Divine Decadence, Indeed
For me, Cabaret occupies an honored spot at the top of a very short list of radically-altered movie adaptations of Broadway musicals (Hair, Paint Your Wagon, and Bye Bye Birdie being among the others) that succeed in being vastly superior to their source material.
Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966, a fact which always catches me off guard somehow, given that its title song – performed ceaselessly on TV variety shows during my youth – feels as though it’s been around for at least as long as The Star Spangled Banner. (A sentiment contributing to my astonishment when contemporary theater audiences and revival house habitués still gasp and laugh in surprised amusement at the punchline lyric, “She was the happiest corpse I’ve ever seen!”)
Bob Fosse’s award winning, by-now iconic, 1972 movie musical is actually the fourth dramatization and second big screen incarnation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 Berlin Stories. The characters and events of Isherwood’s two-volume autobiographical novel collection (Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin) chronicling his experiences in 1930s
the start of the Third Reich, first
served as the basis for John Van Druten’s non-musical stage play, I Am a
Camera. Four years later, I Am a Camera was made into a somewhat defanged, poorly-received feature film (that is actually much better than its reputation) starring Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey.
In 1966, the very same year Bob Fosse 's Sweet Charity premiered Broadway, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb collaborated with playwright Joe Masteroff on the Broadway musical, Cabaret; a reshaped, bleaker version of Van Druten’s play that ultimately went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse was persona non grata in Hollywood. In fact, at the time Cabaret came to his attention, Fosse was set to direct the horror film, Burnt Offerings, which Dan Curtis ultimately made into a film with Karen Black in 1976.
Producers Cy Feuer & Martin Baum, rumored principally to only have been interested in Fosse for his musical staging, "settled" on the desperate-to-make-it-in films director by making it clear they were going to keep him on a tight rein. For instance, dictating casting (Minnelli and Grey were the producer's "Do it with them or don't do it," absolutes), vetoing Fosse's choice of cinematographer (Charity's Robert Surtees), and maintaining final edit of the film upon completion.
But while Cabaret's inception may have been a far cry from the auteurist ideal prompted by films in the 70s, the end result manages to look spectacularly like the creative result of Fosse's singular artistic vision. This is thanks, in large part to Allied Artists CEO, Emmanuel Wolf, one of the few in Fosse's corner from the outset, and one of the creative visionaries that helped shape the final film. Working from a marvelous screenplay by Jay Presson Allen and an unbilled Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music), this Cabaret jettisons many songs, subplots, characters from the Broadway show, and in their place, employs a stylized naturalism and stark recreation of seedy, decadent Weimar-era Germany that is much more in keeping with the dark tone and themes of Isherwood’s original novels.
|Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles|
|Michael York as Brian Roberts|
|Joel Grey as The Master of Ceremonies|
|Marisa Berenson as Natalia Landauer|
|Fritz Wepper as Fritz Wendel|
|Helmut Griem as Baron Maximilian von Heune|
A significant part of the stylized naturalism Fosse brought to Cabaret was the then-novel device of framing all of the show’s musical numbers within the relatively “realistic” construct of performance and source. This meant that whether it was incidental music emanating from a Victrola (the fate of many of the excised songs from the stage production), an anthem sung in a sunlit German beer garden (Tomorrow Belongs to Me), or the tantalizingly tawdry musical performances staged within the smoky bowels of the Kit Kat Klub; all the music in Cabaret arose exclusively out of situations and sources consistent to real life.
And unless you were around in those grit &realism-fixated days of 70s cinema, you have no idea how significant a role this played in Cabaret’s success. In the Hollywood of the 70s, happy endings were passé, sentiment was old-fashioned, and disillusioned cynicism was the clarion call of the true creative artist.
