There are some films that earn a place in the pantheon of greats, destined to be talked about, remembered, honored, and preserved for decades to come. Cabaret is one of those films. Directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey, Cabaret was loosely based on a 1966 Broadway musical of the same name. The musical, in turn, was based on a novel named The Berlin Stories from 1945, as well as a 1951 play entitled, I Am a Camera.
The roots of Cabaret, therefore, go back many years. Still, the film remains relevant and significant right into the modern era, famed for its incredible performances, Academy Award-winning sound, editing, cinematography, direction, and intriguing story. It’s an undisputed classic, with a fascinating production past and several interesting behind the scenes stories too. Read on to learn all about the full story of 1972’s Cabaret.
Based on a True Story
To understand the origins of Cabaret, we have to look at the lives of Christopher Isherwood and Jean Ross. The 1972 film was based on Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical book ‘The Berlin Stories,’ while Jean Ross, a friend of Isherwood’s, served as the inspiration for the film’s character of Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minnelli.
In 1929, Isherwood, an Anglo-American writer, moved to Weimar Berlin in order to enjoy the city’s gay scene without fear of the same prejudice he might receive in other parts of the world. There, he befriended Jean Ross, also a writer, along with other literary locals like W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.
A Dramatic True Story
While in Berlin, Isherwood lived together with Ross. She was an aspiring cabaret singer and actress, and at one point, she unexpectedly became pregnant with the child of Peter van Eyck, a German-born actor and pianist. Eyck later left Germany without warning, leaving Ross alone. She decided to get an abortion, and Isherwood helped out, pretending to be the unborn child’s father in order to give his approval for the abortion.
As time went by and the situation in Germany began to degrade, Isherwood, Ross, and their friends knew they had to flee. They ended up in England, and Isherwood decided to write about his and his friends’ lives in The Berlin Stories, which served as the inspiration for a play called I Am a Camera.
The Inspiration for an Inspiration
The Berlin Stories was adapted into a play called I Am a Camera by John van Druten, an English playwright and theatre director. This play inspired several other works: a 1955 comedy-drama film, also called I Am a Camera, as well as the 1966 musical and 1972 movie version of Cabaret.
Interestingly, even though both versions of Cabaret focus on the character of Sally Bowles, she was only a relatively small part of the many stories that made up Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. Regardless, the musical version of Cabaret was a huge success, and it seemed like only a matter of time until a motion picture version of the story would be made.
A Very Successful Musical
The Cabaret musical featured music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. It opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre in November of 1966, later moving to the Imperial Theatre and, eventually, the Broadway Theatre. A total of 1,165 performances of Cabaret ran on Broadway, and the musical also made its way to the West End of London, opening at the Palace Theatre.
Esteemed actress Judi Dench played the role of Sally in the British version, while Jill Haworth was cast in the role for its initial Broadway run. The show had revivals in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, both on Broadway and the West End. It won multiple Tony awards.
It was in 1968 that the idea for a film version of Cabaret began to take root. Cinerama had a verbal agreement to make the film but pulled out just a year later. Fortunately, Allied Artists and ABC Pictures stepped in in 1969 to start planning out the film, but they had to wait until 1971 to get Bob Fosse on board as director.
Fosse heard about the film through Harold Prince, director of the original Broadway show. He knew right then and there that he wanted to direct the picture and actually begged Cy Feuer, the film’s producer, to hire him. However, the producer had other ideas in mind.
Fosse Almost Missed Out
At the time of Cabaret’s production, Bob Fosse wasn’t the biggest name in the movie-making business. He’d only just released Sweet Charity, his first-ever film, and a major box office bomb. Executives Manny Wolf and Marty Baum weren’t keen on the idea of entrusting this new production to such an inexperienced and thus far unsuccessful director.
They wanted to give the job to someone who was more established, with names like Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly being talked about at the time. However, the producer Cy Feuer really wanted to give Fosse a chance. He actually appealed to the executives on Fosse’s behalf, saying that Fosse knew musicals very well and could bring that part of the film to life in a way that other directors simply wouldn’t be able to.
