Friday, July 17, 2015


Divine Decadence, Indeed

For me, Cabaret occupies an honored spot atop a very short list of radically altered movie adaptations of Broadway musicals (among them: Hair, Paint Your Wagon, and Bye Bye Birdie ) 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 how its title songperformed ceaselessly on TV variety shows during my youthfeels as though it’s been around for at least as long as The Star-Spangled Banner. (A sentiment no doubt contributing to my astonishment each time 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 adaptation 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 chronicling his experiences in 1930s Germany before the start of the Third Reich (Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin) 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 (which 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 on 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.
Come 1972, with the movie musical genre on life support from too many failed, bloated attempts to recreate the success of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, a film adaptation of Cabaret was green-lit with a modest budget ($6 million); no-name cast (while known in films, Minnelli and York were hardly considered stars at the time); and an on-probation director/choreographer. After the megabudget flop of his 1969 screen version of 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 eventually helmed in 1976 with Karen Black and Oliver Reed.

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 more influential creative visionaries helping to 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 diegetic 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 with 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). 
Material Girl
Cabaret doesn't shy away from showing Sally's opportunistic side
Armed with a desire to make Cabaret “The first adult musical, Fosse devoted himself to what many saw as the uglification of the material, but what he and the cast and crew knew to be the key to making the film work at all: authenticity.

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 characterhinted at in I Am a Camera and thoroughly subverted in the stage musicalis 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 fairly 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 is so well-known you’re bound to be familiar with it even if you’ve never even 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

That Cabaret continues to be regarded by many musical fans as more a drama with music than a full-on musical is perhaps the best 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, recreating his Tony Award-winning role and practically oozing showbiz smarm)commenting upon and foreshadowing the events of the filmwith 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 scenesscenes 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.
So, out in the real world, Sally, Brian, and Fritz distract themselves to avoid facing the truth about what's happening to Germany. Meanwhile,  in the world of show biz and fantasy, the unctuous Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub actually adapts to and accepts the Nazi peril, using showbiz razzle-dazzle to mask the subversive menace lurking behind his racist (If You Could See Her Through My Eyes) and fascist (Tiller Girls) stage performances.

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!" —with tears in her eyes and a little too forcefullyI don't get the sense she believes what she's saying so much as she NEEDS to believe what she's saying. The song becomes, much 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 familiar with the show-bizzy, Vegas-y Liza of today can 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 was 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, star-making turn the likes of which the laid-back New Hollywood of the '70s had never seen.
Although Cabaret was released in February of 1972, I only saw it after the September 10, 1972 broadcast of the iconic Minnelli/Fosse TV collaboration, Liza With a Z.  Two such flawless displays of performance virtuosity made Minnelli THE star of the moment, virtually assuring her the Oscar that year. And those who still engage in debate over how she could have won over Diana Ross' equally stupendous performance in Lady Sings the Blues, often forget that when it comes to getting caught up in the hype of the flavor-of-the-month, the Academy often displays all the objective discernment of a Comic-Con fanboy.

The story goes that Christopher Isherwood's only complaint about the many liberties taken with his novel in adapting Cabaret for the screen was in having his surrogate, Michael York, depicted as a bisexual. Declaring after a screening, "It's a goddamn lie! I've never slept with a woman in my life!" 
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 or musical interlude of his own, he manages to avoid being eclipsed by the luster of either Minnelli or Grey.
The first film I ever saw Michael York in was the film Something for Everyone (1970) starring Angela Lansbury. A black comedy that recalls Pier Pasolini's Teorema, in it York is again portraying a bisexual--albeit a far less ambivalent one. With Anthony Higgins. 

Fosse gets standout performances from his entire cast, the screenplay affording each at least one moment to shine and emerge as a dimensional character. (The English lesson scene is a particular favorite, Berenson and Wepper being especially effective and ultimately, endearing.) Of course, Cabaret is unimaginable without the indelible contribution of Joel Grey, whose nameless Emcee is vulgarity personified. I have no idea what the role looked like on paper, back when he developed it on Broadway, but there is a clarity of intent to his performance that comes through even when we're not exactly sure who he is (it's like he exists only within the walls of the cabaret) or what he represents (I love that he seems to have some kind of sinister hold over Sally. That little whisper in her ear before she takes to the stage to perform Mein Herr, that gag-inducing backstage grope of her bosom).

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.
Contemporary attempts to recreate Fosse's style often adopt a standard-issue notion of sexiness that's straight out of Frederick's of Hollywood. The best of Fosse's style employed blank-faced, dull-eyed dancers going through the rote, mechanized gyrations of bored sex workers. 
If Liza only did one number in her lifetime, Mein Herr would more than suffice. Although my own body aches just watching the contortions Fosse puts his dancers through, by the end of the number Liza has the audience in the palm of her hand. She's stupendous in this.
The ballad, Maybe This Time was written for and introduced by singer/actress Kaye Ballard.
Liza also sang the song on her debut 1964 album Liza! Liza!, 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.   

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.

Lisi With an S and Liza With a Z
The iconic purple dress Sally Bowles wears as she sings the film's title song first made its appearance a year earlier on the body of Italian film star Virna Lisi in the 1971 French/Italian melodrama Love Me Strangely (aka A Strange Love Affair or ). The gown is not the work of Cabaret's Oscar-nominated costume designer Charlotte Flemming. When the dress was put up for auction in December of 2018, the catalog noted the label inside the dress read: Loris Azzaro, Paris. 
The Italian designer was popular in the late '60s and designed fashions for men and women, and he had his own fragrance line.  See Virna Lisi make her entrance in Un Beau Monstre HERE.

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 herself, drawing inspiration from 1920s femme fatales ( r.) Lia de Puti, Louise Brooks, and Louise Glaum.

Joel Grey - 1984
Liza Minnelli - 1977
Marisa Berenson - 1980
Michael York - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 -2015


  1. Excellent Ken, one of my favourites

    1. Thanks, Mark! I fell in love with this movie when I first saw it in '72, and now, so many years later, who knew it would stand the test of time so beautifully?

  2. Finally a review of Cabaret! I've been astonished on several occasions when I've gone through your archive and realized that yes, that was the one unbelievable missing page in your treasure trove. So thank you for this, it was worth the wait. I'm endlessly fascinated by the assimilation of Sally into Liza, this idea of life as performance art. (Though Joel Grey's performance is the top one for me in this, I used the wrack my brain as a teenager trying to figure out just who was the person beneath the Emcee's exterior.)

    1. Hi Sandra
      This movie is a big fave of mine, but some films I really love (like The Godfather) have so much written about them online, sometimes I find I have nothing new to add. In watching "cabaret" recently, it occurred to me that my one true contribution is to lay claim to being old enough to remember when there was a Liza who existed before Cabaret, and that I've bore witness to the immersion of Sally into Liza or vice versa.
      I don't think any star knows what role will come to be forever associated with them (at some point Faye Dunaway must have thought she'd always be remembered or typed as Bonnie Parker, she could never have known that Mommie Dearest would become the albatross around her neck).
      That Liza was turned down for the role of Sally in the Broadway version of Cabaret, but then went on to create a characterization that every other performer in the role have had to strive not to imitate, is fascinating. i think you are right about it being life as performance art.

      Personally, I don't think Liza ever got from out of Sally's shadow, but if you have to be haunted by a film your entire career, at least it's one of the best musicals ever made.
      When i was young I couldn't make out Joel Grey's role at all. he was like a flesh and blood ventriloquist's dummy to me.
      But over the years as politicians, lawmakers, and news reporters all have adapted various degrees of show biz "razzle dazzle" to promote all manner of evil and corruption...I find it a brilliant, really chilling characterization. Every election year we have a few "Emcees" running, trying to obfuscate through phony charm.
      Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you enjoyed the piece!