Fosse’s elephantine screen version of Sweet Charity, all zoom-lens razzle-dazzle while coyly skirting the issue of Charity’s prostitution, exemplified everything that no longer worked in American movies. Not only did the “Tell it like it is” generation blanch at the sight of characters bursting into song and dance in natural settings, but innocent, waifish whores of the sort popularized by Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were rendered quaint clichés after Jane Fonda’s candid portrayal of a street-tough NY prostitute in Klute (1971).
Cabaret doesn't shy away from showing Sally's opportunistic side
In keeping with that aspiration, Minnelli’s Sally Bowles is portrayed as selfish, superficial, and brazenly comfortable about sleeping with anyone she feels can advance her career. Similarly, the homosexuality of Isherwood’s proxy character – hinted at in I Am a Camera and thoroughly subverted in the stage musical – is at least depicted as bisexuality in Cabaret. Which, as David Bowie, Elton John, and Madonna can all attest, is a great way of being daring while still playing it safe.
Shot on location in Munich and West Berlin, there’s very little of what could be labeled “Hollywood” in the look and feel of Cabaret. Sure, Sally is wildly over-talented for such a rundown dive, and Fosse’s choreography, while appropriately modest, is far too snazzy for what one would expect from such an establishment, but this to me, is quibbling. In every meaningful way, from the lived-in faces of the extras, the baggy period clothing, the monstrous/beautiful fleshiness of the performers at the Kit Kat Klub (all unshaved armpits and death-mask makeup); Cabaret’s aesthetics evoke stark realism more than artifice.
|The look for the Kit Kat Klub sequences was inspired by the works of German Expressionists. |
here Fosse recreates Otto Dix's 1926, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden
I’ve resisted summarizing the plot of Cabaret because, like that of its Academy Award rival, The Godfather (both films tied for 10 nominations each, Cabaret winning 8 to The Godfather’s 3, still a heated bone of contention among Godfather fans), I think its story so well-known you’re bound to be familiar with it you’ve never seen the film. But for the uninitiated, I invite you to read my plot summary of I Am a Camera here, merely inserting a sexual relationship for Harris and Harvey’s platonic one, and a bisexual love triangle for the pair's bipartite friendship with playboy Ron Randell.
|Twosies Beats Onesies, But Nothing Beats Threes|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
That Cabaret continues to be regarded by many musical fans as more a drama with music than a full-on musical, is perhaps a testament to the film’s seamless blending of the real with the abstract. What I find fairly ingenious is how Fosse juxtaposes the almost surreal, theatrical conceit of his Expressionistic vision of the Kit Kat Klub and its creepily androgynous Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, practically oozing showbiz smarm, recreating his Tony Award winning role) – commenting upon and foreshadowing the events of the film – with the fairly straightforward presentation of the dramatic scenes. Scenes rich in the kind of depth of performance and characterization rarely associated with musicals.
|Self-made Siren, Sally Bowles|
All the world's a stage in Cabaret, where the harsh realities of life can incite the need
for illusion and self-deception as strongly as the call of the footlights
A familiar Fosse trope is to explore the close link between show business's innate falseness and the various subterfuges people employ in an effort to cope with the pain of facing reality. Cabaret's brilliance lies in the manner in which its “realistic” dramatic scenes – scenes populated with individuals caught up in various degrees of pretense, self-deception, and denial (Sally averts her eyes and changes the subject when confronted with scenes of Nazi violence) – are contrasted with the so-called “escapist” entertainment provided at the Kit Kat Klub. In this refuge of excess where you’re invited to “Leave your troubles outside.” the club’s ostensibly harmless musical numbers and theatrical diversions (mud wrestling, erotic shadow tableaus, etc.) in fact reveal themselves to be the nightmarish compliance to Germany’s encroaching fate.
