Roy Scheider plays the director Bob Fosse in a barely-veiled-at-all autobiographical film All That Jazz
Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle Gideon), David Marguiles (Larry Goldie), Michael Tolan (Dr Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant)
It’s revealing when a director makes an autobiographical film. There are insights to be found about the sort of person they are – and the sort of person they want to present themselves as to the world. And All That Jazz is possibly the most striking autobiographical film ever made. You have to have a towering amount of ego to make a film showing yourself as a deliriously talented polymath, generally liked by everyone. And then you have to have a giddy self-awareness to give your semi-fictional doppelganger all your titanic faults, selfishness, cruelty and flaws. Let’s not even get into the psychology of turning your own death into a musical number, eight years before it happened.
Just like Bob Fosse, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a hugely influential choreographer and director who has changed the face of Broadway musicals before going on to become the Oscar-winning director of a string of critically acclaimed films. He is also a workaholic, addicted to a string of prescription drugs, a never-ending smoker, with a strong of failed marriages and affairs behind him. Just like Bob Fosse, in 1975 Gideon is staging his ground-breaking original production of a musical (Fosse was directing Chicago which clearly inspired the unnamed musical here), starring his ex-wife (and mother of his daughter) Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer, a frequent Fosse collaborator), living with his girlfriend Kate Jagger (played by Ann Reinking, who was Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time). At nights and weekends he is editing The Stand-Up (a version of Fosse’s film about stand-up Lenny Bruce titled Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman). When he has a near fatal heart attack part way through this, Gideon starts to sink. Fosse on the other hand used the experience to write this movie.
All That Jazz is an electric piece of film-making, full of Fosse’s dynamism. It’s not only crammed with fabulous song and dance numbers (some of the best Fosse work you’ll see) but it’s beautifully edited and paced. Fosse holds it all together so brilliantly you never feel the thing teeter on the tightrope like Gideon does (the first image of the film is appropriately Gideon walking a tightrope). It perfectly captures the high intensity, killer pressure of maintaining this constant state of activity, and suggests how much Fosse (clearly) believed his own life was a performance, every moment constructed and staged for maximum impact.
And that’s what you wonder about the film. Does Fosse hate himself, love himself or some combination of both? It’s something the film just teases, with Gideon indulged in a series of fantasy-tinged cryptic conversations with Jessica Lange (another Fosse conquest allegedly) as some sort of angel dressed in white. Here Gideon of course flirts and charms as only he can, while answering with ambiguous amounts of truthfulness a series of questions about love, his background, his wishes and dreams. But even when he says these things, there is the half smile that suggests it’s only part of the story. Or maybe Gideon himself doesn’t even know where life ends and the story begins.
Fosse’s film is just about perfectly structured. Repeatedly we see Gideon going through the same daily ritual when he wakes up: Vivaldi, shower, cocktail of prescription drugs, eye drops, slap hands, “It’s a show time!” (with an ever increasing struggle to keep the energy up). As the tempo of this repeated introduction changes through the film, you get a perfect idea of the state of Gideon’s mind and mood – and his relentless attempt to turn his own life into a perfect performance.
In among all this, perhaps no film has ever showed a better understanding of the pressures of creating a Broadway musical. The opening sequence follows a series of exhausting auditions from literally hundreds of dancers desperate for a role in Gideon’s show, slowly being whittled down to the chosen few. The rehearsals are a punishing series of deconstructions as the dancers strive to match Gideon’s perfectionism. Rehearsal rooms are crammed, sweaty and uncomfortable. The money men hover over every scene, with an eye on protecting their investment. And then, we see the results suddenly of Gideon’s work with a Chicago-ish dance routine so sexually charged it is positively indecent. It’s genius on at least three levels.
The film revolves around Gideon, and the amount of time squeezed out of his personal life by his never-ending, passionate work commitments. Leland Palmer is excellent as his loving but deeply frustrated wife, supportive but all too aware of Gideon’s selfishness. The bond between them feels strong, real and above conventional marriage. Ann Reinking is equally marvellous as his lover, protégé, partner and you name it. Between these three characters there is a hugely warm performance from Erzsebet Foldi as Gideon’s shrewd but loving daughter. Fosse isn’t afraid to sprinkle real moments of family warmth in, as if trying to show Gideon all the things he is missing out on – one particularly outstanding moment is a song-and-dance routine Reinking and Foldi perform for Gideon after the premiere of his film The Stand-Up, as entertaining as it is charming.
But the film’s secondary motor, after Fosse’s directing brilliance (seriously, there are few Hollywood directors so undervalued, the man is a genius) is Roy Scheider as Gideon. I can’t really imagine a more bizarre sounding bit of casting: Jaws Chief Brody as a song-and-dance man, the world’s greatest (even slightly camp) choreographer. But Scheider is simply sublime in this role. It’s a towering, landmark performance of total commitment. He’s achingly human, supremely sad but also overflowing with warmth, humanity and humour while also being repeatedly selfish, difficult and demanding. It’s a performance of total absorption.
By time of the finale number (a truly bizarre version of Bye Bye Love, renamed Bye Bye Life, in which Gideon lives his final moments in a fantasy world, singing and dancing his way towards death in front of an audience of faces from past and present) the whole thing is so wonderfully overblown it doesn’t really matter. The film’s passage into the surreal and fantasy as Gideon gets increasingly ill (while showing less and less regard for his own health) will be a bit much for some, but I was honestly so into it that I didn’t care.
Because the film is about this acute piece of self-analysis from the director, a Fellini-inspired sort of musical 8½, in which the understanding (or lack thereof) we get of Gideon, and which he gains about himself, is most important. His conversations with Lange’s angel of death are intriguing and as informative about the man he really is as the man he wants to be.
Fosse’s film is simply supremely well directed (Kubrick called it one of the best films he ever saw). Fosse’s editor (playing himself in the film as the editor of The Stand-Up) said if Fosse had actually died during the making of the film, he would have made sure his death was filmed and edited into the movie. I can believe it. The only musical you’ll ever see which doubles as a confession and a condemnation, which turns death and surgical procedures into wham bam musical numbers, and which never becomes maudlin or sentimental about the self-inflicted disaster the director is putting on himself – it’s brilliant.