Cabaret: A decadent tale of sex, friendship, music, and fascism that’s as vital now as it was 50 years ago
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the February 11, 2022 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
I don’t know when my parents introduced me to Bob Fosse’s 1972 classic Cabaret. I do remember when we grabbed it from the video store. They’d seen it before, of course, but for whatever reason, they’d decided on a rewatch, even though my dad isn’t a huge fan of musicals and my mother doesn’t care for stories revolving around warfare — no matter how ephemeral — or for the film’s Academy Award–winning star Liza Minnelli.
The whys of my first viewing aren’t all that important, though. It’s that initial reaction that sticks with me. Why was this doll-like woman working in a German nightclub? Were those men dressed as women her backup dancers? What was with the club’s emcee? Why was he so girly? Was that sort of thing allowed?
Watching Cabaret, I felt like I was looking at something dangerous, that maybe if my parents had thought about it a little more, they’d have sent me to my room to read. These people couldn’t possibly be real. The world they were inhabiting had to be an illusion. I was old enough to know Nazis were bad and that WWII was about to break out across Europe — I’d seen The Sound of Music multiple times by this point — but the story being depicted here was so strange, so perversely bedeviling, it had to be some sort of fantasy. It just had to be. Right?
I was wrong about that. After a little digging, it wasn’t very difficult to discover that John Van Druten’s play and Joe Masteroff’s Broadway adaptation, as well as Jay Allen’s screenplay, were inspired by the works of author Christopher Isherwood. Heading to the library, I was quick to find Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood’s 1939 novel from which Cabaret was born. As my mom didn’t care what the heck I read just as long as I was reading, it was easy to get her permission to check the book out — the librarian insisted for some reason — and it’s not altogether surprising that my evolving middle school mind was proverbially blown by the tales on those pages.
I’m not saying Fosse’s stunning motion picture, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original release this month, made me realize I was Transgender. That wouldn’t be true at all. But it did get me to question a heck of a lot of things. Why was I so fascinated with Sally Bowles? Why was I more attracted to Michael York than I was the divine Miss Minnelli? Why was I so excited watching the musical numbers set in the decadent Kit Kat Klub?
It’s hard not to wonder how a film, so blatantly and overtly alive in its undeniable queerness, could become such a critical and popular smash. Even for the risk-taking 1970s, with the Hollywood studio system crumbling and the new guard of maverick filmmakers starting to take over, this examination of Bisexual relationships and gender ambiguity feels way ahead of its time and uncompromisingly bold in a variety of ways.
I imagine it helps that Sally Bowles, so beautifully portrayed by Minnelli, is an inherently tragic figure, or that her lover, Brian Roberts, fearlessly brought to life by York, doesn’t quite get the happy ending he’s openly longing for. Furthermore, it does not hurt that the rise of German fascism and the growing terror of the Nazis is the true villain of the piece.
This gives viewers an outlet for their fury, rage, and insecurities and tears their attention away from other elements they may have been uncomfortable with. If anything, it almost makes the sexual aspects of this tale feel positively boring in comparison. Almost.
Cabaret won eight Academy Awards, and even though it lost Best Picture to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, its prizes for Fosse’s direction, Minnelli’s and Joel Grey’s superlative performances, and five additional Oscars loudly — and proudly — speak for themselves. But awards aren’t the reason the film has so resolutely stood the test of the time. It’s the way it makes the viewer feel. It’s the complexity and brutal forcefulness of the questions it asks. The music is great, yes, but it is the themes at the center of Isherwood’s remembrances that hold the most power.
Grey’s master of ceremonies says it best: “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” he sings with giddily malevolent glee, urging all of us to come inside the film, to sit in the Kit Kat Klub audience and see what shocking surprises will be performed up on the stage. Outside? Life is troubling. Inside? Life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Heck, even the orchestra is beautiful.
Is that an illusion? Is it subterfuge? Or is our crafty emcee speaking a truth we cannot know the veracity of until the entire story has played to a conclusion? This is the world of Cabaret. These are snapshots of a life Isherwood lived and wrote about with such spine-tingling clarity.
But it could also be here and now, and if we don’t open our eyes to the truth, we could all end up being Sally Bowles. Our troubles will no longer be left outside the front door. Instead, they’ll be staring straight back at us, and like an immaculately made-up face clownishly distorted by a cascading waterfall of tears, that won’t be beautiful at all. In fact, it would likely be downright terrifying.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Cabaret is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Entertainment and to purchase digitally on multiple platforms. It is also currently streaming on HBO Max.