“To be on the wire is life – the rest – is waiting.”
I find “All That Jazz” utterly remarkable. The film is the biggest example of self-indulgence I have ever seen in a film, and it screams brilliance. The premises of the film came as a near death experience to director and co-writer Bob Fosse. Bob Fosse spent the his early career as a dancer on stage and screen, but due to his receding hairline he was forced to stay backstage, and became an acclaimed choreographer and stage director. In 1972 Fosse did something that in retrospect is nearly unthinkable, his film “Cabaret” was nominated for the major awards at the annual Academy Awards, and he won best director over Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather”, and Joel Grey won best supporting actor over, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan. “Cabaret” also won best actress for Liza Manelli, best cinematography, best art direction-set decoration, best sound, best editing, and best original score. So all in all the film won eight Oscars, five more then “The Godfather” – isn’t that remarkable? Fosse then followed that up with “Lenny” starring Dustin Hoffman as the legendary stand-up comic Lenny Bruce (Hoffman was nominated for Best Actor and Fosse was once again nominated across the board). During the post-production of “Lenny” and the pre-production of Fosse’s Broadway production of “Chicago” he had a near fatal heart attack. It was during this time that, “All That Jazz” was born.
“All That Jazz” is the story of Joe Gideon: a pill popping, chain smoking, workaholic and sexaholic played marvelously by Roy Scheider (who passed away last year). We find Gideon in the midst of editing his new film, “The Stand-Up” (“Lenny”), and beginning tryouts, rehearsals, and pre-production for his new Broadway play (it’s untitled, but the musical number Gideon “re-arranges” is much like the cell block number from “Chicago”). In what little spare time Gideon has between the studio breathing down his neck about how long overdue “The Stand-Up” is, and the production team of the Broadway musical overbearing him with new musical numbers, how he has to stay within the budget – Gideon finds time for his wife, and their young daughter, his mistress, and a new girl he chose for the new Broadway play just so he could have sex with her. While we are watching this complex story unravel Fosse brilliantly crosscuts the story with Joe Gideon literally flirting with The Angel of Death played by Jessica Lange. While plot arcs unfold we are taken to this mystical place where Gideon is the most honest, as he talks to Lange about his life, and how he’s screwed up certain aspects of it. Death has never looked so beautiful, as Jessica Lange smiles, and flirts with Gideon.
The film’s opening ranks up with some of the greatest opening scenes in film history (“Kill Bill Volume 1”, “Goodfellas”, and “The Wild Bunch” – just to name a few). Gideon is walking a tight rope and says in a voice over, “To be on the wire is life – the rest is waiting.” Lange compliments Gideon on the line, saying it’s very “theatrical” and asked if he came up with it.
Gideon says he wishes he did. The next scene is a quick cutting mash up of Gideon’s morning routine that is re-shot over the period of the film. It begins with a cassette tape being put into a tape deck and a classical song beings to play. Gideon then applies Visen into his eyes, drops two Alkazelser in a glass of water, takes a shower, applies more Visen and looks at himself in the mirror and says with a smug and smooth tone, “It’s Showtime folks!” – but as the film progress and the more wear and grinding that gets put on Gideon, the “It’s Showtime, folks!” become less enthusiastic, and less soothing and reaches a point where he can barely muster the words.
What makes this film brilliant and amazing is that it works on every possible front it can. The direction is unbelievably tight and masterfully commanded by Bob Fosse, the editing by Alan Heim (which he won an Oscar for) is flawless and has trumped my personal examples of perfect editing in “The Graduate” and “Ed Wood”. The script is so unbelievably compelling and so full of detail and perfection that it amazes me when I read excerpts from it. But what really is very remarkable about the film is Roy Scheider. I’ve always had a fondness for Scheider since I was young and saw him in “Jaws”, his role in “The French Connection” and “The Punisher” are the only other roles I have thought he was solid in. Scheider spent most of his career as a character actor and never really made it as a leading man, but as Joe Gideon he gives one of the best performances I have ever seen on scene, and that ranks him up there with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and William Hurt. Scheider becomes transparent, and you are truly watching Joe Gideon, not the actor Roy Scheider playing Gideon – but Gideon himself. Think about how in 1979 all the other bankable stars and actors there were to play this self obsessed, womanizing man of Godlike talent: Warren Beatty, Michael Douglass, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Richard Gere – those are just a few actors who I think could have played Gideon – but none of them would have been as effective as Scheider
The other element that makes this film great is Bob Fosse. This film had to have been a slap in the face to most people in his life. The actor who plays Dennis Newman (supposed to be Dustin Hoffman), the actor in “The Stand-Up” (“Lenny”) was the original actor who played Lenny Bruce on the Broadway play (which Fosse directed). The studio made Fosse get a name for the title role, and they gave him Dustin Hoffman. The Dustin Hoffman-esq character in the movie is degrading and thinks he knows absolutely everything about anything. It’s obvious from this portrayal that Fosse had nothing then contempt and utter dislike for Hoffman, and his ego. The stage and screen actress Ann Reinking who plays his mistress Kate in the film, dated Dustin Hoffman prior to filming (isn’t Fosse just the man!?) The direction of “All That Jazz” has got to be one of the greatest examples of a director not caring what his audience thinks, or even understands. We’re taken on this journey by Fosse to explore his life changing heart attack, and his fantasy of death. Fosse made this movie for himself, and no one else. That’s what makes it perfect.
The film builds itself up to an earth shattering climax that is the biggest tour-de-force of an ending I have ever had the pleasure of watching. My heart was racing the entire time. The climax slowly starts to build with Gideon’s wife, mistress and daughter performing their own musical numbers to Gideon as he lays in his hospital bed, while a healthy Gideon is directing everything. Where the film really makes your heart race is Gideon’s command performance that lasts for the last 20 minutes of the film. It is a great song, and an amazing display of talent by Scheider that he never utilized before that, or since. What solidified the greatest of the ending for me was the subtle stationary dolly shot of Scheider as the second to last shot of the film (the ending actually inspired the best dream I have ever had).
The film was nominated in all major categories, and was up against “Apocalypse Now”, “Breaking Away”, “Kramer vs Kramer” and “Norma Rae”. The films was overshadowed and engulfed by “Kramer”. I could almost imagine the contempt the Academy had for Fosse for making a film such as this. How much they resented him for making it so perfect and so self indulgent. I recently watched “Kramer vs Kramer” because it beat “All That Jazz” in mainly every category. It’s a good film, but it’s mediocre compared to “Jazz” and I want to believe they gave Best Actor to Dustin Hoffman for “Kramer” instead of Scheider for “Jazz” as a fuck you to Fosse for making such an egotistical film.
“All That Jazz” remains to be a truly original film. It stands alone, and it holds up excellent to repeat viewings. This is one very rare cinematic treasure that not too many have encountered, especially from my generation and that’s a shame – it truly is. This film will always stand as both Fosse and Scheider’s masterpiece and is not only one of the best films from the 1970’s, but one of the best films I have EVER seen. After viewing this film for a tenth time in a week and a half I have re-evaluated my rating system, and makes me hold films up to the standards that Bob Fosse has put on me, all I can say is thank you Bob Fosse.