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How had I never seen... "Cabaret"?

In this new series, members of Team Film Experience watch and share their reactions to classic films they’ve never seen. 

By Ben Miller

Cabaret is Bob Fosse’s “musical” into the world of bohemian performer Sally Bowles and uptight Brit Brian Roberts.  Both try to navigate the world of love along with the struggle to reach a level of extravagance, all the while experiencing the adapting political climate of 1930’s Berlin.

Shamefully, I had never seen it.

My grandmother hooked me on to the Oscars as a young child.  I always had an analytic thirst for knowledge, so she bought me an almanac.  I would flip to the Oscar section and each year would summarize the Best Picture, Director, Lead and Supporting acting categories.  I liked looking for patterns, so I noticed things like the big four sweeps of 1934, 1975 and 1991.  I also liked looking for a few films to dominate the six categories.  1972 stood out because I knew about The Godfather, but noticed it lost Best Director, despite winning Best Picture.  My knowledge of Cabaret was limited to the fact that it beat The Godfather for Best Director.

I grew up in the south in the 90s with a conservative family.  If you look at the films of 1972, the only one I saw before the age of 16 was The Poseidon Adventure.  It made sense, it was a disaster spectacle and one of those movies you don’t have much of a problem showing your kids.  As I grew older, I had the opportunity to branch out in my film knowledge, but was also held back by what I had access to.  The other big film from 1972, The Godfather, was a staple of cable television and the go-to as the “masterpiece” accepted by the masses.  Cable is where I watched most of my movies and I didn’t have my own TV until I was in college, so I was limited by whatever anyone else wanted to watch.  Not only did my family not want to watch Cabaret, it never had a run on cable TV.  If I wanted to watch it, I would have to seek it out.  Cabaret wasn’t one of those films I had ever attempted to seek out.

The first thing that stood out was the musical interludes.  I always appreciate when songs can be woven into a film narrative naturally instead of groups of people breaking into spontaneous song and dance.  With one notable exception, all the songs are performed on-stage at the Kit Kat Klub and all dances were rehearsed and planned outside of the audience purview.  Joel Grey immediately pops in his Oscar-winning portrayal as the Master of Ceremonies, starting off with the showstopping “Willkommen” on the main stage.

The music itself is not as grandiose as I was expecting.  I was thinking along the lines of Chicago with pizazz and bright lights, but Cabaret is under-lit and moody, despite the lighter, comical touch of the musical numbers.  These songs are not for Broadway stages or theaters, but for a lower, seedier crowd and the production does the best they can with what they have.  The dancers aren’t perfect and the songs aren’t flawless, but they are pretty good for 1930s Berlin.  These are the minor leagues, filled with minor league equipment and minor league players.

We are quickly introduced to British university student Brian (Michael York) knocking on the door of Sally (Liza Minnelli, in her Oscar-winning role) asking about a room to rent.  Just like Grey, Minnelli is the immediate draw of the camera’s attention, with her comically large eyes, distractingly robust eyelashes, pixie haircut and razor-sharp features.  Her first words exude confidence and in less than three minutes after our introduction, we have a general understanding of her personality, attitudes and daily routine.  Sally wants to be a star, and she just knows she will be one as she scraps her way to the top.  

Minnelli blows everyone off the screen and crafts an indelible portrait of bohemian life.  Initially, I wanted to fault Cabaret for leaning into the cliché of free-spirit-meets-uptight-square, until I realized Cabaret may have invented the cliché. 

Brian shows up offering her a playful distraction on her road to fame, but his characterization leaves plenty to be desired.  If there was one thing about the film I really didn’t like, it would be the character of Brian, or more specifically, York’s portrayal.  If York didn’t look the way he did in 1972, I would see no redeemable qualities to him.  He is boring, distant and tonally inconsistent.  The only reason I see Sally sleeping with him is her seemingly endless sexual appetite, and most importantly, his proximity.

Playboy Maximillian (Helmut Griem) enters the picture and inserts himself in the lives of Sally and Brian, showing them both a life of luxury they could only dream of.  All the while, Berlin is evolving politically as the Nazi party slowly rises to power and the atmosphere begins to change.  47 years after its initial release, Cabaret’s window into the rise of the Nazi party feels eerie.  The Nazi tide finally overwhelms the country when Brian and Max visit a local biergarten and a Hitler Youth begins singing a Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the only song performed outside the club.  Slowly but surely, the majority of the crowd joins in as the singing doesn’t stop, even after Brian and Max leave.  It gets my vote as one of the creepiest film scenes of the decade.

