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 portrayed by the enormously appealing Roy Scheider, the rougher edges of his character are, if not explicable, at least forgivable. And 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 American movies.
The splendid supporting cast includes Anne Reinking, pretty much playing 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 amalgam of Moose Charlap, 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 — Fosse’s preferred screen Lenny Bruce, until the money-men vetoed him — 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. The movie Fosse/Gideon edits is clearly meant to be Lenny, just as the show on which he is working is pretty obviously Chicago.
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 had 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 breaking in two of a wooden pencil. For anyone who’s ever been in circumstances remotely like those Joe Gideon faces at that moment, or experienced a panic-attack, the total effect is instantly comprehensible: Flop-sweat intensifies the minutest details.
The “Take Off with Us” number, growing out of the aforementioned Scheider-Palmer scene, 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.†
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.
Some said that opening cattle-call audition sequence owed too much to A Chorus Line, which had beaten Chicago at the Broadway box-office (and Tony Awards) in 1975, but I respectfully demur; the more you know about Bob Fosse, the truer to his methods it rings.
*Lithgow’s character could be almost any hot stage director of the time, from Mike Nichols down, but as he habitually wears his eyeglasses on the top of his head he’s clearly meant to be Hal Prince. Prince was offered Chicago, the source of this picture’s show-within-a-movie, when Fosse was sidelined by the heart attack depicted here, and likely would have said yes had his rival not rebounded.
†A comparable choreographic orgy Fosse staged during Chicago’s early previews was less well-motivated than the one depicted here, and reputedly a lot nastier in tone, but his collaborators managed to reign him on it. (Thanks to Ethan Mordden’s All That Jazz: The Lives and Times of the Musical Chicago for the information on this, and confirmation of the Lithgow-Prince nexus.)
All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross