Director: Bob Fosse (USA). Year of Release: 1972
How to go forward with this review? I’ve seen Cabaret many times before, have written one fairly detailed review. I’d also like to write something in even more detail if I can find an interested journal. So there’s no need to just say what happened. I’m going to concentrate here on some of the things which occurred to me on this showing, even though I’m more familiar with Cabaret than pretty much any other film.
Of course tonight’s showing was an acknowledgement of the film’s 50th anniversary, but it was also part of a regular programme of LGBT films. As I argued in the article linked above, Cabaret is strongly influenced by, and an advocate of, the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This does not mean that all of its characters are equally liberated.
We’ll start with the film’s lead Brian Roberts, who is the closest stand in for the audience. Although Brian is liberated, and the one character in the film who is explicitly against the Nazis, his sexual politics are not always exemplary. Cabaret is celebrated as being one of the first ever films to have a trans character. But when Brian double-takes at this character pissing next to him in the toilets, his view of disgust is taken more from sexist sitcoms and picture postcards than from solidarity.
Add to this something which needs plot spoilers, but this article is going to be full of plot spoilers. Towards the end of the film, Sally announces that she is pregnant, but doesn’t know if the father is Brian or the louche aristocrat Max. Even later, Sally says that she’s had an abortion. Brian’s reaction is not one which will help a vulnerable woman who’s just had a dangerous (and then illegal) medical operation. He punches the pillow near to Sally’s head and makes it all about him.
Most strange is the film’s treatment of LGBT rights. The film is based on a play in which the Brian character is explicitly gay. The play is based on novels written by the most definitely gay Christopher Isherwood. And yet in the film Brian just has to look at Sally and he’s falling in love and into bed with her. It is not that gay men never sleep with women. But this does reinforce a trope that gay men aren’t really gay, they just haven’t met the right woman yet.
How promiscuous is Sally?
I’m not sure how important this point is, but when I was researching my article on the film, I read a number of reports which categorically asserted that Sally has slept with lots of men. On the one hand, this is not important as a moral issue – if Sally has slept around, it doesn’t make her a worse person. On the other hand, I think such analysis misses the nature of Sally.
It becomes clear early on that Sally is a liar, someone who bigs herself up to enhance her own status. She is always on the verge of being a great film star although she works in a seedy nightclub (the film continually has the problem of explaining how a third-rate nightclub can hold onto an artist like Liza Minelli). This means that there is clearly a great difference between what Sally has done and what she says she’s done.
A number of characters in the film (I counted 3) talk about Sally’s promiscuity. One is Sally herself, generally in her self-enabling schtick. She wants to put forward an image of herself as being liberal and breaking boundaries. The other 2 people who believe that Sally has slept around are Fritz and Natalia. Yet their impression of Sally comes entirely from what Sally has told them.
I have this theory (which can’t be proved because – remember it – this is fiction) that Sally hadn’t slept with anyone before she met Brian. Or that she had, but only with the rich pervs who sleep with her after making promises to advance her film career. Whatever, it is clear that she is a deeply troubled woman who has been told that sleeping around can somehow enhance her social status, but whatever experiences she has had have been much less happy than she is letting on.
When do Brian and Max sleep with each other?
This is probably going into deep “this really doesn’t matter” territory, but has just occurred to me. Excuses if it was perfectly clear to everyone else. At some point in the film, Brian says “screw Maximilian”, Sally responds “I do”, and Brian says “So do I”. I’ve always presumed that Brian was referring to the scene in Max’s villa where the 3 embraced, but Brian passed out almost immediately afterwards.
It’s now obvious that Brian started a relationship with Max after they returned from Berlin after the ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ park scene – in other words he is at least as much of a dick to Sally as Sally is to him. As said, this doesn’t mean too much in the great sphere of things, but it is another contribution against the idea of Brian as reliable (and trustworthy) narrator.
Is any of this important?
Probably not, and I would refer you to my original review which I think captures more of the essence of the film. The comments here are minor quibbles which may slightly miss the most important fact that Cabaret is one of the greatest films ever made, and displays superb politics, music and artistic expertise. But even the best films have slight flaws, which pedants like me need to mention from time to time.