Making the 1972 film Cabaret was a “fun, weird and sensual” experience for Liza Minnelli, who won a Best Actress Oscar for playing the film’s protagonist, Sally Bowles. “We were taking chances all over the place,” she added.
The star made the remarks at a screening of the recently restored film on Thursday night at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre, where she was joined by three of her co-stars from the film: Joel Grey (who also won an Oscar, for his portrayal of the show’s creepy Emcee character), Michael York, and Marisa Berenson. Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies interviewed the stars before the free screening, which marked the movie’s 40th anniversary.
Noting how different the Bob Fosse-directed film was from screen musicals that preceded it, Minnelli remarked, “I think they were chicken to make it in Hollywood.” The film, set in 1930s Berlin, was shot on location in Germany—partly in Munich. The star noted that actors on the set who were dressed in Nazi uniforms tended to hide in shame.
Minnelli said she was attached to the film even before Fosse signed on. The musical score was written by her frequent collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb (they had penned her 1965 Broadway debut Flora the Red Menace). She noted that, from the outset, she was behind the idea of making the “Brian” character (Sally’s love interest in Cabaret, played by York) a gay man—something that differed from the 1966 Broadway musical version. (Brian was a sort of alter ego for gay writer Christopher Isherwood, whose Berlin Stories were the source material for the picture.)
Film director Vincente Minnelli helped his daughter develop the look for Sally, the star noted. He urged her to model the character’s appearance after such silent film stars as Louise Brooks and Theda Bara, instead of fashioning her in the Marlene Dietrich “Blue Angel” mode.
Grey said he believed he would lose the Academy Award to Al Pacino (nominated for The Godfather) at the 1973 Oscar presentation. He said as much to his neighbor, the late Larry Hagman, on the day of the ceremony. Grey won the statuette, but when he arrived home with it, he found a big statue at the door inscribed “To the Best F-ing Neighbor I Ever Had.” Hagman hadn’t wanted Grey to step through the threshold empty-handed.
Berenson recalled the intimidating experience of auditioning for Fosse in a garage, sitting on a metal chair, while York remembered reading for the part of Brian opposite 60-something producer Cy Feuer, who read Sally’s lines.
Hundreds of movie lovers (and Liza fans) stood in line in the January cold to see the film. Between 400 and 500 of them, in fact, were reportedly turned away for lack of seats.
Celebrities at the event included Bernadette Peters, Alan Cumming, Arlene Dahl, Phyllis Newman, and Nicole Fosse (the director’s daughter by Gwen Verdon).