Title: Cabaret (1972)
Director: Bob Fosse
Stars: Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, Marisa Berenson
Before Liza Minelli became more of a punchline, she offered up some of the most heart-shattering pathos one could find from a respectable character actress in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. A renowned classic, and one of Minelli’s only critically acclaimed movies, Cabaret 100% holds up in a 2018 context. In fact, it’s never been more relevant.
In a Nutshell:
The movie takes place in 1930s Berlin, where a young academic from Britain, Brian Roberts (Michael York) moves into a boarding house and meets the incomparable Sally Bowles, a relentlessly affable free spirit who performs risqué song and dance routines at an underground cabaret for a living. Throughout the perfectly paced musical drama, the two become fast friends and eventually more than that as their surroundings become increasingly hostile because of a certain rising political party — the Nazis. As their relationship becomes more complicated and less defined, the liberties of both themselves and their closest friends become gradually more compromised.
What is so great about Cabaret is its masterful foregrounding of relationship drama while something historically major is happening at the same time. Even though we are focused on the characters’ exploration of identity and sexuality, the rising threat of the Nazi Political Party becomes almost sneakily more apparent. A subplot featuring a Christian passing German Jewish man’s pursuit of a Jewish heiress is indicative of the fear and indoctrinated self-hatred many Jews felt during this time. Secrecy, privacy, and hiding are all evident themes here. Luckily, the cabaret serves as a kind of safe-haven in the face of life-threatening danger. That is, until the Nazis’ presence in the club becomes normalized by movie’s end.
Musicals tend to fluctuate in quality as they trod along, but Cabaret remains pretty rock solid. The songs are catchy enough, but it’s the way they are integrated into the narrative where the film becomes infallible. Artfully edited and beautifully directed (as is the entire movie; Bob Fosse is something else!), the musical numbers serve as isolated performances in the cabaret that give us thoughtful musings about the lives of the characters, while also adding appropriate transitions from scene to scene. Cabaret isn’t just a fascinating character study; it’s also a visual splendor! I am a firm believer in good direction and solid visuals serving as one of the main reasons a movie becomes a classic, and this one helps prove that point!
What certainly doesn’t hurt this movie musical’s solidified status as a classic, though, is Liza Minelli’s astounding performance. Again, she’s played for laughs these days (and thank goodness she has a sense of humor about it), but man if I was not floored by her vulnerability, her injection of pathos, and her overall charm in this role. Acting-wise, she carries it. From Sally and Brian’s endearing meet-cute to their eventual departure from one another, you can’t help but feel everything Sally is feeling in those moments. A movie about chosen families, ever-changing relationships, and the overwhelming uncontrollable nature of everything happening around you, Cabaret remains a winner.