A dazzling, revolutionary, and timeless musical
Once in a blue moon a film comes along that is so creative and unique it forever changes cinema, and “Cabaret” is one of those films. This visual feast reinvented the movie musical, made showbiz legends out of its director/choreographer Bob Fosse, actors Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, and even influenced fashion. Winner of eight Academy Awards, the American Film Institute named it the 5th Greatest Movie Musical and the 63rd Greatest American Film of All-Time. This one-of-a-kind film about people clutching to hedonistic life in Germany during pre-World War II, simultaneously entertains, provokes thought, and devastates. The striking choreography, visually arresting images, and bevy of John Kander and Fred Ebb melodies, (most of which have become standards such as the title song "Cabaret" which AFI voted the 18th Greatest Song in American Movies), linger in the mind long after the film’s closing credit. This breakthrough film remains timeless, and I’ve found that many who claim not to like musicals love “Cabaret”.
Berlin, Germany, 1931 is the setting, and bohemian culture is being eradicated with the rise of fascism. The opening of "Cabaret" finds us face to face with the somewhat vampirish face of the “Master of Ceremonies” as he welcomes us into the world of the KitKat Klub, by way of the song, “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome”:
“So life is disappointing? Forget it. We have no troubles here.
Here life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful”
While singing, he presents the garish, debauched, and anything but beautiful Kit Kat girls and orchestra. The song is intercut with “Brian Roberts'” arrival to Berlin, dually serving to welcome "Brian" and us into the world of “Cabaret”.
A British professor of language, “Brian" is in Berlin to work on his doctorate in philosophy, and plans on giving English lessons to earn money. Upon arriving at a boarding house, he is greeted by the outlandish “Sally Bowles”, an American performer working at the Kit Kat Klub. In her own dramatic way, she gets him to rent the room directly across from hers, and soon a deep friendship turns into a complicated relationship. Their lives are touched by the gold digging “Fritz” who's hungry to find a rich woman, “Brian’s” wealthy and Jewish pupil “Natalia”, and a playboy Baron named “Maximillian”. Their stories are brilliantly interwoven with musical numbers performed at the Kit Kat Klub, primarily by the “Master of Ceremonies” and/or “Sally”. With all of its humor and razzle-dazzle, “Cabaret” is actually an unapologetic look at a these people caught in a frightening place and time in history.
The film is based on the 1939 semi-autobiographical novel “Goodbye Berlin” by Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood, about his time in Berlin in the early 1930s. In 1951, “Goodbye Berlin” was adapted in to the Broadway play “I Am a Camera”, which was in turn adapted into a 1966 British film. Also in 1966 came a Broadway musical adaptation of “I Am a Camera”, with music by music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb titled “Cabaret”. Each of these incarnations made their own set of modifications. For this film, Fosse took elements from all previous productions, primarily returning to Isherwood’s “Goodbye Berlin”, and made his own alterations by adding, removing, and changing characters, plot points, and songs.
Fosse’s “Cabaret” was groundbreaking in its use of music. Up to that point, movie musicals were escapist treats with characters spontaneously bursting into song and dance inside dreamlike realities. But by 1972, the world had lost its innocence and no longer accepted sugarcoated narratives. Fosse discovered this with the giant failure of his first directed feature, the 1969 musical “Sweet Charity” , one of many extravagant movie musicals that suffered at the box office around that time, in a genre that had been slowly losing popularity since the end of WWII. Fosse insisted on a realistic approach with “Cabaret”, and all songs were to be sung only by performers in the cabaret (with the one exception being perhaps the film’s most chilling scene, when people begin singing in a beer garden). Any songs sung in the previous Broadway musical outside the cabaret were removed, and Kander and Ebb supplied additional songs as needed. Being a film largely about Nazis, sex, bisexuality, and brutality, “Cabaret” brought unprecedented maturity and darkness to a previously sunny genre. For the first time, the movie musical completely stepped into the real world.