The Screenplay Needed Some Big Changes
Eventually, thanks to Cy Feuer, Fosse got the job and sat down with Jay Presson Allen, the screenwriter, to work on the picture. However, this relationship began to deteriorate over time. As the days and weeks went by and production drew closer, Fosse was less and less satisfied with the script. Eventually, he called in Hugh Wheeler to do some rewrites.
Wheeler was an actual friend of Christopher Isherwood, the original author of The Berlin Stories, and he decided to go right back to the original source material in order to try and make the film feel more authentic and true to its roots. Originally, the character of Brian Roberts was a heterosexual man, but Wheeler made him bisexual to honor Isherwood’s open homosexuality.
A Dramatic Change Occurs
Bob Fosse had a big challenge on his hands when trying to make a movie version of a successful Broadway show. He needed to preserve the elements that made the show such a success but also needed to put his own mark on the film and make it something unique and different. In order to separate his version of the story from the theatrical original, he made one huge change.
He decided to put most of the film’s focus on the Kit Kat Klub, thereby removing all but one of the songs performed outside the club in the musical. Not only that, but he also wanted some new songs, with the show’s original songwriters, Kander and Ebb, being called in to write ‘Mein Herr’ and ‘Money,’ as well as ‘Maybe This Time.’
Interesting Casting Choices
Once the script had been polished and the plan for the film was laid out, the casting process had to begin. However, a big part of the casting had already begun even before Bob Fosse came on board, as producer Cy Feuer had already decided on who would play two of the main roles. He had decided that Liza Minnelli would play Sally Bowles and Joel Grey would play the Master of Ceremonies.
Feuer was so adamant that Joel Grey had to be in the film that he told Bob Fosse he could either accept this decision or walk away from the project and be replaced by another director. In the end, Feuer’s decision was the right one, as Grey won an Oscar for his turn in the film and is regarded as a big part of what made it so successful.
Some Big Stars Auditioned for the Film
For fans of Cabaret, it’s hard to imagine anyone apart from Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey in those iconic leading roles. However, history might have turned out very differently if some of the other actors who auditioned had been successful. Some very big names tried out for several roles.
The likes of Julie Andrews, Faye Dunaway, and Barbra Streisand were all considered for the part of Sally, for example, before Minnelli was eventually cast. And for the role of Brian, Tim Curry and Jeremy Irons both auditioned. Malcolm McDowell and Timothy Dalton, who went on to play James Bond, also wanted the part.
Minnelli Wasn’t Sure About Michael York
Since Bob Fosse didn’t need to worry about casting Sally or the Emcee, he only really had to worry about the other roles. He decided to hire Michael York, a relatively unknown British actor at the time, in the role of Brian Roberts, the bisexual love interest for Sally Bowles.
When she heard of this decision, Minnelli wasn’t initially impressed. She believed that Fosse had made the wrong choice, but when she met York later on and started rehearsing with him, she changed her mind, realizing that he was the best man for the role and that they actually had some great on-screen chemistry which can be seen in the final film.
Isherwood Wasn’t Sure About Liza Minnelli
While Liza Minnelli might have had her doubts about the casting of Michael York in the film, The Berlin Stories author, Christopher Isherwood, had his own doubts about Liza’s casting! He said that she was simply too talented to play the part of Sally Bowles in the way he had originally written and envisioned it.
For him, Sally was a deluded amateur, someone with a little talent, but not enough to become a veritable superstar. Isherwood believed that Liza Minnelli, who was already an Oscar-nominated and award-winning icon of the time, was far too big and talented an individual to take on that kind of role. He felt that her performance would detract from his original vision.
Liza or Louise?
After being cast in the role of Sally, Liza Minnelli decided to speak to her father, stage director Vincente Minnelli, in order to ask for advice on how to play the part and what sort of style she should be aiming for. She asked him, “Should I be emulating Marlene Dietrich or something?” Liza’s father instead told her to “study everything you can about Louise Brooks.”