Nazism aside, I can imagine a measure of controversy around the topics the film handles.  These include, but are not limited to: bisexuality, abortion, STDs, gold-digging, and unrepentant promiscuity.  Fosse doesn’t beat around the bush with these topics either.  He dives in head first and shoves these features right in your face.  My biggest compliment I can give Fosse is his absolute lack of desire to give the audience exactly what they want.

The rest of the supporting cast does well, especially Marisa Berenson as a rich Jew who enters into the bubble of Brian and Sally.  She has a standout monologue about falling in love with someone you have no business falling in love with at the film’s midpoint.

The film has a very 70s aesthetic and the craftspeople have the awards to show for it.  In addition to the Oscars for Fosse, Grey and Minnelli, the film took home awards for Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound and Film Score (Adaptation).  If you would pick out a snub, it would be for Best Costume Design.  Sally’s black dress/bowler hat combo might be the most iconic costume in musical history, and it couldn’t even muster a nomination.

Frankly, I’m glad I waited all these years to see it.  In the last few months, 22 people were gunned down in my home state for being in the sights of a fanatic right-winger.  At the opening of the film, patrons of the Kit Kat Klub kick out a Nazi.  Later, they are seen as a necessary evil, before eventually ascending as the ruling party.  The film’s final shot shows the club dominated by men with swastika arm bands.  The slow evolution of the Nazi party is seemingly mirrored in today’s society with the rise of the Alt Right, though luckily still in the early stages. 

The film seems to take three political viewpoints.  Max believes that his country will eventually wise up be able to take the country back. Brian is filled with anger and common sense, but eventually has to flee when that doesn’t prevail.  Sally takes a laissez faire attitude and keeps looking out for number one.  All three are proven foolish at one point or another.

Overall, the film is an exceptional achievement, and I have no issue with Fosse beating Francis Ford Coppola for the Best Director Oscar.  I’m glad I finally got around to this film as I can now argue The Godfather is not the Best Picture of 1972.

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Reader Comments (15)

I know this isn't the majority opinion but to me this is a very well made film that I harbor little affection for. It's everything you said and I respect the craft but I have zero desire to revisit it.

Liza is a powerhouse, all wrong for the character of Sally Bowles as presented to us as at best a marginally second-rate talent. But while the casting of someone who fits that bill may work on stage it probably wouldn't have in the film. God knows I hate musicals filled with performers who "try" to sing rather than those who can and Liza provides this movie with a magnetic center. It's just ironic that in this case the character is actually supposed to be subpar and its filled by someone who at the time was one of the most gifted women in the industry. I don't begrudge her her Oscar and of the nominees that year she was the correct winner even if I preferred the unnominated Tuesday Weld in Play It As It Lays.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

i am so proud of everyone who takes the time to catch up with this MASTERPIECE. And yes it was the best film of 1972 and deserving of all those Oscars.

October 7, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I've always found the idea of Sally being an undeniably powerhouse performer to be far more compelling than her being mediocre. Because then it's not her talent holding her back but any number of things -- her sexual appetite, her need to create drama offstage as much as on, her own low sense of self-worth that keeps her in a crappy club rather than a concert hall more worthy of her natural abilities ... someone who can really deliver but still not get anywhere always struck me as more tragic than a middling talent with delusions of grandeur. I know the latter is the original conception of the role, and I appreciated it when I saw Natasha Richardson do it on Broadway, but it didn't quite hit me in the sweet spots the way Liza's interpretation did. Then again, someone wiser than I once said, "It's called Cabaret, not Sally," and it's probably better that way. But what a world that we got both, right?

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottmichael

Saw this for the first time in college and even though I loved Judy, I didn't know Liza was her daughter at the time! Sheltered upbringing. That incredible music... Joel Grey's creepy, fascinating performance... and man, was Michael York sexy.

"Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is one of the most terrifying takes on blind loyalty in film history (in fact, maybe THE #1 example), and it stings especially hard in today's climate. That final shot also heavily implies that Sally's world will soon be doomed. The woman desperate for attention will soon have no place to hide. The movie's final gut punch is juxtaposed with defiant classic take on the title track, and "Cabaret" has to be one of the earliest true LGBT anthems. I love that I am never truly on board with Sally until that song breaks my heart.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I'm with joel6 in "harboring little affection" for this film. I'm a big fan of the stage play. It certainly produced one of the greatest Broadway cast albums ever. I especially love the two older characters played by Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford. And I was genuinely shocked when both characters and their wonderful songs were effectively jettisoned for the screen version. And why oh why was Sally Bowles' marvelous "Don't Tell Mama" replaced by the thoroughly mediocre "Mein Herr"? It's an expensive looking and thoroughly professional enterprise and Liza does her thing with energy. But I never found the film as moving or penetrating as it surely could have been.
As for the '72 Best Actress Oscar, for me it was the year of the Miles. I'd have nominated Sarah Miles("Lady Caroline Lamb"), Vera Miles (Molly and Lawless John') and Sylvia Miles ("Heat"). None came within a mile of an actual nomination that year but any would have been a worthy winner.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Saw this when I was first introduced to depression at 15 lmao and it changed my life. It was so dark, so gay, so...Cabaret. I don't know. One of the most important films I've seen for my personal taste, and one of my all-time favs. Liza and Joel deserved their Oscars, and Marisa was snubbed af.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I love Cabaret. I would disagree with those who feel Minnelli is too strong a performer to play Sally Bowles. For me, that is the true heartbreak of the character. Minnelli allows us to see how insecurity, a hopeless disregard of self condemns this woman to perform in basement cafes of Berlin. Sally has no sense of self to alert her that she is special. Perhaps it is her unconventional beauty that limits her. Minnelli doesn't explain Sally's pain. She just bares it. From the moment she waves her green fingernail polish, we are clued that Sally masks her self doubt with a bold attempt at decadence. Minnelli explores each heartbreaking aspect of Sally Bowles till that final number becomes a riveting plea of vulnerability and need.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Scottmichael -- you may be in the minority but I'm right there with you. I have seen it performed (wonderfully) on stage a few times but nothing beats Liza's conception of the role.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Liza's Oscar win is one of the Academy's best pics.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with Liza's level of talent being appropriate for Sally Bowles. I have known many performers with a heck of a lot of talent (maybe as much?) who never even got as far as Sally Bowles did in the movie. I always think that the Kit Kat Klub is probably just about where Liza would have ended up without her famous "lucky" start in life.

But in any case, Cabaret is a stone cold masterpiece and anyone who doesn't agree just doesn't get it. There, I've said it!

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Don't be ashamed, Ben! We've all got famous films we haven't yet seen. But good that you've now seen it and enjoyed it!

Picking up on some of the comments: I too feel that it's not lack of talent that is causing Sally Bowles to be stuck in the Kit Kat Club - it's other stuff, some of it of her own making, some of it showbiz luck not coming her way... I like this movie very much. A word for 'Mein Herr' - yes, 'Don't Tell Mama' is a fun song in the show, but 'Mein Herr' is movie magic - the song, the choreography, the exquisite framing that says so much about Sally in the first big number we see her in.

In my heart, Cabaret vs. The Godfather is one of the closest Best Picture races, and while I think The Godfather was the worthy winner, Fosse getting Best Directing for this was very justified. I think the 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' sequence is what clinches it for him.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Ben -- i like what you said about Brian in terms of "proximity" to Sally. I've never thought about that before but you're absolutely right.

October 8, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks so much for everyone on the feedback. It makes me want to dive in to other films I've never seen. Hopefully, I'll find something as wonderful as this film

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I saw Cabernet once on video in the 80’s when I was about 14. I remember being blown away with the musical numbers, a little freaked by the seediness and totally in love with Michael York. I wanted to revisit it after watching that episode of Verdon/Fosse but was unable to find it streaming on any of the Australian services I subscribe to - Netflix, Stan or Prime. Also I don’t think it was available on Australian iTunes either. After reading this, I even more determined to get my hands on a copy...

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

Cabaret has always been one of those movie experiences that I will unapologetically lovingly share with anybody!

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

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