Sometimes Broadway director/choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) doesn’t know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins. Actually, that’s his life every day. But he doesn’t have the right to be disheartened considering he’s designed his life to look stunning on the outside. He ignores the cracks showing underneath the thick stage makeup; he’ll have time to deal with those later. Everything but work is “later” for Joe. He’s designed himself to death.
It would be tempting to apply that last statement to “All That Jazz,” famed musical theater choreographer Bob Fosse’s audacious and largely autobiographical film about his bottomless ambition. “All That Jazz,” like any good Broadway musical, favors splash over subtlety. (Even those — present company included — who know little of Fosse’s work in theater get the impression this is the kind of choreographer/director/dancer/human being he was.) Points are not punctuated with periods but with exclamation points. But somehow, given Fosse’s larger-than-life reputation and his C.V., the song-and-dance approach not only makes sense, it works — and on more than one level. Each piece is masterfully choreographed, technically impressive and designed to communicate truths about Gideon’s talents as well as his unraveling psyche. One sequence in particular, with its smoky atmospherics, slinky, overtly sexual choreography and spooky lighting, shines a beaming spotlight on the film’s undercurrent of morbidity. Fosse is a narcissist, no question about it, but that means he’s acutely self-aware. And he’s not the least bit afraid to confront the possibility his genius will be his undoing.
A story like Fosse’s demands a lead actor with a certain amount of charisma and chutzpah, someone flamboyant who can tint the bravado with vulnerability. This description doesn’t exactly scream “Roy Scheider,” an actor who, in the ’70s, possessed an Al Pacino-like reserve. It turns out that this introspection served him well for the part of Joe Gideon because a more outgoing actor could have pushed the choreographer into the realm of caricature. Scheider performs his heart out, yet keeps certain parts of Joe remote. On some level, Scheider’s Joe, for all his megalomania, is unknowable. He doesn’t let anyone — not his ex-wife (Leland Palmer) or his current fling, dancer Kate (Ann Reinking), not his daughter (Erzsébet Földi) — past the illusion. Only the audience gets to see the real toll maniacal ambition has taken. And Joe is the kind of man who’s working even when he isn’t. He spends every spare moment perfecting his latest Broadway show or editing (and re-editing to the nth degree) his over-budgeted Hollywood film on an upcoming comedian. He feels nothing because of the drugs he uses to keep going: Dexedrine, Alka-Seltzer, Visine, sex. Joe is on the verge of a cataclysmic meltdown. Kate senses this and begs him to slow down. A quick “it’s showtime, folks” to his bathroom mirror every morning used to be enough to keep him going. But it, like most drugs, stops working.
The morning scenes in the mirror are presented in increasingly rapid cuts: speed and Visine and “it’s showtime, folks” over and over. As Joe begins to wear down, the sequences speed up, mirroring the choreographer’s desperate stab at looking spotlight-ready. There’s a mania here — visible in Scheider’s eyes– that’s frightening, even macabre. Because Joe is on his own private death march. Every time he tunes out reality (with the drops, the speed, the sex) he’s pushing his life closer to its expiration date. Not even massive heart attack stops him. In these scenes, when Joe confronts his own mortality, Fosse employs Jessica Lange — bathed in glowing white light, dressed in flowing, angelic robes — as an atypical Angel of Death. Joe talks to her, even flirts with her, but he doesn’t see her presence as significant. Later, she becomes a figure in Joe’s last performance (choregraphed from his hospital bed on life support), a decadently long, hallucinatory and extravagant number that incorporates not only the five stages of grief but also a TV talk show guest spot and a graphic close-up of coronary artery bypass surgery. This is Fosse’s Pièce de résistance, a showstopper designed to dazzle. It also forces an end to the illusion. Only in death is Joe Gideon honest about anything. And that is unspeakably tragic.