Movie review: ‘All That Jazz’

atj_other.jpgBack in the late 1970s, you couldn’t really find the singing and dancing musical type of entertainment that became so common such as “Glee” or “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol” unless you went to Broadway. And, on Broadway, one of the most creative minds was director-choreographer-film director Bob Fosse. Not only was he an eight-time Tony award winner, but he was great on the big screen, too. Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppola’s directing effort in “The Godfather” — now THAT’S an achievement for the director of a musical called “Cabaret.” In beating out Coppola, Fosse bettered the director of  America cinema’s arguably finest work ever. In any case, Fosse did a somewhat auto-biographical film called “All That Jazz” that kept him center stage in cinema and was just one more example of his extraordinary talent.

‘All That Jazz’
(1979; 123 minutes; rated R; directed by Bob Fosse and starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange and Leland Palmer)

IT’S SHOWTIME!

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on April 17, 2018.)

It’s a rare talent to cross over entertainment barriers. Not all singers make great actors (although they do usually translate better to dancing) and vice versa, but one of the greatest achievements in cross-over comes from Broadway choreographer extraordinaire to Oscar-winning film director Bob Fosse. My choice for his best work in film is “All That Jazz” since it is pretty much an autobiography that became a self-fulfilling prophecy at his death in 1987.

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I wouldn’t have normally gone to see a movie such as “All That Jazz,” but there was some buzz about how good it was. Despite going in a bit dubious, I was sold over immediately with its brash opening of a stage show cattle-call tryout over a great George Benson version of the song “On Broadway.” It only got better because of the work of the actors; the dance choreography; and, of course, the creative control of Fosse, who directed and co-wrote it.

In 1973, Fosse did a triple crown that no one else had ever (or has since) achieved: winning an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy in the same year a director. Jeeze. Talk about talented! The Oscar was for “Cabaret,” the Tony for “Pippin” (a second was for choreography) and the Emmy for “Liza with a Z.” In the following year it was reported that Fosse had three heart attacks and in the wake of his recovery he developed the idea that became “All That Jazz.” The film came out in 1979 and won four Oscars while being nominated for five more (including Fosse as director and Roy Scheider as lead actor).

Fosse’s last effort of his eight films as director is “Star 80” in 1983 – the dark, disturbing and unsettling story of the life and murder Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton and starring Mariel Hemingway.

All in all, outstanding, Mr. Fosse.

Sadly, as forecast by himself in “All That Jazz,” Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987 at the relatively young age of 60.

All That Jazz” is essentially Fosse’s story about himself. Scheider plays “Joe Gideon,” who is juggling a busy schedule of directing a motion picture (the fake one here based on his five-Oscar nominated film “Lenny” with Dustin Hoffman); starting a Broadway production; and trying to balance a former wife and his daughter in a busy schedule that includes seducing dancers and maintaining a relationship with his girlfriend.

No one ever said creativity, relationships and superlative competence is easy!

It all builds up (he’s taking amphetamines daily as well as smoking like a chimney) and he ultimately has a heart attack as the cast is doing a read-through for his new musical. He winds up in the hospital and after an initial small recovery, winds up having open heart surgery. His visions of his soon-to-end life continue to become bigger and bigger productions until the final number headlined by consummate Broadway performer Ben Vereen as “O’Connor Flood.” The final zip-up in a body bag in the film didn’t happen in real life as I already noted until eight years later when he succumbed to another heart attack.

I have to note there is an absolute ton of back stories throughout “All That Jazz” as it is weaves into Fosse’s life. Check out a biography called “Fosse” by Sam Wasson.

