The first time I remember being aware of Bob Fosse was in my very early teens. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and in the golden years of the late Eighties, Lawrence could just barely get a wonderful Missouri television station — Channel 62. It was the grainy UHF channel, the weirdo channel, the channel so hungry for content that it had a movie series hosted by a local car dealer, Ray Adams, who wore a superhero cape and did bits after the ad breaks. “This next scene is pretty scary,” Ray would warn us, while “flying” over a green-screen projection of his car lot. You may think vaudeville died, baby, but Ray and Channel 62 were giving it a shot.
One of the Channel 62 presentations was the totally vaudevillian All That Jazz (1979), which, once the dirty bits had been edited out for TV, was still pretty dirty. Bob Fosse had died in 1987, and in the bizarre, hallucinatory, confessional All That Jazz, he seemed to be showing us just how he’d gone. Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, groomed to look exactly like Fosse, and playing a choreographer-director staging a Broadway vehicle for his estranged wife (as Fosse had done for Gwen Verdon with Chicago) while editing a movie about a stand-up (as Fosse had just done on his film Lenny); having thousands of simultaneous affairs (yup); and driving his poor amphetamine-riddled body toward a lethal heart attack (eventually accurate).
At the Quad Cinema series “Performance Anxieties: Fosse at the Movies” (August 3–9), you should start off your binge with this one. There is some stupid stuff in All That Jazz, like Jessica Lange playing the Angel of Death in a gauzy antebellum hat with a veil. But it also contains the sweetest, easiest piece of dance on film since Singin’ in the Rain: Ann Reinking, legs to her neck, and the coltish adolescent Erzsebet Foldi (playing Gideon’s daughter) dancing exuberantly around an apartment, razzle-dazzling with an astonishingly pure quality of heart. You don’t usually associate Fosse’s work with enthusiasm. Sex, yes. Filth? Oh, definitely. But here you see there is huge joy in it, too, and casual invitation. Basically, his moves look great on everyone. In the TV concert he directed for Liza Minnelli, Liza With a “Z” (1972), you see him turning an agitated body dance into a visual glory. (Former Voice film critic Melissa Anderson will introduce Sunday’s screening of Liza.) Minnelli wobbles as she dances; the lady flails. But he gets her to stretch her beautiful legs into steep diagonal poses, then flashes a vivid block of color behind her. The effect is of a flashbulb going off, freezing that moment of elegance in your mind. He turns her into a movement icon even though she’s sort of bad at moving. Shazam!
All That Jazz also taught a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old a lot. It’s nauseatingly frank about how the arts treat performers. It opens the book to “Toxic Male Pathologies” and reads you the whole goddamn entry, complete with the footnotes about “Double Standards” and “Girls Who Actually Go for This Crap.” It tries to quantify the poetics of eroticism, which, for so many of us, includes things that aren’t just pleasure: compulsion, masochism, guilt, the death wish. Your inside self is scary and tricky and full of hidden basements, the film says, and you need to know you’re going to get turned on by monstrous things. Watching it as an adult, though, I also find it’s a welcome tonic. There’s been a little online kerfuffle over the news that FX is going to produce a TV show about Fosse, starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. “But he’s so problematic!” the nervous people cry. Indeed, he confessed openly to being a bully, a womanizer, a sexual harasser. But lord, isn’t it almost a physical relief to be with a piece of art that isn’t trying to trick us out of seeing the problems? This isn’t Woody Allen, dressing up his crude appetite for “teachable” young women as wistful romance. Nor is it Harvey Weinstein, disguising acquiescence and violence through red-carpet glamour. Their kind of poison doesn’t taste like poison — it works itself down through the culture, changing and warping and diluting as it goes. But Fosse’s films make a point of tasting like dirt and rot.
Fosse won his directing Oscar for Cabaret (1972) — in the same year he won a Tony for Pippin and the Emmy for Liza — and it really is the perfect movie. The claustrophobic camerawork keeps us tight, tight, tight to the tiny stage. Every Kander and Ebb song sounds ideal. In fact, it’s the pinnacle work for a murderers’ row of show business legends: Fosse, Minnelli, Kander, Ebb, Joel Grey. Yet all the textures are corrupted, melting, distorted, clammy. Fosse’s last work for the screen, Star 80 (1983), is as terrifying as a movie gets. Eric Roberts, his eyes rolling wildly, plays Paul Snider, the pimp–club manager who murdered his wife, the Playmate Dorothy Stratten. Fosse uses his seemingly billion-in-number editing tricks (E.L. Doctorow once said, according to Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography, All His Jazz, “There is real time, there’s flashback time, and then there is Fosse time”) so that we’re almost always cutting between the blood-soaked room of the tragic killing and the rest of Snider’s story.
Fosse loved watching sex so much that he regularly tried to get orgy ballets into his Broadway productions; they’d get cut while the pieces were previewing out of town. The New Haven police once locked a theater on his company because the show had been accused of indecency. But Fosse was clear about what sleaze did to the brain. Star 80 tackles Hefner and porn normalization and strip clubs. Add a disappointed guy to that gasoline-soaked world, and you can see the traces of our Elliott Rodgers and gynocidal incel movements reflected in the flames. I’ve seen Star 80 one and a quarter times in my life — the first time I couldn’t get through it — and for all its astonishing performances (Roberts was never better), it’s hard to recommend. I still want to scrub it out of my brain. Luckily, Fosse’s early work can do that for you. At the Quad, you could use Sweet Charity (1969) or Damn Yankees (1958) as your exfoliant. I admit I don’t love Sweet Charity, made when he was getting his directing legs under him, but I’ve got a soft spot for Yankees. The movie itself is as dumb as two rocks banging together, but Fosse choreographed several numbers in it and even danced one with the radiant Verdon, the two of them doing a tremendous pas de deux, as straight as needles and liquid as squids.
His was the great synthesizing gesture that brought together Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Bert Williams, and Gypsy Rose Lee. He got “jazz hands” from minstrel acts; he took the grind from strippers. Another balm: Pop on over to YouTube to see the very first thing Fosse ever choreographed for film, in Kiss Me Kate (1953). You can see how early he had the recipe down: the on-the-nose use of sound effects, the come-and-get-it pauses, the hips thrust so far forward they almost bump the camera. Those moves have seemed modern for over fifty years. Hell, Ann Reinking’s “in the style of Fosse” Chicago has been on Broadway for twenty-two. Any time you see a model striking her “broken doll” pose with her knees knocked together and eyes dead? That’s from Fosse’s Kit Kat Klub. You even see him in Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” choreography (which is, shall we say, heavily indebted to his piece “Mexican Breakfast”). And it’s not just the steps that have seeped down into the water table. It’s the attitude toward the body and the way making those postures makes a body feel. Try something for me. Get yourself a hat. Tilt it way down over your eyes. Get your elbows in tight, let your hands fan out. Now permit yourself a slow little hip roll. Feel that? You’ve got Fosse right there in you, and you didn’t even know.
‘Performance Anxieties: Fosse at the Movies’