(This is the 19th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Jeff listed Cabaret at #43 and he does a great job of placing the movie amongst the other highlights of that excellent period of American films. It is possible Cabaret could never have been made the way it was at any other period. He notes that while the film takes place in 1931, it is a 70s movie, a point I agree with. He adds that it “comes …figuratively out of David Bowie and Los Angeles,” which is a point I’d contest. Bob Fosse was Broadway, not Hollywood. He was an innovative choreographer who worked in that line for fifteen years before directing his first film (Sweet Charity, which he had directed and choreographed on the stage). I’m not arguing that there is no connection between glam rock and the film version of Cabaret, but I’d say Fosse influenced glam more than glam influenced Fosse.
The key theme underlying Cabaret is decadence: its definition, its social role, its connection to the larger society. I don’t think the film equates decadence with fascism; it isn’t drawing a direct line between, say, bisexuality and the rise of Nazis. What Cabaret does show is how the appeal of decadence in all its guises distracts us from the real world of politics, and in the Weimar period, given our knowledge of how things turn out, “politics” is “the rise of fascism.” While Weimar is a perfect setting for decadence, the film isn’t specific to that period. Instead, it suggests that we always want to escape via the decadence of the cabaret, that we always want distraction, which allows the powerful to have their way. And my definition of “decadence” has nothing to do with any specific acts, but rather is related to our need to be in the cabaret. Life is a cabaret, after all, old chum, and if you can watch Cabaret and not find that statement simultaneously exciting and depressing, you haven’t been watching at all.
Liza Minnelli is sensational; in every way but one, she is perfectly cast. She brilliantly pulls off the combination of bravado and insecurity that is the off-stage Sally Bowles, and when she performs on the stage, she lights up and becomes so sexy she embodies the decadence far more than she does when she applies colored nail polish when off stage. It’s perfect casting, except … her Sally Bowles is so talented, it strains credulity to believe she’d be stuck in a third-rate joint like the Kit Kat Klub.
Joel Grey, on the other hand, is equally brilliant, but his abilities fit the club. You can’t believe his Master of Ceremonies would ever be anywhere but the Kit Kat Klub.
I got more comments than usual for this selection, but most of them were about musicians who were also actors.