Brooks, a famed actress, and dancer of the ’20s and ’30s, therefore served as the primary inspiration for Sally Bowles’ look and movements. Minnelli studied her closely, trying to copy her makeup and hairstyle, as well as her general behavior and mannerisms. It worked to perfection as she ended up winning an Oscar.
Minnelli Tried to Track Down the Real Sally
Minnelli famously based most of her performance and appearance in Cabaret on Louise Brooks. Still, she originally had another plan in mind: she wanted to meet ‘the real Sally Bowles’ and sit down with her, learning more about her story, the way she moved, the way she sang, etc. in order to create a realistic depiction of the character.
Minnelli even went so far as to place ads in local newspapers asking for the real Sally Bowles to meet up with her. Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to realize that ‘Sally Bowles’ was a fake name that had been invented purely for the show. The woman on which the character was originally based was called Jean Ross and lived in England. At the time the film was being made, she was living in London and focusing on her family life, as well as political activism.
Bob Fosse Used to Play Tricks on Marisa Berenson
Marisa Berenson has recalled on numerous occasions how Cabaret’s director, Bob Fosse, used to play some pretty mean and unfair tricks on her during filming, to help bring out her character. He wanted her character to be shy, embarrassed, and ashamed, ‘repressed and virgin-like’ in Marisa’s own words.
So, before the shooting of certain scenes, he would walk over to Marisa and whisper obscene things in her ears to make her go red or feel uncomfortable. One time, during a scene in which her character’s dog was killed, the director arranged for real animal guts to be placed in a room to surprise Marisa when she opened the door.
Liza Missed out on the Musical
Liza Minnelli actually auditioned for the leading role in the Broadway musical version of Cabaret but was rejected in favor of Jill Haworth. Fortunately, this rejection didn’t deter Minnelli. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she said that she always felt like even though she missed out on the musical, she’d still get to appear in the movie version, when it was made.
She stated, “I remember saying to myself, ‘That’s all right, I’ll do the film.'” It seems like Liza always knew that she was destined to play the part somehow, and she really brought the character to life in Bob Fosse’s production, winning an Oscar for her work.
Joel Grey Helped to Create the Emcee’s Look
One of the most important characters in Cabaret is the Master of Ceremonies or Emcee, played by Joel Grey both in the 1966 musical and the 1972 film. The Emcee is immediately recognizable with his distinctive look, including slick black hair, pink bow tie, and dramatic makeup.
Interestingly, as well as making the character his own through his acting and singing work, Grey also helped to create the Emcee’s look. In ‘The Making of Cabaret,’ a documentary looking at how the musical was made, it was revealed invented the white-face and pink-cheek appearance of his character, discovering a greasepaint called ‘Juvenile Pink’ and deciding it was just right for the role.
One Song Stands Out
When speaking about Cabaret, many fans and critics comment on the film’s unique approach to its songs. It seems different from many other musicals at the time, and a big part of this is the ‘diegetic’ approach taken by Bob Fosse. The diegetic numbers of Cabaret always serve to advance the plot, and every single song bar one takes place inside the club itself.
The only song that isn’t performed in the Kit Kat Klub is ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me,’ which is also the only song not to be sung by either the Master of Ceremonies of Sally Bowles. Oliver Collignon, in an uncredited role, played the Nazi youth singing this song, while Mark Lambert, also uncredited, provided the singing voice.
Bob Fosse Then
Born in June of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois, Bob Fosse was quickly drawn to dance. He took lessons as a child, performing professionally at the tender age of 13 before being recruited into the US Navy for the end of World War II. He was part of a variety show, touring and performing at various military bases around the Pacific.
After the war, Fosse decided to move to NYC to pursue his dreams of being a world-renowned dancer. He appeared on screen and in several Broadway productions, before moving into choreography and filmmaking. His first film, Sweet Charity, was released in 1969 and was a commercial failure. There was, therefore, a lot of pressure on Fosse to succeed with Cabaret.
Bob Fosse Now
After winning a Best Director Oscar for his work on Cabaret and leading to the film to great success, Fosse’s star began to rise even further. His achievement was made even more significant by the fact that he pipped Francis Ford Coppola to the Best Director Oscar in the same year that Coppola had directed The Godfather.
