Life Is a Cabaret

Melissa Anderson on Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz

Bob Fosse, All That Jazz, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider).

BY THE 1970S, the movie musical was almost dead and so was Bob Fosse. The ticker of the prodigiously talented choreographer, dancer, director, screenwriter, and actor, then forty-seven, was under severe strain in 1974, the result of an unyielding, self-imposed, toxic-substance-fueled work schedule: He was both editing Lenny, his Lenny Bruce biopic, and beginning preparations for Chicago, all the while gobbling pills and smoking obscene numbers of cigarettes. From Fosse’s near-death experience in the fall of that year—while still recovering from open-heart surgery, he had a heart attack—was born the largely autobiographical All That Jazz, which he directed, cowrote (with Robert Alan Aurthur, who actually did die before the film’s premiere), and choreographed.

This phenomenal 1979 film, a work of “depressive exhilaration,” in the astute words of Sam Wasson, author of the excellent, recently published biography Fosse, was the director’s third (and final) Hollywood musical, following Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of Fosse’s 1966 stage production of the same name, and Cabaret (1972). All three movies are obsidian prisms reflecting the darker, seamier aspects of show business, informed by the desperate ambience that Fosse observed first-hand as a teenage dancer in the burlesque halls of his native Chicago. Those formative, often scarring years as an entertainer are re-presented in All That Jazz, in which Fosse’s self-regard is no match for his self-excoriation.

Fosse’s surrogate, Joe Gideon, is played by a sexy, vulpine, Vandyked Roy Scheider, clad all in black and never without a ciggie between his lips, whether in the shower or a hospital bed. Joe’s day begins with varying doses of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and Visine, this morning ritual accompanied by a cassette tape of Vivaldi and concluding with a jazz-handsy, though weary, exhortation into the bathroom mirror: “It’s showtime, folks.”

Always on, even during attacks of angina, Joe has an enormous show to orchestrate, NY to LA, a transparent Chicago analogue. Lasting about six minutes, the cattle-call audition for this production, nondiegetically scored to George Benson’s funky cover of “On Broadway,” highlights not only Fosse’s tremendous skills in arranging and filming bodies—whether en masse or solo—in motion but also his eagerness to reveal, via Joe, his own unseemly business practices. “Victoria Porter—is this your home number?” he asks one NY to LA hopeful, who will make an appearance in his bed later that night.

Fosse is not above settling scores: The moneymen behind NY to LA are a particularly unimaginative, mercenary lot, and the character Lucas Sergeant (John Lithgow), partially inspired by Fosse’s archrival, A Chorus Line’s Michael Bennett, is humiliated in a restaurant. But he saves his most stinging disdain for his own incorrigible philandering. His infidelities ended both his marriage to Gwen Verdon, here recast as Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), though she, in real life as in the film, remained his muse and most important collaborator, and his relationship with another key lover/dancer, Ann Reinking—who, as Katie Jagger, essentially plays herself in All That Jazz. (According to Wasson, Fosse made her audition for the part.) “At least I won’t have to lie to you anymore,” Joe tells Audrey in the final number, “Bye Bye Life,” before the EKG flatlines. This spectacular, morbid scene, the very epitome of “depressive exhilaration,” was a dress rehearsal of sorts: Eight years later, Fosse, with Verdon at his side, died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., where he was mounting a revival of Sweet Charity.

All That Jazz screens January 24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens as part of the series “See It Big! Musicals.”