  3. Another wonderful post, Ken.
    The first time I saw the movie version of "Cabaret" I didn't like it BECAUSE I had seen the Broadway show and missed all of the material that Lotte Lenya did in the show.
    It was such a radical reworking that it threw me. But the second time around, a few months later, I realized what Fosse had done and started to fall in love with his take. Now, I think it is so much better than the stage version!
    I was also initially thrown by the Sally/father stuff because it was so close to the dynamic of the character Liza played in "The Sterile Cuckoo" - parts of her performance seemed like a reprise of Pookie. Now, all these years later, those elements don't matter much to me when I watch "Cabaret" because of all the other Fosse touches.
    I think that Rob Marshall borrowed a ton of stuff from "Cabaret" for his "Chicago" starting with the notion of no "off-stage" musical numbers, but in my book the 2002 musical is a dim copy of what Fosse might have done with the material he created on the stage.

    1. Thanks, Joe!
      In my lifetime, I think "Hair" is the only show I was very familiar with before seeing a film version that deviated so significantly from it. But since i hated the stage version of "Hair" I was thrilled with the liberties taken.
      I can't imagine how a real fan of the Broadway "Cabaret" felt about the movie at the time, but as you say, the passage of time has a way of softening the shock of it all.
      I would love to know where that whole father narrative came from in the "Cabaret" screenplay...was it Allen or Wheeler who came up with the device, and was it at all inspired by Minnelli's "Sterile Cuckoo" character? It seems a misstep to me, but one that doesn't really ruin anything (especially now, since so few people have even seen "Cuckoo").
      I agree that it is clear how much Marshall culled from this film in creating "Chicago" and it speaks volumes about the shortness of our pop culture memories that few attributed "Chicago"s gimmick of no off-stage numbers to "Cabaret."
      Speaking of Fosse touches, I adored the 30's vaudeville feel of his original stage production of "Chicago" but have since come to loathe the pared-down, Victoria Secret/ black lingerie look of contemporary mountings of the show. The worst!

  4. A fantastic post on my very favorite film! I could go on and on about Cabaret and how it is a PERFECT film, but obviously you "get it", as of course you would. Which makes me love you all the more!

    1. Hey Thom!
      Your being such a big fan of Ken Russell, I would assume "Cabaret" (a film that in many ways has a Ken Russell feel) would be one of your favorites.
      It is such a joy visually, performance-wise, dance, music, and definitely in structure. It sounds like there were a lot of battles ad serious hard work involved getting it to the screen, but the results are there as proof of the artistry of all involved.
      One of the reasons I hate the "franchise movie" craze today is that it is all commerce, no art. Everyone makes millions, if not billions, so its here to stay, but those movies are like MCDonald's hamburgers to me. That's why I call "Cabaret" a full meal movie. A several course feast, in fact! Thanks for commenting, Thom!

  5. An excellent essay/post/review of an excellent movie. Another one for the book (I'm sure you'll end up writing one), Ken!

    So glad you mentioned some of the "hate as sideshow" aspects of the film. I remember as if it were yesterday when Ronald Reagan was first elected (1980) in large part because his campaign went all in with the evangicals (it seems weird to think that this was ever not a thing in Republican politics, but it was a completely new phenomenon then) and the establishment GOP essentially said, yeah well the evangelicals will help us get elected, but we'll control the evangelicals. And those if us who had seen and absorbed some of the lessons of. "Cabaret" could only think of how after "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" Michael York asks, "Do you really think you can control these people?" And now, almost four decades on, we're seeing what happens when you can't control the hate. Sigh.

    Sorry to hijack with politics, but that moment in "Cabaret"--particularly in light of our lack of civil discourse in the past 35 years--still stands way out for me.

    1. Hi Deb
      You're not hijacking with politics. In fact, i'm always surprised by those who come away from watching "Cabaret" thinking they've watched a fun-filled romp. The political side, one that is all-too relevant today, is what gives the film its bite.
      "Cabaret" is such a cool indictment of those who turned a blind eye to what was going on around them, preferring to get caught up in the decadence and depravity of the time.

      Cynics (or the clear-eyed ones) always say that these days, when social issues start getting out of hand, all they have to do is throw another Kardashian at the masses and they all shut up, stay home, and remain glued to their TV screens, passively distracted by the exploits of that clownish family, while the streets burn with racism, violence, and injustice. Sounds like "Cabaret" all over.
      I remember those Reagan years as the first reversal of all the social inroads of the 70s. All of a sudden schools, libraries, and mental homes became seriously underfunded, while fat cats got fatter.

      When Fosse said he wanted to make the first adult musical, I'm sure he just wasn't speaking of abortion, bisexuality, and decadence. I think he wanted to tackle the ugly underside of German's turning a blind eye to Hitler and his tactics until it was too late.
      Much appreciate the compliment on the blog, by the way, and I adore that you broached the political aspect of "Cabaret" it's important.

  6. I read this on Queerty while actually looking for something else: "Sadly, the original print of the film was not shown in a decade due to a vertical scratch that ran through the entire reel. Computer technology failed to repair the damage, but Warner Bros. corrected over 1 million frames by hand, resulting in significantly improved sound and resolution. Finally, with the Blu-Ray release on Tuesday, Cabaret can be appreciated as it was first meant to be seen 40 years ago."

    1. I came across that while I was researching this, too! I'm not up to purchasing yet ANOTHER copy of "Cabaret" just yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing a pristine copy. (Honestly, if I tried to keep up with all the collector's editions and enhanced versions of films I already own, I'd spend all my money just updating my DVD collection).

  7. Haven't seen this in over 20 years...and yes, it's on my Netflix list!

    My gut reaction to Diana Ross losing the Oscar to Liza aside from the obvious (race=Diana being first black nominee for Best Actress in her first movie) and (sentiment=Judy's daughter!!!) is that "Cabaret" is the better picture. I watched "Lady Sings The Blues" not long ago and was knocked out by Diana Ross' raw acting talent and movie star quality. By all rights, Diana should have been a movie diva from "Blues" on. But "Lady Sings The Blues" as a movie is pretty hokey. It plays like an old '50s movie ala "I'll Cry Tomorrow" than what could have been a knockout bio about Lady Day. I particularly recall it being badly directed and edited. Should this count against Ross' performance? No. But when given the choice between a great performance in a great movie and a great one in a not-so-good movie--it's a no-brainer who's going to win.

    So glad you reviewed this!

    1. Hi Rick
      Yes, I think time has ultimately shown "Cabaret" to be the better film than "Lady..." (although you haven't been in a heated battle until you engage in a discussion with "Godfather" fans about how "Cabaret" robbed that film of its ten Oscars!), and whether one thinks Ross gave the better performance might have a lot to do with people thinking Liza is merely doing her usual "schtick" here.
      In which case, as I point out, back in 1972 no one knew Liza was something of a one-trick-pony acting-wise, and would be regifting this performance in perpetuity.

      As much as I love Miss Ross, Liza in Cabaret would have got my vote. She's fairly electric here.
      It's been many years since i saw Lady Sings the Blues, but the last time i saw it (on TCM, I think) I was surprised that, outside of Ross' excellent performance, like you, i found the film itself, wanting.
      but like you said, was there really any chance that the Academy (full of old poops who'd grown up with or worked with Garland) were not going to award Judy's daughter? In some ways it's fair to even assume at least a few of Minnelli's votes were based on the desire to make up for denying Garland the Oscar for "A Star is Born" which to me she wholly deserved.
      Hope the Netflix copy ifs one of those digitally restored copies without the scratch!