A true creative genius, Fosse presents the film’s most exciting, frightening, and informative moments during its musical numbers, blending Berlin’s decadent nightlife with the rise of Nazism - often through editing. If you ever wanted to understand the power of editing, look no further than “Cabaret”. Fosse and the film’s editor (David Bretherton, who won an Oscar for this film) use it to astounding effect, adding layer upon layer of meaning through simple juxtapositions. A fine example (in addition to the opening number mentioned above), occurs in one of the most shocking numbers, when the “Master of Ceremonies” and the Kit Kat girls perform a traditional Bavarian folk slap dance. Images of the cabaret’s owner being brutally beaten are intercut with the dance, pretty much in time with the music. This cross-cutting creates a terrifying aura, making one wonder how people can be amused in a cabaret while living in a world of violence and hatred. All songs in “Cabaret” inventively contain multiple meanings. Not only do they entertain, but they also weigh in on what has happened, foretell what’s to come, and/or provide commentary about what’s happening outside the cabaret. It is an inspired use of cinema.
Fosse was meticulous with everything, including his choreography – from the exact motion of a pelvis, hip, or hand, to the precise movement of a foot or eyeball. Known for creating innovative and provocative dance moves, his trademarks include jazz hands (moving fingers and hands), turned-in knees, rounded shoulders, gloves, bowler hats, and chairs. And his brand of suggestively swinging hips and pelvises provide just the right amount of depravity. Fosse’s style can be seen in its iconic glory during the song “Mein Heir”, with “Sally” in her famous bowler hat and bodies slinking over chairs. Whenever I watch this film, I always look forward to that dance.
One of the world’s most influential directors and choreographers, Bob Fosse began dancing at a very young age. By thirteen years old he was dancing professionally in vaudeville and burlesque. Being immersed in the seedy atmosphere of nightclubs and sexually-free strippers made such an imprint on him, it informed just about all of his work, including his choreography. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Fred Astaire, and after years of dancing on stage, clubs, and some TV, was signed by MGM in 1953 and began appearing as a dancer in their musicals. In the classic 1953 musical “Kiss Me Kate”, he choreographed his own dance number and Broadway noticed, and called. Fosse choreographed his first Broadway musical in 1954, “The Pajama Game”, followed by “Damn Yankees” in 1955, winning Best Choreography Tony Awards for each (later choreographing the film versions of each). In 1959 he directed (and choreographed) his first Broadway show, “Redhead”, for which he won another Best Choreography Tony Award. He had major success directing and choreographing the 1966 Broadway musical “Sweet Charity” (based on Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria"), which earned nine Tony Award nominations including another Best Choreography win for Fosse. The film version was his film directing debut, and when it bombed at the box office he though his films days were over. When Fosse heard Tony Award-winning theatrical impresario Cy Feuer was set to produce a film version of the musical "Cabaret" (he had previously worked with Cy) he pleaded to direct it. Feuer convinced studio heads that Fosse could do it, and he got the job. For "Cabaret", Fosse won a Best Director Academy Award. That year he also won a Best Director Tony Award for the musical “Pippin”, and a Best Director Emmy Award for the TV Special “Liza with a Z”, and became the only person to date to win all three major industry awards within the same year. ”Cabaret” made Fosse world-famous.
Fosse directed only five more films: 1974's gritty “Lenny”, about comedian Lenny Bruce (earning him a second Best Director Oscar nomination); his compelling semi-autobiographical musical “All That Jazz” in 1979 (earning him Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations); and 1983's haunting “Star 80” about actress Dorothy Stratton. Like just about all of Fosse’s work, these films mix the glitzy with the seedy. He directed (or co-directed) eight Broadway shows and choreographed fifteen, winning nine Tony Awards (one for directing and eight for choreography) out of twenty nominations. In addition to his Best Director Emmy for “Liza with a Z”, he also won Emmy Awards for Best Choreography and for producing the show. He was a known womanizer, and was married and divorced three times, all to dancers, Mary Ann Niles, Joan McCracken, and most famously Gwen Verdon with whom he often worked. An account of his personal and professional relationship with Verdon was made into a 2019 miniseries titled “Fosse/Verdon”. He also had a famous relationship with dancer Ann Reinking. Bob Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 60. He is one of my favorite directors.
