IN THE MOVIE CABARET, several people get writing credits:
- Jay Allen, the screenwriter.
- Joe Masteroff, author of the book of the 1966 play CABARET.
- John Kander, composer of the music for the play and the movie.
- Fred Ebb, the lyricist for the play and the movie.
- John Van Druten, author of the 1951 play I AM A CAMERA, on which CABARET (the play) was based.
- Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood.
It is right that Isherwood is mentioned last, because all the others are standing on his back. That collection of stories has a name: GOODBYE TO BERLIN.
If not for Isherwood, Liza Minnelli would not have won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in CABARET in 1972. Bob Fosse would not have achieved a triple crown in 1973: a Tony for Pippin, an Emmy for the TV special Liza With a Z, and an Oscar for CABARET.
Neither would I AM A CAMERA exist. It was a play first (1951), then a movie (1955), just as CABARET was. Both play and movie starred Julie Harris as Sally Bowles.
Isherwood thought Julie Harris was “more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book, and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character.”
Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
Goodbye to Berlin consists of six semi-autobiographical stories. Judging by his writing, Isherwood did not think life was a cabaret. At least not in the 1930s in Berlin.
A surprise is that Sally is not much of a singer:
She had a surprisingly deep husky voice. She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides—yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her. Her arms hanging carelessly limp, and a take-it-or-leave-it grin on her face.
What did she look like? Like this:
Her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. . . . Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes.
There was a real person behind the fictional Sally Bowles. Her name was Jean Ross, she was English, not American, and she refused all invitations to see CABARET. Her children disputed Isherwood’s portrayal of her, but that is the nature of stories. They may begin with reality, but never end there.
Although Liza Minelli’s performance is the spectacular one, all the actors are excellent. When I saw the movie again, I noticed how good Michael York is in the difficult role of Brian Roberts, a gay man trying earnestly to deny that he is gay, and failing. Sally catches on faster than he does.
The relationship between Sally and Brian is an invention. In GOODBYE TO BERLIN, she and the narrator, Chris, are not lovers. This is because Chris’s sexual orientation is not in doubt.
The reimagined Sally Bowles resembles a more worldy version of Pookie Adams, a character Liza Minelli played in her first movie: THE STERILE CUCKOO. Like Sally, Pookie overpowers a nice guy (though in THE STERILE CUCKOO he isn’t gay). She has self-esteem issues related to feeling unloved by her father.
None of these qualities belong to Isherwood’s Sally. His Sally has no particular issues with her father or family. She astonishes them—that’s all.
Elements from Goodbye to Berlin that survive more or less intact are: Sally’s emerald green fingernails and her fondness for prairie oysters; her abortion (though the circumstances and the probable father are different); her obsessive desire to be a famous actress and her willingness to sleep with any man who might be a position to make that happen; Brian’s job as an English tutor.
In both book and movie, the Nazis slither around Berlin like poisonous snakes. Isherwood wrote:
People laugh at them, right up to the last moment. . . .
Natalia, book and movie
In CABARET, the decadence of 1930s Berlin is counterbalanced by the love story of Fritz and Natalia. This relationship, which is a play/movie invention, sweetens the movie and makes it poignant in a way it would not be otherwise.
In Goodbye to Berlin, Natalia flees to Paris and marries a French doctor with whom she is very much in love.
In CABARET, Natalia was played by Marisa Berenson. In I AM A CAMERA, Natalia was played by Shelley Winters. Imagine that.
A Story Turned Loose
There is a theory about stories: that writers do not write them so much as turn them loose. Once committed to print, they develop a life of their own. Readers complete a story in their own way (an unread story is never finished).
The movie CABARET is not Christopher Isherwood’s story. It is Bob Fosse’s story; Liza Minelli’s, Joel Grey’s, and Michael York’s; John Kander and Fred Ebb’s; cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s; and the screenwriter’s story, too.
This is as it should be. After watching rehearsals for the play I AM A CAMERA in the 1950s, Isherwood wrote:
Watching my past being thus reinterpreted, revised and transformed by all these talent people upon the stage, I said to myself “I am no longer an individual. I am a collaboration. I am in the public domain.”