The newly-restored, 40th anniversary edition of Cabaret comes out on Blu-Ray Tuesday, February 5, and as part of the commemoration, we sat down with stars Joel Grey and Michael York.
Set in Berlin in 1931, Cabaret was based on gay scribe Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, chronicling the hedonism amidst the decline of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Nazi Party, published in 1945.
Before the film version of Cabaret, The Berlin Stories was adapted into the play, I Am a Camera in 1951, which was itself adapted into a film in 1955. Cabaret, the Broadway musical, then made its debut in 1966. Bob Fosse finally brought it to the big screen in 1972, winning eight Academy Awards in the process.
Among those eight trophies was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Grey for his flamboyant, pancake-faced portrayal of the the Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies. As Grey saw it, however, his character’s ambiguous androgyny was not an expression of sexual identity so much as a means to an end.
“I thought of him as a guy who would do anything with anybody at anytime to further his survival and his success.”
The MC functions primarily as narrator to the story and so his sexuality is never addressed, which is not the case with York’s character, Brian Roberts.
“Of course we got into the whole thing about the homosexuality,” York said. “Even Isherwood in the novel, he certainly never comes out, you have to read between the lines. It’s there, but you know, you put two and two together. This time, it came out. He was bisexual, which for the times was pushing the envelope.”
After Sally Bowles (Liza with a Z!) unsuccessfully tries to seduce Brian, he reveals that he’s been there, done that and it’s not for him. But Sally persists and they eventually become lovers, only to be torn apart when they both realize they’ve been sleeping with rich playboy, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).
Despite it being 1972, York had no reservations about playing a bisexual character.
“I didn’t give it a second thought,” he said. “I thought our job is to portray people, interpret them. It was a huge part of life in Berlin at that time. That’s why Isherwood was there. Because it was open and free. People said later, ‘was that a bit risky for you, for your career?’ What are you talking about?”
“It was part of life!” Grey added. “And they sent so many of those homosexuals to the camps. Maybe first.”
“Yes, the pink triangles,” York said, referring to the marker by which the Nazis identified homosexuals.
Four years after Cabaret, Isherwood came out, as it were, with the memoir, Christopher and His Kind, which filled in the gay gaps of his life in Berlin. It was adapted into a BBC television film in 2011.
That these characters and stories have inspired so many interpretations in so many mediums is a testament to Isherwood, though arguably, the 1972 film version of Cabaret is the best. It forever changed the Hollywood musical and has become a monument unto itself in popular culture. In 1995, Cabaret was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry and in 2007, ranked #63 in the American Film Institute’s 10th anniversary list of the 100 Greatest American Movies.
Sadly, the original print of the film was not shown in a decade due to a vertical scratch that ran through the entire reel. Computer technology failed to repair the damage, but Warner Bros. corrected over 1 million frames by hand, resulting in significantly improved sound and resolution. Finally, with the Blu-Ray release on Tuesday, Cabaret can be appreciated as it was first meant to be seen 40 years ago.