  8. PS-- I thought of you when I watched "The Beguiled" recently on Netflix. Civil War Clint Eastwood and a bevy of Southern belles at an all-girls school. Led by Geraldine Page at her most twitchy and witchy ; )

    Thanks for your great work, Ken! Love reading you and the comments section,

    1. Ha! I'm flattered you thought of me!
      I have that film on DVD and I love Geraldine Page in it. Aside from the supporting cast who all feel like refugees from a 70s TV movie, Page, Elizabeth Hartman, and Mae Mercer make such a fascinating cast. The macho fans of early Eastwood din't know what to do with this change-of-pace film, and thus it flopped. But I prefer it to all those Dirty harrys and Man with no name opuses.
      You're very kind, Rico. And I should extend a thanks to you and your contribution to what people enjoy about the comments section. You are all such intelligent, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable film lovers!

  9. Argyle, here. I have this sort of loose category in my brain of what I consider “royal” things. I don’t know why the term “royal” it just seems to express for me a kind of inexplicable, unverifiable, unquantifiable quality that some things have. There can be royal movies, books, buildings, objects, maybe experiences - it’s very loose. I could never make a list, that would kind of kill it. I think it mainly has to do with emotion or sometimes maybe just sentimentality. For sure, “Cabaret” is in that group. For reference, another film that springs to mind that would fit in the category is “Splendor in the Grass.” Films that rivet me and kill me. The fact that they’re popular somehow helps. It’s like something that’s just there for everyone can be so complete and realized and devastating. It’s not obscure or an acquired taste or unavailable - it’s just right there and it’s capable of killing you. It's like when you happen to read a poem that you are absolutely not interested in reading and it just pulls you along and expresses something and then it’s done and you can’t believe it.

    Your essay is perfect and delineates so much of what makes “Cabaret” powerful. I would have to see it right now to be able to add any description of a moment or theme to add to your explication. I love Christopher Isherwood’s writing. Every few years I have to re-read something of his just to have that voice in my head. It’s weirdly calming. I tried to verify it by googling and couldn’t, but I have this image of a costume that Liza Minnelli wears that’s made of a sort of off-green satin. I can’t exactly describe the color as its photographed, its sort of a pale acid-apple green or a muted smoky chartreuse. For me the color and the diffused almost liquid atmosphere of this movie is Fosse’s visual equivalent for Isherwood’s tone. It just envelopes you and controls you. To me it’s not the same tone - Isherwood is very dry and oblique and somehow you get the sense of things big and small going on under the surface. The movie is more damp and desperate in a good way!

    When I happened to see a few moments of “Cabaret” very recently I was fixated on Michael York’s very colorful Fairisle sweater vest. I couldn’t believe I had lasted this long without having a sweater like that. It’s maybe weird to go from waxing metaphysical about this movie to thinking about the clothes but I guess that’s the scope of it for me. Earlier this summer I had a really long car drive and I listened to Sam Wasson’s biography “Fosse.” It was interesting. He described how Gwen Verdon came to the “Cabaret” set to be Fosse’s eyes, ears and legs and how she ended up giving Liza her own kimono to wear. When I think of how evocative that garment is in the movie, I imagine that I understand how chance and small details and a director’s ability to allow things to flow can make something like “Cabaret” happen.

    I’m not sure exactly when I first saw “Cabaret.” I’m pretty sure it was in college so between 1976 and 1980, well after the release. I think it just kind of went over me like a big rolling wave and then I was just standing there wet with no wave. Then you go back to it later and figure out how to stay in the swell of it and it’s just incredible. I was very fortunate to get to stay in Berlin (West at the time) for a few weeks in the early 1980's. We went to a nightclub called Zest and drank coffee at a place called (I think) New York and ate currywurst from a stand on the street at night. It was very cold. I saw “Doctor Zhivago” there for the first time in a giant theater near the train station, in German with no subtitles. I always feel like we walked under the same U-bahn trestles as Sally and Brian trying to figure out what to do next. As always, big thanks, Ken!

    1. Hi Argyle
      I like your description of a kind of work that is not obscure, not an acquired taste, yet a work of undeniable power and impact. I don't think there are many such works out there, but I'd put "Cabaret" in that category.
      Your memories of it remind me of what I feel about films I haven't seen in a while. The emotions connected to them are often more vivid than the specifics that inspired them.
      I read the Fosse biography you speak of, and all the "making of" info on "Cabaret" is fascinating. Not to take anything from Fosse, because his vision certainly helped galvanize the many disparate collaborators, but I always like being reminded that certain works of art are the result of the contributions of SEVERAL devoted and creative artists, not just attributable to one individual because that makes for easier labeling.
      Thanks for sharing the tale of your visit to Berlin, too. What a terrific experience!
      Glad you enjoyed the post, Argyle, and thanks for sharing with us all your very personal impressions and memories of this film!

    2. I have to make a totally off-the-wall comment about Michael York's sweater. A few years ago, York guest-voiced on an episode of "The Simpsons." He played Mason Fairbanks, a former lover of Homer's mom and possibly Homer's father (spoiler: he wasn't). Anyway, I don't know if York is somehow known for wearing sweaters, but his character kept showing up in interesting sweaters and Homer tried to get into his house by claiming to be a journalist "interviewing people who wear sweaters."

      Possibly I've just watched too many episodes of The Simpsons.

    3. That's hilarious! I hope someone out there who's a York fan can chime in on this, because it seems like he indeed might be known for his sweaters! Certainly enough to inspire two commenters in this blog to reference them.

    4. Argyle, again. Hilarious X 2!! Mr. York really does have a great frame for sweaters (especially in "Cabaret") so broad and flat, similar to Anthony Perkins but with less angst. So great that he voiced a "Simpsons" too. And to Ms. DiscoDD - your comment regarding the politics of the film was so smart, timely and bracing. Thank you!

  10. Hi Ken - I too love this film, and I love how you juxtapose Fosse's directorial failure with Sweet Charity to his triumph with Cabaret...two totally different kinds of movie musical, as you underline so perfectly.

    Cabaret is truly a groundbreaking film, gritty and contemporary, with a '70s feel even though it is set in the 1930s...the fact that is a musical really is secondary, though the musical numbers are brilliant - in a truly cinematic way. The Kit Kat Club becomes a vulgarly cartoonish counterpoint to what's going on for Brian and Sally, for Berlin and the world at large...

    Liza totally deserved the Oscar she won for her portrayal of Sally Bowles...but she fell prey to playing a role so well that everything she ever did would be compared to it. I am also a HUGE fan of the Liza with a Z special, one of the finest and sophisticated TV spectaculars ever...

    Poor Miss Ross, she really would have won the Oscar if Liza had not been nominated that year. But interestingly, both Minnelli's and Ross's film careers never fulfilled their early promise. Their talents were too big for mere movies, perhaps, and their superstardom could not be contained in that medium.

    I need to see Something for Everyone again, by the way, my heart throbs eternal for Michael York. Thanks for reminding me!!

    Another stellar post on a wonderful, timeless film!

    1. Hi Chris
      Another fan of the film! I agree that there is a very 70s feel to "Cabaret." To me that translates to the feeling of the entire enterprise feeling as if it has a singular point of view and something to say.
      Although based on a hit show, what I like about it is that there is no sense of pandering or watering down the material to get more butts in the seat at the theater. It adopts a point of view and it remains consistent And it's so artful! Just a beautiful work.

