Double Take: Cabaret (1972)

So life is disappointing? Forget it, darling. Inside this discussion of 1972's Cabaret, everything is beautiful.

Steve Leftridge: It’s Double Take number 11, and we have the first musical in our series of 500 Great Films. Before we get into the real nitty-gritty on this one, I noticed some interesting trends I’d like to bounce off of you. In 1972, Cabaret was among the very last musical films to enjoy widespread critical acclaim. Take the Academy Awards as a case in point: Besides Bob Fosse’s other musical of the decade, 1979’s All That Jazz, Cabaret would be the last musical to be nominated for Best Picture until 2001’s Moulin Rouge, a drought just shy of 30 years.

Just before Cabaret, in the ’60s, musicals were still booming: four of the ten Best Picture winners were musicals. So Cabaret seems to have marked the end of the golden run of the movie musical, which brings me to my question. Can you identify any reasons for this cultural shift, when movie musicals, with but a few exceptions, died off around the time of Cabaret and have scarcely ever returned as viable box office entities? Why don’t we dig these anymore, Steve? (I’ll give you bonus points if you can tie Cabaret specifically to this sea change.)

Steve Pick: Well, it seems obvious to me that as we baby boomers got older and more influential, we wanted rock music, not showtunes. There were still plenty of musicals being made — Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Rocky Horror Picture Show — but none of them stood a chance of Oscar contention, if only because the voters at the time were skewed older and completely unlikely to care about that sort of thing. I’m not up on the Broadway world, so I don’t know what musical theatre was doing in the ’70s. By the time I started hearing of that sort of thing again, it was the likes of Cats, and I am entirely thankful we didn’t have that become a popular movie right away. In short, tastes changed, and musical theatre changed, and there just wasn’t the right fit for the crowds going to see films.

Leftridge: Your rock-and-roll theory makes plenty of sense and explains why, as a Generation Xer, almost any new musical film I was exposed to in the ’70s and ’80s tried to tap into rock fever both old (Grease) and new (Fame). As you suggest, the rock revolution swept away much of what we would consider the traditional musical in favor of rock-oriented narratives like Purple Rain and Footloose. Still, live musical theatre on Broadway continued to flourish — in fact, grew more popular than ever during this period—while occasional attempts at recreating that success on the screen typically tanked, and I’m not sure we can trace it back to Elvis shaking it in Clambake or not. (Then again, as the father of a seven-year-old girl, I can assure you that musical films remain oppressively popular, as long as they’re animated. I hosted a Frozen birthday party recently, and you’d be hard-pressed to stump me on the lyrics to that particular soundtrack.)

Pick: You know, I never saw Cabaret until the past few days, and now I have to revise, with an asterisk, my long held assumption that the last great musical was Sweet Charity. The asterisk comes because, unlike all the classic musicals that preceded this one, and the awful ones that followed so many years later, the music in Cabaret is entirely presented as if it’s being performed on a stage where people are presented as musical performers. There is no instance of characters suddenly breaking into song while out on the street or in the bedroom or while eating dinner. Thus, despite the highly enjoyable selection of songs, and the intricate choreography by director Bob Fosse, it’s entirely possible to argue that Cabaret isn’t a traditional musical at all.

Fosse, who made his name in musical theatre, was a remarkable film director as well. Even though he put tremendous effort into staging and choreography, his display of the performers in Cabaret is almost never bent on showing us everything at once. He makes breathtaking use of cuts, zooms, pans, and assorted filmic tricks to bring a completely different feel to the performances than could possibly have been delivered on the stage. The ironic juxtaposition of a carefree song with the brutal beating of the club owner for having kicked a Nazi out of the cabaret simply could not have worked in any other medium. This helps make Cabaret, one of the most depressing movies, to have such a catchy, exuberant soundtrack.

Leftridge: I nearly spit up my Prairie Oyster when you claimed that Sweet Charity was the last great movie musical, although I share your enthusiasm for Fosse’s direction in Cabaret. It was only his second film, and it may well be the only truly great musical film of the ’70s. Yes, much of that appeal is in its “backstage” musical format, which provides a logical explanation for why people are singing and dancing. So My Fair Lady this ain’t, either in tone or in style. You mention Fosse’s camera work during the musical sequences, although I didn’t notice much movement or trickery going on beyond beautifully timed cuts and some elegant framing of shots. The cinematography is downright economical compared to, say, the mauling quick-cutting of Rob Marshall’s Chicago, for instance. In Cabaret, it’s the lighting and the shot selection (and, of course, the productions themselves) on the Kit Kat Club stage that create such raw, immediate, dangerous, and thrillingly weird impressions.

I’m thinking of that blue backlighting that pours in through the orchestra in the opening “Willkommen” number or the sultry Dietrich-style burn of “Mein Herr”, with Liza in the black bowler and garters, or the bizarre sequence of the hefty mud-wrestlers getting sprayed by Joel Grey’s water bottle while the camera cuts to extreme close-ups of macabre laughter in the audience. I’m especially impressed with the way the musical numbers gracefully integrate the story’s themes and the setting’s conditions, whether it’s Liza belting out “Maybe This Time” (the movie’s showstopper, if you ask me) or Grey and Liza’s vaudeville choreography on “Money Money”. Again, it seems to me that Fosse holds back and allows some uninterrupted takes to capture an authentic view from the audience while providing just enough rhythmic editing to boost the action a bit. The juxtaposition between the lederhosen grab-ass routine and the bloody back-alley beating separates Cabaret from any musical I’ve ever seen.

