930s world doesn’t quite ring true. I know that every song in The Sound of Music is famous, but I for real would take “Maybe This Time” over every single one of them, and none of them got in my head as much as “Willkommen.” Fosse is among the most legendary of Broadway figures, but if Cabaret is his best-known film, it’s perhaps because he was still early in his association with Hollywood and wasn’t just allowed to do whatever he wanted yet. He reportedly spent much of the shoot getting into fights with Joel Grey, who among many other transgressions reportedly refused to do “jazz hands,” one of Fosse’s signatures. The story goes that Fosse went to the producers and said, “It’s him or me,” to which the producers responded, “OK, we pick him.” Fosse backed down.

Grey, who had originated the role of the Emcee on Broadway, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In fact, Cabaret was a surprisingly big hit at a time when studios thought musicals were on their way out of fashion. It went on to win 8 Oscars (also including Minnelli for Best Actress and Fosse for Best Director), despite being up against The Godfather in all the major categories. It ended up setting a records that still stands for the most awards won without winning Best Picture. For his part, Fosse set his own record by winning an Oscar, a Tony (for Pippin), and an Emmy (for Minelli’s TV special), all for directing, all within a year. That’s three quarters of the way to what we today call an “EGOT,” but Fosse never did get that Grammy to complete the set.

I enjoyed Cabaret and think it’s well worth watching, but I also think that you should know what you’re getting into. If you’re a big musical fan, you might find yourself drifting off through the long sections of this movie where, as my wife pointed out, Liza Minnelli is “a manic pixie dream girl before manic pixie dream girls were a thing.” If you are interested in Bob Fosse and his life in general, you might find the recent FX mini-series Fosse/Verdon worth checking out. It details Fosse’s relationship over the years with actress and dancer Gwen Verdon, with Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon.

3 thoughts on “CABARET (1972)

  1. As a lover of musicals, this one is my three favorite Nazi musicals (the others being To Be or Not to Be-Brooks version-and The Producers). You’re wrong about the songs only being in the Klub. You forgot about the Biergarden scene with the young Hitler youth inspiring otherwise decent folks to commit genocide (with the sole exception being the old man who obviously lived through the foolishness of the first world war). I was thinking about that scene recently while trying to wrap my head around why otherwise decent Americans would commit acts of treason and violence. Nationalism is not limited to Nazis it seems like.

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    1. Shockingly I have not spent much time thinking about my list of favorite Nazi musicals, but you’re right, there is a surprising number of them. You’re also right that there is a song that’s not set in the Klub, though it is also “diagetic,” in the sense that the kid is singing on a stage. It’s not taking place in that weird musical world where people just burst into song randomly.

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