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Dancing Toward Death: Bob Fosse and All That Jazz

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I’ve always thought of All That Jazz as a beautiful fever dream about death.

One of my earlier childhood memories is of stumbling into part of this movie, probably on VHS, and seeing Joe Gideon (played by the late great Roy Scheider, who William Friedkin said “died too soon”) walking slowly down a hallway towards the specter-like figure of Jessica Lange. I didn’t really know what was going on, but it felt surreal and important.

In All That Jazz, Bob Fosse — perhaps as famous for his astoundingly precise choreography as he was for his drive and perfectionism — depicts his own life in a swirl of dance numbers. Against this, his director/choreographer protagonist juggles multiple projects, cattle call auditions, and women, all while careening towards the inevitable.

This world is very specifically Fosse’s, and despite this film winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1980, it was criticized by some during its initial release for being too “self-indulgent” — perhaps because it so closely tells the story of Fosse’s own life.

Yet Fosse has said in interviews that Joe Gideon is not him, that Gideon resembles him but differs in many ways. While we may never know what differences he was referring to, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities.

Joe Gideon bounces between directing and choreographing a stage show and editing a film about a comedian while his frenetic lifestyle ultimately destroys his health. Fosse himself bounced between directing and choreographing the original stage production of Chicago and editing his biopic on Lenny Bruce and had a heart attack. Even the actor cast as the Lenny stand-in in the film Gideon is editing played Lenny Bruce in the real-life Broadway production of Lenny (which later became the Fosse film of the same name).

Fosse even cast his girlfriend at the time — the wonderful dancer Anne Reinking — to play Gideon’s girlfriend. Her character makes up dance routines with Gideon’s young daughter, an activity which mirrored the relationship Reinking had with Fosse’s own real-life daughter.

While all of these details are so specifically Fosse, I would argue that this movie is at core about a man re-examining his life while coming to terms with his own death. Death: what subject could be more universal?

Art imitates life imitates art in that Bob Fosse made the movie (originally based on a novel called Ending, which was so downbeat he ended up throwing it out and remaking it in his own image) after his own heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery. The film was released a little less than eight years before his final, fatal heart attack, so the film not only predicted his death, but his heart attacks poetically bookend it.

All That Jazz seems to be the Fosse film that is the most Fosse, in that it’s the only one he wrote, directed, and choreographed.

We see and feel the frenetic repetitions of Joe Gideon’s mornings, in the form of Alka-Seltzer, Visine, Dexedrine (Fosse was at one time hooked on both Dexedrine and Seconal), and greeting himself in the mirror every morning with jazz hands and “It’s showtime, folks!” in a montage that repeats throughout the film and has become so iconic as to be paid homage to in other works. (Looking at you, Better Call Saul.)

The characters in Fosse’s universe seem to dance the way ordinary people breathe. They bend and move into increasingly pretzel-like contortions, often while simultaneously carrying on a conversation (when they’re not doing a full-fledged musical number), and one begins to feel lazier for merely sitting and watching them.

All of this seems to be a window into the way Fosse lived and the world that he breathed in for most of his life. If a filmmaker can never ultimately escape their own point of view, Fosse seems to embrace his wholeheartedly.

The film contains a lot of hallucinatory musical numbers involving Gideon in a hospital bed, a camera crew, and his ex-wife, girlfriend, daughter. It’s playfully surreal, but at the same time, it really feels like the way one’s mind might unravel while at death’s door. At the least, it feels like the hallucinations of someone with a high fever: all of his loved ones singing and dancing at him to the beat of hospital monitors. Fosse tackles these hallucinations in a way that is slightly reminiscent of another great director who worked in the same era, Ken Russell. Though, with all the choreographed dance and show business trappings, you know this is 100% Fosse. 

When conscious, Gideon spends his life — even in the hospital — making every moment count: flirting with women and maintaining his status as director and life of the party. It’s a way of life that, while ultimately self-destructive for him, also holds a lot of allure.

Scheider’s costar in Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss, was originally set to play Joe Gideon. When he dropped out, Scheider fought for the role because it was so outside of the police officer-type roles in which he was normally cast. Fosse loved to work with actors who he described as being “hungry”: those with tremendous talent who hadn’t yet completely found an outlet for it.

Scheider once said in an interview that he’d seen All That Jazz more than any other film he’d ever made, because he was constantly amazed by it.

“Gideon is the worst aspects of myself, theatricalized,” Scheider also said. “By worst, I mean the most compulsive and obsessive. All the workaholic that’s in me.”

Yet there’s a beauty in Fosse’s legendary perfectionism colliding with the loss of control you ultimately have when you’re facing death. No matter how controlled and hard-working and driven we are in life, the game is rigged. In a game between us and death, as Ingmar Bergman knew, it’s clear who will win in the end. Ironically, Fosse’s hard living, workaholism, and attempts at control may have sped him in that direction more quickly, as he died at the relatively young age of 60.

Whether or not it matters where Joe Gideon’s life ends and Bob Fosse’s life begins, the film paints us a wonderful portrait of an artist coming to terms with his own life and death.

Fosse was an extremely precise and impressive choreographer. That he was able to also become somewhat of an auteur and combine his talent for choreography with a talent for directing speaks to his legacy. Fosse once said that for those who make films, there’s a “reach to live a little longer after you die.” In this sense, 43 years after this film’s release and 35 years after his own death, Fosse continues to live on.

All That Jazz screens this weekend at The Frida Cinema. 
Friday, May 6 – 7:30pm
Saturday, May 7 – 4:30pm
Sunday, May 8 – 4:30pm
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