At the end of the film when the Emcee says, "We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful!" there is no doubt that he's lying and that he knows it. But when Sally sings "Life is a cabaret, ol' chum!" - a little too forcefully, and with tears in her eyes - I don't get the sense that she believes what she's saying so much as she NEEDS to believe what she's saying. The song becomes, like the story about her Ambassador father, an act of wishful thinking and willful self-deception. She sings not of a philosophy to live by, but a philosophy for survival.
|The Face of Evil|
The decadent spirit of Cabaret's Emcee, a vacuous entity for whom evil is just sideshow fodder, can be found on today's hate-mongering Fox News, and in the bloviating buffoonery of Donald Trump
I’m not sure anyone who didn’t grow up in the 70s can fully appreciate what it was like seeing Liza Minnelli in Cabaret for the first time. Then we didn’t know that her haircut, look, and indeed her entire screen persona were going to be her “act” for the next forty years. Back in 1972 it was just Judy Garland’s gawky daughter knocking our socks off with an alarmingly assured, powerhouse display of song, dance and acting that was, regardless of one’s personal like or dislike of Liza herself, the kind of a triple-threat, starmaking turn the likes of which the laid-back New Hollywood of the 70s had never seen.
Cabaret rightfully catapulted the handsome and likable Michael York to stardom as well, his performance being sensitive and surprisingly forceful given that, with nary a song, he escapes being eclipsed by the luster of either Minnelli or Grey.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Ever the master of sinuous sleaze and burlesque flash, Bob Fosse's evocative choreography and staging (serving up debauched detachment or eager-to-please pathos with equal aplomb) is ideally suited to the Kurt Weill-inspired tunes of Kander & Ebb. Special credit to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Superman) whose versatile camera (it seems to be everywhere at once) achieves a choreographed virtuosity of its own.
|The ballad, Maybe This Time was written for and introduced by singer/actress Kaye Ballard. |
Liza sung it on her first album in 1964, and it was ultimately resurrected for Cabaret.
|The delightful duet, Money- highlighting two professionals at the top of their game|
|Any doubts about Fosse's talents as a director were laid to rest with his unsettling|
staging of the song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me
|As Cabaret became Minnelli's signature song, and the look she devised for Sally Bowles became her personal style, the line between actress and character eventually disappeared.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I'm a member of the camp that considers Cabaret to be a near-perfect musical. Near-perfect because I can't say I've ever much liked the fabricated, Oscar-bait sequence where Sally is stood up by her uncaring father. Not just because it reads like a page from Pookie Adams' diary in The Sterile Cuckoo, but because it feels like such an obvious ploy to give Sally vulnerability. Certainly it's a catalyst for bringing Brian and Sally together, but with Minnelli oozing vulnerability from every pore, the scene always felt like the least truthful moment in the film. (Although when I was fourteen, the scene gave me waterworks...which clues you in on how far below the sentimentality belt the scene is aiming.)
That little gripe aside, Cabaret is what I call a "full meal" musical. A la carte musicals are musicals I enjoy for their separate elements: preferring the music to the script in one film, favoring the choreography and staging over the performances in another. Cabaret is a true rarity- a wholly satisfying musical with great songs, excellent performances, a dynamite script, brilliant choreography, and more than a few ideas up its sleeve.
Even after all these years I'm amazed at how well it holds up. The word "classic" is bandied about pretty freely these days, too often meaning a film an audience has liked for all of eight or nine months. But Cabaret, in every facet of its execution, is the genuine article. A true one-of-a-kind, never to see the likes of this again in my lifetime, musical classic.
A couple of shots of early makeup and hairdo tests for Sally Bowles. Minnelli claims to have come up with the look for her character as she appears in the film. A look strongly influenced by 1920s femme fatales (l.to r.) Lia de Puti, Louise Brooks, and Louise Glaum
1972 episode of The David Frost Show featuring the cast of Cabaret
I Am A Camera (1955) - the complete film
Something for Everyone (1970) - the complete film in installments
THE AUTOGRAPH FILE
|Joel Grey - 1984|
|Liza Minnelli - 1977|
|Marisa Berenson - 1980|
|Michael York - 1980|