Thursday, May 17, 2012

Movie – Cabaret (1972)

Question:  Which film was the most honored at the 1973 Oscars – The Godfather or Cabaret?  Answer: It’s not even close.  While The Godfather had eleven nominations to Cabaret’s ten, The Godfather won only three (Picture, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay).  Cabaret won eight (Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Music and Score, Art Direction, and Sound.)  In the seven categories where they went head to head, Cabaret won five of them.  In fact, its loss to The Godfather for Best Picture has made it the film that has won the most Oscars without winning the biggest one.

Cabaret is definitely a musical, but I consider that almost secondary to what else is going on in the film.  It is set in Germany in the early 1930s and several times during the film the steady rise of Nazism is shown.  There is an absolutely chilling moment regarding this during the singing of the only song performed outside the cabaret.  It is the overall story that makes this the film I consider to be the best movie that just happens to be a musical.

I should emphasize that for those folks who are put off by the many musicals where the cast suddenly breaks into perfectly choreographed song and dance routines.  This film is closer to the realism of regular dramas in that there is a perfectly logical reason for all of the songs – most of the film takes place in a cabaret and some of the cast are performers there.

And speaking of the songs, they are terrific.  There are a number of great songs performed by Liza Minelli and/or Joel Grey at the Kit-Kat cabaret.  These include Wilkommen, Money Money (aka Money Makes the World Go Around), Mein Herr, If You Could See Her Through My Eyes (I loved the closing line of this), Maybe This Time, and the title song Cabaret.

American Sally Bowles (Minelli) is a second rate singer in a second rate Berlin cabaret, known more for its decadence than anything else.  Joel Grey plays the Master of Ceremonies there.  Both won Oscars for their performances.  If you stop to think about it, both of them are too talented for the club, but do you really want to see bad performances of all these songs?  In addition, Minelli’s Oscar win made her the only person whose parents (Vincent Minelli and Judy Garland) also received Oscars, although Garland’s was non-competitive.

One day an Englishman comes to Sally’s apartment house to stay.  His name is Brian Roberts (Michael York) and he is going to teach English.  He and Sally hit it off, and even though they sleep together, she tells him that she isn’t going to get romantically involved with him because she plans to marry a rich man.  Just such a man comes into her life – Max von Heune.  He dazzles her with his fancy car and invites her and Brian to his castle.

While they are there Max tells them that he is married, but both he and his wife have separated so both can pursue pleasure with others.  After they get home Sally confesses to Brian that she slept with Max.  Brian’s response – “So did I”.  I’m sure this isn’t the first appearance of bisexuality in a Hollywood film, but it was probably the most prominent film it had appeared in up to that time.  (No, I don’t think there was anything physical between Ratso and Joe Buck in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy).

Another subplot in Cabaret concerns a student of Brian’s – Fritz Wendell.  He is also determined to marry rich, in his case an “ugly woman” who will be grateful.  Instead Sally sets him up with Natalia Landauer (the lovely Marisa Berenson), who has enough money to satisfy him.  After getting to know her, though, he actually does fall in love with her.  He doesn’t know how to proceed with Natalia because she doesn’t seem to be interested in anything physical.  Sally convinces him that he needs to “pounce”.  He does, and it opens Natalia’s eyes up to a whole new world.  (Nowadays, the political incorrectness of this would have people protesting the “date rape” in the film).  Both of them are very much in love, but they have a problem: she is Jewish.  The changing tide in the country has now made that a major issue.

Max ends up sending both Sally and Brian money and a note telling them he is leaving the country.  Sally finds out she is pregnant soon after and confesses she doesn’t know if the father is Brian or Max.  Brian tries to convince her to marry him and have the child.  He’s poor, of course, so this would mean living poor with him.  Having the child would also mean Sally would have to give up her career in the cabaret – the only thing she has left in regards to maybe becoming rich and famous.  What will she decide to do?

This may seem strange to say about a movie that I like a lot, but I find the main character of Sally Bowles to be a little irritating from time to time.  Like I said at the top, it’s not really her character that makes this such a great movie for me, but rather the undercurrent of what we know is coming in Germany and how it’s always there, just behind all the actions of the people in this film.  It leads to a fantastic final image in the film.

