”You’re about as fatale as an after-dinner mint!” notes writer Brian Roberts to Sally Bowles during an argument over their shared ménage à trois. It is 1931 and the rise of Nazism looms ominously against a backdrop of the world of Berlin cabarets. The 1972 film adaptation of the hit 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret is directed by Bob Fosse. It is a semi-autobiographical account of gay writer Christopher Isherwood’s time in pre-war Germany. Liza Minnelli’s characterization of Sally Bowles is a full representation of the ”Weimar Girl”; she sold herself on her outrageous appearance, offering up sufficient sex appeal, without stepping over the line into actual sex work.
Sally Bowles is based on real life Jean Ross, a woman Isherwood became acquainted in Berlin during his stay. He describes Sally:
”Her fingernails were painted emerald green, a color 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 which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.”
Bowles describes herself as ”divinely decadent, darling”, yet Brian and Isherwood describe her as more faux fatale than femme fatale, with her flamboyance concealing pain and a childlike vulnerability.
The essence of Germany just before the Nazis was the figure of the ”Neue Frau” with her short skirt, bobbed hair and fishnet stockings, the look employed by Sally Bowles. The costumes for Cabaret were designed by Charlotte Flemming, who added a decidedly 1970s twist to Minnelli’s look.
Even before Madonna, Sally Bowles was doing underwear as outerwear. She spends her days lounging about in chemises, negligees and kimonos, downing a ”prairie oyster” for her hangover: a raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice and vinegar.
In her stage act at the Kit Kat Klub, Bowles fancied men’s bowler hats worn with backless playsuits or dresses, and shirtless vests with satin shorts, deep necklines, big eyelashes and everything in black. She completes her look with thin penciled-on eyebrows and blue and green eyeshadow. Minnelli has said that she came up with her own makeup preparing for the role of Sally Bowles:
”The night before we started shooting, I put on all the lashes and dyed my hair black and cut it into a point and everything!”
Minnelli’s gender-fuck choices greatly impacted queer culture. In the 1970s, drag queens looked to Bowles for inspiration. Sally Bowles is eccentric, addictive and a little toxic. Minnelli’s Academy Award-winning performance embraced an empowered woman who acknowledges her flaws, pours herself a drink, puts on some lipstick and gets her act together.
Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen.