Michael Koresky on Cabaret
All great performances ideally would be introduced at the opening of a door. Liza Minnelli’s grand entrance in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret occurs from within the sliver of an apartment entryway, the door’s chain lock dangling across her pale face like jewelry. We’d glimpsed her once before, taking a bow but placed in the frame almost as an afterthought during the film’s opening “Wilkommen” number as the camera quickly bounds away. A self-made eccentric American expatriate living and performing in Weimar-era Berlin, Sally is welcoming Michael York’s Brian, a British teacher and writer, into the flat she shares with a coterie of older Germans. It’s clear that she immediately desires to shock him—that her way of making a good first impression is the assertion of her flamboyant personality. More than her kewpie-doll bowl-cut, her heavily lashed saucer eyes, or her tassled dresses, her telltale trait is the emerald green of her painted fingernails. Sometimes emphasized by lacy fingerless gloves, they gleam like neon talons. When she offers a hand to enchant herself to a gentleman, she knows all eyes will be drawn there. In terms of persona building, her eager fingernails are her last line of defense.
What makes Liza’s Sally Bowles quite a character is that she sees herself as quite a character. The sad, and rather radical, revelation of Cabaret is that Sally is not all that interesting, and everything she does, says, and wears—especially that glittering green nail polish—is a reminder of her essential dullness. Her green is a splash of color in a field of gray. Minnelli’s fabulousness might seem at odds with this, but there’s always been a touch of desperation in the singer-performer’s outsized persona, a drive to please that's downright terrifying. She seems to be constantly seeking approval, whether it’s from the audience or perhaps the free-floating presences of her parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli. The movie version of Sally is an entirely different beast from that of the Broadway musical of Cabaret, embodied first by Jill Haworth and in later years by self-deprecating actors like Natasha Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The character on stage was written as British, while Brian is an American. The film switches that up, but the change comes from more than that. Minnelli brings celebrity baggage, so she never disappears into her role; instead the part conforms to her specific contours, resulting in something devastatingly personal. We’re constantly aware we’re watching a star, even a celebrity; at the time she was a legend in the making, but her lineage marked her as already legendary. Do we think of the swagger as Sally’s or Liza’s? And how about the desperation? And how about the green fingernails?
In creating the character of Sally Bowles, Minnelli and Fosse envisioned a woman on the edge of desperation, whose growing realization of her own flaws and failures mirrors the delusions of the Weimar-era Berliners around her. Like most of them, she is blissfully unaware of the growing Nazi threat, which Fosse consistently punctuates throughout the film, whether with cutaways to young Aryan men in swastika armbands in the audience at the Kit Kat Club, or Nazi youths handing out street flyers. Then, of course there is the central, chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” sequence, which metaphorically—and distressingly tunefully—depicts the Nazi takeover of the hearts and minds of the German people in one economically accomplished flourish: a beautiful blue-eyed blond sings of the glories of nature at an outdoor beer garden, as one by one the rest of the customers stand up to harmonize along with him. The fact that Cabaret is essentially a film about genocide—or more specifically a film about the social apathy and decadence that led to the Holocaust—makes its dazzling central star a supporting character in her own story. The shock of Fosse’s movie is Sally’s ultimate tepidness, even as Minnelli’s singing, dancing, and glorious moony smile command attention. Rarely is there a major Hollywood narrative film that works at such rich odds with its protagonist.
By putting a character who is a self-involved and essentially callow performer at its center, Fosse’s film also makes explicit the tenuous but undeniably charged relationship between politics and entertainment. Cabaret is about social degradation, and things fall apart in the world of the film because ultimately show business and politics are in collusion. In this way, Cabaret is a work of eternal and terrifying truths. Joel Grey’s diabolical emcee is often described by critics as a “personification of evil.” Yet he does not initiate terror, he only reflects, represents, and enables it—an update of Cabaret to the twenty-first century might as well cast him as a television news reporter, the front man of a system that purports nonpartisanship but which ultimately reifies the culture’s majority opinion. During the opening number, “Wilkommen,” there is no hint that the Kit Kat Club’s emcee has any message at all, mincing along to a generic song that welcomes the audience to its show (and the movie) in a charade of multilingual gratitude and international neutrality, offering its lyrics in German, French, and English. As the film progresses, however, the impresario takes on an increasingly ominous bearing. As more and more red Nazi armbands dot the crowd like bloodstains, he begins to reflect their ethos back to the audience, goose-stepping during musical numbers, making a vile anti-Semitic comment to punctuate the seemingly innocuous “If You Could See Her,” and, in one quick, almost subliminal flash before Fosse cuts away, smearing his upper lip with a dab of mud that evokes Hitler’s mustache. Such moments give the club—and the film—a sense of continual descent into an inferno.
That it all happens so gradually, right under the noses of the characters, is what makes Cabaret so unsettling. There are few films that better evoke the mundanity of evil. The emcee is the obvious reflection of all this, with his demonic painted face and toothy, wily grin. But one of the difficult truths about Fosse’s film is that Sally—seemingly outside of the evil political forces bubbling around her, due to her Americanness and her social obliviousness—is perhaps even more directly implicated. She is, after all, an active character, rather than a walking, leering metaphor, as the emcee is. Michael York’s Brian, who becomes her bisexual lover in an ultimately failed romance, is more politically engaged; his disgust with Germany’s de-evolution as the Third Reich’s ascendance grows imminent, combined with Sally’s own emotional stuntedness, ultimately causes him to leave Berlin. Sally, however, as always heedless of what’s going on around her, decides to stay. This leads to Minnelli’s final show-stopper, a rendition of the title song so profoundly felt that despite its suspiciously sunny lyrics (“Put down the knitting, the book, and the broom! It’s time for a holiday! Life is a cabaret, old chum!”) it comes across as a howl of misery and entrapment. After Sally belts out her last note, held for an unearthly long time by Minnelli, who was at the astonishing peak of her powers here, she looks at the audience with her wide, hollow eyes for a quick, desperate moment, before disappearing behind the curtain. She has been swallowed up into the pitch-black of history.
Those bright green fingernails may help Sally forge her identity, but they cannot glow in the dark. Despite her best efforts to bejewel and bedazzle, eternally self-conscious Sally is finally nothing more than a shadow on the wall. There’s a line from the original play, cut from the film, which handily reflects Sally’s perspective on her appearance, as well as her aggressive shallowness: “I don’t think people should have to explain anything. For example, if I should paint my fingernails green—and it just so happens I do paint them green—well, if anyone should ask me why, I say: ‘I think it’s pretty!’” The movie Cabaret especially has a fascinatingly ambivalent relationship with prettiness. Fosse disallows the images onscreen to ever appear as anything other than sullied. As a result, for all her glamour, and for all of Minnelli’s undeniable dazzle, Sally is simply drab. Her fingernails a pale, sickly green.