      It seems like every few years or so there's a person who captures the imagination of the public. They are so much a publicity darling, that a kind of momentum that spills into the Academy buzz (like when the movies discovered Laugh-In's Goldie Hawn and gave her an award just for being cute).
      but to me, Liza was both a deserving and talented nominee AND the publicity darling of the day. She really couldn't lose, I think.
      Also, I think you're too young to remember this, but Diana Ross (or Berry Gordy) waged such an aggressive Oscar campaign with a lot of money spent, to the degree that it was actually off-putting. I'm positive that didn't help her chances.

      And it is a shame neither Minnelli nor Ross realized their potential as film stars. Streisand could really have used the competition. They were like the old fashioned of the Golden Era stars (larger than life) who emerged during a time when audiences wanted their stars human-scale.
      And while watching "Cabaret" I remembered how you once said you had (have) such a huge crush on Michael York!
      Thanks very much, Chris. Fun to hear from you.

  11. "’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."

    How'd you get so smart, mister? Thanks so much for another beautifully written essay.

    1. Lol! Why thank you, very much, indeed!
      I'm glad you enjoyed the essay and got a little kick out of my Liza observation, but honestly, that's the only benefit of having been around so long that you actually remember when Liza's now well-known show biz persona and look was considered fresh and exciting.
      A bombardment of distinctive style almost on par with what we later came to associate with pop stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in those early MTV years.

  12. In 1972, I was a teenager watching CABARET for the first time. Liza seemed every inch the femme fatale that Sally yearned to be. Bigger than life she certainly was. About 15 years ago, I attend a BC/EFA screening of CABARET and was shocked to find Sally Bowles being played in the film by a sweet, fresh-faced, innocent girl. A girl in far over her head and completely unaware of the danger all around her. I had gotten old in the intervening years, but Liza had seemingly become almost a child. How effective her youth is in conveying the character of Sally. (How the creative forces behind the current Donmar/Roundabout series of productions turned Sally into a squeezed-out whore, I will never know.)

    Alas, Liza had not actually grown younger. She appeared prior to the screening, decked out in her trade-marked LIZA! style, but now she was hobbling on crutches. The crutches were, of course, covered in red glitter, but there they were. Glittering, but crutches, nonetheless.

    Come for CABARET, instead get FOLLIES. Now there's a movie that should have been.

    1. Your post is marvelous in it's insight into how movies can change for us over time. I haven't seen any of the recent incarnations of "Cabaret" but i love your description! (Sort of the inverse of my experience with all the pre-teen and teenage productions "Chicago" that dance schools and studios somehow think are appropriate. here you really do have a musical about two, as you put it "Squeezed out whores" portrayed by little girls being asked to bump and grind with scant awareness of the very body parts they're bumping and grinding with!)
      Your take on Liza's Sally Bowles as you've gotten older is very thought-provoking for fans of classic films. What we perceive in a film in our adolescence can indeed be very different as an adult.
      I also enjoyed your description of present-day Liza (especially the glitter crutches) and the reference to "Follies."

      I've always thought that would make a fascinatingly dark film. But who has anything resembling an artistic vision or these days?

      Remember when Rob Marshall (god help us) was threatening to do the film version of Follies after completing "into the Woods"? he was talking Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange.
      i kinda hope he never finds funding, I loved "Into the Woods" but he is a craftsman to me. He has yet to display anything in his work resembling the fearlessness of an artist.
      Thanks for sharing with us a terrific personal insight!

    2. FOLLIES was once in the early stages of development. The concept was to move it to Hollywood and set it in a sound stage that was about to be torn down. There were lots of names "announced," though it was too early to be signing contracts. Doris Day was to be playing Sally. Perfect. The old people reconvening on the stage would be faded Hollywood greats and the stage production's ghosts would be evoked, or supplemented, with old footage of these stars in their heydays.

      The project was rumored to fall through when Hal Prince discussed the idea with Jack Haley, Jr., who agreed it was a terrific idea and used it to make That's Entertainment. Fade out. End of FOLLIES.

      When I was still in high school, Bette Davis came through my midwestern home town for one night in a touring version of her John Springer evening at Town Hall. After 20 minutes of film clips, she appeared for a Q&A with Springer. After that was done, she took questions from the audience. High school theater nerd that I was, I pushed my way to the microphone and asked if it was true that she was going to be in the film version of FOLLIES and sing 'Broadway Baby.' (And I totally queened out doing it.) She answered in front of 2000 people it was true. She was committed to the project and was waiting for it to get the green light.

      So, yeah. No Rob Marshall version, please.

    3. Wow! The idea of trading the stage environment of Follies to one of Hollywood for the movie adaptation reminds me of what Michael Bennett envisioned for "A Chorus Line" coming to the screen. It's very inspired. Plus,whoever thought of casting Doris Day as Sally is a casting genius. I think she's such a terrific dramatic actress, she would have been a marvel.
      Too bad it never was followed through upon. If any era could have made an authentic version of the show, the 70s would have been it.
      Thanks for sharing that anecdote about seeing Bette Davis and getting a chance to actually ask her a question!. And such a good one, too.
      So many terrific Golden Age stars were around during the 70s and even early 80s to make a production of "Follies" interesting (although the parade of fading queens like Cyd Charisse, Carol Channing, and Ann Miller trotted out on train-wreck episodes of "The Love Boat" at the time couldn't have made ANY mounting of "Follies" seem the least bit appealing.

      It would be wonderful if they would actually tackle the property for film, but cartoons today are the only things that display any feel for the musical genre.

  13. Nothing pithy to add - you captured a film I first watched in childhood (maybe I shouldn't have? Oh what the heck) and that really does not age. It's as important and entertaining today as it was then. For me, the way the colors were captured is something I really don't see much anymore in film. When I remember Cabaret, I remember Liza's nails, the purple dress, the colors of the Kit Kat Club and what the dancers wore. I got Liza to autograph my copy of Liza With A Z several years ago, before the glitter crutches period, and she really was quite lovely in person. Spelled my name wrong, but I had her fix it. - Ah, memories.....

    1. Hi tanyadiva
      I always get a kick out of seeing your handle!
      Perhaps because isaw so many age-inappropriate films growing up, I find I don't have a problem with young people exposed to films that are adult in the true meaning of the word: responsible, mature, and frank.
      I've always felt those stupid teen movies like Porky's, etc. were far more harmful to impressionable minds than films that force kids (who are so self-centered) to develop empathy and sensitivity for the human condition.
      Funny you should mention the colors of "Cabaret" they were very striking to me as well. That purple dress especially, and the vivid lighting of the Mein Herr number.
      The diffused lighting that was so popular in the 70s, especially with period films, might play havoc with our HD TVs today, but they created such a distinct, cinematic look.(HD sometimes looks too much like TV soap operas and high-end porn to me).
      Nice story about meeting Minnelli, too! Thanks so much for sharing your memories with us!

  14. Dear Ken: Hi! Another great review! Like Sandra, I, too, was surprised you hadn't done this one yet. But your explanation to her makes sense.

    Maybe I will get my "gay card" revoked for admitting this, but I didn't see "Cabaret" until I was nearly 40, in the early 2000s. As I've said in previous posts, my tastes run toward movies that are hopeful and optimistic, and I knew "Cabaret" would not be. (Nor should it!)

    Perhaps because I'd already seen quite a bit of life by the time I got around to "Cabaret," it didn't impress me as much as I expected. It was impressive, but I wouldn't call it the most disturbing musical I've seen (for me, that honor would go to "Pennies from Heaven"). However, it certainly was well-crafted, thought-provoking, and uncompromising the way many films from the early 1970s are.