  • Two-time Oscar nominee (one for this one) Scheider does a great job here as a bit of a fish-out-of-water at times. His work in the final sequence is lacking a bit in the singing and dancing department, but Scheider, a close friend of Fosse’s in real life, does an outstanding job conveying the character. He’s affable, friendly, conniving and deceitful – and that sometimes in the same scene. You cannot find better work except maybe for his other Oscar nomination in “The French Connection” (click here for my review). Scheider is most remembered as “Chief Martin Brody” in “Jaws” (BTW – that’s an even dozen Oscars for these two films and “All That Jazz”) and was also in a little-remembered but good cop film called “The Seven-Ups” (click here for my review). Scheider died of cancer at the age of 75 in 2008.
  • Two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange plays “Angelique,” who is the angel of death that keeps verbally sparring with Scheider in his fantasies while beckoning him into her embrace. Of course, he fences with her up until the end when he finally succumbs to her entreaties. Lange’s subdued allure reveals the wonderful talent of this actor. She won Oscars for “Blue Sky” and “Tootsie” as well as being nominated for four others.
  • Leland Palmer plays “Audrey Paris” and is Scheider’s former wife here. She smoothly shows how the character still works with him on projects (just as Fosse’s real-life ex did, too), is in awe of his talent and wants to always measure up in his eyes. Palmer is in her last film here (after only 11 credits stopped doing films and television) and has also been nominated twice for Tony awards.
  • Three-time Tony award winner and former Fosse lover Ann Reinking plays longsuffering girlfriend “Kate Jagger.” Reinking is OK in the role that she lived (she and Fosse split up the year before “All That Jazz” was released but kept a professional relationship). I’m not sure anyone could have done better, but it’s not an outstanding piece of work. Reinking has a really nice impromptu dance sequence with Scheider’s daughter set to Peter Allen’s rendition of “Everything Old is New Again.” She has been in “Annie” and “Micki + Maude,” but only a brief acting career of nine credits – the last being on an episode of “The Cosby Show” in the year Fosse died.
  • Tony award winners Cliff Gorman and Vereen are a couple of friends here. Gorman plays “Davis Newman,” who is the lead actor in the film that Scheider has in final editing. Most of his work is in the fictional film being edited, but does some work directly with Scheider. Gorman was the original “Lenny Bruce” on Broadway, but had to give way to Dustin Hoffman’s star power for Fosse’s film based on the play. He was also in “An Unmarried Woman.” Gorman died at 65 in 2002 of leukemia.
  • A two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Vereen appears as the lead performer in a couple of numbers including the final spotlight shot that shows Scheider heading into the angel of death’s arms. Vereen is sensational in the showcase number and shows vividly how a real song-and-dance man outperforms an actor in this kind of role. Vereen was also in the iconic TV miniseries “Roots” as well as “Funny Lady” and a string of TV roles. He was nominated for the TV mini-series “Ellis Island” and the film “Funny Lady” in 1975.
  • Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Sandahl Bergman, who did work with Fosse on his stage efforts, plays “Principal Dancer” here. She doesn’t get a chance to develop her character, which isn’t even named, but the 5-foot-9½ performer lets her dancing do the talking. She won her Globe as the warrior “Valeria” with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Barbarian” and was also in “Red Sonja.”
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) John Lithgow has a small role as “Lucas Sergeant,” a Broadway competitor to Scheider who is brought in when Scheider suffers his heart attack. He did wonderful work when a fan comes up and points out his latest Broadway failure. Lithgow has been in films as different as “Footloose” and “The Manhattan Project.” He was nominated for that weepy snifflebag called “Terms of Endearment” and for “The World According to Garp.”
  • Keith Gordon, who would do a nice turn in Stephen King’s “Christine,” plays a youthful “Joe Gideon,” who plays on stage for a burlesque show (just like Fosse did) and gets some attention from strippers. Gordon was also in “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield (click here for my review). I liked him in “Dressed to Kill” and he was in “Jaws 2” with Scheider.

Overall, the film is a bit of an emotional downer what with Scheider telling a dancer “I lie all the time” to his abuse of prescription meds to his philandering to … well, just about every excess. However, it’s a strong film that makes an immediate and lasting impression of both the actors’ work and Fosse’s life.

All That Jazz” didn’t make the top 10 films of 1979, but it was just outside it with $37.8 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. It was made on a $12 million budget and so was a moderate success with investors. The No. 1 film of the year was the snifflebag emotional crapfest called “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million, followed at No. 2 by “The Amityville Horror” with $86.4 million. The other films from 1979 that I’ve reviewed are:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Famed director Stanley Kubrick is reported to have said “All That Jazz” is the “best film I think I’ve ever seen.”
  • All That Jazz” is the final musical film by Fosse as well as his final credit for choreography in a film.
  • Jack Lemmon was considered for the lead in the film, but was deemed too old. Good call, whoever was responsible. I like Jack and believe he’s a wonderful actor, but this just wasn’t him and he wasn’t Fosse. Alan Bates was considered, too, but deemed “too British.” Another good call.
  • Directly from  IMDb.com (sorry for such a long excerpt): “Many of the characters in the film are based on real-life characters from the New York theater world. Aside from Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer‘s character was based on his wife/frequent star Gwen Verdon. John Lithgow‘s character was also based somewhat on the New York theater director Michael Bennett, director of ‘Dreamgirls’ with whom Bob Fosse had a longstanding rivalry. The character of producer Jonesy Hecht was based upon his fellow longtime rival Harold Prince. Ann Reinking was more or less playing herself. The character of songwriter ‘Paul Dann’ is a swipe at Stephen Schwartz, with whom he had unhappily worked on ‘Pippin.’ Jules Fisher, the lighting designer on many of Fosse’s shows, and later the producer of his show ‘Dancin’,’ makes an appearance as a lighting designer in the scene with Lithgow. The film is based on Fosse’s real-life heart attack whilst both editing his film Lenny (1974) and simultaneously directing the original 1975 Broadway production of ‘Chicago.’”
  • Other actors considered to play “Joe Gideon” were Alan Alda (wow, a big mistake that didn’t happen) and future sleazeball Robert Blake (shouldn’t have even been considered). Oh, Blake’s given name is Michael James Gubitosi.
  • Fosse personally instructed Scheider how to have a chain-smoker’s cough and what it felt like to suffer a heart attack.
  • It took two days to shoot the opening cattle call scene.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The address on Joe Gideon’s dexedrine bottles in the film was Bob Fosse’s actual New York address.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
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