Liza Minnelli is extraordinary as “Sally Bowles”, a performer at the Kit Kat Klub who wears green nail polish and dreams of becoming a movie star. “Sally” is self-absorbed, loves to shock, and is often crass and inappropriate. Sounds awful, right? Wrong. She’s actually electrifying, since Minnelli injects innocence and vulnerability. An endearingly flawed human being so afraid she’s "a nobody", she pretends to be a fearless, worldly woman filled with, as she says, “divine decadence”. So needy for love, she seduces the unlikely “Brian”, who like everyone, falls for her infectious effervescence. Though “Sally” will do whatever she can to turn away from the harsh realities of life, there are several scenes in which Minnelli touchingly exposes “Sally’s” underlying heartbreak, such as when she reads the letter from her father and exclaims through anger and pain, “I’ll show him! I’ll become a big star!”. That scene leads into the show-stopping song “Maybe This Time”, in which “Sally” sings out her heart and soul to a virtually empty audience – Fosse’s way of reminding us that “Sally” will forever remain unseen and unsuccessful. Minnelli’s musical numbers are jaw-dropping, as she performs them with the same power and vulnerability displayed in her acting. It is a tour-de-force performance of such a nuanced human character that to this day many confuse Minnelli with the kooky, unstable “Sally”. With this role Minnelli earned a place in cinema history, as well as a Best Actress Academy Award.
The daughter of two Hollywood legends (actress/singer Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli), Liza Minnelli was literally born into show business. Her godparents were composer Ira Gershwin and entertainer/author Kay Thompson. Her neighbors included actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner, and lyricist Sammy Cahn, and her childhood playground was the MGM studio lot, where both her parents worked. She’d wander around the lot and watch the goings-on, particularly enjoying seeing dancers rehearse. She especially loved Cyd Charisse, and would study the way her body moved when she danced. As a three-year-old, Minnelli made a quick first film appearance in her mother’s 1949 movie musical, “In the Good Old Summertime”. Even with all of that, Minnelli had no plans to enter show business until her parents took her to see “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway.
Not wanting her to be in show business, her parents reluctantly let her go to New York City to study acting, voice and dance. She quickly began getting theater jobs, including a part in 1963’s "Best Foot Forward”, for which she earned a Theater World Award. Minnelli also began singing in nightclubs, and her mother coaxed her to appear with her at the London Palladium in 1964. That concert was televised, recorded as an album, and led to Minnelli getting her own recording contract. She auditioned for the part of “Sally” for the Broadway musical version of “Cabaret” but didn’t get cast (the part went to Jill Haworth). Undeterred, she knew in her gut that by the time the film version would be ready so would she, and that she’d get the part. Her Broadway debut came in the 1965 Kander and Ebb musical "Flora the Red Menace”, for which she won a Tony Award. Not including her walk-on as a child, Minnelli’s film debut was in 1968’s “Charlie Bubbles”, followed by the lead role in 1969’s “The Sterile Cuckoo”, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Though making a name for herself, Minnelli still couldn’t shake off being thought of as Judy Garland’s daughter. Two films later, “Cabaret” changed that. Not only did she win the Oscar, but it established Minnelli as her own artist, separate from her parents. It also earned her a cover spot on both Time and Newsweek magazines.
“Cabaret” was the height of Minnelli’s film career to date, as her films after that were largely lukewarm successes or box-office failures (with the exception of 1981's “Arthur”). Minnelli also appeared on television beginning in 1964, and has earned a total of five Emmy Award nominations to date, including her win for her televised concert “Liza with a Z”. Associated with the music of Kander and Ebb, in addition to “Flora the Red Menace”, she appeared in their Broadway musicals "Chicago", "The Act" (for which she won a Tony Award), and "The Rink" (for which she earned a Tony Award nomination). In 1974 she was awarded a Special Tony Award for adding luster to Broadway. Minnelli also recorded albums and performed in concert, and decades ago I happened to see her twice, and both shows are deeply etched in my brain. I can literally remember feeling the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand up as she sang the songs “Cabaret” (which became her signature song), "But the World Goes ‘Round”, and “New York, New York” (her second signature song). When she sings live, Minnelli has an incredibly rare gift to rouse powerful emotions in her listeners. I’ve heard Meryl Streep repeatedly echo that and speak of Minnelli’s enormous influence on her, as mentioned in the December 2008 issue of The New Yorker: “Meryl Streep has described Minnelli’s desire to communicate something deep and true to the audience, all the way up to the balcony, is astonishing. The neophyte took what she could from a master”.
