By John H. Foote
8. CABARET (1972)
I consider this film to be the greatest musical film ever made.
Watching Cabaret the first time was like seeing the birth of the American musical, nothing like it had even been made, nothing like it possessed such artistry. It felt as though a bolt of lightning had been sent through my head watching the film, the dancers, the actors, the narrative unfold. No musical other than Hair (1979) has ever hit me as hard as this one did. There was decadence throughout, perversity, comedy, slapstick dancing, and dancing so breathing with sex it was extraordinary to behold that first time, but the second and third too. The truth within the film seared itself into my mind as I was watching it and I knew with every fibre of my being I would never in my life forget the film. More than 40 years since seeing it for the first time, I have not. I knew watching it I was watching a work of absolute art.
Bob Fosse’s dark sorcery as a director was at its peak with Cabaret, looking beyond the story, the narrative, the images, he read the subtext and understood what was beneath the surface would give Cabaret its darkly perverse power. Having never really been a fan of Hollywood musicals, I saw Cabaret as a bursting forth of pure creation, daring and artistic, taking a genre and expanding on it to make it dark, sinister as Fosse set his events during the darkest period in the 20th century.
Watch the opening frame, when the Emcee (Joel Grey) welcomes us to the decadent Kit Kat Club, pay attention to the audience. There are uniformed men there, a few with their Nazi swastika proudly shown on their sleeves. Over the course of the film, the Nazis rise, and by the end of the film, that club is populated with countless Nazis, the swastika a dominating visual image.
Bob Fosse’s film does indeed explore the rise of the Nazis and explores the impact on a select group of people connected to performing by Sally Bowles, a gifted by damaged singer in the Kit Kat Club. Portrayed brilliantly by Liza Minnelli in the greatest role of her career, Sally is a serial man dater, constantly waiting for that big break to get her into movies, or her father (real or imagined?) to show up and rescue her. She covets money, as she covets the objects men buy for her, and though she and Brian (Michael York) appear to fall in love, Sally can never really love anyone because she thinks so little of herself. When she takes the stage of the Kit Kat Club all eyes on her (which is what she truly covets) and there is no question of her talent, but she uses her talent only to draw in men, like a spider pulls in a fly. Sally is damaged, no questioned, but she is equally damaging, men should run away from her as fast as possible, because she will hurt them without thinking.
Brian (York) ends up in Berlin, 1931 where he hopes to make money teaching English. In the same boarding house as Sally; they become fast friends, and even faster lovers. But Brian learns quickly about Sally, he cannot help it, she more or less flaunts it. When she spots Max, and his immense wealth, she falls into bed with him making the group a trio, and eventually even Brian, unsure of his own sexuality, falls into bed with Max. Incredibly, though Sally is supposedly with Brian, she roars in anger “You bastards” when learning they too have slept together.
If I had one thing about musicals that always angered me it was the moment the characters suddenly burst into song, no rhyme or reason, they just sing. With Cabaret all but two numbers take place in the Kit Kat Club and in their own unique ways act as commentary for the narrative. The most alarming and topical song takes place in a beer garden in the country where Max is taking Sally and Brian. A beautiful blonde-haired boy stands up and begins singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” getting more intense and energetic as the song goes on. Gradually the camera moves down his uniform and we see that swastika on his sleeve and realize he is a member of the Hitler Movement. The young people in the beer garden begin to sing with him, the elderly sit in disgust but by the end of the song, the beer garden is a fairly rocking place with that song still carrying on.
Sally of course ends up pregnant, unsure of who the child belongs too, Brian or Max, but Brian announces he does not care, he will marry her. Apparently happy, her façade is recognized when she returns home without her fur coat, which she has sold to get an abortion. Their love affair is over, Sally cannot ever commit to anything other than her career. To her life must be a cabaret.
The songs that populate the film are performed in the decadent, often daringly sexual club where some of the female dancers are not ladies at all, but men. The dancing began the term Fosse-esque, today known as simply Fosse. Inverted toes, splayed fingers, arms in erratic positioning, a touch of the brim of the hat and all deeply sexual, and rather extraordinary. There had been nothing like it before. Fosse’s work was bathed in sex, often blatant, often innuendo, but there all the same. When Sally struts out to sing “Mein Herr”, her body is as much on display as her singing, those long legs, and that extraordinary motion, all beautifully created by Fosse. “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” has the Emcee dancing with a gorilla, but the last line of the song is a stinger, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all”, and the Emcee’s dance with Sally to “Money, Money” their eyes filled with covetous greed.
