All That Jazz was Bob Fosse’s portrait of the artist as total bastard

All That Jazz was Bob Fosse’s portrait of the artist as total bastard

Every day, WatchThis offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Battle Of The Year 3-D waltzing into theaters, we look back on other movies about dancers.

All That Jazz (1979)

Strictly speaking, All That Jazz isn’t about a dancer. Bob Fosse was many things—dancer, choreographer, actor, director, writer, and some might say History’s Greatest Monster for beating out Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director at the 1973 Oscars. And strictly speaking, All That Jazz isn’t technically about Fosse, at least in that the lead character—a similar multi-hyphenate named Joe Gideon played by Roy Scheider—isn’t named “Bob Fosse.” But the film à clef is, for all intents and purposes, a Fosse biopic written and directed by the man himself. And it’s not a flattering portrait. But it is, in typical Fosse fashion, flashy and stylish, with a hint of the avant garde. 

Scheider plays Gideon as a womanizing, speed-addled, chain-smoking workaholic, the kind of bastard who recognizes what a bastard he is, but doesn’t let his guilt force him into changing his ways. Anchoring the film are two elements: repeated short scenes of Gideon’s morning routine (Alka Seltzer, eye drops, dexedrine, shower, Vivaldi’s “Concerto In G Major,” and “It’s showtime, folks!” to himself in the mirror); and dreamlike scenes where Gideon converses with a mysterious woman in white (Jessica Lange) about his life. In one, she asks, “Family?” “Screwed up,” he replies. “Work?” “All there is.”

As the film progresses, those scenes help elucidate Gideon’s deterioration, from his worsening cough to his interactions with Lange’s unnamed character (listed as “Angelique” in the credits), whose identity becomes clear. The primary plot of the film follows Gideon as he works on two high-profile projects: a new Broadway musical about flight attendants and a stand-up film about a comedian played by Cliff Gorman (likely reflecting Lenny, the Lenny Bruce biopic Fosse directed). Neither is going well; the film is way overdue and over-budget, and the musical isn’t coming together like Gideon wants. His personal life is going no better as he cheats on his girlfriend and fails his daughter.

All That Jazz has been appropriately described as a song-and-dance film that people who don’t like musicals can enjoy; there isn’t that much singing and dancing, and the other parts easily stand on their own thanks to the engrossing drama that unfolds. A lot of the credit goes to the incredible Scheider, who was neither Fosse’s nor the studio’s first choice. Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast—the studio wanted a big name to anchor this risky film, and he had just won an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl—but he didn’t like the film or Fosse. Scheider had a reputation that was the opposite of Fosse’s—whom Scheider described as “a guy who overdid everything”—but had a history in the theater. As the actor tells it, he met Fosse at an office in the Brill Building and told him about every terrible play he’d ever done. That won Fosse over, so they spent the week reading the script every night at his apartment until Fosse felt like Scheider was the right choice. He was, though Dustin Hoffman beat him for Best Actor at the Oscars that year.

The drama of Gideon’s life may take precedence, but the song-and-dance scenes are pretty great, particularly the closer with Ben Vereen. Although that number, and the film preceding it, is clearly leading to one inevitable conclusion, the final shot of All That Jazz remains jarring—and, as it turns out for Bob Fosse, prescient.

Availability: Not streaming anywhere, but the DVD is available via Netflix.

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