All That Jazz (1979), directed by Bob Fosse; producers: Robert Alan Aurthur, Daniel Melnick, Wolfgang Glattes, Kenneth Utt; written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse; music by Ralph Burns; cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Alan Heim; distributed by 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures; Awards: Won Academy Awards for Best Art/Set Decoration (Philip Rosenberg, Tony Walton, Edward Stewart, Gary J. Brink); Best Costume Design (Albert Wolsky); Best Film Editing; Best Music; nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography; Best Original Screenplay; Best Leading Actor (Roy Scheider); for a full list of awards and nominations, go here.
It might be said that All That Jazz is on the list because the list begins too late to include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). Like Fellini’s film, ATJ is a film about a filmmaker based on the maker of the film itself. Unlike 8 ½, Joe Gideon, the filmmaker in ATJ, is primarily a choreographer and theater director and therein lies a key difference. Filmmaking (which largely entails watching segments of a film called “The Standup” that stands in for Fosse’s film Lenny) is secondary to dance and theater in ATJ, and the kick in the film comes from Fosse’s skill in the latter. And yet he’s no slouch of a filmmaker. What keeps the film—about a week in the life of Gideon, leading up to his death—buoyant is the razamatazz of Fosse’s quick cuts and manipulations of camera and editing to make us feel ourselves a part of Gideon’s world, often in his head.
Gideon, in a very natural and soulful performance by Roy Scheider, is a live-wire, running on dexedrine, cigarettes, booze, and all the sex appeal he can squeeze out of any woman in his vicinity. Mainly, though, he’s a work junkie, living to be a part of the crazy world of dance theatricals (in real life, in the period ATJ dramatizes, Fosse was editing Lenny and developing the Broadway musical Chicago). The women in question include: his ex-wife and dance colleague, Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), who is generally amused by her former spouse’s shenanigans; his current girlfriend, the dancer Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking, a dancer and actual girlfriend of Fosse’s); his budding dancer daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), who bids for her old man’s attention despite the other demanding females around, and a new dance protégé, Victoria (Deborah Geffner) who Gideon seduces, it seems, simply because it’s what he does.
Fosse was accused of self-indulgence (much as Fellini was) in playing this film so close to his own bones and blood, but that’s what gives it all its garish, lived-in flair. We know Fosse knows whereof he speaks, particularly in the fascinating behind-the-scenes scenes in developing a dance routine, and also in the under-the-table dealings between the musical’s producers, its insurer, and a possible replacement director, played with unctuous charm by John Lithgow. The frame of the film has Gideon in flirtatious dialogue with an extremely young Jessica Lange as Angelique, a winsome Angel of Death who more or less interviews Gideon about his devil-may-care and get-thee-behind-me-doctor lifestyle, en route to their final consummation. For such a relentless womanizer it’s fitting that Death be the last seduction.
The idea of the film—its depiction of the travails of the creative life of a Don Juan—could be said to be more than a bit obvious, but what makes the film worthy of attention is the way Fosse lets dance numbers express what he really wants to say. The asides on the inherent lack of sincerity in theater people are instinctive—like the Jewish jokes in the early Woody Allen films—but the real power of the film is found in its feel for the guts and the manic drive and the tedium and the highs of theater, particularly the relentless physicality of dance. As such, the film is a treatise by one of the most successful show-biz choreographers ever (8 Tony Awards) on the conditions of his art.
The pleasures are many: Scheider above all is brilliant, keeping us with Gideon all through it. No matter how much he’s a screw-up and a charlatan, people believe in him and he generally rises to the occasion, showing consideration for others despite his incessant egotism. His death is portrayed as the result of willful indifference to medical advice, a “burn the candle at both ends” philosophy pursued to its conclusion, and that does let down those who care about him, but Fosse and Scheider show us that, in the end, Gideon's life is a love affair with death.
Other things that keep me re-watching: Ann Reinking as a leggy beauty who I’m glad Fosse preserved on film in her dance routines; the silly “Come Fly With Us” tune that Gideon turns into an erotic number, almost a paean for the Mile High Club, and then turns into a comment on fleeting hook-ups. The film, debuting at the start of AIDS awareness, could be said to be one of the last hurrahs for the Seventies’ ethos of indiscriminate sex, and, as such, wears its Seventies styles and attitudes quite well, including its vexed evocation of, despite Women’s Lib and the era’s gestures toward full equality and autonomy for women, the fraught battle of the sexes in the life of a man from an earlier generation for whom “the sexual revolution” simply means he can get laid as often as he likes by as many women as he likes. The film may be indulgent in not questioning Gideon’s sex appeal, but, again, one feels Fosse knows whereof he speaks—and it’s up to the women in the case to explain why they, as Angelique asks, “put up with it.” As with Fellini’s Guido, the notion that women should be fascinated by finding themselves objects of interest to such men is a given.
Bob Fosse is gone (d. 1987, at 60); Roy Scheider is gone (d. 2008, at 75). Watching the film now, one is even more engaged by its vision of tripping the light fantastic en route to the Grim Reaper. To that end, Ben Vereen’s stint as a Sammy Davis, Jr.-style entertainer, famous for on-the-air effusions, still lights up the screen and helps bring it all home with a wonderful “Bye Bye Life” variation on “Bye Bye Love.” Admittedly, the film—once its foregone conclusion becomes definite, with about a half hour and numerous dance routines still to go—has no real third act. Instead, it gives us routines—lively imaginative routines—as though it might be possible to delay indefinitely the inevitable with entertainment. At some point we—and Lady Death—tire of the razamatazz, and it's time to “get on with the show.”
50 Since 1970