Friday, June 4, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 63
Writer: Jay Allen
Director: Bob Fosse
Star: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey
The interesting thing about a cabaret is that just about everyone there would rather be elsewhere. The performers often consider cabarets either a step toward true stardom or one last desperate breath before the end of a career. Patrons looking for booze would get a less watered-down selection at a bar, those looking for a great show would rather be at the theatre and those looking for sex would be better served at a whorehouse. This holds true for almost all of the characters in “Cabaret,” who consider the title place an afterthought. Only the Master of Ceremonies remains fully devoted, providing endless energy and humor even as everything around him crumbles.
Unless you are considering the summer stock-type MGM films, the very best representations of the musical genre are the ones that tell a story first and foremost, and “Cabaret” is just about as extreme an example of this as you can find. I don’t even know if I would call it a musical, despite having eight major numbers. Bob Fosse seems determined to take viewers’ expectations and tear us away from them before throwing us into an uncertain, emotional wreck.
As the film begins it certainly seems to follow the classic musical structure, with the firecracker Cabaret singer Sally (Liza Minnelli) certain she is destined for bigger and better things. We are in Germany just before the Nazis rose to power, and meet Englishman Brian (Michael York), who takes up residence in the same building as Sally. They form a quick friendship and we are certain they are meant for one another, but then reality begins to get in the way.
The signs are subtle at first, with a Nazi or two wandering around the streets handing out propaganda, but then the main characters begin to reveal layers we don’t expect. Brian thinks he might be gay but still beds Sally. Sally begins a friendship with a rich, well-to-do man, but is he interested more in Sally or Brian? By the end anti- Semitism (of course) is touched upon, but so is abuse and abortion. Early in the film Fosse stages a scene that works wonderfully as a metaphor for everything about the film: Sally and Brian, hidden behind a building, howl orgasmically, but are drowned out by the passing train above.
Fosse handles all of these subjects with refreshing frankness, but still keeps it subtle enough to never become exploitative. The only time he stumbles is with the rise of the Nazi party. In the final half of the film Nazis just begin showing up everywhere, paralleling the slow deterioration of the main characters’ seeming innocence, which is good in theory but superfluous in execution. The worst example of this is a Nazi sing-along Fosse stages around the mid-point of the film, where a lone Nazi boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is soon joined by an entire village of Germans—including a milkmaid. Fosse would have been better served just stepping out of the screen and nailing a note with his point on it to my forehead.
Minnelli creates one of the most fascinating heroines I’ve ever seen here. She is, of course, hugely talented as a singer/dancer, but I wonder if any other actress, modern or classic, could have pulled off what she did here. We immediately fall in love with Sally—she of the innocent, playful smile and fantastic lines (look at the way she delivers this zinger: “He is absolutely my oldest friend! In Germany.”) and schoolchild jealousy of Brian giving English lessons to a beautiful Jewish woman. And then, slowly, her character becomes darker and more complicated. The first moment we realize Sally is capable of making horrible decisions, Fosse suddenly isolates us from her, giving us a smash-cut to peering at Minnelli through a window of the building she is in. And it only goes downhill from there. There are moments we laugh with her and love her as much we did when she took Brian underneath that elevated train, but they become fleeting and far between. But still, by her final appearance, after she has made a decision that is at best questionable and, at worst, unforgivable, we still love her. But we don’t like her all that much.
I’m deep inside this article and haven’t yet mentioned any of the musical numbers, which is a testament to the strength of the underlying narrative. There are several all-time classics, my favorites being the title song and “Maybe This Time.” So much has been written about how Fosse went to great lengths to only have the characters sing on stage that there’s no point in rehashing it here. Of course the numbers are wonderful, from the intricately choreographed early songs with Sally to the anarchic nature of later numbers starring Joel Grey’s M.C.
Grey is maniacally effective here, flaunting his one-dimensionality with glee. His character is a fascinating counterpart to Sally. With the M.C. you see only surface and, though you have the feeling there is much hidden emotion underneath (I’m thinking of his staging in later numbers where he begins sending up Nazis), but we never see it. He never cracks, even for an instant. Even in that final shot, where he dashes offstage and we see warped reflections of all the Nazis in the audience, his smile never fades.
Though Fosse and writer Jay Allen do a fantastic job of opening Pandora’s Box, they do less of a good job at closing it. I’m certain that part of their intention was to show that life was always messy, often pointless and never really over, and I applaud them for that, but part of me also thinks that perhaps they left things a bit too messy. We know Brian is returning to England, but aren’t given any insight to how he or Sally feel about it. Sure it’s murky, in that situation anything would be murky, but allowing the characters to suddenly act so devoid of feeling or emotion feels wrong in that context. And what of the young Jewish couple who got married? I don’t need to know whether they escaped or were ultimately captured, but I would like to know something about characters I spent so much of the movie following.
Ah well. Fosse would continue to try to tear away new layers of the emotional onion in the semi-autobiographical musical “All That Jazz” and the dark, dark, dark “Star 80,” and of course his fingerprints were all over the Rob Marshall-directed “Chicago.” But “Cabaret” still stands as his masterpiece, if only because it was the only time he successfully could balance the cynical with real emotion. Liza Minnelli giving one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema didn’t hurt, either.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2