    I was a bit disappointed by the way the bisexuality was handled, though--it seemed like it was included a bit for shock value rather than being central to Michael York's character. But maybe that's my jaded 2000-era eyes projecting onto a movie from 1972.

    I think Fosse's concept of keeping the music "real" (only used in performance or as background) is quite effective. But I admit I do have a small peeve on that score. Nowadays when a classic Broadway or Hollywood musical is revived, reviewers feel the need to point out that today's audiences are "too sophisticated" to accept characters bursting suddenly into song. I've attended revival screenings of films like "Top Hat" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and have heard audience members laugh when Fred Astaire or Jane Powell glides effortlessly from spoken dialogue to song. To me, the refusal to accept singing in a musical reflects a LACK of sophistication on the part of audiences (they DO know they're at a musical, right? Why shouldn't people be singing??). An interesting sociological study could be done, perhaps, on why audiences are willing to suspend disbelief at certain genres of film (super-hero movies, action flicks) and not others (musicals, romances).

    1. Hello David
      Thank you very much! It is always interesting to see a much-lauded film long after the hoopla of its initial release. Films often go through several lives. One of them being their sense of immediacy in seizing the zeitgeist of the moment, later, after the dust settles, a film can expand and sort of culturally reinvent itself.
      Your impressions of "Cabaret" seem to me in line with what someone coming across it in adulthood might feel. For example, York's bisexuality in 1971 was (at least to me) not shocking because he WAs bisexual, but because the film refused to make him a villain or oddball because of it. A sympathetic, dimensional portrayal of a bisexual was what was groundbreaking.
      To see it now, I sense that aspect would largely be invisible, leaving one only with the mention of it and a sense that it only tangentially connects with the character.

      Very interesting point you make about why you feel "sophistication" really has nothing to do with people accepting people breaking into song onscreen! And it really would make an interesting topic for sociological film study.

      For me, it seems to be a little in line with the language of film. The vocabulary of film is as alive and evolving as any verbal language; and just as some words or manner of speech can become archaic, i think certain accepted cinematic tropes don't wear so well with the passage of time without some level of reinvention.
      For example: unless it's a parody, no modern film can get away with depicting the passing time by showing a shot of a clock with the hands rapidly moving across the face. Likewise we're likely to giggle at shots of pges falling away from a calendar or people's fantasies depicted with a blurry fade out and discordant music.

      Movie musicals have been around for sooooo long, I think that the device (artifice) of having people break into song is just one of those examples of cinematic language that (through no fault of its own) has become so rote, filmmakers are doomed if they do not find a fresh way of conveying this. I have no idea what that would be, but that's why I think visionaries like Fosse have become an endangered species.I just think modern musicals require more ingenuity in interpretation than what they did back in the days of "Broadway Melody of 1929."

      And don't get me started on superhero movies. A genre devoted to encouraging an entire generation to remain adolescents forever. Why? So they can be sold toys and merchandise. That's why there's no such thing as a "The Day of The Locust" action figure.

    2. Thanks, Ken, for a really thought-provoking reply. Your observation about "languages" of film becoming rote or archaic over time is something I've not really thought about, but it makes sense. I can see how some audiences would find it too "old-fashioned" for characters in a contemporary film to burst into song as they do in "Singin' in the Rain" or "The Sound of Music."

      Still, just to play devil's advocate, in the film version of "Into the Woods," the characters move easily back and forth from speech to song and vice versa throughout. I saw the film in a theatre and don't recall any audience laughter at such moments. But maybe because the film is so clearly a fantasy, audiences were more willing to go along with it. (And also, maybe many of those who attended the film version of "Into the Woods" were people versed in the conventions of stage musicals, where the sense of theatricality allows characters to act in "unreal" ways.)

      I never saw the film version of "Mamma Mia" (and it's not because I dislike ABBA--I actually find a lot of their music very engaging and melodic). But I'm guessing in that film, the characters do "burst into song" in the old sense. I wonder how audiences responded to that? Or is the movie intended to be campy, with people singing rather than speaking becoming part of the silly fun?

    3. Hi David
      My experience of "Into the Woods" was similar to yours (no laughter), but as you note, I attribute that more to the overt fantasy environment making it easier for audiences to accept the whole breaking into song thing.
      And your bringing up "Mamma Mia" is a good example of the way movie musicals resort to intentional camp or self-parody to make singing work within the framework of a film. I saw it at the theater and the film is kind of ingenious in framing the initial songs in a way as to "invite" audiences to giggle with the conceit of people breaking into song. It's done so often that by the time Streep has her big serious number - Winner takes it All, where it would be inappropriate to laugh the audience has grown used to it.

      I really don't know what triggered the shift in culture that made musicals so hard to swallow, but TV variety shows, so plentiful in my youth, were hit by the same thing. No one yet has been able to come up with a way not to make a TV program centered around singing and dancing look cheesy.
      A great topic and one worthy of an essay perhaps
      Thanks, David!

  15. Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed your passionate and loving take on this and although I don’t share your adoration of the picture I appreciated your sharp insights. It has been years since I’ve watched this, probably due for a re-watch sometime soon, and while I respected the skill of all involved with the film I’ve never really connected to it. Most of the music is brilliant and the grittiness is elemental to the success of the picture, it would have collapsed under any other outlook, the mind reels at what someone like Gene Kelly would have done to it!!, but although I respect that I can’t honestly say it adds to my enjoyment of the movie.

    You said for you it’s a minor quibble but to me the strange weakness of the film is the size of Liza Minnelli’s talent in the lead. It’s one of the film’s great strengths as well so I suppose it can’t be solved, and I don’t know if I’d want it to be. I hate the current trend in Hollywood of casting non-singing performers in musicals and not dubbing them no matter how marginal their talent and obviously someone of Liza ability to belt is needed for many of Cabaret’s songs. However the absurdity of Liza’s Sally residing in the lowlife Kit Kat Klub with no real hope of anything better is preposterous especially with her punching across something like Maybe This Time. For it to really make sense the role should have been played by someone like Vanessa Redgrave who could have handled the emotional notes of the role but doesn’t have the musical chops that are an integral part of Liza’s makeup. But then the film would have been a different beast.

    1. Hi Joel
      Happy you enjoyed the post! Like you, I have a hard time imagining what Gene Kelly would have done with "Cabaret", and indeed, given what a hard time the producers gave Fosse due to the failure of "Sweet Charity" I can't imagine what they thought they could get out of the director of the elephantine "Hello Dolly."

      You point about Liza's obvious vs the minimal talents of the character have been a source of debate since the film came out.
      I was trying to think of another film in which a character is supposed to be a low-rung singer, and the filmmakers cast accordingly (like Veda in Mildred Pierce). But I'm kind of stumped. i know there must be something but I can't think of it.

      I think a good deal of my attitude about Minnelli rests on having seen a theatrical production with a modestly-talented Sally: I didn't walk away from the show singing the praises of its verisimilitude, all I recall what that it was no picnic being subjected to a poor singer.

      For me, the suspension of disbelief that allows for Kander/Ebb's excellent songs (not the tin pan alley doggerel one might expect to hear in a sleazy club) and Fosse's hyper slick choreography (instead of say the clumsy clomping of Jazz Age Joan Crawford) make Minnelli less of a stretch.

      As one of the few people who actually LOVE "Camelot" Vanessa Redgrave is an interesting idea. But alas, for me, Liza is Sally and Sally is Liza. She won me over and made it impossible to see anyone else in the role.

