“vibrant but sometimes grotesque autobiographical story”
“a vapid, vertiginous farrago”
“everything from satyriasis to eschatology in a series of verbal grands jetés”
“bite and bravado in equal doses”
–from reviews of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1980)
Here’s a thought: What might your final days look like if Broadway or Hollywood got to stage them for you? There you are, mortality’s closing in, the Grim Reaper’s out in the garage, and you toss your life’s accomplishments and failures into the hands of some well-known director and her/his team of scriptwriters, songwriters, choreographers, costume designers, and special effects people. The end result might be a turkey, a Tony- or Oscar-winner, a tragedy, a farce, a melodrama, or an unholy combination of all of the above. Worst case scenario: your life story winds up being dramatized by someone with a sense of irony. Would you be man/woman enough to (pun intended) face the music? Or would you hope to be dead before opening night? The answer probably depends on the quality of your life, and the size of your ego. Neither was a problem for Bob Fosse. Why wait around for someone else to do the job when you can do it better yourself? Besides, what biographer would have been ruthless enough to do justice to all of Fosse’s infidelities? All That Jazz stands as one of the best, cruelest, funniest show biz autobiographies ever.
Bob Fosse was an 8-time Tony-winner on Broadway, a superb choreographer, an actor, an Academy Award-winning director, a workaholic, a walking libido, an egomaniac. He incarnated all the best and worst qualities of the theatre and movie people he worked with his whole life. Starting out in vaudeville as a young child, he was a veteran of burlesque shows by the time he was 13 (possibly the best burlesque musical number of all time, Hey, Big Spender, turns up in Fosse’s 1968 directorial debut, Sweet Charity). His first Broadway show won a Tony. His second feature as a movie director (Cabaret) won eight Oscars. No awards in the humanitarian department, however. A serial monogamist, Fosse went through wives & lovers as quickly as he went through scripts. Sleeping with him might not get a dancer a job, but he never discouraged the attempt. (“Do you believe in love? –I believe in saying I love you. It helps me concentrate. I say it a lot…when it works.”) He treated his body as a temple—unrepentantly defiling it with dexedrine, visine, cigarettes, sex, coffee, and booze. A less spiritual life is impossible to imagine. With Fosse, it’s all sweat and grit and sawdust and tinsel. Probably quoting the Flying Wallendas, Fosse’s alter ego in All That Jazz, Joe Gideon, says: “To be on the wire is life, the rest is waiting.”
It’s showtime, folks.
All That Jazz shows Joe Gideon as he tries (impossibly) to juggle a Broadway production, a filmed biography of Lenny Bruce (Fosse had earlier directed Dustin Hoffman in just such a film, Lenny), the women in his life, and imminent angina. It’s a bravura performance, but stupid. Roy Scheider was the perfect choice to play Gideon. It’s the best work he ever did. The audience has the choice of admiring the chutzpah, or walking out in disgust at the self-indulgence. I’m in the former group. Lest you think it’s just because I’m into middle age and have intimations of my own mortality and need a role model uninhibited by cholesterol counts, I’ll have you know that I loved this picture when I first saw it 20 years ago. Bob Fosse knows how to turn life into both art and entertainment.
Life is art. At least two of the lead female roles in All That Jazz are played by Fosse’s real-life inamoratas. Did I say chutzpah? Anne Reinking, Fosse’s principal dancer and long-time lover, plays Gideon’s mistress Kate Jagger. Jessica Lange is Angelique, the kind of angel of death that Hugh Hefner probably hopes will come to carry him away. Not an old flame, Leland Vernon, as Gideon’s ex-wife and leading lady, is modelled on Gwen Verdon, the woman who played both roles in Fosse’s life. In less talented hands, this could have all been simply messy and acrimonious. Instead, it’s theatre. Passionate. Ironic. Astonishing. Erzsebet Foldi is also excellent as Gideon’s teen-aged daughter Michelle, creating a compassionate eye in the storm of relationships playing around her.
Credit Fosse’s direction. Credit the actors. And credit the dancing. Nowadays, in this age of rock videos, lambadas and macarenas, musical production numbers with a strong erotic underlay hardly raise an eyebrow. The choreographers owe a lot to Fosse. He shifted the focus from the sublime innocent elegance of Rodgers—Astaire—Kelly, and the showstopping spectacles of Busby Berkeley, to the in-your-groin gusto of early Marlene Dietrich and underground Argentinian Tango clubs. Watching one of Gideon’s numbers, a producer whispers, “Oh, oh, I think we just lost the family audience.” He’s right.
Back to irony. If you’re going to be as honest about yourself as Fosse is in All That Jazz, you’d better have a sense of humor. Sardonic, maybe, put still pretty funny. How many other films have wound up with a genuine cardiac surgical team in their credits? Or have dancers dressed as aortas? Joe Gideon flirts with everyone—with women, with his collaborators, with death itself. There’s a permanent, wry smile on his face that comes from knowing how much fun that games are to play and how fatal they are in the end. When his daughter asks him why he doesn’t marry again, Joe replies, “I can’t find anyone I dislike enough to inflict that kind of torture on.” Outraged that Kate should react to his infidelities by actually dating someone else, he says, “How dare you use my telephone to call someone who’s not gay?” Lying on a hospital bed, he tells her, “If I die I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you, and if I live I’m sorry for all the bad things I’m going to do to you.” Adding insult to coronary, Gideon’s theater has an insurance policy that guarantees his new show will make a half million dollar profit if he dies before it opens. Now that’s funny.
There are several recurring riffs in All That Jazz. One is a Lenny Bruce monologue on death that’s part of a film within a film. The contents of the monologue—the Kübler-Ross schematic of death confronted through anger, denial, bargaining, depression, & acceptance—play themselves out during Gideon’s final days. Another riff involves a talk show host whose celebrity introductions become progressively less flattering, till it’s Joe’s turn: “Ladies and gentleman, a pathetic humanitarian and a lousy human being!…..” Every song twists the knife a little: You’d Better Change Your Ways, Old Friends, Who’s Sorry Now?, Some of These Days You’ll Miss Me, Daddy, and the outrageous Everly Brothers rip-off, Bye Bye Life. To make sure that this “vertiginous farrago” was translated effectively to the screen, Bob Fosse took the precaution of hiring Frederico Fellini’s great cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno. Good move.
What’s the moral of this modern morality play? Perhaps it’s that for those with a deep-rooted fear of being conventional, there is truly no business like show business.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Because All That Jazz is now in the Criterion Film Collection, it has become harder to access. And even with my subscription to the Criterion Channel, I couldn’t find the film to stream. I was about to give up, when I remembered a friend with an enviable film library who might come to my rescue. And so it came to pass. Thanks, David.
Although it was a joy to watch All That Jazz again after so many years, I can’t add much to my original review. I’d really need to read a couple of biographies of Bob Fosse to bring in some new perspectives. Just from perusing some short accounts of Fosse’s career, however, I’ve gotten a better appreciation of his artistic accomplishments. He brought a wealth of experience to his work, starting as a child working in Vaudeville, a seasoned veteran of burlesque shows by age 13, eight Tonys for best choreography, and experience as actor, dancer, choreographer, screenwriter, and director for stage and screen. I remember reading somewhere that he was the only person to ever win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy in the same year (1973). He won the Best Director award for his second-ever film (Cabaret) and his first Tony for his very first Broadway production (The Pyjama Game). All That Jazz’s Joe Gideon was certainly not far off the mark in regards to autobiography: workaholism, boozing, drug-taking, and serial philandering combined with enormous creativity. Jazz was made after Fosse underwent open-heart surgery himself. Fosse lived another eight years after the film, dying of a heart attack at 60 in his hotel room just before opening a new Broadway production. He only made one other film after All That Jazz—Star 80 in 1983—but continued his intense involvement with theater.
One thing that did strike me as I watched Jazz again was that Fosse makes himself look damn good despite the character flaws. He has the love of his girlfriend Kate and of his daughter Michelle. He has the respect of ex-wife Audrey. He’s even honest with the young dancer he’s currently sleeping with, telling her she’ll never be a star but that he can make her a better dancer. He’s the classic lovable rogue. This portrait may be self-serving, but the man’s accomplishments speak for themselves. This was an artist who undoubtedly made many people’s lives more difficult, particularly the lives of the women closest to him, but I don’t get the sense that he destroyed lives. And speaking of wrecking lives, let me digress….
Recently, I’ve been reading some biographies of occultist Aleister Crowley. One could draw interesting parallels between the charismatic lives of Fosse and Crowley. Both had the same unrelenting drive to push their abilities to the absolute limits, both had the same proclivities for intoxication & infidelity, both had monstrous egos, both had giant appetites for experimentation , and both had enduring impacts on their chosen fields of action (Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck, painted under his direction by Lady Frieda Harris, is an extraordinary creation). If anyone is still crying out for an All That Jazz-style big screen treatment, it’s Aleister Crowley. The key difference between the Crowley & Fosse biographies would be that several of the individuals drawn into Crowley’s orbit paid a heavy, sometime fatal price for their involvement. He was a dark star. While a filmed version of Crowley’s early years might make Joe Gideon’s manic life look tame by comparison, it’s impossible to imagine the denouement being staged to the upbeat tune of “Bye Bye Love.” More likely something grim from Wagner. It’s a shame that Crowley never had a chance to direct a film version of his own autobiography, or had someone like Bob Fosse around to do it for him. There’s still time. Crowley’s Confessions is the All That Jazz of the occult world. One can easily imagine him late in his life, standing in front of his mirror, heroin coursing through his veins, his Scarlet Woman & his acolytes waiting in the adytum, telling his reflection, “It’s showtime, folks!”
Sadly, Jazz’s master cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, was one of the few Cabaret Oscar nominees who didn’t walk away with an award (that film won 8 Oscars; Jazz won 4). It was his only Academy nomination in a 42-year career. Jazz’s Production Designer Philip Rosenberg won his only Oscar for that film. Ditto for Film Editor Alan Heim. Jazz also earned composer Ralph Burns the second of his two Oscars. Costume Designer Albert Wolsky won the first of his two Oscars, with another five nominations.
Among the cast, Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ben Vereen, Michael Tolan, and Cliff Gorman have all had active careers. Lang currently has two Oscars. Anne Reinking made only two films after All That Jazz, but had a comeback on Broadway in the 1990s. Jazz was Leland Palmer’s last feature film, and young Erzsebet Foldi’s only film.