Maybe you don’t know what exactly is the deal with Liza Minnelli. I know that when I was a kid, and Minnelli was just a heavily-made-up face caught in some unflattering moment on the front page of a supermarket tabloid, I didn’t know who she was and I didn’t want to. But if you want to know, if you’re curious how this woman became a superstar, there’s a movie that will tell you: Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical Cabaret.
Cabaret is based on a hit Broadway musical, but a decision was made to shunt most of the musical material to the side. Basically, the titular cabaret serves as a Greek chorus commenting upon the lives of Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York), with Joel Grey playing the Master of Ceremonies who leads the cabaret sequences. Sally and Brian actually aren’t in the cabaret all that often – despite the fact that she’s the top-billed singer there – as instead they negotiate their unusual relationships while dodging the rising Nazi party.
Fosse, who took home the Academy Award for Best Director for this film*, has a fine control of his sprawling story. It shouldn’t be surprising that the famed choreographer can put together superb song-and-dance displays, but Fosse deserves special credit for using the limited space of the cabaret stage well. He never cheats by relying on fanatsy elements, the way that the musicals of the ’50s did; everything is up there on stage, looking like a successful upscale cabaret could have pulled it off if they tried. Away from the stage Fosse isn’t as masterful, but he can be subtle when he wants to be, as in the dialogue-free sequence where our leads drive past the scene of a Nazi-related murder.
As soon as you see the title card “Berlin 1931” at the start of the film, it will be obvious that National Socialism is going to be a factor in this story. The brownshirts come into play both in terms of moving the plot forward (Sally and Brian are brought together by a pair supporting characters, one Jewish and one not, who are battling with a forbidden love) and in terms of symbolism (Sally, Brian, and their bisexual German lover seem to represent the American, British, and German responses to the birth of Nazism). In fact, arguably the most haunting scene in the movie is the only song that doesn’t take place in the cabaret: “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” shows how National Socialism slowly grew from a German nationalist movement into a fascist juggernaut.
“Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is also the only remotely subtle scene in the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since musicals are not supposed to be subtle (you almost never want to watch someone singing softly in a movie). Minnelli gets it: her performance is purposefully broad, even a little bit hammy, so that when she finally turns quiet and serious the moment contains all the more impact. She took home the Academy Award for Best Actress, and deservedly so. Bigger still is Grey (also an Oscar winner), because he doesn’t deliver a single line that isn’t sung or danced. As with an opera singer or a professional wrestler, everything the Master of Ceremonies does has to be big enough to reach the paying customers furthest in the back.
Most of the non-cabaret songs were cut from the film because of that old bugaboo for movie musicals: producers thought audiences of the ’70s wouldn’t go for a movie where people in everyday settings start belting out showtunes. I’m not so sure. You don’t go to a movie which contains a character like the MC – ghoulish in his stage makeup and perpetually wearing the knowing grin of an evil oracle – if you’re expecting a story grounded in realism. Meanwhile the “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” sequence was cunning enough in its message, at least compared to the cabaret songs, that I wanted more scenes like that. It seems to me that the running commentary from the cabaret occasionally hamstrings the film, jumping in right when it would be better to find out what’s going to happen next to Sally and Brian. Cabaret is a fine film, but I would have liked it even more if it were a full-on musical.
This film was bracing for its time, with discussion of issues like sexuality and abortion that doesn’t feel like a TV Movie-of-the-Week but instead takes place in the context of real people’s lives. Think about it: a full fifteen years after Cabaret came out, the movie Dirty Dancing** would have an entire abortion-related subplot in which the word “abortion” was never spoken. Similarly, Brian’s sexuality is explored in ways which studio movies don’t even think about today; he’s unsure if he’s gay, unsure if he loves Sally sexually or just platonically, unsure of everything.
Cabaret ends on an equally unsure note, which is pretty impressive for a film set in pre-Nazi Germany. We know how this history will proceed, with the Nazis taking over and implementing their genocidal strategies a few years after this film ends, but who is to blame? How well did the Germans understand what was coming? As with so many great films of the ’70s, Cabaret offers no easy answers.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather to win the Best Director Oscar. That may seem unbelievable, given how revered Coppola’s film is. But it’s worth noting that producer Robert Evans has long claimed that the director’s cut of The Godfather was incomprehensible, and that he is the one who created the finished film in the editing room.
**Starring Jennifer Grey, Joel Grey’s daughter.