Saturday, July 28, 2018

Tonight's Movie: All That Jazz (1979) at UCLA

A sold-out audience packed Westwood's Billy Wilder Theater for the opening night of UCLA's new series Fosse, Fosse, Fosse!: A Retrospective.

The screening of ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) was introduced by Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, who assured the audience that everything we were about to see in the autobiographical film directed and co-written by Fosse was basically true.

On hand for a post-film discussion, moderated by Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, were actor-editor Alan Heim, who both edited the film and plays the editor in the film; onscreen and offscreen Fosse assistant Kathryn Doby; and associate producer Wolfgang Glattes. Present in the audience was Deborah Geffner, who plays Victoria, one of the most prominent members of the dance company.

The plot of this film, which won four Oscars and received several more nominations, concerns Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a workaholic, perfectionist, and very unhealthy director-choreographer who consistently makes bad life choices yet is still loved or at least respected by the people in his life.

The film has an unusual premise in that Joe is both flirting with and fending off the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) while juggling his too-busy life, which includes choreographing his newest Broadway show (which was CHICAGO in real life), editing the film he just directed (based on 1974's LENNY), and dealing with the women in his life: Ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), the mother of his child and star of his new musical; current girlfriend Katie (Fosse's real-life girlfriend Ann Reinking), who he cheats on and who returns the favor; dancer Victoria (Deborah Geffner), his latest fling; and his daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi).

There was a lot I loved about the film along with a couple things I strongly disliked. I could have spent the movie's entire 123 minutes watching more of the film's opening "On Broadway" audition sequence; there's nothing more thrilling than hundreds of people dancing in unison. (We were told around 450 dancers participated in creating the sequence.)  And what a thrill to be seated not far from Kathryn Doby, the assistant who leads the auditioning dancers through the increasingly difficult combinations.

Editor Heim later joked that he had enough footage for a documentary on the audition process, but then he had to start cutting it back to focus on the characters. I'd sign up to watch that documentary! Doby noted that in real life Fosse handled auditions just as his alter ego does in the film, personally having a word with each dancer he dismisses.

Here are the first few minutes of the movie as seen on the Criterion Collection's YouTube channel; the audition sequence begins about 90 seconds in. Doby is the woman in the beige boots leading the dancers.

Scheider is absolutely terrific as Gideon/Fosse, in his trademark black outfits, getting himself going in the morning with drugs, cigarettes, and the words "It's showtime!" The filmmakers present said that Scheider shadowed Fosse everywhere and was uncanny in his imitations, and what's more, one of them noticed that he had so absorbed Fosse's mannerisms that two years later he was still unconsciously imitating Fosse.

Scheider has a challenge playing a man who wants to live yet clings ferociously to self-destructive behavior, managing to retain our sympathy even while we shake our heads. Apparently, like much about the movie, this was quite true to Fosse himself.

One of my favorite scenes was a rehearsal where Joe constantly criticizes Victoria, who was hired more for her looks and availability (of the casting couch type) rather than ability. When she breaks down in tears he backs off of barking at her and says honestly that he can't make her a great dancer and he's not sure he can even make her a good dancer, "but I can make you a better dancer." When she asks if he's going to keep yelling at her he says "Probably."

I also especially liked a sequence where he talks with his daughter while they're dancing together in an empty rehearsal hall. He's not always the best father, devoting more of himself to work than family, but here they're able to communicate while doing something they both love, dancing. (For that matter, his longest talk with his ex is also while she's in the middle of dance practice.)

The film is brutally honest about the business end of the arts, whether the show's producers are meeting with their insurance rep while Joe is in the hospital or tentatively courting a replacement director (John Lithgow). These scenes are both hilarious and, we suspect, all too real.

I've liked Reinking ever since seeing her in MOVIE MOVIE (1978) and MICKI AND MAUDE (1984), and she's excellent, essentially playing herself in the long-suffering but loyal (sort of) Katie.

I saw Leland Palmer. whose character stands in for Gwen Verdon, in the musical review RODGERS AND HART at the Westwood Playhouse not long before this film was made, so it was rather ironic to be seeing another of her performances in Westwood all these years later. Google tells me that RODGERS AND HART was in 1975; Palmer's costars were Harve Presnell and Constance Towers.

I didn't care for the more R rated aspects of ALL THAT JAZZ, particularly a graphic flashback to Joe's teenage years and the later "Airotica" number, which I found, putting it delicately, wildly inappropriate; in my opinion it wasn't sexy, it was simply gross. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Katie and Michelle have a charming dance routine entertaining Joe in his living room which was one of the most delightful moments in the movie.

As Joe gets closer and closer to the Angel of Death, the musical numbers get stranger and stranger, culminating in a huge variety show type fantasy number hosted by O'Connor Flood (Ben Vereen), where Joe says goodbye to all the people in his life. Fosse himself made it to 1987, dying at the too-young age of 60.

The last section of the movie, dealing with Joe's life-threatening medical crisis, goes on far too long, and there are some unpleasant visuals. The movie could easily have been at least ten minutes shorter, between the dance number I didn't like and the last part of the film. Nonetheless the film was, for the most part, entertaining and interesting, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it. The restored digital print looked great, and this celebratory big screen showing was certainly the very best way to try it out.

ALL THAT JAZZ is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Despite my discomfort with some aspects of the film, I liked enough about it to be interested in picking it up, given the extensive extras which include a documentary on Fosse and a scene-specific commentary by the late Roy Scheider.

A trailer for the film is on YouTube.

I expect to see more films in the Fosse series next month, beginning with a rare big screen showing of THE PAJAMA GAME (1957).


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