“To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting.”
Bob Fosse as Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon
In Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, the director’s altar ego, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), part-time choreographer, part-time director, full-time bon vivant, may improvise his experiences as they happen, but his mornings necessitate a certain consistency in ingredients and routine: plenty of cigarettes, a hot shower, a pair of Alka Seltzers dissolving in a cup of water, a handful of Dexedrines, Visine squirts in both eyes, Vivaldi’s gloriously optimistic Concert in G on the tapedeck and finally, properly fueled, the best “It’s Showtime, folks!” Gideon can muster to his middle-aged, goateed reflection. Unfailingly, it is this ritual that keeps him sane and steady through an unpredictable and eventful daily life.
Being a film about show business, there is of course, a show and the film opens with a mass audition of aspiring stars, young men and women in their Hellenistic primes pirouetting, swaying, and diving to the sounds of George Benson singing a funked-up version of The Drifters’ hard-luck wannabe-famous anthem, “On Broadway.” (“They say I won’t last too long on Broadway/ I’ll catch a Greyhound bus for home, they all say/ But they’re dead wrong I know they are/ Because I can play this here guitar/ and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star/ on Broadway”). Within five minutes of watching Gideon at work, we learn what kind of man he is— a perfectionist, a chainsmoker, a flirt, that he has a weakness for dancers’ good legs, and that he is his own man, casting his choices for the production and disregarding the advice of his financial backers. His will is formidable, with the charisma to back it up.
Not many make Joe Gideon's cut
All That Jazz is the story of how this busy choreographer juggles his career obligations with his personal life against the pull of a failing physical health. An unconventional artist, Gideon struggles to put together a dance routine for a showtune inspired by commercial flying and his vision finally results in a very bawdy sketch with the makings of a mile-high orgy, leaving the big brass producers flabbergasted. (“I think we just lost the family audience,” one groans to another.) The dance numbers are great as you’d expect from an old master like Fosse, but what is most intriguing is the meta-mixing of reality and cinema Fosse indulges in so that frontiers between fiction and autobiography are no longer discernable and the audience becomes confused by the razzle-dazzle confessionary storytelling— is Fosse the ventriloquist, Gideon the dummy, and we the audience, the priest? Expected if not to forgive, then to understand?
"Now Sinatra will never record it."
Comparisons to Fellini’s 8 ½ abound since it too was made by a philandering director with autobiographical pretensions (Fosse had even used one of Fellini’s cinematographers, Giusepe Rotunno). Both Fellini and Fosse developed their sensibilities in yesteryear entertainment mediums; Fellini fascinated by clowns and the circus, Fosse grinding it out in vaudeville. One can credit Fellini with inspiration but then a line should be drawn: Fellini has no copyright on a great artist’s storied decline. All human lives, especially those weaned on show business, have their own tragic follies and brilliant failures and Fosse deserves credit for making a brave film.
There are both professional and personal connections between Joe Gideon and his creator. Like Fosse, whose last film was a dramatization of the comic Lenny Bruce, Gideon works late hours in the editing room, cutting a film about a philosophical funny man (whose routine about the five stages of death: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, haunts Gideon in his physical and mental dissipation). Fosse’s real-life live-in girlfriend (Anne Reinking) plays Gideon’s best girl, Katy (for there are others…many others). When Gideon and Katy have a serious talk about love and fidelity, Gideon defending his capacity to give, Katy agrees but elaborates, “I just wish you weren’t so generous with your cock.” The effect on Gideon is not one of shame for his running around, but appreciation for the turn-of-phrase: “That’s good! Maybe I can use that sometime.”
Joe employs a delightful sense of humor when dealing with the accusations of the women closest to him, including his ex-wife, Audrey. In the same argument with Katy, in a clever twist of logic, Gideon assures her she is the most important person in his life because, “I go out with any girl in town… I stay in with you!” In another scene, when Audrey challenges him to name “the blonde with the television show from Philadelphia,” a worked-up Gideon blusters, “I remember her name because she meant something to me. The blonde with the television show… her name was ‘Sweetheart!’”
The difference between Joe and his women are that they are keeping score and he is not. He’s not even playing the game to win, but for the fun. Gideon doesn’t know any different and never will and the women tolerate his adulteries because they perhaps intuitively understand his present-moment living. As the cigarettes, the pharmaceuticals, and the situational amorous whims attest, he has a go-go appetite, insatiable for pleasure and passion even after he is admitted to the hospital, disobeying doctors' orders.
“Never bullshit a bullshitter,” Gideon jests. On the usefulness of saying ‘I love you,’ he declares in self-deprecatory fashion, “Sometimes I don’t know when the bullshit ends and the truth begins.” He may sneak around but when the moment comes to telling the truth, Gideon never wavers as when he needs to pep talk Victoria, a long-legged beauty with faltering self-confidence: “I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t know if I can make you a good dancer but if you keep trying and don’t quit I know I can make you a better dancer.”
You Don't Need an Appointment in Samarra to Meet Her
Gideon is absolutely straight with Angelique (Jessica Lange), the Angel of Death, whom he carries a running conversation with in some fantastic dream-like state (more reminiscent here of Bergman than Fellini). She is alluring, delicate, and gentle, but her kiss, as enticing as it may be, has symbolic repercussions. The Angel of Death is calling because finally the tobacco, the speed, the booze and the pursuit of carnal knowledge were withdrawals to be paid back with interest. When his time comes his mental space becomes a great theatrical stage where Joe Gideon is introduced by an emcee (Ben Vereen) for his final performance in a hip language of extended epitaph so rich in its damning, it deserves to be quoted in full here and now:
“Folks, what can I tell you about my next guest? This cat allowed himself to be adored but not loved and his success in show business was met by his failure in his personal relationship bag. Now that’s where he really bombed. And he came to believe that work, show business, love, his whole life, even himself and all that jazz was bullshit. He became a numero uno gameplayer to the point where he didn’t know where the games ended and the reality began. Like for this cat, the only reality is death, man.”
Far and away, this is the greatest-ever musical meditation on mortality. Fosse, who came up with the idea for the story after suffering a heart attack himself, has created a film touching on what nearly every person who ever lived has ruminated: the meaning of his or her death, and thus inevitably an examination of the meaning of one’s life. Gideon goes out with a showstopping bang, ad-libbing the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bye-bye Love” to “Bye-bye Life” and “I think I’m gonna cry,” to “I think I’m gonna die.” Everyone who ever mattered is in attendance: producers, rivals, dancers, doctors, the wife, the women, his daughter, Michelle. It is the greatest sayonara party ever imagined.
So ends Joe Gideon and his mornings in front of the mirror. His signature mantra, “It’s Showtime!” is not about a real show per se, since as we the audience know him, his life revolves around auditions, rehearsals, story conferences, trysts and dinners with his daughter. Rather, the ecstasy of Showtime represents his existence in its entirety, from beginning to end a masterpiece lived rather than created. Any dramatization, no matter how well choreographed or acted, will only be an echo of the real thing.
To quote a line from the director’s more famous film, “Life is a cabaret, old chum!”
For Bob Fosse as Joe Gideon, it certainly was.