All That Jazz (1979)

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By Scott Ross

Bob Fosse’s great, outrageous semi-autobiography — an act of public navel-gazing unparalleled in American movies. It’s not exactly a flattering self-portrait. Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, is driven, occasionally cruel, self-lacerating, priapistic, and more than half in love with easeful death. (Of course, when Death looks like Jessica Lange, what heterosexual man wouldn’t flirt?)

Since Joe is played by the enormously appealing Roy Scheider, the rougher edges of his character are, if not explicable, at least forgivable. Leland Palmer, playing a lightly fictionalized Gwen Verdon, gives a smashing performance; the exhilarating sequence in which she points out Joe’s inability to maintain a semblance of fidelity, all the while performing sinewy dance exercises, is one of my very favorite moments in all of movies.

Audrey: Quick, tell me – what was the name of the girl in Philadelphia?
Joe: The blonde with the television show? Oh, the blonde with the television show in Philadelphia? I remember that girl’s name. Because that girl meant something to me! The blonde with the television show, her name was Sweetheart… Honey? Baby? I can’t remember her name.
Audrey: Dorothy… Dorothy!
Joe: Who cares? I can’t remember her name.

The splendid supporting cast includes Anne Reinking playing pretty much herself and showing off the most delectable pair of dancing thighs since the heyday of Cyd Charisse; the late Anthony Holland as the show-within-a-movie’s hysterical, nelly composer/lyricist (a somewhat vicious, seeming admixture of Stephen Schwartz and Fred Ebb); Max Wright as an only slightly less self-contained movie producer; John Lithgow as an oily rival director; Wallace Shawn as an accountant contentedly pointing out that Gideon is worth more dead than alive; Cliff Gorman as Dustin Hoffman (more or less); the charming Erzebet Fioldi as Gideon’s adolescent daughter; and the great Sandahl Bergman as his principal dancer. (Fosse’s real-life dance captain Kathryn Doby works here in the same capacity on-screen.) A very young John Lithgow could be almost any hot stage director of the time, from Mike Nichols down, but just for the sake of confusion he wears glasses on the top of his head exactly as Hal Prince does.

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Erzebet Fioldi and Anne Reinking in mid-jump.

This is one of those pictures people at the time either loved, or hated. I loved it. I was 18, theatre-mad, Fosse-bedazzled (I’d seen Dancin’ on my first trip to New York just before the movie opened nation-wide) and I’d never encountered anything like it. Among the many memorably shot and edited set-pieces, take one at random: The long sequence around the read-through table as the cast of Gideon’s new show falls about with laughter. Fosse drops out all the sound except for Scheider’s breathing, the tapping of his nervous finger, the scrape of his chair across the wooden studio floor, the crushing of a cigarette under a boot and the abrupt snapping of a pencil. For anyone who’s ever been in circumstances remotely like those Joe Gideon faces at that moment, the total effect is instantly comprehensible: Flop-sweat intensifies the minutest details.

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Ann Reinking. The body is hers, all right, but the style is all Fosse’s.

The “Take Off With Us” number, growing out of the Scheider-Palmer scene above, didn’t just push the buttons of the characters on the screen; the same-sex pas de deux caused ripples of nervous laughter and little exclamations of disgust at more than one screening (I saw the movie repeatedly) and I was deeply impressed by Fosse’s willingness, at that time, to go that far, and with his dancers for trusting him that much.

Some said that opening cattle-call audition sequence owed too much to A Chorus Line, which had beaten Chicago at the Broadway box-office in 1975, but I demur. The more you know about Bob Fosse, the more true to his methods it rings.

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Fosse’s co-author on the screenplay was Robert Alan Arthur, Tony Walton designed the often hallucinatory sets, the superb arrangements are by Fosse’s longtime collaborator Ralph Burns, and the sumptuous cinematography was by Giuseppe Rotunno. The movie Fosse/Gideon edits is clearly meant to be Lenny, just as the show on which he is working is pretty obviously Chicago.

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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3 thoughts on “All That Jazz (1979)

  1. Nice essay!
    Cliff Gorman, BTW, was slated to star in Fosse’s movie as Lenny Bruce, since he had won every award around for doing it on Broadway, but the bankers insisted on a star. Fosse tried to get them to accept Gorman but he could not argue them into hiring an “unknown,” as they perceived him, rather than a known movie star. Using Gorman in this film was a tip of the hat to Cliff. Gorman told me that he was grateful for the chance to at least get some of his Lenny on film.
    Was this Lithgow’s film debut?
    And was this film in any way responsible for Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling? They are cousins in a way…

  2. Thank you, Eliot. I remember reading that in Sam Wasson’s Fosse biography. Gorman’s Lenny would doubtless have been more caustic than Hoffman’s and less of a dopey hounddog begging for the audience to love him.

    According to Wiki (well…) this was indeed Lithgow’s debut.

    I have not seen “Jo-Jo,” but always assumed “All That Jazz” was an inspiration.

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