Let me ask you about Liza as Sally Bowles. It’s probably her career-defining role, so what impression did you get from watching Liza work in Cabaret?

Pick: It may surprise you to know that prior to seeing this film, I’d only ever seen Liza Minnelli act on Arrested Development in the role of Lucille Austero. Nor was I overly familiar with her singing. I had seen still images from Cabaret, and I have a vague memory of seeing her sing on an Academy Awards ceremony back when the film was being feted, but I was as close to being virginal in this regard as a contemporary audience member can get in 2015. So, my impression is, wow! How did this slip by me?

As a singer and performer, she’s a natural, of course, taking the showbiz pizzazz of her mother and adding a ’70s-era free sexuality to the mix. As an actor, she takes a character who seems flighty and surface-level and slowly reveals layers and depth. At first, she seems so carefree, so unconcerned about anything beyond having a good time, but by the end, we’ve realized how desperately she wants to love and be loved, and also how important is her desire to be a performer. That first scene when she comes in to seduce Michael York’s Brian, and he refuses her, is heartbreakingly delivered. She comes across playful and confident yet hides a world of pain in her realization that Brian must be gay (he’s not exactly, but we don’t know that yet), and that she wants to keep his friendship. I’ve rarely seen a performance of such a situation more perfectly and believably delivered.

Again and again, Minnelli draws us in with her brash persona and then nails us with the sad truth behind the facade. Her father doesn’t really love her and certainly doesn’t drop in to visit her whenever he has the chance. Her dreams of holding on to the sugar daddy Maximilian (Helmut Greim) while retaining Brian’s heart are shot down when she learns he’s been doing the same to her. Then there’s the pregnancy and ultimate decision to have an abortion. Oh, 1972, when abortion in film could be used as something to cry about yet be perfectly understandable.

I fear we are running out of time, and we have to discuss the brown-shirted, marauding elephants outside the room of Cabaret, the Nazis. Cabaret brilliantly juxtaposes the personal and the political. I’d like to get your take on the ways this is done, and what it means for the film’s ultimate themes.

Leftridge: First of all, I could talk about Liza all day — her performance in this film is fascinating — and I had no idea you were new to Liza. I would have recommended easing you in with Arthur or something; too much Liza all at once can curve your spine. But as the film’s final frame makes terrifyingly clear, those brown-shirted elephants you mention have marauded inside the room of Cabaret. This subject contains so many layers within the film: political, personal, metaphorical, sexual, and musical. The growing menace of Nazism pervades the film; there is a time when a club owner could feel free to frogmarch a uniformed Nazi member out of the bar, but we soon see what happens to that owner. Or to Brian when he kicks the Nazi flag. Or to Natalia’s dog for having the audacity to be owned by a Jewish girl. Perhaps the most chilling sequence of all is the only musical number outside the Kit Kat Club, that amazing beer garden scene, when the young boy with the perfect Aryan features and angelic voice belts out “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with increasing fervor until the entire garden party stands and joins him in song. Eventually we get a wider shot of the boy to reveal his swastika armband and Sieg Heil salute. Most of the others are singing along as much out of fear as anything, all except one old man, who looks despondent knowing that his silent, seated protest is utterly futile.

So the film depicts a scenario in which it’s impossible to stem the rising tide, and the characters inside the club adopt a sort of nihilistic view of decadence and denial instead of facing the horrifying reality outside the club. “Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful”, the MC tells the audience. By the end of the film, however, that ironic disconnect and the attempts to keep jollity alive are revealed to be little more than desperation as Sally sings, “Life is a Cabaret”, a song that captures the existential sadness just below the surface of the club’s continual pep talks. Sally’s personal life is in parallel to the film’s more overt political themes: she’s punished for her rejection of the mainstream, her gender boundary-pushing, and her sexual audaciousness. Sally’s rebelliousness keeps her in another type of denial: it prevents her from choosing marriage (albeit with a repressed homosexual) or motherhood or a life away from the stage. How about you? How do you think life is a cabaret (or like Cabaret), old chum?

Pick: First, I’m not so sure Brian is a repressed homosexual so much as a bisexual with stronger gay leanings. He really seems to connect with Sally physically and emotionally. Her realization that that connection wouldn’t be enough for him is a realization that he needs sex with men, too, not instead. But then again, I tend to see healthier sexuality on screen than is sometimes intended. As such, I think for Sally, she was denying her true self when she let herself think she could settle for a life as a homemaker and mother in small-town England. She would have been miserable even if Brian didn’t look for something else.

At any rate, we are now at a distance of 43 years from this film’s appearance in theaters. That’s longer than the time between its setting and its release, which was only 41 years. Since 1972, any attempt to deal with Nazism on screen has been way more blatantly foregrounded than this one, but I find the smaller doses of it to be way more chilling. Nazis didn’t take over Germany through a hugely obvious step toward evil. Instead, they did it slowly, winning hearts and minds one at a time, and revealing their inclinations as they went along. I thought the people singing along with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” were not all joining in out of fear but out of determination and pride. They weren’t the first, nor certainly the last, to ask government to commit horrible acts in the name of making themselves feel better.

I’m so glad this film came up early in our project, as it has really opened me up to the experience of learning new things. I never knew Cabaret was such a powerful experience on so many levels. But I am left with one very important question that was raised but not answered about one third of the way in. Why don’t we pronounce the “g” in the word “phlegm?”