In addition to her Oscar, Emmy, and three Tony Awards, Minnelli was awarded a Grammy Legend Award in 1990 for her ongoing contributions and influence in the recording field (and had previously earned two Grammy Award nominations). Her other notable films and TV shows include "New York, New York", "Silent Movie", "Lucky Lady", and a recurring role on the TV Series "Arrested Development". I had the honor of singing backup for her as part of the small Ewing Concert Chorale, both in concert and on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno". She was great to work with, energetic, professional, kind, and funny. It doesn’t surprise me that she became good friends with Fosse, Grey, York, and Berenson after this film. Minnelli famously had addiction problems with drugs and alcohol, and went through rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. She’s been married and divorced four times, including marriages to singer/songwriter Peter Allen (the Broadway musical “The Boy from Oz” is about him and their marriage) and Jack Haley, Jr. (the son of Jack Haley, who played “The Tin Man” in “The Wizard of Oz” opposite Garland). As of the writing of this post, Liza Minnelli is 75 years old.
Also very much associated with “Cabaret” is Joel Grey who plays the “Master of Ceremonies”. He only appears on-stage or backstage at the Kit Kat Klub, and under his showman persona, embodies the changing politics of the time. In addition to his musical numbers and emcee duties, the film is peppered with close-ups of his devilish face, such as his disturbing nod and smile after the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” – enough to rattle anyone. Grey makes this enigmatic character overwhelmingly entertaining and multifaceted, even in his limited capacity – whether lustfully singing “Money, Money”, enthusiastically dancing with the "Tiller Girls”, or being sweet and gentle (for the most part) during “If You Could See Her”. He is fabulous in the role, and for it won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award (his only win or nomination). This iconic performance is his most famous.
Joel Grey began in theater and nightclubs, making it to Broadway in 1951’s “Borscht Capades”. While continuing to work on Broadway, he made his film debut in the 1952 musical “About Face”, and began appearing on television in 1964. The 1966 original Broadway musical version of “Cabaret” was his breakthrough, originating the role of the “Master of Ceremonies”, and for it he won a Tony Award (and is one of only ten people to date to win a Tony and Oscar playing the same role). When the film version was in the works, producer Feuer insisted Grey reprise his role in the film, though Fosse originally had his doubts. This film version made Grey internationally famous. To date he has amassed just over seventy film and TV credits, including "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution", “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, ”The Player", "Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins", and a recurring role in the TV series “Oz”. A 1993 appearance on the TV sitcom “Brooklyn Bridge” earned him an Emmy Award nomination. With all his TV and film work, Grey is primarily recognized for his outstanding stage performances, which in addition to “Cabaret” include “George M!”, "Goodtime Charley", "The Grand Tour", and "The Normal Heart” – each of which earned him Tony Award nominations. Grey joined Minnelli in one of the two concerts I attended, and at one point they performed "Cabaret's", “Money, Money”, recreating the number dressed in their film costumes. It was awe-inspiring. I also had the pleasure of seeing Grey in a 1996 Broadway revival of “Chicago”, and he and the show were sensational. He was married to actress Jo Wilder for over twenty years before divorcing, and they had two children (including actress Jennifer Grey). In 2015 Grey publicly came out as a gay man. He continues to work, including as a photographer, and to date has published four books of his photographs. As of the writing of this post, Joel Grey is 89 years old.
Everyone is perfectly cast in "Cabaret", including Michael York who stars as “Brian Roberts”, the Brit who has come to Berlin. Minnelli and Grey were cast before Fosse took over, and a search was on for what they called a “Michael York type” for the role of “Brian”. York heard about this, auditioned, and got the part. “Brian” is an Englishman who begins to come out of his shell, though never gets completely lost in the hedonistic world around him. Unlike “Sally” and “Maximilian”, he is aware of the changing political tide. "Brian" is the perfect gentleman who keeps his emotions under control, and York is excellent at showing us what's going on under the surface. Perhaps the most spellbinding example is when “Brian”, “Sally”, and “Maximilian” are drunk and slow dancing together. We see only their faces (particularly York’s) as they exchange glances at one another. You can see a flurry of emotions float across York's face, as “Brian” keeps glancing at “Maximilian” with longing, hope, and sadness. It is an exquisitely acted moment, leading one to realize “Brian” desires “Maximilian” more than “Sally”. The character of “Brian” was based on Isherwood, who was gay. It was unheard of to have a leading homosexual character in a film of this caliber at the time, so they made “Brian” bisexual. When Isherwood first saw the film, it is reported that he liked it but said it contained one lie - that he never in his life slept with a woman! It was a daring role for York, and in its way, a breakthrough for the depiction of homosexuality in major Hollywood films.
