Essays · Movies

Bob Fosse, ‘Cabaret,’ and the Performer’s Eye for Filmmaking

Fosse’s 1972 Academy Award-winning feature is a masterclass in precision.
By  · Published on March 28th, 2019

It was in the cards from the start: 1972 was to be the year of The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s critically acclaimed mob drama earned 10 Academy Award nominations and, leading up to the event, took home key prizes at the Golden Globes, the Writers’ Guild Awards, and the Directors’ Guild Awards. Projections were favorable, and it was widely believed that Coppola had the Best Director category on lock. But if there’s one thing the Hollywood awards season teaches us, it’s to expect the unexpected.

In the end, Bob Fosse won the Best Director Oscar over Coppola for Cabaret, a musical melodrama following the life of a frenetic Berlin nightclub dancer named Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). The feat surprised even him; at the start of his acceptance speech, Fosse name-dropped his fellow nominees and confessed to some impostor syndrome. “Being characteristically a pessimist and a cynic,” he quipped, “this and some of the other nice things that have happened to me the last couple days may turn me into some sort of hopeful optimist and ruin my whole life.” That night, Cabaret took home eight Oscars. The Godfather won three.

Cabaret isn’t just special because it swept the Oscars in 1973. For one, it’s a sharp political satire, juxtaposing the razzle-dazzle of its Kit Kat Club musical numbers against the corruption and downfall of Weimar Germany. Additionally, it both universalizes and de-glamorizes the idea of a life of performance. Indeed, Sally’s foibles with lovers and liquor — intercut with chilling images of the Club’s grinning, ghostly Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) — are marked by her ever-present ties to the stage, her desperate need to command the attention of an audience. Aspects of her real life and stage life become synonymous, to the point where she finds herself dancing for friends on a trip to the countryside, answering pleas for an encore. As she belts in the film’s finale, “Life is a Cabaret, old chum. Come to the Cabaret.”


Fosse also spent the better part of his life in show business. Between his early teenage years dancing in Vaudeville shows to his becoming an award-winning director and choreographer, he managed to create his own distinct sense of artistry rooted in off-kilter sensuality and subtlety — all inverted knees, soft shoes, and splayed jazz hands. As director, choreographer, and uncredited co-editor of Cabaret, his particular worldview shapes the film into the sharp satire of performance that it is, making it impossible to consider what the result would have been without his involvement.

As Sam Wasson writes in his biography of the performer, Fosse’s close collaboration with the film’s editor, David Bretherton, made him “realize his dream of total control of every stage element, toe tap, and facial expression” (268). His feel for blocking and rhythm lent itself well to long days in the cutting room, and in turn, influenced how Cabaret itself values movement. Quick cuts between ensemble dancers in numbers like “Wilkommen” and “Mein Herr” emphasize the sharpness of these performances, and the significance of small, isolated steps: a single kick in a kick line, or a set of fingers drumming along the edge of a chair.

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Fosse’s role as the director of Cabaret also shows us the power of performance, particularly in the way he chooses to frame the film’s musical acts. More often than not, the camera is positioned at low angles, looking upward at those onstage. This framing both puts the viewer in the same perspective as the patrons of the Kit Kat Club, as well as positions those on stage as looming overhead. As these dancers flex and kick and sway, rapid cuts to individual audience members reveal the crowd as engaged in the spectacle, but also immobile, almost mannequin-like. We, as viewers, are similarly sitting down to watch, and in our stillness, we relinquish our attention, our time, our assets to those who are taking a more active role before us, to those who move.

Fosse’s choreography itself also creates a link between performance and power. Sally Bowles, the MC, and the ensemble dancers of the Kit Kat Club have all become synonymous with Fosse’s signature style, and it is through the uniqueness of their movement that they command the attention of their audience. After all, with just an inverted knee, Sally Bowles literally stops time and asserts her presence as a soloist at the top of “Mein Herr.” With that singular movement, her control over the club’s patrons — and the viewer — is set.

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As Sally learns, though, there are limits to the power of the stage. During her sweeping ballad “Maybe This Time,” Sally remains largely stationary, bringing more focus to her personal wants and desires rather than her presence as a performer. As she belts through the first chorus, a wide shot reveals that the club is practically empty and that the few patrons who are present aren’t too interested in her. She’s stuck, staying still. She’ll always be reaching outward and upward, simultaneously enabled and entrapped by the rays of stage lights backlighting her fingers. In a mark of Fosse’s self-admitted cynicism, her sincerity doesn’t sell.

Ultimately, Fosse held no illusions about the pitfalls of show business; he never thought he’d win the Academy Award, much like we’ll never know whether or not Sally Bowles ever achieves her dream of becoming a film star. But, also like Sally, Fosse’s need to perform was the crux of his life. In acknowledging the allure of the stage and the relative power it grants performers, he uses Cabaret to explore a related fear, the feeling that we’re all always onstage, always seeking validation from our own respective audiences. Whether that instinct is indicative of our own narcissism, or sincerity, or both, is something that Fosse grappled with, and something we also must decide about ourselves.

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