Just a couple of years later, Fosse directed Lenny, a biographical film about Lenny Bruce, with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role. Again, he received a Best Director nomination. It seemed that he could do no wrong, and in 1979, he co-wrote and directed All That Jazz, once again earning a Best Director Oscar nomination. After that, he began work on a Robert De Niro project, but it was never completed as he suffered a heart attack and passed away in 1987.
Liza Minnelli Then
Born in March of 1946 in Los Angeles, California, Liza Minnelli was destined for a career in show business. At the age of just three years old, she got her first on-screen appearance, spotted in the final scene of In the Good Old Summertime, released in 1949. In 1961, she moved to NYC to attend the High School of Performing Arts and started to appear in local theatrical productions.
At 17, she had her first big break in an Off-Broadway show of Best Foot Forward, winning her first Tony award at 19 for Flora the Red Menace. She also released several albums and then started getting into films in the late 1960s. She got an Oscar nomination in 1969 for The Sterile Cuckoo, before being cast in Cabaret.
Liza Minnelli Now
Cabaret would turn out to be Liza Minnelli’s best-known film appearance. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, along with several other awards as well. She teamed up with Bob Fosse again for a TV special entitled Liza with a ‘Z,’ but then her on-screen career took a bit of a dive.
She appeared in a few flops and started to get a negative reputation but bounced back with 1981’s Arthur and a few other films. In her later career, she made guest appearances on TV shows and returned to Broadway in the late ’90s for Victor/Victoria. She is a famed philanthropist and still makes small cameo appearances from time to time.
Michael York Then
Born in 1942 in Fulmer, England, Michael York received a strong education and always had aspirations of being a performer. His career started in 1956 with a production of The Yellow Jacket, and just a few years later, he was cast in a small part for a West End performance of Hamlet.
He toured with the National Youth Theatre and later made his TV debut in The Forsyte Saga, and film debut in The Taming of the Shrew, both in 1967. He made a few additional appearances on screen but wasn’t particularly well known at the time when he was cast in Cabaret, especially to American audiences. Still, the British actor’s career was about to take off.
Michael York Now
In the wake of Cabaret, Michael York began to get many more offers of work. He appeared as D’Artagnan in the 1973 adaptation of The Three Musketeers, as well as making his Broadway debut in Out Cry. He also appeared in a Musketeers sequel and later returned for ‘The Return of the Musketeers’ in 1989.
He also starred in the title role for 1976’s Logan’s Run, a classic science fiction film directed by Michael Anderson. He starred in The Island of Dr. Moreau as well, along with making many more Broadway appearances and TV guest roles too. Around the turn of the millennium, he appeared in the Austin Powers trilogy. His work has been reduced to guest roles and appearances in his later years, but he remains a popular and iconic actor for his past successes.
Joel Grey Then
Born Joel David Katz in1932, Joel Grey was the son of an actor and always wanted to be a star himself. His career began in the local Cleveland Play House’s children’s theatre program in the early 1940s, and Grey later made his first TV appearances in the late ’50s and early ’60s in shows like Maverick, Bronco, and Lawman.
In 1966, he was cast as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway musical version of Cabaret, winning a Tony award for his performance and really making the role his own. He also appeared in several other Broadway shows throughout the ’60s like Half a Sixpence and Goodtime Charley.
Joel Grey Now
It always seemed like the role of the Master of Ceremonies was simply made for Joel Grey. He performed brilliantly in the movie version of Cabaret, winning an Academy Award for his work in the film, along with several other awards. He also became one of just ten people to win a Tony Award and an Academy Award for the same role.
In the years that followed, he made more Broadway appearances, as well as some more select film roles, including his memorable turn as Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. He appeared in several TV game shows and had guest appearances on a range of TV series. He moved into directing in his later career, co-directing the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart and receiving a lifetime achievement award in 2013.