    2. Funny you should mention Crawford, her brand of negligible but earnest, "I believe I'm a super dancer!" despite my clumsy cluelessness (everybody needed to get out of her way when she started swinging those arms!!) and reedy singing voice is probably just the type of talent that was actually on offer in dives like the Kit Kat Klub. Fortunately Joanie funneled her energies into being a dramatic movie star rather then the musical star she was woefully unsuited to be.

      I love the look of the filmed Camelot, and the songbook is beautiful, but all three leads are wrong though Harris's, who is physically right, speak singing doesn't damage his role too much since his songs were conceived for a moderate voice. Vanessa's performance is excellent as usual but her thin voice compromises the songs. Franco Nero is even worse despite being drop dead gorgeous. At least he and Vanessa met and fell permanently in love. But I still wish that Julie Andrews, and if not Robert Goulet someone with a similar beautiful baritone voice, had been cast and done the score right.

    3. I cracked up at your hilariously accurate description of Joan Crawford's confidence in herself as a dancer! I read in one bio that she seriously studies and entertained going into opera (!!!) but every screen sample we have of her singing voice is beyond thin!
      Anyhow, I have to write about Camelot soon.
      I am driven to amused distraction by Harris' Frank N Furter eyes makeup and Nero's terrible lip-syncing skills, but I adore Redgrave in it. i never saw the show onstage, but I read the book of the play and found it amusing. All the laughs seem to have been excised from the movie.

  16. I’m reminded of the scene in Christmas Holiday where Deanna Durbin, in an attempt to punish herself for what she sees as her role in driving her husband to become a murderous psychopath, has become a euphemistically called “roadside hostess” in a honky tonk run by Gladys George where she also happens to sing occasionally. It’s nothing but a joint and when she gets up to perform “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year”, achingly beautiful in its simplicity, she’s beaten down and the crowd barely breaks from what they’re doing nor does she care that they don’t. That would be the sort of work you’d expect to see in a dump like the Kit Kat Klub but while it works for the first film it would be disastrous for the second. So as I said I guess there is really no good solution to that particular issue of the film for me. Liza is phenomenal, she’s really only came close to this level in one other film, New York, New York but Francine in that is such a doormat for much of the running time that the grasping manipulative Sally remains her best work.

    It is amazing how Liza locked into that look and has rarely if ever deviated from it. It adds to her persona but also confined her through the years to being just LIZA! I think it is that very uniqueness that kept her from being successful in film, mixed in with a lousy script sense…Lucky Lady, A Matter of Time etc. She’s TOO unique to be believable in most roles, it’s a major difference between she and her mother. Judy while never common had a commonality that made her relatable in most roles. She made perfect sense for instance in The Wizard of Oz and as Betsy Booth whereas Liza would have made as much sense as an elephant on the prairie. There’s nothing she could or can do about it and she mostly seems to understand her place in the firmament despite occasionally trying to stretch.

    Again your passion for the film is evident and though I’ll never get there thanks for inspiring me to give it a revisit.

    1. Such interesting points!
      As much as i try to strain my memory for examples, the kind of scene you describe above, is the only way I think it works: You have have a poor singer perform in the context of a drama, but as soon as you enter the relative "fantasy" realm of the musical, there's a desire (at least in me) to be entertained.
      Perhaps Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" is the closest example of a film where it actually HELPED to have bad singers.

      I agree with about Liza in "NY< NY" such a great performance, such a terribly passive character. And I think you capture what was her problem in films- she WAS too unique. Like Carol Channing. I never believed her in so-called "normal" roles like in "Arthur"...she was just LIza Minnelli offstage
      She came around at a time when movies were looking for naturalism, but, as per your comparison of her mother's ability to convey a relatable humanity, I'm not so sure Minnelli would have fared much better back in the days when unusual screen personas were favored.
      Thanks for the thoughtful points you brought up, Joel!.

    2. Liza's first agent, Stevie Phillips, blames the lack a big movie career for on Mickey Rudin, the agent who stole Liza away after the Oscar win. In her new book, "Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me," Phillips says Lucille Ball advised the agent switch while Liza was dating Desi Arnaz, Jr. Rudin was Ball's agent. Phillips was developing a plan book Liza major film roles when Liza jumped to Rudin. Phillips was also Robert Redford's agent from the mid 60s to mid 70s, so she knew about developing a movie star's career. She claims Rudin did little to book film roles and instead promoted Liza as a concert performer. This is from Chapter 26, “Betrayal.” Time has not healed everything.
      Phillips does not address "Lucky Lady" and "New York, New York" which were not her deals. She does blame the concert tour environment for accelerating Liza’s drug problems.
      Before becoming Liza’s agent she spent three years as Judy Garland’s personal assistant. And that’s a roller coaster ride through Hell!

    3. That's some great background info (heretofore unknown by me) explaining, at least in part, why Minnelli's promising film career never materialized!
      One often forgets the high levels of power plays and plans behind the scenes. I tend to frequently forget how often i've read in bios or heard in interviews, performers citing poor management for the downward trajectories of their careers.
      Thanks for an informative comment, Rick! Now I have to check out that book!

    4. Hi Ken,

      Your mentioning that Maybe This Time was written for Kaye Ballard reminded me that I wanted to thank you for leading me to her book How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years. My library had to do some searching around but finally found a copy in another state and I devoured it, loving every word. She was very balanced, never mean about anyone but neither playing anyone's fool.

      She was quite frank about her displeasure at the way this song was misrepresented as being written exclusively for Liza and not she and that it damaged her friendship with Ebb for years but never viciously. The only person she spoke really negatively about was Jim Belushi and that was directed at his unprofessionalism, which I have to say didn't come as a big surprise.

      Anyway LOVED every minute of it while I was reading it so thank you for making me aware of that slender tome! Also everybody who I mentioned the title to got a chuckle from it.

    5. You're so welcome, Joel!
      It is such a fun read, and her lack of having any axes to grind makes it frank but not bitter. And yes, great title!

  17. Great comments to read and think on...
    My two cents:

    Liza was classic Minnelli as Sally in "Cabaret." But I can't imagine what kind of film career Liza could have had in her '70s heyday. The first half of that decade was so limited for film actresses, I was wracking my brains to think what roles Minnelli might have played? "Mame?" Streisand had a lock on all the musicals and Goldie got all the kooky comedy dramas...what was left?

    As it was, the three big movies Liza did make in the '70s--"Lucky Lady," "New York, New York," and "A Matter of Time"--were all over-hyped bombs with troubled productions. Look what one musical mega bomb did to Shirley MacLaine with "Sweet Charity..."

    I think Minnelli is much like Channing and Stritch, very specific performers with out-sized personalities, better suited for the big stage than the more intimate silver's that for being diplomatic?

    Not so diplomatic: Joel Grey won an Oscar for this over Al Pacino in "The Godfather?"

    And finally: Watching "Cabaret" again renewed my crush on Michael York...he really is a dreamy screen version of Isherwood!

    Cheers, and thanks for the great writing, Ken! And a place for great film comments, too...


    1. Hi Rick
      The 70s were such a "the best of times, the worst of times" era when it comes to women in film. The era was dominated by males and buddy films, but when women did have major roles, they were outstandingly juicy.
      So, how do you solve a problem like Liza?
      I think she really WAS hard to cast during this time. After the one-two punch of The Sterile Cuckoo and Cabaret (the roles being so similar in small ways), Liza was typed to the max. The only thing that might have worked would have been some kind of huge dressing-down - like maybe Liza ditching the skullcap in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (can you imagine?)
      And yes, as much as I love Joel Grey in this, the regrettable horserace factor in the Oscars makes it absurd that he won over Al Pacino.
      And I love hearing about all these crushes harbored over Michael York. it makes his being cast as himself and an object of obsession in Billy Wilder's Fedora, a lot more understandable!
      Thanks, Rick!

