Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Don't We Paint the Town?

Following a heart attack, Bob Fosse wrote, directed, and choreographed All That Jazz (1979), a film version of his own death. Which is envisioned as a glitzy production number, hosted by Ben Vereen as a '70s variety show star in cheesy sequins, and with his producers in the audience to gasp "this must have cost a fortune!" That sounds like an improvement on the tunnel of white light to me.

Hard-living show biz veteran Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, in a whole new level of awesome) has his hands full. He's directing and choreographing a multimillion-dollar Broadway show that stars his ex-wife; editing a feature film (clearly based on Fosse's Lenny Bruce biopic); and juggling the women in his life, all talented dancers. These include the girlfriend (Ann Reinking, in a part based on herself), who adores him despite his double standards about infidelity, which he cheerfully admits are appalling. Then there's the ex-wife (Leland Palmer, and hey, did David Lynch steal the name of Laura Palmer's dad from her?) and young daughter (the very talented Erzsebet Foldi, in her only movie credit). They both see right through him, largely accepting his flaws, but can still be hurt by his behavior.

He's also haunted by visions of Jessica Lange, an Angel of Death who guides him into looking back on his life. This was a comeback role for Lange, who hadn't worked in the three years since her 1976 debut in King Kong didn't do her any favors.

The behind-the-scenes look at theatrical life is sometimes poignant, as when Gideon bullies and then encourages a struggling dancer with whom he had a one-night-stand. And funny, when he takes a corny, stereotypically "Broadway" song with an airplane metaphor, and turns it into "Air-otica," a stylized, symbolic orgy that features Conan the Barbarian's Sandahl Bergman thrashing around topless.

No, I didn't screenshot the toplessness. "Sorry" or "You're welcome," depending.

The film depicts dancing realistically, as very hard work but also a source of pleasure and personal pride. Even someone like me, who doesn't generally care for the conventions of the Broadway style, can appreciate the skill of the performers and the amazing things they can do with their bodies.

Scheider, our beloved Chief Brody, shines in the film, and was deservedly nominated for Best Actor. He looks particularly wiry and athletic, and more like a dancer than his Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss, who was originally cast. The character spends most of the movie as a selfish, self-destructive bastard, but he has to remain likable enough for the audience to care about -- as well as to explain why the other characters stay loyal to him. Embodied by Scheider, he isn't a monster, but a confused, messed-up human being.

A very young-looking John Lithgow appears as a rival director, oozing with passive-aggressive smarm. It's also a delight to find Wallace Shawn in a teensy scene, and CCH Pounder (who's hardly aged a day) as a callous nurse who doesn't believe the hospitalized Gideon's heart symptoms.

The level of autobiographical trivia is such that the film-in-a-film's Lenny Bruce character is played by Cliff Gorman, who originated the part on Broadway that Dustin Hoffman played in Fosse's film version of Lenny. Speaking of Hoffman, he's the one who beat out Scheider at the Academy Awards, for Kramer Vs. Kramer.

The Wikipedia has a great (but sadly uncredited) quote from Fosse: “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel." Hopefully he said it, because it shows a real understanding of how music and dance work for an audience, narratively and emotionally. And why so many dance-oriented American films leave me cold.

Fosse died in 1987, at age 60, of another heart attack. In honor of him, and of Roy Scheider, who died in 2008, here's the grand finale, "Bye Bye Life," based on the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love."

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