A Movie producer I met recently gave me a conspiratorial look and inquired, Seen 'All That Jazz'?" At the time I hadn't. "Boy, do you have a treat coming!" he snorted. "A muscial comedy about a guy having a heart attack made by a guy without a heart."
It would be difficult to improve upon this capsule review. "All That Jazz," Bob Fosse's first movie since the 1974 "Lenny," an acridly maudling biography of the late Lenny Bruce, is an alienating slice of backstage muscial autobiography: an acridly maudlin spectacle depicting the hectic professional life, promiscuous love life and death-infatuated fantasy life of a character one is tempted to call the late Bob Fosse, although he is called Joe Gideon and impersonated with harrowing authenticity by Roy Scheider.
Often brilliantly stylized and kinetically stirring, "All That Jazz" is highlighted by two spellbinding dance sequences: an impressionistic summation of the toil, sweat and tears of auditions for a new show, a dazzling set piece that opens the film; and an enchanting duet between Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, cast respectively as the mistress and adolescent daughter of Gideon, a celebrated but insecure filmmaker choreographer.
By the time the film is over, the movie has degenerated with a jaundiced vengeance. Fosse's sour, grandstanding cynicism imposed an intolerable burden of self-pity on his talent, our compassion and the tradition of the backstage muscial.
The scenario, devised by Fosse in collaboration with the late Robert Alan Aurthur, emerged from the period in early 1975 when Fosse was recuperating from a coronary. "Lenny" had just been released, and "Chicago" was in rehearsal. Alter-ego Gideon is shown agonizing over the editing of a movie resembling "Lenny" while simultaneously launching a new Broadway muscial starring his ex-wife, played by Leland Palmer.
Habitually coughing and rubbing a numbed left arm, Gideon appears destined for a physical collapse. Nevertheless, it's essential to his particular sexual and vocational vanity to operate on the edge of exhaustion and flirt with death. He keeps on smoking, drops some Murine in bloodshot eyes nurses his gut with Bromo, revives with stinging showers, stimulates the old cortex with Dexedrine and greets himself in the bathroom mirror with a grimly ironic "It's showtime, folks!"
Gideon doesn't only flirt with death. He conducts soulful, would be revealing conversations with a gauzy personification of Death called Angelique, played by Jessica Lange, the erst-while inamorata of Dino De Laurentils' King Kong. She's as eager to possess him as all the earthly chorus girls competing for places to his shows, his sack and his affections.
Fosse depicts the ephemeral Angelique as Gideon's true love match. To be kind, one might dismiss the whole idea as an absurd romantic device. However, it suggests intriguing psychological needs. The "real" women in Gideon's life-ex-wife, mistress, daughter, new girlfriend -- appear to love him tenderly and admire him greatly. In fact, everyone in his show business orbit appears to dote on Joe Gideon. The ones who don't love him either depend on his talent or envy it.
Fosse permits himself lavish vindictive fun with the character of a rival Broadway director, played by John Lithgow who is barely able to conceal his disappointment when Gideon, hospitalized with a heart attack recovers in time to resume control of his show.
Can the sleazy resentments and suspicions bred into a man who learns his lessons about life from show business explain the almost pathological ugliness of many sequences in the film? For example, the wretched "inspiration" of crosscutting shots of Gideon's chest cavity being opened for heart surgery with scenes of the play's producers nervously plotting to protect their endangered investment.
And, indeed the scenario includes a peculiarly suggestive primal scene. Recalling Gideon's adolescence as a young hoofer out of Chicago, Fosse depicts him being comically humiliated by three strippers at a burlesque house. They mischievously stroke the boy before he's scheduled to go on. When he dashes out to perform his tap dance, the proprietor and patrons begin laughing raucously at a big telltale stain on his white trousers.
Although the episode is staged crudely -- as a lewd wheeze -- it could be the key to the character.
Gideon is portrayed as a notorious womanizer incapable of being comforted by the largely adoring women who surround him. How seriously should we take his self-doubting remarks about "not being good enough"? Why does he find it so much easier to derive inspiration from a death-wish than the emerging beauty and nimbleness of his little girl? It's difficult to escape the conclusion that Gideon's form of show-biz egotism, presented as a gallant response to a high-pressue existence, is not only self-deceiving and hateful but also artistically crippling. "All That Jazz" might have been called "Bob Fosse's Heart of Darkness."
Gideon's stripper trauma, which may or may not explain the curious streak of misogyny in this movie, surfaces again when poor Joe is in the hospital. What finally sends the old Ticker into distress is the sight of a TV reviewer (played by New York TV reviewer Chris Chase) mercilessly panning his new movie. She is the only one who hasn't raved.
Is Fosse really telling us that he'd find it unbearable to be panned by, say, Rona Barrett? Some heroic resilience. Were Fosse's feelings hurt by the failure of a movie critic like Pauline Kael to rave about "Lenny" or the failure of a dance critic like Arlene Croce to rave about "Chicago"? Their opinions would matter.
The overblown finale, conceived as a glittering swan song for a gutsy guy (even the costumer has been encouraged to Think Visceral), celebrates nothing more exalted than a fraudulent death-wish. It is Fosse's own put-on fantasy wake, which has so little integrity that it's reduced to a TV talk show hosted by a smarmy entertainer (ben Vereen). Extreme makeup and costuming transform Gideon's loyal dancing ladies into members of a slinky, menacing chorus on this miserable occasion.
In the course of criticizing Fosse's "Chicago," Arlene Croce wrote, "Many show people are looking deep into themselves for something to say and finding that the only subject they know is show business." The observation applies with equal relevance and melancholy to "All That Jazz."
In "Notes," her ingenuously invaluable book about the production of "Apocalypse Now," Eleanor Coppola recalls a dinner at Elaine's in New York with her husband:
"Bernardo [Bertolucci] was at the next table, Bob Fosse and one of his dancers at the next. Woody Allen was seated by himself, like a caricature of a lonely little man. Bob Fosse didn't look well. Francis and Bernardo had shadows of some personal lingering depression. Woody Allen looked miserable. sI hear Marty Scorsese is not well. Wat is happening to all these directors?"
Fosse's new movie invites the same exasperated question -- and also cries out for a liberating comic answer.