English born Michael York began in the theater at a young age, eventually joining Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in 1965. Classically trained, his first film role was as “Lucentio” in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. The following year he appeared as “Tybalt” in Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. While appearing in other films, he gained much acclaim in the British TV miniseries, "The Forsyte Saga". Though he had been working steadily in films both in the US and England, in leading and supporting roles, “Cabaret” took his film career to a new level making him a Hollywood star. The 1970s saw him as a lead in films such as "The Three Musketeers", "Murder on the Orient Express", and perhaps his most famous film role, the star of the sci-fi classic "Logan's Run”. While continuing to appear on-stage, he has amassed over 160 film and TV credits including the films, "The Last Remake of Beau Geste”, "Fedora", "The Island of Dr. Moreau”, "The Omega Code”, “54", and playing "Basil Exposition" in the "Austin Powers" films. His television credits include "Jesus of Nazareth”, playing "Charles Scott" on "Knots Landing”, and appearing on the TV series "The Lot" for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination. In addition, his velvety rich voice has narrated over 90 films and audio books. York has also written several books, including his 1991 autobiography, “Accidentally on Purpose”. He met American photographer Patricia McCallum in 1967 when she was assigned to photograph him, married her the following year, and they remain married to this day. In 2013, he was diagnosed with a rare disease called amyloidosis. As of the writing of this post, Michael York is 79 years old.
“Cabaret” was shot on location in Germany, and most German’s in the film were portrayed by Germans, including Helmut Griem who plays the debonair “Baron Maximilian von Heune”, a married, wealthy, pleasure-seeker. Like “Sally”, he ignores the rise of the Nazis (dismissing them at one point as “just a gang of stupid hooligans”). Greim is great in the role, and it is perhaps his most famous. He had become one of a few German actors to become internationally known, beginning with Luchino Visconti’s internationally acclaimed film “The Damned” in 1969, in which he played SS-officer “Aschenbach”. He worked again with Visconti in 1973’s “Ludwig”. Among Griem’s other famous films are "The McKenzie Break”, "The Clown", and "Fabrik der Offiziere”. He was married once, until his death. Helmut Griem died in 2004 at the age of 72.
Marisa Berenson plays “Natalia Landauer”, the daughter of a well-known Jewish family who has come to “Brian” to brush up on her English. Some of the film’s comedy comes from her deadpan trouble with English, as in the delightful scene talking about “screwing”. In strong contrast to “Sally”, “Natalia” is poised, proper, and elegant, and Berenson fits the bill. Marisa Berenson was born to a diplomat father and socialite mother, and her grandmother was fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Diana Vreeland of Vogue magazine discovered Berenson as a teenager, and she soon became one of the top fashion models of the 1960’s and early 70’s, often gracing the cover of Vogue. She first appeared on television in 1967, and her film debut was as Dirk Bogarde’s wife in Visconti’s 1971 classic, “Death in Venice”. When she learned of the part in “Cabaret”, she fought to get it and won, and for it she earned Best Supporting Actress BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations, along with an additional Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe nomination. To date, Berenson has appeared in over eighty films and TV shows, including "Barry Lyndon", “S.O.B.", "White Hunter, Black Heart", and “I Am Love”. She made her Broadway debut in the 2001 revival of "Design for Living”. She was married and divorced twice. Her sister was photographer and actress Berry Berenson (who was killed as a passenger on the first airplane in the World Trade Center attacks). As of the writing of this post, Marisa Berenson is 74 years old.
In addition to its Academy Award wins for Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Editing, "Cabaret" also won Oscars for Cinematography (Geoffrey Unsworth), Art Direction (Rolf Zehetbauer, Hans Jürgen Kiebach, Herbert Strabel), Sound (Robert Knudson), and Score (Ralph Burns), with additional nominations for Best Picture, and Adapted Screenplay (Jay Allen). Its big competition at the Oscars was “The Godfather”, which was also nominated for ten awards and ended up winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). One of the award’s major surprises was Fosse’s Best Director win over Coppola. To this day, “Cabaret” holds the record for having won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture.
Leave your troubles outside and lose yourself in a landmark film you are sure never to forget. It's one of my all-time favorites! Enjoy “Cabaret”!
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