    2. Ken,
      You can watch the trailer to "Lucky Lady" on looks unbearable...and makes Liza seem like she squawks every line! I also thought of Liza in several 70s femme roles, like Dunaway's role in "Chinatown," which gives me the giggles. Can't imagine her in an Altman movie but maybe Mike Nichols, who toned down Ann-Margaret and Cher's brassy images, would have been up to the task!

      As for Michael York, just watched him on YouTube in "Something for Everyone" as the seductive servant...sigh! He's my skinny hottie, just like Laurence Harvey is yours, Ken ; )

      Cheers and look forward to your next film selection!


    3. I saw "Lucky Lady" when it opened and it was a disappointment of an astounding magnitude. It soured me on Reynolds and Hackman, but Minnelli was just being Minnelli again. A real chore to sit through even back then when the hype was in full gear.
      I honestly think SOMEONE could have done something good with Liza, but not if she was unwilling to let go of that persona she had honed.
      There's another fellow, Chris, who comments here, who also harbored a huge Michael York crush back in his youth. I know he worked a lot, but I guess I'm only now coming to appreciate him.
      He's awfully good in "Something for Everyone".
      And yes, Laurence still my heart!
      Thanks, Rick!

    4. Keep your hands to yourselves, guys, Michael York is MINE! I STILL love him!
      I do not have a Fedora-like shrine to Michael, but I do run the Blu-Ray version of Logan's Run a bit too particular the scene where he wraps his naked torso in white fur below the domed city!!
      :-) Chris

    5. Ha! I forgot that the Michael York torch was still burning white-hot as far as you're concerned!
      And i haven't seen Logan's Run in years, but I always remember that quickie joke about his summoning a dial-up partner and a fellow materializes by mistake.

    6. Logan's Run is on my Netflix list...sounds like I need to bump it up!

      Another scrawny sexy guy was Michael Sarrazin, who I just watched in the 70s Frankenstein TV movie that Christopher Isherwood wrote the screenplay for. Sarrazin was an odd mix of homely and beauty...those big blue eyes tho! Woof, as Madeline Kahn would say in another Frankenstein movie!


    7. Agree with you about Michael Sarrazin, who certainly had the Tony Perkins/Laurence Harvey scrawny vibe I liked. All the homoerotic pseudo-nudity he displayed in "Eye of the Cat" 1969 made him real crush material for me as a kid. (Had no idea Isherwood wrote that Frankenstein adaptation you speak of!)

  18. Donald Spoto says Universal wanted Hitchcock to cast Liza in "Family Plot." Hitchcock preferred Barbara Harris.

    1. Oh my god! There's something very inspired and at the same time terrifying in that casting choice! A role like that just might have been the kind of "normalizing" Liza needed.
      Hers would have been a different take, but I would have liked to see her cast against an oddball like Bruce Dern. Those matinee idol types like DeNiro and Burt Reynolds only seemed to make her appear more unusual.
      Thanks for that, Rick!

    2. Interesting casting idea - I ADORE Barbara Harris but Liza might have made the role her own, who knows?

    3. That is an interesting idea and despite her singing talent and force of personality the sort of thing that would have suited Liza in film because at heart she's a character so it would follow that character parts would have been where she could fit in. She'd probably make a very good Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit at this point.

      Barbara Harris however is her usual brilliant self in Family Plot, miss her unique presence in films.

  19. A great review--and one I can't really disagree with. I will say, I think you (and others,) are a bit hard on the original Cabaret. Granted, aside from the cast album, I only know the Hal Prince version from his 1980s revival which was essentially a recreation of his original production for its 20th anniversary with a few tweaks (notably Jo Masteroff upped the gay content in the club and made Cliff bisexual though, I'd argue, more clearly full on gay than Brian in Fosse's movie) and even then I know it only from the archive video which I've studied for some school writing on theatre. But it really was a groundbreaking musical, and his staging even now is thrilling--particularly how he uses the "limbo" of the Kit Kat Klub scenes (which are done in a much more stylized way in fact that with Fosse--with Sally while singing the title song terrifyingly starting off in the literal club and then in a final fit of desperation crossing over into the limbo.) It also has stunning choreography by Ron Field, even though Fosse's choreographer probably eclipses that. (The recent Sam mendes/Rob Marshall revisal uses that last script but of course incorporates some movie songs and, while I did find the production effective, I think its over the top seedy depiction of the Klub goes a bit too far outside the bounds of any historical reality.)

    That said, I love the film and am happy to see it as yet another take on the Berlin Stories. I don't mind them dropping the Schultz subplot and replacing it with the story of the Jewish heiress from the stories--I think that probably is more compelling on film (the screenplay writers were also clever incorporating small details from the sections of Isherwood's Down There on a Visit--where he revisited some Berlin Stories characters--into the material.)

    And while I often hate how directors of musicals now seem to want to hide the fact they are making a musical--having all of the songs in Cabaret be diegetic in this case works perfectly.

    From all I've read, actually, Isherwood strongly disliked the film--though he was most vocal about the bisexual angle which he said (I paraphrase) treated Brian's sexuality like a simply childhood problem akin to wetting the bed. But Isherwood hated all the adaptations of his stories (but admitted he was happy for their financial success,) and I'm sure that would continue with the recent adaptations of A Single Man (his masterpiece as far as I'm concerned) and Christopher and his Kind as much as I like both films--so I'm not sure any version would have made him happy.

    All in all a brilliant film. Even the relatively tame way that the bisexual angle is played doesn't bug me as it does others--I think if we saw a gay love scene it might throw the focus off.

    When I was a young teen this was one of those things my friends and I worshiped (along with such other things as a much traded around paperback of Vidal's Myra Breckinridge,) I think partly because it seemed terribly sophisticated and adult. Back then, I'm sure I would have happily have been Liza's Sally Bowles or at least been her best friend. I no longer feel that way, but I love the film all the more.
    Eric Henwood-Greer

    1. Great observations, Eric!
      Isherwood's Berlin Stories /Cabaret have been adapted in so many ways by now, anyone liking the book at all is bound to have lit upon their favorite incarnation by now.
      Sounds as though you have seen several yourself and that you have discovered that they can all be very dissimilar and still each quite enjoyable and curiously faithful to the source material in their own right. Nice to hear that your teen association with the film (yes, this did seem terribly sophisticated) has weathered the test of time.

  20. Hello Ken, thanks for a brilliant essay about “Cabaret”! I love the film very much. I too am very surprised that you haven’t written about it earlier on your site. I remember seeing it as a teenager and I think it was the first film I saw with any gay contents. I was stunned and loved it instantly. I like the sense of freedom of moving to a big city and finding a place in it where you meet different or like-minded people. Berlin after WW1 seemed to be a place where anything went, a desperate and decadent time. The music and performances add to the enjoyment of one of the best films ever made.

    I did not know that “Sweet Charity” was a huge flop or that Fosse was persona non-grata in Hollywood. Now I realize that Shirley MacLaine’s career also suffered after the film. I’m fascinated by your comparison of “Sweet Charity” and “Klute”, two films made just three years apart but with very different approaches to the subject of prostitution.