Even if you hate musicals, I’d suggest you give this one a try because of how it segregates the performances into a stage show.  I would give this movie four stars for its story, but I love the song performances in the film, and that earns it an extra star from me.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Of your categories, this was the one I was the most interested in. I can't argue your choice, either. This film surprised me. In particular, the character of Sally surprised me. I didn't (and don't) like her, but I pity her, and that carries me through the film.

  2. I enjoy Cabaret. My favorite musical number, though, is not one you listed - it's "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." For my money, it's the scariest damn scene in the entire movie, and one of the most chilling scenes in all of cinema, and no, I don't say that lightly. Creeps me the eff out, man.

    I love Fosse. Oh my god, I love Fosse. I'm an MGM musical fangirl through and through, but Fosse - Fosse was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    why do people have to hate on musicals so much? That makes me sad.

  3. @SJHoneywell - Thanks. Your description of Sally is a damn good one. While she makes bad decisions, you can at least sort of understand why. She's in a trap of her own making.

    @siochembio - I originally listed that song in the paragraph with the other songs, but then realized it was not sung by Minelli or Grey, so it didn't fit there. I alluded to that scene in my second paragraph. As you can see, I agree with you on it being a chilling scene. I thought about mentioning the song name there, but ultimately decided against it since the slow reveal in the film as the camera pulls back is part of what makes the scene. In regards to disliking musicals, the comment I have most often seen is that they are unrealistic because people don't break out into song and dance in real life (flashmobs notwithstanding). It takes some people right out of the movie. While this is an accurate statement, I don't feel that musicals are any less realistic than action films where the hero never gets hurt, comedies where everyone always thinks of the perfect comeback, or most any other genre. On the other hand, I can understand not liking something that takes you out of a movie because shakycam does the same thing to me. While some people profess to love it because they feel it makes things more exciting, it just reminds me there is a cameraman standing there trying to film some actors.

  4. Sorry, Chip, when I think of great musicals Cabaret does not spring to mind. I like it, but I most assuredly don't love it.

  5. @KimWilson - No problem. Sometimes a particular film just doesn't work for someone. For instance, I like musicals, but I don't care for Best Picture winner and much acclaimed musical West Side Story. Thanks for commenting.

    1. Chip, you and are in agreement about West Side Story.

  6. Very good write up Chip. However, I personnally do not like this film very much. I liked the 1970's cinematography and the fact that the musical numbers are very well inserted but I did not cared for Sally at all. There were so many interesting and audacious films in the Hollywood picture in the 1970's that I think Cabaret isn't really standing strong amongst them. But, this is just my point of view... By the way, this feature is very interesting!

  7. @Michael Parent - Thanks for the comments. It seems universal so far that Sally isn't a likable person; it's just a matter of whether that ruined the movie as a whole for people.

  8. I find it curious that it's okay to immediately dislike a musical film without seeing it when people who, for example, dislike a superhero film without seeing it are termed snobs. In the minority though I may be, I think each of the Oscar wins for CABARET were well deserved (and, I'd even through in best picture).

    Not to beat a dead horse, but how less "realistic" is people breaking into song than people speaking in the typical movie-speak? Cinema inherently depends on a suspension of disbelief to some extent.

  9. @Andrew: Encore Entertainment - I agree with eveything you wrote. When I first came across the "it's not realistic" argument about five years back I figured it was just that person who thought that way. Since then, though, I've seen the same reasoning given from several others.

    One of my favorite stories about making movies "real" comes from The Lord of the Rings. Actor Sean Astin, who was looking to get into directing, kept bugging the cinematographer about where the light sources were coming from in scenes. He felt there should be a plausible explanation for it (i.e. fire, sunlight, lantern, etc.) When he asked the cinematographer one more time about where the light was coming from, the frustrated man replied, "the same place the music is coming from."

  10. Great review! I really like this movie, I'm not too fond of the musicals but when the story is good - as here and in Moulin Rouge! - that is all that matters. I have to rewatch this one soon.

  11. Please add me to the list for not being a huge fan of the musical.. West Side Story.

    Minelli, is not one of my favorite actors, but she has a terrific voice.

  12. @Sati. - Thanks. I hope you enjoy it again.

    @Dawn - It's interesting. I figured I was pretty much alone in disliking West Side Story, but there have been multiple people here saying the same thing. I've had an idea for months to do a post turning the "guilty pleasure" on it's head and instead write about "secret hates". It doesn't fit with the format of my blog, though, since these would not be films I would recommend. Perhaps some change would be good, though.