By John H. Foote
Reading the superb biography “Fosse”, written by Sam Wasson, which explores the remarkable life of dancer, choreographer and, most of all, director Bob Fosse, one cannot help taking note of his workaholic ways, his risks in finding new forms of dance, and his bold studies of life in show business on film. With an eight-part mini-series, Fosse/Verdon, now airing on FX, said to be brutally honest and a penetrating study of a gifted pair of artists, attracted to each other, but at war due to his infidelity throughout their time together, I went back to revisit the first film to cast an eye on Fosse.
Forty years ago Bob Fosse himself made an autobiographical film, All That Jazz (1979), which broke down conventional dance styles, and allowed us inside his head as he directed a play, turned a goofy song about flying into a sexual, stunning number about sex, all the while editing his latest film and juggling time with his precocious daughter and the many ladies he was juggling. Explosive, startling in its honesty, the film was a critical and audience favourite, nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning four. Merging his life with fantasies, no doubt his own dark dreams and Fellini’s 81/2 (1963), what he created was a mesmerizing work, audacious, brilliantly executed, with the courage to go as far as possible artistically.
Fosse, a dancer who became a choreographer before becoming a film director, had reached the apex of his career in 1972. After the failure of Sweet Charity (1969) he was handed Cabaret (1972) where his interpretation, direction, imagery and the performances he guided turned it into the darkest and finest musical in film history. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director for Fosse, besting no less than the gifted Francis Ford Coppola, who took Best Picture for The Godfather (1972). Two years later Coppola and Fosse were in the running for Best Director again, though this time Coppola won for The Godfather Part II (1974), Fosse the loser this time for Lenny (1974), his fine black and white film about revolutionary comic Lenny Bruce. His films, in some way or another, we’re all explorations of show business. All That Jazz (1979) was specifically about himself.
Roy Scheider, best known as the town cop in Jaws (1975), was cast as Joe Gideon, surrogate for Fosse, and proceeded to give the finest performance of his career. Leaned down to Fosse’s lithe body, his wiry body taut with muscle lightly wrapped around his bones, Scheider did not merely play Fosse, he inhabited the director. He danced, he sang, but mostly he became Fosse. He was Fosse.
The film flashes back over his life as he talks to an Angel (Jessica Lange). In life his days begin the same: popping speed, smoking a cigarette, showering, Visine in the eyes, and looking into the mirror with the everyday catch phrase, “It’s showtime folks”. Directing a major stage play, choreographing complicated dance scenes while editing a film, based obviously on Lenny (1974), his days are full, his nights filled with sex, drinking, drugs and thinking about his art. His mind never stops.
Symbolically, everything white is killing Joe – his Dexedrine, his Visine bottle, cigarettes, booze, the bright lights of Broadway, and he has no idea. As we move through his life, we see how he came to this point in his career and personal existence. Though he adores women, he has spent his life sexualizing them, so much so that even his choreography is oozing with sex and sexuality. Fosse loved women, their shape, their bodies, everything about them but he could not be loyal to just one. He slept with them all, the lowliest dancer in his show was not immune from his charms.
Driven by demons within he does not understand himself, we find Joe in the midst of post-production on a film obviously based on Lenny (1974) while he prepares a new work for Broadway, which he will both choreograph and direct. Balancing that hellish schedule, he must also find time for his adoring young daughter, her mother, his latest girlfriend, and the long list of beauties he beds frequently. This would kill a much younger man let along a man on the other side of 45!
We see the grueling schedule impact Gideon, as the hacking cough becomes more pronounced, he cannot sleep, he is losing weight rapidly and worst of all, he is struggling to create.
He tells his story via flashback to a beautiful woman, dressed in white, (white again) who appears to be an angel of some sort, portrayed by the ethereal Jessica Lange. We learn gradually she is of course the angel of death, come for Joe.
When he suffers a massive heart attack, undergoes heart surgery only to again suffer an attack, his life becomes a variety show, with everyone he ever knew singing and dancing in production numbers, the darkest you have ever seen. Brash, brilliant, Fosse dance numbers highlight these sequences as Joe moves ever closer to the angel.
Scheider is unexpectedly superb as Gideon, proving himself far more than merely a tough guy on film. His Jaws (1975) co-star Richard Dreyfuss was initially cast but fired early because he did not feel he could do the part justice. Scheider slips under the skin of Fosse/ Gideon, dressed in the black Fosse was famous for, and inhabits the very soul of the man he was portraying. It must have helped the actor to have the director he was portraying right in front of him every day, but he also felt portraying the part was a great privilege and he wanted to honour Fosse with a great performance. He did just that.
Throughout the film, Scheider gives us an ambitious, fiercely driven man who seeks something fresh, new in all his work, pushing himself to the brink of death, even beyond into fantasies about his death. Looking leaner than he ever did onscreen, gaunt, exhausted, and finally on death’s door, the actor is superb. Moving out of his comfort zone, he dances well, sings not so well (but damned he tries) and cavorts with the dancer he taught and trained in his life. It is a brilliant, daring performance that never strikes a false note, and for his work Scheider was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor.
Ben Vereen is terrific as the host of a variety show that becomes Joe’s fantasy and Cliff Gorman very good as the actor portraying Lenny in the film Gideon is working on. Gorman portrayed Lenny Bruce onstage, but Dustin Hoffman took the role on film.
The supporting performances around Scheider range from excellent to awful, with the actor so good we barely notice how bad the terrible performance is. Leland Palmer, cast as Gideon’s ex wife and muse, is just dreadful. Her bitching and griping about him, despite being the lead in his latest musical, become tiresome fast. She is meant to be Gwen Verdon, who was Fosse’s Wife, then ex, and finally best friend and muse. She understood him better than anyone ever could, and their inner circle knew it. Palmer tries, but often comes across as grotesque, a shrill, shrieking harpy and we cannot understand why Gideon would be with her ever, much less after he had too.
Long legged dancing goddess Anne Reinking is excellent as Gideon’s current girlfriend who knows he sleeps with other women, just as she knows he only wants to live with her. She has the film’s best line, which I will not spoil, but will say it is about being generous. When she hits the dance floor she is the Fosse dancer incarnate. Still she flips her wrist, winks and begins to unwind her limbs into motion. Sex incarnate as she moves, her body is poetry in motion, a miracle of performance art and motion. When they talk about Fosse and dance, watch her, because that is what they speak of.
Lange is haunting as the Angel, her first major role after being Dwan, in the ill-fated remake of King Kong (1976), foolishly updated to modern day, and just a silly idea to begin with. Somehow, through natural talent and guts, Lange came through unscathed. She met and dated Fosse briefly, who saw something in her and cast her as Death in his film. Her final scene, patiently waiting at the end of a tread mill, waiting for Joe, who she knows is coming is haunting and frightening.
All That Jazz stunned critics and audiences with its sheer audacity and courage. Watching Gideon spiral downward must have been hell for Fosse to live through again, seeing with his own eyes the punishment he was inflicting upon himself and those around him. Nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, it was the third and final time he would be competing with Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director and Best Film. This time, though Coppola was by far the most deserving for his war epic Apocalypse Now (1979), neither artist would win.
Fosse’s great film would win four Academy Awards, none of them among the big six, all well earned.
All That Jazz remains a dark masterpiece, one of the most bluntly honest looks at the world of theatre in New York ever made, and a compelling look into the human soul and art of creating. Bob Fosse created an entirely new style of dance that bears his name, his life was extraordinary and told with astonishing beauty and power in this wildly imaginative film.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”