Rethinking the traditional notions of the Hollywood musical, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret still bedazzles us with seemless blend pre-war period melodrama and its the unpolished kitchen-sink musical numbers to arrive at his sublime political musical which discards the razzle-dazzle in favour of the seediness of a two-bit burlesque show.
Cabaret (1972) dir. Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem
Did Francis Coppola deserve to win Best Director over Bob Fosse? Despite the unanimous exhaltation The Godfather continues to get, Cabaret is no Dancing With Wolves, or Ordinary People, or Driving Miss Daisy, but as challenging and rule-breaking piece of populist cinema there has been. Coppola eventually got his Oscar with directing Part II, so all would be well in the world.
It was Bob Fosse’s second film, after the bloating late 60’s musical flop Sweet Charity, a film which showcased Fosse’s unqiue choreography and cinematic flare but suffered badly from its dubiuously trendy psychdelic aesthetic.
Caberet seemed like his snakebite antedote reclaiming his spark of innovation he had established on Broadway. The story evolved through the decades, starting with Christopher Isherwood’s 1940’s novel about his experiences with Caberet dancer Sally Bowles and the Berlin underground Kit Kat Club. This story became a play in the 1950’s, then a Harold Prince Broadway musical in 1966, and eventually the big screen adaptation by Fosse and company.
Liza Minnelli’s celebrated and Oscar-winning role as Sally Bowles oozes charisma and cinematic Stardom (with a capital S). Minnelli palpably channels her mother’s innate screen charm and vivaciousness aided by her sexually ambiguous pixie haircut, obscenely large false eye lashes and liberal admonitions of her alcohol and sex vices.
Playing against Bowles is the stuffy British Camebridge student Brian Roberts (York), full of British modesty but also sexually confused and desperately needing Bowles’ spark of life. Fosse is careful with Roberts’ sexuality, overtly referred to asexual by Roberts himself, but by the glances at the male figures around him suggests he’s closeted bisexual or perhaps fully gay. As Bowles proves, anyone can fall for her sexual advances and indeed Roberts becomes Bowles’ lover.
Fritz Wepper’s opportunist character Fritz Wendel, who reluctantly falls in love with the rich, but Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer (Berenson) arguably forms the most dramatic character arc of the film, foreshadowing the tragedy of the Nazi persecution.
The film’s candid discussion of abortion were certainly progressive, but is also never taken for granted or exploited. Fosse doesn’t judge Bowles for her decision to abort her unborn child with Brian, and this moment admirably subverts the potential for it to be a rallying point for the pro-choice movement. Instead the scene becomes a dramatic turning point for the two characters to end their relationship, with the emotions of that decision trumping Bowles’ individual decision regarding her body.
This all plays out in and around the Berlin transgender club the Kit Kat Club, catering to rich and poor alike, all desiring the spectacle of sexual freedom on display night in and night out. As orchestrated by Joel Grey’s ‘master of ceremonies’, each musical number choreographed as ‘digetic’ reality, on stage and within the small scale geography of the no frills stage, plays out the satire of the tense politics of the time. We can see the swagger of Fosse’s choreography and his unique ability to enhance his movements with editing, as opposed to the traditional edict of showing dancing in unedit full shots. And unlike the pristine antiseptic quality of the fantasyworld of the Hollywood Sweet Charity, Fosse’s Caberet finds its life in its unpolished bawdiness.
Caberet is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment