Loosely defined, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is like an oratorio in the process of reformulation; the composition brushes aside any undue textual reverence and enhances Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles as hallowed timepiece and uses the musical’s songs of raunchy decadence on the Kit Kat stage to be profanely commentarial on the foreboding virulence. Though Fosse had previously made a mess of Sweet Charity—a terrible mix of Shirley MacLaine, story antiquation, displacing editing, noxious male casting, all made worse by having been expected to be a PGer about whores—this second chance at a movie musical stiffened his resolve to not be forced to dilute the lewd because of pressures from the suits. To ensure the repellant ambience, he revised the original book, stacked the show and vocals in favor of Liza Minnelli, made Joel Grey’s spook factor more repugnant, and wisely brought in Geoffrey Unsworth as cinematographer. About Liza, who, let’s face it, has always been problematic, here comes deep creep John Simon’s cruelty again: “Plain, ludicrously rather than pathetically plain, is what she is. That turnipy nose overhanging a forward-gaping mouth and hastily retreating chin, that bulbous cranium with eyes as big and as inexpressive as saucers; those are the appurtenances of a clown...And given a matching figure—desperately uplifted breasts, waist indistinguishable from hips—you cannot play Sally Bowles. Especially if you have no talent.” Isherwood would claim Liza is “too talented” to play amateur Sally. It is debatable whether Liza has genuine talent, or is the sum of her hardworking rehearsals to try to acquire some. But it’s also a given she isn’t Sally as Isherwood describes, which is not being an image of freak. A lot of freakiness in Liza: her gamine green nails grotesquery, her weepy clownishness, her vampy fag-haggishness—these “appurtenances” work for her here as almost natural by-products of surviving familial dysfunction and through which awards are sympathically bestowed. (Her mother died in 1969 at 47; her father Vincente recommended she study Louise Brooks for inspiration.) The three male beauty posters—Michael York (as Isherwood), Helmut Griem and Fritz Wepper—look like they could be different versions of themselves; they also remind us of the men in De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Made in 1972, Cabaret gives the fictitious impression the economic ruin caused by WW I and the Depression hadn’t yet touched Berlin. Having been filmed in then West Germany, the permission in duplicating the conditions of the era was thought not worth the bureaucratic trouble, thus the atmosphere of decay limited mostly to the Kit Kat Club as outlet to expose fermenting fascism, with some of its violence interpolated into musical numbers. The ending’s dissolve foreshadows the resurgence of extreme ideology today.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER (Revised 2/2022) All Rights Reserved.