Marisa Berenson Then
Born in 1947 in New York City, Marisa Berenson started off life as a fashion model. She was discovered as a teenager by then Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, becoming one of the highest-paid models in the world in the 1960s and ’70s. During this time, she appeared on the covers of Vogue and Time.
She was also a popular socialite, nicknamed ‘the girl of the Seventies’ by Yves Saint Laurent and referred to as ‘Queen of the Scene’ in magazines at the time. Also, in the ’70s, she began to appear in films. Her first performance came in Death in Venice (1971) as the wife of Gustav von Aschenbach. Then, she was cast in Cabaret.
Marisa Berenson Now
Marisa Berenson received widespread acclaim and several award nominations for her performance in Cabaret, going on to enjoy more prominent film work in such movies as Barry Lyndon, Casanova & Co., Killer Fish, SOB, and White Hunter Black Heart. Even as she grew older, she continued to expand her career and delve into new realms of entertainment.
She made her Broadway debut in 2001’s revival of Design for Living. In 2016, she made her London theatrical debut in a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She lives in a villa near Marrakesh in Morocco and has mostly retired from acting and model work nowadays but remains an icon of fashion and entertainment.
The Rest of the Cast
Other prominent members of the Cabaret cast included several German and Austrian actors. Helmut Griem, for instance, who played the role of Baron Maximilian von Heune. It remained his best-known performance for non-German audiences until his passing in 2004. German actor Fritz Wepper, known for appearing in German crime TV show Derrick, appeared as Fritz Wendel.
Austrian actress Elisabeth Neumann-Viertel had a long and storied career in Germany and the US, appearing as Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret. German stage, film, and TV star Gerd Vespermann also appeared in the film as Bobby. The film was a prime example of a truly international ensemble cast coming together to create an iconic motion picture for the ages.
Cabaret’s Critical Reception
Cabaret was a critical success. One of the most famed and respected movie reviewers of all time, Roger Ebert, gave the movie a positive review in January of 1972, calling it “no ordinary musical” and crediting Bob Fosse for his unique approach to the film, focusing on the real emotions of the story, rather than falling into the typical trap of making his musical too jaunty and upbeat.
Other major critics like Roger Greenspun of The New York Times and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker gave the film glowing reviews. However, the film did receive some negative and indifferent reviews from certain people, notably Christopher Isherwood and other people upon whom the movie’s characters were based.
Isherwood Wasn’t Pleased With the Film
Christopher Isherwood, writer of The Berlin Stories, upon which the original 1966 musical was based, criticized the film due to what he saw as a negative portrayal of homosexuality. He said that the film treated homosexuality as a kind of “comic weakness… like bed-wetting”. Isherwood’s friend, Jean Ross, who was the basis for the character of Sally Bowles, had an indifferent view of the film.
She said that it wasn’t particularly realistic for the most part but did praise certain elements of the film. She and poet Stephen Spender, a member of Isherwood’s social circle, both agreed that the film painted a much more glamorous picture of Weimar Berlin when compared to the poverty-stricken place they had known.
The Musical Makers Didn’t Like the Film at First
Even though Cabaret was very warmly received by the vast majority of critics and audiences, some very important people didn’t think too highly of the film at first. John Kander, who wrote the music for the musical, and Fred Ebb, who wrote the lyrics, both agreed that they weren’t impressed by the film on their initial viewing.
They were both very surprised at how different it was to the piece they had both written, and it took some time for them to get used to the changes. However, when viewing the movie again, both Kander and Ebb started to love it and ultimately admitted that it was a fine motion picture.
An X Rating
Cabaret holds the unique distinction of being the first musical ever made to be given an X-rating. The rating was later changed, but at the time of release, Cabaret was awarded an X due to its sexual content and focus on hedonistic lifestyles. An X rating is used to classify films that should only be viewed by adults. It no longer exists but was awarded to several films in the ’70s and ’80s.
When making their decision, the ratings board cited the film’s many scenes involving sexual innuendo, casual sexual talk, profanity, abortion, and several examples of anti-Semitism. Overseas, too, the film was rated in the extreme. It got an X rating upon release in the UK, but this was later changed to a 15 rating.
