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.

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'

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.

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.

Fosse also intimately understood the interplay of sex and fame. Each set of auditions provided the opportunity for a fling, but Fosse recognized that his allure largely owed to his rising star. It makes sense, then, that Fosse made Star 80, an exploration of sex as a power commodity, even if it is not remotely his best work. The film explores the true story of Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), a naive Canadian girl discovered in a Dairy Queen who became 1980's Playmate of the Year. It's an altogether sordid tale that Fosse mines, fruitlessly, for its glamour potential.

Stratten's guide to the Playboy lifestyle is husband Paul Snider (a genuinely disturbing Eric Roberts), a small-time hustler who idolizes Hugh Hefner. As Stratten succeeds, Snider stumbles. Even Hef thinks he's nothing more than a pimp. Stratten eventually leaves Snider for a film director (in real life, Peter Bogdanovich, who refused to cooperate with Fosse). Snider murders and rapes Stratten, then kills himself, as Fosse replays one of Hollywood's most notorious crimes.

Star 80 is the director's most controversial work. Some will be repulsed by Stratten's perpetual objectification, and the ending is extremely violent. Much of the film was shot in the actual apartment where Stratten died, suggesting a morbid fascination on Fosse's part. Still others have hailed the director for showing all sides of the story, unflinchingly portraying the dynamics of domestic abuse, and laying guilt with the many parties who profited from an impressionable young woman's beauty. As in Lenny, Fosse employs a mock documentary style with actors portraying figures in Stratten's life. Yet Star 80 lacks Lenny's sophistication, and its stilted dialogue combined with its urgent sensationalism play, more often than not, like a Lifetime movie.

 

Fosse was aware of his personal drawbacks and even celebrated them, comparing his character to a Broadway production. "I'm still working on my life," he stated. "Just like it's out of town, and when I get it fixed, I'll bring it in." With All That Jazz Fosse glamorized his life but also offered a mea culpa for his many mistakes. Set during the mid-1970s, the film re-creates Fosse's experience of suffering a heart attack while preparing for Chicago. Although he recovered, Fosse became obsessed with his demise. Roy Scheider, Fosse's doppelgänger, portrays--surprise!--Joe Gideon, a Broadway choreographer and film director, who is opening a show, editing a movie about a standup comedian, sleeping around, ignoring his daughter, smoking and drinking too much, and having heart troubles.

Several of the big numbers make one wonder how Fosse finagled the budget for such an unabashed, ego-driven spectacle. But, thankfully, he did. Particularly noteworthy are an erotic rehearsal, an impromptu performance by Reinking (playing the girlfriend) in full Fosse form, a Busby Berkeley-style fan dance, a hilarious montage of hospital-room parties, and the spectacular finale with another Fosse vet, Ben Vereen, singing "Bye Bye Love" to a heavenly studio audience. All That Jazz received nine Oscar nominations and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It also proved that Fosse, who proclaimed that he didn't fear death, really did want to live, if only so he could keep topping himself. But death, like a Broadway show's closing, is inevitable. And so the film gave Fosse--the ultimate control freak--an unprecedented opportunity: the chance to direct his own funeral.

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