Dir. Bob Fosse. Starring Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking
All That Jazz is such a mess, and it’s one of the most entertaining and spellbinding messes I’ve ever seen. Take the first six minutes or so of the movie, which give us Joe Gideon’s (Scheider) morning routine, a peek into the gray world of Angelique (Jessica Lange), the tightrope walking metaphor of Joe’s life, and then four and a half minutes of auditions. In 272 seconds, there are 122 cuts of very unequal length. In the fourteenth, the camera is fairly close on Joe as he, crouched over, examines footwork and posture of a multitude of dancers, who we see more and more of as the camera recedes from them. It is a masterful expression of physicality not just of whole bodies dancing, or, in the case of one gangling scarecrow in a sea of adroit young women, the abject failure to do so. It is in the faces of the people, the backers yawning cavernously, the kindness in Gideon’s face as he tells a young man he won’t be in the cast, the laughter of Fosse’s wife, Audrey (Palmer) and daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi), the mother in stage makeup in the back of a dark theater, accentuating the childish features of the girl. All conversation and human sound is eliminated by the music, George Benson’s “On Broadway.” The dancing is not an obvious fit to the whole of the song, but even when the people move faster than the music, there’s a pensiveness inflected into the dancing which would not be there otherwise. The editing is top-notch, telling the stories of the faces and limbs and torsos in a joyous pantomime. Fosse gives us something electrifying in a mixture of Dexedrine, cigarettes in the shower, leotards, eyedrops, backflips, Vivaldi, covered ears, cigarettes outside the shower, taps on the shoulder: it’s showtime, folks. The first few minutes of the film are a sign of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. Yeats wondered how we might know the dancer from the dance, a question which is easier to unravel in film than when it’s addressed at the human soul. We’ve all watched a movie and said that the acting is better than the writing, the cinematography is better than the sound, the costumes are better than the production design. Fosse does something rare and wonderful in these first few minutes: it becomes difficult to pick the dancers apart from the dance they’re doing. So much is being tied together, and each layer pulls its weight to make one of the best early scenes I’ve ever come across.
The story of Gideon, a liar and genius and provocateur and womanizer, eulogized as a man “who allowed himself to be adored, but not loved,” is surprisingly appealing. On the face of it, he seems like a “difficult man” in the same general line as Don Draper or Walter White, and yet he is not part of the same line as them. He has a sense of humor, particularly about himself. (“What’s the matter!” he challenges God, presumably, staring up into the camera. “You don’t like musical comedy?”) No one is quicker to damn Gideon than himself, although his egotism keeps him from ever really facing his own flaws. He is jealous and ugly with Katie (Reinking) when she calls up a guy to ask him for a date when Gideon seems ready to dump her. She pointedly mentions that Gideon is constantly fooling around with other women, going out with whoever he wants; I go out with them, Gideon snaps, but I stay in with you!
The wonderment of the near-death fantasy that we are given at the outset, which becomes more and more encompassing as we move through the movie, is a quiet and reflective counter to the noise and motion of real life; there is no such relief from Don or Walt, and the variety in perspective gives us more ways to meaningfully understand Joe. In his interview with Angelique, he is occasionally brusque but mostly resigned, signifying his comprehension with half-smiles. The editing shows us that his hospital stay was the exact opposite, smiling broadly and actively courting death with a lifestyle that would trouble a man who didn’t smoke in every waking moment. Roy Scheider, who after a decade of playing cops and secret agents and pimps, is an unexpected delight; he moves with a smoothness that makes us forget that we’re watching a choreographer who doesn’t dance, and his eyes look lighter and more mischievous than we’ve ever seen them before. His light hair and matching goatee, placed in concert with kinder eyes and a slim, informal style of dress, present a very different guy from the one who wore big glasses to chase down Jaws. Scheider’s performance looks totally effortless, which, compared to the decade of Method press that Dustin Hoffman had built up, must have seemed more like a tour de force than a sweaty slog; his loss to Hoffman at the Oscars for 1979 is, even by the standards of the Academy Awards, a huge miscarriage of justice. (I don’t often like to ascribe too much of an actor’s success to a director, but doubtless Fosse sent Scheider in the right direction; this is the same guy who managed to make Michael York interesting in Cabaret, after all.)
The movie shines most when people are dancing, although that’s not a hard and fast rule. The show that Gideon is directing before he goes into the hospital has daring and memorable choreography, going from acrobatic to nubile in a flash that confounds the producers. (It’s a long scene, and it adds to the picture’s aforementioned messy feeling; the “Airotica” number smells like one of those performances that a director wants to incorporate somewhere and plops into the first place he can find.) There’s a sweet moment where Joe, too often absent from Michelle’s life, lifts her and catches her in various poses before she’s returned to her mother, simultaneously fielding questions from his precocious girl about why he hasn’t married Katie. Palmer’s Audrey gets a chance to show off what she can do in a scene where she has it out with her husband, who is an important artistic collaborator even if they are no longer doing the whole man and wife bit. There’s an intoxicating sludge of dance in the movie’s third act, in which Joe, directing a series of performances and chatting with the unconscious, bedridden Joe at the same time, has the three women in his life run through a series of numbers. Each is staged to a song originally hailing from the 1910s or ’20s, and there is a number for Audrey, a number for Katie, a number for Michelle, variously glamorous and disconcerting, glorying in costume and makeup where “Airotica” went entirely for unadorned and stripped down physiques. There are touches of Busby Berkeley, of Chicago, of jazz old and new. It’s a stunning set of combinations, although placing them in concert makes them run together rather like our own memories do. We even go into Joe’s youth, to an early performance at a burlesque where he tap dances after being badly, badly titillated by the mostly nude performers; it doesn’t end well for him, to say the least, and we are given to understand that one of his first performances ends in an unfortunate embarrassment.
For my money, the best of these dances is the pas de deux performed by Katie and Michelle. It’s something they appear to have put together on their own time, constructed for the pleasure of the man they love, and he is almost abashed and certainly pleased by what they’ve made. They perform it in the living room, using the whole space, plus the stairs and landing nearby; it’s the living room performance of a family which is much more talented than yours. It’s a little old-fashioned compared to some of the ultramodern performances before and after it. It’s heavy on technique, which suits both dancers. For the first time we see that Foldi has a gift for dancing, strong enough to place her on the same floor as Reinking. They wear black top hats, and both keep to black and white costume; Peter Allen sings the rendition of “Everything Old Is New Again” which they dance to, which suits the theme as well as having Joe’s girlfriend and Joe’s daughter dancing side by side.
As a story about Fosse’s own life, I don’t know that I care very much. The movie weakens significantly when it turns our attention away from the callbacks to Sweet Charity or Cabaret and when we have to remember Fosse’s most recent picture, Lenny. Gideon is most interesting when he’s put onstage and when he puts others there; watching him in screening rooms or in front of the monitor, editing his movie, is significantly less rewarding. He needs space to move, to interact with others. The stand-up routine we watch is a little heavy-handed, a little too easy to relate back to the movie as Joe comes to grips with his own death. All the same, one is inclined to forgive those sequences when they lead up to the film’s final number, “Bye Bye Life,” an extravaganza of color and faces and glitter. This is how Fosse sees himself going out, to song and dance and hugs and kisses and handshakes, giving a last farewell to the people he cares about, schmoozing and smiling all the way. The song may not be much, but the idea behind it is scintillating.