Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the Academy Award-winning performance by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.
Before 1972, we’d never seen a Hollywood movie musical quite like Cabaret. The 1960s saw the release of some of the most famous movie musicals ever made, from Robert Wise’s West Side Story to the Academy Award-winning adaptations of The Music Man and My Fair Lady. These films faithfully brought Broadway to the silver screen, but they didn’t bring much else to the material beyond realistic sets and glossy technicolor. Which, in itself, is an aesthetic musical fans love, but theater by its very nature is meant to entertain and challenge audiences with unique ways of telling stories.
The classic form of movie musicals, however, isn’t exactly what I’d call challenging art. That’s not to say that musicals before Cabaret were not intent on presenting complex drama. West Side Story has always been centered around bigotry in the early 20th century, and Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof sets a story about evolving family dynamics at the onset of the 1905 Russian Revolution. But no musical used their socio-political themes so intentionally than director and choreographer Bob Fosse’s adaptation of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Cabaret.
Set in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of fascism, Cabaret is unapologetically about the naive indifference politicians and artists held towards the emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany. Fosse connects Berlin’s decadence and the threat of fascism by racking focus on the melancholy effervescence of chanteuse Sally Bowles and her interpersonal relationships in a city on the cusp of total upheaval. Bob Fosse found the perfect performer to bring his vision to life: Liza Minnelli.
Minnelli was born into a powerhouse entertainment industry family. She is the daughter of actress and singer Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and director Vincent Minnelli (An American in Paris). Her earliest roles were as a child in her mother’s films, but her first real taste of fame was as a singer. At only 18, she cut her first record and began performing in nightclubs across the East Coast. She was able to parlay this into a career on Broadway, earning herself a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace in 1965. At the time, she was the youngest recipient of the award.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Minnelli released four more albums and slowly began to transition into Hollywood. Her debut role was in the Albert Finney-directed Charlie Bubbles, and a year later she received her first Academy Award nomination for Alan J. Pakula’s The Sterile Cuckoo. But despite these early roles, Cabaret still feels like Minnelli’s real debut because it was her first movie musical. She’s an incredibly effective actor, but her talents align when she’s able to add singing and dancing into her characterization. As much as Minnelli conveys Sally’s emotional state through her dialogue, she conveys even more through song. Because the musical numbers are intentionally meant to act as commentary on the story, Minnelli is able to carry over all of Sally’s given circumstances into her cabaret performances.
In a number like “Maybe This Time,” all of the hopes and dreams that Minnelli’s Sally projects onto her lover, Brian (Michael York), throughout the film are able to be dynamically expressed through song. She allows the lyrics to surface Sally’s subconscious mind, giving Minnelli the opportunity to give voice to thoughts that her character may not have been able to express in her off-stage life, like “everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me.” The song, on paper, may seem to be about longing for true love, but through Minnelli’s performance, we see it is much more somber and melancholic than what our ears hear.
In conversation with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio, Minnelli offered insight into how she approaches performing a song:
“I have a book for each show, and the way I do it, the lyrics are [on one page] and the character breakdown is on [the next]. So if I’m learning the lyrics, I also have in front of me the picture of the woman singing the song. What is she showing? What is she hiding? What does she not know she’s hiding? What happened to her right before she started to sing this song? Why is she singing this song? What color carpet is on her living room floor? It’s the finest details because details count. They count so much. They’re the secrets that you see in great singers’ eyes. All great singers have them…just make sure you have a secret. Make it specific.”
That specificity is on display in Sally’s expressive final song, “Cabaret.” In the scenes leading up to the number, we learn that Sally is pregnant with what she believes to be Brian’s child. As they lounge in the shade of a grassy meadow, she talks excitedly about the life they’ll have when the baby is born, but Brian is despondent. Sensing his unhappiness, Minnelli gives Sally this painful gaze as memories flood into her mind. With quick successive edits, we see snapshots of Sally’s life with Brian intercut with moments of her soaking up the limelight on stage. But despite this collage of happy memories, all we see in Minnelli’s eyes is this mournful, blank expression as she’s lost imagining everything her life is, and everything it could have been.
After this scene, Sally tells Brian she’s had an abortion. But was this a decision she made for herself, or was it to save Brian from a lifetime of unhappiness? The answer to that question is the secret that Minnelli holds from the audience. That said, we are given a clue to Sally’s inner emotions in the way Minnelli performs the title song.
In the stage show, the song “Cabaret” is performed with profound desperation; Sally practically begging the audience to tell her that life isn’t a cabaret. This is the textbook reading of Sally Bowles that I’ve always had in my mind, but on rewatching Minnelli’s performance, I was surprised to see her not take this obvious path. She sings with spirited panache, unencumbered by the fact that she just went through a deeply emotional procedure and fascism is encroaching all around her. The audience can easily project onto the song what we envision it being about — that every “life of the party” has to invariably die — but that’s not the way Minnelli sings it. Well, not completely anyway.
Between the chorus of the song, there are verses that tell the story of Elsie, a woman with an unquenchable thirst for life, just like Sally, but who overdoses on drugs and liquor and dies alone. The moral of the story is that Minnelli’s Sally wants to live her life just the same, belting out the lyrics, ”When I go, I’m going like Elsie!” But as she recounts seeing the woman dead in her apartment, Minnelli gives Sally the same mournful expression we saw on her face in the meadow with Brian.
This is Minnelli conveying to the audience that Sally isn’t as thrilled about “going like Elsie” as she proclaims so proudly. The subtlety of the moment doesn’t distract the audience from the energy of the music, but it underscores what makes Minnelli so great in this role: she’s vibrantly able to express through song the spectrum of emotions that Sally encompasses.
Even as the genre slowly fell out of fashion at the end of the 1970s, Cabaret helped push the movie musical into a more mature, thoughtful direction. Fosse was able to inject into a family-friendly film genre palpable political commentary and startling realism. And no musical character has felt more real than Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles. With a powerhouse voice and a deep emotional connection to the material, Minnelli’s Sally is still devastatingly effective — and thoroughly entertaining — over 50 years later.