Film #59 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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Directed by Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey
It is 1931 in Berlin, Germany, where the last enduring moments of the Weimer Republic are being lived in a variety of styles. At the Kit Kat Club, Cabaret singers are dressed in flamboyant costumes and perform racy numbers while the crowd cheers them on wildly. In some parts of town, Jews are targeted victims of anti-Semitic pranks and violence, not to mention social isolation. Everywhere there is a growing sense of nationalism that is boosted by the increasing numbers of Nazi Party members who take to the street to spread their message. Life goes on as normal but change is in the air. The characters cannot know what awaits them but those of us with even a limited knowledge of history are unsettled to think of what is to come.
Alas, Cabaret is not really about the rise of Hitler or World War II. It is primarily a story that follows an American Cabaret singer, Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her love interest, British university professor Brian Roberts (York). Sally works at the Kit Kat Club led by the “Master of Ceremonies” (Grey) and is determined to one day be a famous actress. She has a very vibrant and unpredictable personality though she is, in general, very loyal a friend. Brian is more on the reserve and neither his aspirations, nor his sexual orientation, are entirely clear. They remain a monogamous couple until their union is turned upside down by a rich and eccentric millionaire by the name of Maximilian von Heune (Griem) who starts wooing them both, eventually succeeding. Through all of this, including an unplanned pregnancy, Sally and Brian stick together until she finally gives in to her own convictions. All of this plays against the backdrop that was first described.
Though considered a drama in many aspects, the film is deemed to be a musical. The style is not like that of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood which were huge productions with very elaborate sets, costumes and complex dance numbers. The musical sequences in Cabaret are largely Broadway inspired, seemingly taken directly from the stage and put on screen resulting in giving the film a very intimate feel. The theatrical version of the play debuted on Broadway in 1966 and ran over 1100 performances before closing in 1969. Similarly, the London West End production was successful and ran for nearly a year. Both venues have revived the play on numerous occasions and will most certainly continue to do so in the future. As for the film adaptation, it received much critical acclaim and ended up being awarded 8 Oscars, including: Best Director for Fosse, Best Actress for Minnelli and Best Supporting Actor for Grey. (It is notable to mention that Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppola who directed the monumental film The Godfather, the Best Picture winner for that year. Coppola had won the Golden Globe for Best Director two months prior to the Academy Awards which is commonly an indicator of likely Oscar win.)
Director Bob Fosse was renowned for his dance and choreography skills. He started out in the theatre in the late 1940’s, also acting at the beginning of his career though he would eventually focus his efforts behind-the-camera. Fosse was signed to a contract with MGM in 1953, thereafter appearing in a few of their films then doing choreography work at other studios like Paramount (White Christmas, 1954), Columbia (My Sister Eileen, 1955), and Warner Bros. (The Pajama Game, 1957 & Damn Yankees, 1958). His talents are most obvious in a scene from My Sister Eileen in which he also stars and performs a dance duel of sorts alongside celebrated dancer Tommy Rall.
This was the Bob Fosse who I first came to know and admire. Naturally, I expected something similar in Cabaret but I was set-up for disappointment as the film’s numbers are sometimes very minimal, focusing more on lyrical suggestion than physical display. At times, it was almost impossible to understand what they were singing about. Other more extravagant numbers were included but I found the choreography to be quite bare probably due to them being less showy than what I am used to seeing. I’m also sure that the dancers in those scenes would disagree with me!
Liza Minnelli had a few credits to her name before being cast as Sally Bowles but had never been featured in a lead role. The only daughter of famed director Vincente Minnelli and the even more beloved Judy Garland, Liza had a certain amount of pressure on her shoulders being in such a large spotlight. She had primarily been working in theatrical productions for the most part as a result of her preferring Broadway to Hollywood. Coincidentally enough, Liza had been performing several of the songs from the play Cabaret in her one-woman show. While some people think that Liza lacks talent as an actress, I happen to find that she has a lot of natural charm on-screen and that she is very good at showing the human side of her characters. Sally is a very free-spirited kind of person who lives very much for herself and what she prefers “at the moment”. She is young and does not understand much about Germany but that does not stop her from working towards her dreams. Her attitude is highly representative of the youth of the time who, as they are in modern day, often overly optimistic and living without consequence. The character of Sally Bowles is intriguing to watch though her personality leaves much to be desired. Aside from the affection she shows to her boyfriend, Brian, Sally does not really harbour real concern about anyone else unless she can profit somehow from the situation, like with Maximilian. It is inevitable that she ends up alone; to her a continuation of her freedom but to us, her happiness is a clicking time bomb once Hitler will come into power. Her relationship with Brian is a bit unconventional from the start. He is unsure of his sexuality and questions his lack of performance with women, rebutting Sally’s initial attempt to seduce him. When they finally consummate their union, they both decide that the other girls he was with were the wrong ones and were to blame for his physical failure. A pivotal exchange between Sally and Brian shows another side to the story…
Brian: “Screw Maximilian!”
Sally: “I do!”
Brian: “So Do I!”
Michael York plays Brian just perfectly and it was a joy to see him in a role that is quite a departure from what he had done in the past. His Brian is very serious in the beginning and in his first exchanges with Maximilian but when he embraces his natural preferences, he starts to loosen up and become quite an amusing guy.
Overall, Cabaret is well acted and there are some interesting subplots going on though its inclusion on the AFI 100 Greatest Films List strikes me as an odd choice. The editing of the film is choppy and transitions too sharply from musical sequence to dramatic moment, even to weird flashes of the Master of Ceremonies making odd gestures/faces. Minnelli has a magnificent voice and it is a pleasure to hear her sing outside of her mother’s shadow. The story itself does not seem extraordinary aside from it taking place on the forefront of the Second World War, an historical event which still gives most people chills down their spine. I suppose I lack the ability to see and appreciate all of the love that this film receives. It did not necessarily bore me but, at the same time, it was hard to get through to the end because it felt very much like a task. Perhaps I will try to watch it again sometime to see if my viewpoint has evolved.
- The rights to turn Cabaret into a film were purchased for $1.5 million.
- Joel Grey originated the role on Broadway and the studio would not make the film without his participation.
- Since Liza Minnelli had been performing the songs from Cabaret for years, the writers largely based the character Sally Bowles on her night club act.
- 25 years after Cabaret was released, Michael York would play Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers film series. When Brian first meets Sally in Berlin, they have the following exchange –
Brian: “You’re American”
Sally: “Oh, God! How depressing! You must think I’m an International Woman of Mystery.”