    It’s good that you remind people of the freer way of filmmaking that existed in the 70’s. That style seems so very different from the current films being made that we might has well be talking about the 1770’s.

    I want to see the film again to catch what you wrote about the nightclub acts foreshadowing what was happening in Germany, outside of the club. I thought I knew all there was to know about what I thought was a “straight” forward musical but you have unlocked new dimensions about the film. Thanks again. Sorry for late response to your review!

    P.S. Did you ever get to see Jill Haworth as Sally? I have liked Jill in other movies and am surprised that she didn’t make more films.

    1. Hi Wille
      I like the comment you made about the way the film captures the feeling of freedom when moving to a big city and finding like-minded people. I think you're so right, but I hadn't thought of that before.
      When I first moved to Los Angeles, one of my greatest thrills was lining in this Hollywood apartment building where I befriended all these "creative" street people and bohemian types. In hindsight I must have seemed just like the Michael York character.

      The whole movie landscape of the late 60s-70s changed so fast. The closest thing I've seen in recent time was when their was that brief glut of 3D movies and everyone thought 3D Tvs were going to be the rage. Well, late 60s transitioning into the 70s seemed like that to me. Previously sure-fire formulas became obsolete almost overnight.

      Fosse's "reinventing" of the movie musical made it tough for more straightforward, traditional musicals like "Lost Horizon."

      Unfortunately, I never saw Jill Haworth in "Cabaret." In fact, looking over her credits on IMDB, I see I've never seen her in ANYTHING. If you know of a particularly good film of hers you'd recommend, pass it on! Thanks very much, Wille! Good to hear from you!

    2. That sounds like a fascinating in your life with those interesting neighbors in a new city, Ken!

      I now realize that I have only seen Jill Haworth in one film- "The Haunted House of Horror"! It's not very good but she and Frankie Avalon made the best of that low budget film. Mod kids in an old house. She made a good impression on me, though!

      I admire Fosse for changing his style of filming from one musical to the next. He learned from his mistakes! Not like Joshua Logan who made "Camelot" and then "Paint Your Wagon". In what way was the film version of ”Paint Your Wagon” better than the stage version? When I saw the film I found it quite ponderous and lumbering.

    3. I missed a chance to see that film when it aired one late night on TCM. I'm not a big Frankie Avalon fan, but that movie sounds like a more entertaining option than sitting through Otto Preminger's "Exodus."
      I'm one of those people who actually LIKES "Camelot" (although the whole imprisonment and rescue part really drags), and my fondness for PAINT YOUR WAGON has a lot to do with having sat through it at least half a dozen times in my youth. It was always paired with some film I wanted to see (like Sweet Charity) and so in order to see Charity twice, I often had to sit , week after week through PAINT YOUR WAGON.
      I had the misfortune once to see a theatrical production of it, and I wasn't then aware of how significantly the screen version was altered, plot-wise.Speaking totally subjectively, given the source material, I like what they did with the film a lot more.
      I haven't seen it in years.

  21. Hi Ken-
    Sorry to sound a bit like a repetitive parrot, but another wonderful essay. (Is it really possible to get tired of someone telling you that?)

    I didn't see Cabaret until I was older. It's definitely a brilliant gem that doesn't age; it's the perfect mix of 30s and 70s. The editing alone is brilliant, let alone the choreography and acting. The fact that this was followed up with the equally brilliant "Liza With A Z" special is astounding.

    In defense of Minnelli being 'too talented' to realistically be a singer in that club...let's pretend Sally was that good of a singer. It doesn't seem that difficult to surmise that a) there weren't many performance options for a non-German in Berlin at the time, b) she's young and unsophisticated, and c) as the "Maybe This Time" number shows with its lack of audience in attendance, isn't it possible she just never got noticed by the right person who could have elevated her to prominence? Certainly a talent scout-type wouldn't go to the Kit Kat Club expecting someone that good, so why waste one's time.

    The comment thread for this posting is excellent as well, so much more to ponder before the next viewing. All of the York love is pretty funny too.

    1. Hello Pete
      Thank you very much! No, writing is such a solitary, in-one's-own-head experience that if someone is kind or generous enough to tell me that that they liked, related to, or understood something I've written, there's noting "parrot-like" about such an exchange.
      I'm gratified and feel very fortunate, indeed.

      CABARET is such a marvelous showcase for Minnelli and a lasting record of that amazing year (that TV special!)
      And you're right about the film not aging. In fact, so many aspects and themes in the film grew in pertinence over the last four years that I really haven't been able to watch this movie.
      In the past I held the naïve notion that "we" could never be the Sally's or the ignorant apartment rooming house boarders blind to the encroaching horror of Nazis. The film was harder to watch as it appeared history was repeating itself and we were even more ignorant and corruptible than Sally.
      Post-election I'm looking forward to revisiting it again.

      And as I've grown older (and seen through those countless reality singing contests how genuine talent is overlooked all the time and is no guarantee of anyone being assured a anything) it's easier to take the view similar to the one you express about the oft-repeated criticism that Sally is too talented for the Kit Kat.
      No, I think a perfectly valid take is one along the lines of what you present; of a very talented performer in the wrong time and place for her gifts to be appreciated.
      It works!
      And yes, there's quite a bit of Michael York appreciation here! Ha!
      Good hearing from you again Pete! You've been exploring some gems of late!

    2. It also seems like Minnelli's Sally is unaware of just how talented she really is. She's so busy putting on airs of sophistication (that she knows little about) and distracted with despair over just being loved and accepted (i.e. the missing dad) that it's easy to see her not even knowing...and even doubting it if someone were to complement her. (The typical "do you really like me?" response.) Certainly nobody at the Kit Kat is going to tell her "you're too good to be working here." If anything, the Emcee is probably telling her the exact opposite to keep her under his control.

      Yeah, the amount of history repeating ignorance really is something to be distraught over. It's hard not feeling like we're ever going to properly change as a cohesive society...

      Thanks as always in taking the time to respond, Ken.

  22. Argyle, here again. I just have to add, in case anyone else has seen a connection, there is a music video from 2017 by the artist Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) for his song "Die 4 You" directed by Floria Sigismondi that evokes for me the color and atmosphere of "Cabaret". A little of it is the use of a chair on stage, but within the context of everything else, it feels like an homage and for me a very beautiful one. Maybe a dream Sally or Brian could have had. Or their child in some other universe.


    1. Hi Bill (Argyle!)
      I just tock a look at the video and I see what you mean right, not only is is it very beautiful, but its such a unique and artful homage to Cabaret.
      Very dreamlike. The singer could be the "strange and extraordinary" child of Brian and Sally. Thanks for introducing me to it. I think many who appreciate this film would get a kick out of it.

  23. The miracle of 'Cabaret' has to be that its sum is far greater than the sheer excellence of its many filmic parts and elements - one doesn't simply slap a dozen good songs onto a disturbing story and come up with a cinematic masterpiece which also happens to be a Hollywood musical masterpiece.

    Fifty years on, and we've never seen 'Cabaret' bettered as a screen musical, as I see it.

    There's nothing I can add to your remarkably thorough analysis Ken, except some more well-earned praise!

    1. Hi Rick-
      I wholeheartedly agree. Every aspect of the film is beholden to another in a way that makes the entire movie work as unified vision. If anyone is ever so wrongheaded as to want to do a remake of CABARET, it would have to be an adaptation of the markedly different stage musical. This one is so unique it should be bear the title "Bob Fosse's CABARET" ...he made a musical that has genuinely earned its current status as a classic. So nice to have you visit and comment on some of my older posts like this, Rick. I so appreciate it. Thank you very much!