Cinema Station

Bob Fosse | August 9, 2011

Bob Fosse: Movies Mr. Razzle –Dazzle

Bob Fosse (1927-1987) was a curious anomaly in films because he gained a large reputation as a filmmaker and won many awards based on such a miniscule body of work . He was a dancer/ choreographer who directed. Others had done that before. Most notably Gene Kelly who not only acted and danced but choreographed and directed too. But Kelly became a star in front of the camera first. Fosse didn’t although he did work as dancer/actor during the era of The Studio System. But when the film musical faded as a popular genre Fosse moved to New York and started working on Broadway first as a choreographer then as a director. His first big show as a choreographer was The Pajama Game (1954). He followed that up with Damn Yankees (1955) where he first worked with Gwen Verdon a superior dancer and sexy woman who became the inspiration for his work and whom he married in 1960. With Redhead (1959) he became both director and choreographer.

After that he became Broadway’s “go-to” guy for top notch choreography and direction. He racked up a series of hits including Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966) and How t Succeed in Business without Really Trying- 1969 (Choreography only). That same year he got to direct his first film Sweet Charity. It was a financial failure and Fosse did not get a chance to direct another film until 1972 with Cabaret. And although he didn’t direct or choreograph the stage version (Hal Prince and Ron Field did), Fosse made the most of this opportunity by restructuring the story, getting rid of several songs and refocusing the plot with the help of screenwriter Ms.Jay Presson Allen. The film won 8 Academy Awards. Interestingly enough the play had won 8 Tony awards.

 

1972 turned out to be a watershed year for Fosse. Besides the Academy Award he also won TV’s Emmy Award for the special Liza with a Z starring Liza Minnelli and a Tony Award for directing the play Pippin. This is a feat that has not been matched by anyone before or since… His next film was the highly anticipated biography of controversial stand-up comic Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. The film was called Lenny (1974) and it was met with a mixed but not indifferent response from both the critics and the audiences. That is to say some people loved it and an equal number hated it. He followed that film five years later with his very autobiographical film All That Jazz (1979) starring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon a self destructive, womanizing stage and film director. So close was this character to him that Fosse for a brief moment thought about playing the role himself. He decided against it and cast Richard Dreyfus in the role. Dreyfus left before shooting began and Scheider assumed the role. The film was both an artistic and financial success and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including one for Scheider as Best Actor.

With the success of his musicals Chicago (1975) and Dancin’ (1978) Fosse was now a star. His name on a project made it instantly recognizable and could generally guarantee its success. But not always. For as it turned out his next film Star ’80 (1983), starring Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts did not achieve the critical or commercial success that everyone expected of a Fosse work and it was deemed a failure. But it did have its champions. This was followed by his stage musical of the Italian film Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) called Big Deal (1983.) It ran for only 69 performances and was considered a failure too. He was working on several projects in 1987 when he died of a heart attack in Washington DC.

 

The curious thing about Fosse’s film career is the impact he made with such a small body of work. A total of five titles. Yet the name “Fosse” brings the instant recognition of a style of dancing (his choreography) and filmmaking too. A style that in spite of its sometimes downbeat subject material offers a somewhat flashy type of camera work and quicksilver editing techniques. The phrase “razzle-dazzle” has been used to describe his style and persona and it could be applied to his films as well.

For me his directorial reputation stands on only one film and it isn’t Cabaret. While I respect its accomplishments and understand why it was/ is so celebrated I have never been a fan. I always liked the stage musical better. I know that I’m in the minority in this but that’s just how I feel…All That Jazz is the Fosse film that resonates with me. I don’t think that it is anywhere close to being a great film. The writing is heavy handed, the symbolism is obvious, the style is over emphatic and there’s an undercurrent of self-congratulating that strikes me as a bit smug. Yet in spite of these critical misgivings I still like the film.  Why?… I like it because it is passionate and deeply felt. And also because it is personal.  Few American films are and All That Jazz might be the most personal film ever financed or made by a major studio and offered in general release. In the case of this film it was actually financed by two major studios, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox. I also like the performances in it particularly Roy Scheider in the lead.

Bob Fosse is gone but his creativity and personality still casts a large shadow on stage and on screen. Re-creations of his stage work are constantly being done. And the films he did are constantly being shown and talked, argued and written about. All this with such a small body of work. That is impressive and amazing too.

-GE.

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