Mr. Show

Addicted to decadence, in love with excess: The films of Fosse

Late Broadway choreographer-turned-filmmaker Bob Fosse once said: "Live like you'll die tomorrow, work like you don't need the money, and dance like nobody's watching." No one was more faithful to these words than Fosse himself, a man who spent the majority of his 60 years either onstage, in the studio, or in the sack (with lots of company, of course). He originated a movement style like none other. Long-legged dancers--their gloved fingertips stroking the rims of ubiquitous bowler hats--strut through Fosse's rigorous jazz routines with sensual detachment and flawless timing.

He directed movies like he made dances, isolating and dissecting bodies, emotions, and events with a voyeur's patient eye. But the workaholic who chain-smoked up to six packs of unfiltered Camels a day and popped amphetamines like Altoids also embraced a death wish. Fosse created nonstop until 1987, when he dropped dead on the sidewalk outside the National Theater in Washington, D.C., just minutes before the curtain opened on his much-anticipated revival of Sweet Charity. Fate delivered a finale fit for the consummate showman.

This week the Walker Art Center presents "A Tribute to Bob Fosse" by screening three of his five films. While Fosse may be best known for Cabaret, which earned him the 1972 best-director Oscar, the Walker series focuses instead on his obsession with the highs and lows of show business. Screening all of Fosse's films (including the underrated 1969 Shirley MacLaine vehicle Sweet Charity) plus his acclaimed 1972 television special for Liza Minnelli, Liza with a Z, would have made for a more complete picture of the artist's cinematic flamboyance. But the Walker does locate a logical theme in Fosse's love of real-life stories, especially as they reflect his own interests.

Siegfried, meet Roy...Scheider: Ben Vereen and friend do it to death in 'All That Jazz'
20th Century Fox
Siegfried, meet Roy...Scheider: Ben Vereen and friend do it to death in 'All That Jazz'

The 1974 classic Lenny (Thursday, August 29) is a gritty glimpse into First Amendment martyr Lenny Bruce's untamed mind while 1983's Star 80 (Friday, August 30) recounts the lurid details of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten's shocking murder. Between these biographical bookends Fosse turns the camera on himself in 1979's All That Jazz (Wednesday, August 28), an unapologetically indulgent (and eerily prophetic) eulogy overstuffed with outrageous and amazing dance numbers. Taken together, the films represent Fosse at his artistic best and worst, addicted to decadence, in love with excess, afraid of nothing but the bad review.

Aside from directing, Fosse also choreographed for stage and film, conceiving several hits including The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago, and Dancin'. His leading ladies, including third wife Gwen Verdon and quintessential Fosse muse (and lover) Ann Reinking, all became stars under his tutelage. Inspired by legendary Hollywood choreographer Jack Cole, Fosse mastered the art of razzle-dazzle and at the same time created a unique style that suited his physical shortcomings (rounded shoulders--perfect for shrugging--and pigeon toes). Even the bowler hats were a reaction to his premature balding. Ever the perfectionist, the eight-time Tony Award winner worked his performers mercilessly. "I can't make you a great dancer; I don't even know if I can make you a good dancer. But if you keep trying, I know I can make you a better dancer," his alter ego tells a discouraged chorus member in All That Jazz

Fosse was offered Cabaret after several other directors passed on the opportunity to render Christopher Isherwood's vision of Weimar-era Berlin on film. The story of a sleazy nightclub culture suited him well: Fosse, the son of a vaudevillian, grew up performing in low-rent burlesque houses. But, most important, Cabaret established Fosse as a director who changed the look of dance on film. Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others all performed as if they were on a proscenium stage. Their bodies were shown in full and the camera rarely strayed from a frontal perspective. Fosse edited his dance scenes, employing unusual angles, quick cuts, audience reaction shots, and close-ups of body parts. Looking through his lens, one could imagine the mechanics of movement.

Fosse never forgot he was a choreographer, even when the subject matter of his films had nothing to do with dance. The camera still partners the actors, matching motion with emotion. Lenny provides several examples of this propensity while exploring the deviant's role in society through a mock documentary style. Lenny Bruce, who performed during the Fifties and Sixties, commented on racism, politics, religion, and sex--and he swore a lot while doing it. Such audacity earned him public vilification as a pornographer, and he spent the years prior to his fatal overdose in 1966 defending himself in several courts. Fosse weaves together flashbacks, re-created standup routines, and interviews with actors portraying real figures in Bruce's life. As Bruce's career builds, the excitement is palpable: Scenes of sex, parties, booze, and shocked-then-hysterical audiences combine in a whirlwind of action. Then everything slows down so Fosse can evoke Bruce's creeping madness as he attempts to fight a legal system clearly unprepared for his kind.

Fosse was friends with Bruce and found an astonishing interpreter of the man in Dustin Hoffman. The actor navigates Bruce's rise from cheesy borscht-belt comedian to Hollywood icon and, finally, public enemy with an edgy grace. Fosse shot the film in black and white, enhancing the coarseness of Bruce's act and subliminally commenting on the folly of a single-minded society absorbed with a man's foul language while far more egregious acts--racism and the brewing war in Vietnam, for example--went unchecked. Years before the National Endowment of the Arts controversy, Bruce, and Fosse through this film, set the standard for the modern visionary punished for telling the truth. Fosse may not have been honest in much of his personal life, but as an artist he could identify with such a risky commitment to candor.

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