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It's a sad fact that a period movie will almost always reflect the year it was made more than year(s) it takes place. Take, for instance, Julie Christie's hair in "Dr. Zhivago," or Kate Beckinsale's...well, entire appearance in "Van Helsing" (although, was that even an issue in that steaming pile of bad FX?).
One of the best aspects of "Cabaret," then, is that it truly does feel like you're watching a movie from 1931. Well, sort of. If it were made in 1931, it would almost certainly be in Black & White, have primitive sound quality (sound pictures still being relatively new at that time), and maybe be a little less frank about its homosexual content (although being that 1931 was a year pre-code, who knows...). Perhaps a better way of putting it is: "Cabaret" looks like you're watching actual events from 1931, not 1931-by-way-of-1972. The costumes, makeup (the overly arched brows and pancake makeup of the KitKat girls is just as creepy as it is sexy, if not more so), sets, and even attitudes are practically a living postcard of Weimar Germany (as far as this 23 year old American can tell). There are no glaring anachronisms here. It's astonishing.
Another is the character of Sally. Fledgling writers are always encouraged to make their protagonists as sympathetic as possible, otherwise what will care about their journey? Sally is flighty, shallow, self-centered, and proves that she can be bought. Why do we love her so? Why do our hearts break when her father stands her up after she spent the first half an hour lying about how much he cares for her? More important than sympathy (or empathy) in a character, IMO, is dimension. With good, there is bad. With pattern, there is contradiction. Sally, above all the aforementioned characteristics, is career driven. And no one's gone to the top without a little white lie or two (or three, or four...). Of course, dimension or no dimension, the wrong actress (or even poor acting by a great actress) could make this character fall flat. It's because of that, that one cannot speak of this role without mentioning the sparkling Liza. Those who dislike the movie often site Liza's "over the top" acting as a chief flaw. I don't see that here. Perhaps if she were the Sally from the stage production brought over to film, this would be the case, as sometimes stage actors forget how intimate a medium film is (the severely under-rated RENT does suffer from this occasionally, for example). Her singing, while jaw-dropping to say the least, is just one part of her role. Watch this girl ACT. Look at the giddy expression on her face when Max volunteers to "corrupt" her and Brian. Watch her desperately (and eye rolling-ly) try to impress the upper crust at a dinner party. Watch her try and play down the immense physical pain she must be in after a back-alley abortion. Yes, she has an amazing voice, but this is performance that would scream "Oscar!" even if there were no singing at all.
But, "Cabaret" IS a musical. Another sad fact is that when showtunes become standards, they lose almost all of the potency they have IN CONTEXT. Sure the title track IS a fun song and all - "Come to the Cabaret, old chum! Life is a Cabaret!" - on its own. But watch it where it belongs - it's quite depressing. She's lost a good man, friends (I doubt she'll be seeing much of Fritz after the wedding), and in the end her career is in the same spot it was when the movie began. The Nazis, once dismissed as a thuggish cult, are growing in number. How much longer does she have to be safe? Better enjoy what she has left. See what I mean? This is a dark musical, folks. No "happy ending, fade to black" here. The songs, all performed in the night club, avoids the suspension of disbelief required for other musicals when characters randomly burst into song on the sidewalk. And though they don't further the plot along in the strictest sense, they do parallel. "Two Ladies" is sung while Max, Sally, and Brian drive to his mansion. "Mein Herr" is sung when sexual tension begins to arise between Sally and her new roommate? Foreboding? I think so.
And what can one even say about Joel Grey that hasn't already been said? Pure. Genius. No one else can make you simultaneously laugh and feel uncomfortable like that.
"Cabaret" is a brilliant watch: dark, clever, complex, but un-deniably catchy and not dated by a long shot. You'll get chills and frown at the end....but then you'll rewind to the beginning and watch it all over again.