March 19, 2011

Queer Review: Cabaret (1972)

Director: Bob Fosse
Writers: Jay Presson Allen. Based upon the works of Joe Masteroff, John Van Druten, and Christopher Isherwood.
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper.

Cabaret was credited in The Celluloid Closet as being the first Hollywood movie to openly celebrate the gay lifestyle. My understanding is that in the early seventies, merely having a gay character made a movie notable. Unfortunately though, however notable it might have been back in the day, the only reason for watching Caberet now is for historical interest, as this is not exactly a great movie. For myself, I did not find the story or the characters exactly compelling and only a couple of lines of dialog would need to be changed for almost all of the gay content to be eliminated.

Set in Germany during the Nazi's rise to power, the story centers around English Professor Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is living in Berlin, where he becomes the roommate of cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). In spite of Roberts allegedly being gay, the two fall for each other. Complications arise in the form of Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). Sally meets Maximilian by chance and when discovering he is a Baron, decides he can make her a movie star. Both she and Brian end up falling for him, which turns into the main source of drama. While these events take place, a friend of Brian, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) is struggling with his relationship with his Jewish girlfriend.

The Queering
As I suggested earlier, Cabaret has almost no queer content. Brian claims that he is gay to Sally and later that he had sex with Maxmilian but it does not take a lot of persuasion on her part before Brian ends up having sex with her. Also, while there are a few transvestite performers, their screen time is limited to a few scenes.

Most of the time while watching Cabaret I was trying to fend off boredom. I never found myself caring for the characters or their plights. Liza Minnelli shows some energy on occasion and Michael York has some chemistry with Helmut Griem, but otherwise the acting is nothing to rave about. The musical numbers have a certain energy to them, but they only seem tangential to the main plot itself and that their sole reason for existing is that otherwise the film would become a complete bore.

This is actually the biggest problem I had with the movie, none of the disparate elements come together to form a compelling narrative. The setting features the rise of the most dangerous and influential political party of the 20th Century, but the Nazi's never feel like a real threat. Many elements of the movie are like this. Like Brian's suggestions of being gay, so much of what could been used to create a greater sense of urgency or drama is toned down to the point where only a bland shell remains. The ultimate effect is akin to watching a music video with the volume turned off.

Ultimately, I can only recomend Caberat for those who are interested in the history of cinema and/or the evolution of how queer characters are presented on film. It's not a terrible movie, merely one that I would describe as mostly uninspired.

The Rating:


  1. Nice catch anonymous, I must have meant Sally.

  2. Couldn't agree more with your estimation of Cabaret. In the original, "I am a Camera," the Brian character was actually writer Christopher Isherwood, and while they didn't come right out and say he was gay, he didn't sleep with Sally, either.


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