Is it fame Sally seeks because fame brings money? Or a man to take care of her? Or both? The great mystery to her is exactly what she wants. And Minnelli portrayed her to perfection, everyone else to follow is forever in the shadow of this incredible performance. Vulnerable, slutty, sexual, happy, broken she is the kind of girl mothers warned their sons about, but boys being boys just cannot help themselves. Sally is like a dangerous candy you have to have a taste of, knowing full well you will regret ever seeing her. She is dangerous and that was what Minnelli found in her, that sexual danger. Yes, she can be fun, even warm, but it is an act, because at her core she is heartless.
Minnelli was rewarded with rave reviews and when she won her Oscar, she thanked the Academy for awarding her and not using her as a way to honor her mother, Judy Garland. Sadly, though hugely gifted, Minnelli never rose to the heights she did in Cabaret again. Though very good in New York, New York (1977) and likely deserving of a nomination, because the film was pulled by the studio and drastically cut there was no chance of that. Never again would we really see Minnelli explode across the screen which I for one would have loved to have seen. Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, his own final cut on Blu Ray and DVD is the closest we get.
Joel Grey as the Emcee is a haunting figure, ghostly as he moves through the film, never seen without his white face on. He serves within the cabaret to keep the merriment moving at whatever the cost, despite the growing number of Nazis in the audience. Keep them entertained, while gently slipping in a message when he can. Is he a ghost? Death? Hitler? Or is he simply aware of the pain of life and what is coming, and he so fears it he hides in the club to avoid the oncoming nightmare? The great aspect of the film is it is left to you, as I will do. It is a tremendous piece of acting.
Michael York is drab and dreary but against the likes of Minnelli and Grey who would not be? I think it is enough that he keeps up, reminding us that life can be boring and dull, and maybe sometimes, when your heart can be shattered so carelessly into a million pieces, that is a good thing. I never understood the appeal of Michael York, never thought much of him as an actor until seeing him as John the Baptist in the Franco Zeffirelli mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1978) in which he was electric, stunning.
Fosse directed just five films in the years spanning 1969-1983 and worked tirelessly on plays that dominated the Broadway stage. In addition he collected an Emmy for his television special “Liza with a Z”, making him the rare director to win an Emmy, Tony and an Oscar. His films, all five of them, dealt with diverse aspects of show business, which was really all Fosse knew having been a dancer in his childhood, in films as a younger man, finally a choreographer and filmmaker. His first film, Sweet Charity (1969) with Shirley MacLaine, showed promise but nothing prepared us for Cabaret, in which he launched into the stratosphere as a director. All That Jazz (1979) which finished 31st on this list and out of the running, is also a stunning work, based on his own life, the heart attack that felled him in the seventies while directing Chicago on stage and editing his film Lenny (1974) which explored the life of troubled, brilliant comic Lenny Bruce. His career ended with Star 80 (1983) a film seething with rage, exploring the life of Paul Snider, the man responsible for murdering Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratton before her fame grew. While Eric Roberts gives a performance for the ages, the film is challenging to watch as Fosse held nothing back about the murder or Snider himself. Fosse died on a Washington street just a couple years later, while plans for a film version of Chicago were being set up for him. An entire show, entitled aptly Fosse, was created for him on Broadway using his many brilliant dance routines to showcase his genius. The legacy of his films remains that they entertain to be sure, but at their heart is a sense of nihilism that cannot be denied as though that heart was a crying wail of despair.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Cabaret won an extraordinary eight, losing Best Picture to The Godfather (1972). Fosse was a surprise winner for Best Director over the DGA winner Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, while Minnelli won Best Actress, Grey took Supporting Actor over The Godfather actors and the film won for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Any other year in the seventies, except 1972 or 1974, it might have won Best Picture. Fosse created the New American musical, forging realism with song and dance, making the musical aspects about what was taking place in the narrative. None of this silly bursting into song, here the songs served the story, and hovering in the background was a bleakness unexpected in most musicals. The Nazis here are monsters, beating a shop owner nearly to death to the percussion beats in the cabaret, and there is a confidence in their manner they sit in the club as though they owned it. Perhaps the Emcee recognized this long before anyone else and was playing to them, placating them so the club could remain open. In his own way perhaps, the Emcee was their savior because he understood that the cabaret was life, even though Sally sang it backwards, warbling “life is a cabaret”.
I walked out of the cinema galvanized in a way only film can do to me. Musicals have never been the same for me since.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.