The Film Was Censored In West Berlin
Cabaret was not without its controversies. As well as being released with an X rating in several countries, the film had to be censored upon its initial release in West Berlin. The ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ scene had to be cut as the producers feared that its presence might ‘stir up resentments in the audience’ regarding the Nazi movement of the ’30s.
The sequence was later restored when the film was shown on West German television in 1976. The Nazism depicted in the film was a source of controversy in other parts of the world as well, with many critics discussing the fascist and anti-fascist messages and interpretations of various scenes and songs.
At The Box Office
Cabaret was clearly a critical success, receiving rave reviews for its acting, direction, cinematography, sound, and many other aspects, and it proved to be a commercial success as well. It was very successful at the box office. By May of 1973, Cabaret had earned $4.5 million in North American rentals and an additional $3.5 million in other countries.
It had an initial budget of $4.6 million, so it was already in profit based on these rentals alone. In the years that followed, it became even more successful, earning a grand total of over $40 million at the box office. For any kind of film, that sort of money represented an exceptional result in the 1970s, and it was even more impressive for a musical.
Academy Award Performance
In the wake of Cabaret’s release, along with its commercial and critical success, fans of the film, along with its cast and crew, were eager to see what kinds of nominations it might receive at the Academy Awards. In the end, it received a total of 10 nominations. Many films receive multiple nominations but only win one or two awards on the big night, but Cabaret didn’t disappoint.
It won a whopping total of eight Oscars: Best Director, Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Score Adaptation and Original Song Score, and Best Sound. The only two awards it didn’t win were Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and Best Picture.
Additional Award Success
With its eight Oscars, Cabaret became one of the most successful movie musicals of all time and remains the record holder for most Academy Awards won by a single film without winning the Best Picture award today. Along with its Academy Award success, the film received many nominations and awards from other bodies too.
The British Academy Film Awards gave Cabaret its prestigious Best Film and Best Direction awards, among others. At the Golden Globes, Cabaret received eight nominations and won three of them, including Best Motion Picture. It won several National Board of Review Awards as well, along with the National Society of Film Critics Awards. It was a phenomenal success around the world.
An Amazing Year For Bob Fosse
Few men or women in entertainment history have had a year quite like Bob Fosse’s 1972. It was the most successful year of his storied career. Shortly before the Academy Awards aired, he won a pair of Tony Awards for directing and choreographing Pippin, which was his most successful stage production at the time.
Then, he went on to win the Best Director award at the Oscars. Months later, he won a Primetime Emmy Award after directing and choreographing the TV special of Liza Minnelli: Liza with a Z. This made Bob Fosse the first person ever to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award all in the same year.
A Damaged Reel of Film
Fans of Cabaret had to wait until 1998 for it to be released on DVD for the first time. It was then re-released several times in 2003, 2008, and 2012. In April of 2012, Warner Bros. revealed a brand new restoration of the film at the TCM Classic Film Festival, before releasing a Blu-ray version in 2013.
Incredibly, the original camera negatives got lost, and the only surviving interpositive had a huge scratch along 1,000 feet of one of its reels. Digital editors and restorers had to work tirelessly to repair the damage done by this scratch, which initially affected around 10 minutes of footage. In the end, after digital attempts proved unsuccessful, the damaged film had to be hand-painted with a computer stylus.
A Film That Will Never Be Forgotten
Cabaret has been listed in the top 5 of AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals, as well as appearing at number 63 in AFI’s 10th Anniversary Edition of ‘100 Years… 100 Movies’. It has been inducted into the National Film Registry and stands out as one of the most successful and best-made movies ever made. It has been listed repeatedly in ‘Best Movies Ever’ lists, even regarded as ‘the last great musical’ of the era.
The film’s influence has also been well-documented, proving popular even with non-musical fans due to the iconic nature of its numbers and the unique plot and imagery associated with the production. It has also been classed as a hugely important film for queer cinema, helping to turn Liza Minnelli into a gay icon. A huge success from every angle, it’s a film that will never be forgotten.