Friday, December 30, 2011

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ 1971


Warning: This particular essay on The Mephisto Waltz is loaded with spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film and wish to discover its surprises for yourself, stop reading now and come back later. I’ll still be here.

One of the more effective, least exploitative entries in the post-Rosemary’s Baby occult sweepstakes (before The Exorcist came along and switched up the game-plan, entirely), is 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz. Adapted from the 1969 novel by Fred Mustard Stewart— which was itself a rather loud echoing of Ira Levin’s1967 novel— The Mephisto Waltz is a Satanic thriller that succeeds at being enjoyably stylish, suspenseful, and marvelously kinky while never actually giving Roman Polanski’s film any serious competition.
Jacqueline Bisset as Paula Clarkson
Alan Alda as Myles Clarkson
Barbara Parkins as Roxanne Delancey
Curd Jurgens as Duncan Ely
Bradford Dillman as Bill Delancy
Myles Clarkson (Alda), a failed-musician turned struggling music-journalist, lands an interview with world-famous classical pianist Duncan Ely (Jurgens). Taking note of Myles’ lyrical way with the buttons on his tape recorder, the ageing virtuoso (“I happen to be the greatest pianist alive!”) marvels at Myles’ perfect-for-the-piano fingers and declares him to have “Rachmaninoff hands.” Hands that, according to Duncan (who should know, I guess), only one in one hundred thousand possess.
Oh, and for the record, when not wowing audiences with impassioned performances of Franz Liszt’s The Mephisto Waltz (“They don’t understand that after a concert, there’s blood on the piano keys!”), Duncan finds time to be a practicing Satanist.
While studying those concert pianist fingers, lets hope he notices how short his life-line suddenly got
Having already learned from Rosemary’s Baby just how pushy devil-worshippers can be, it comes as no surprise when Duncan and his witchily feline daughter, Roxanne (Parkins), begin aggressively insinuating themselves into the lives of Myles, his beautiful, no- nonsense wife, Paula (Bisset), and their conveniently-disappearing daughter, Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin). Faster than you can say “tannis root,” we learn that Duncan, who is dying of leukemia, has plans to serve Myles’ soul with an eviction notice and take up residence in the lean yet alarmingly flabby body ASAP…with a little help from the devil, of course.
Will the ever-suspicious Paula, distrustful and jealous of the fawning attentions of Duncan and Roxanne from the start, unearth the dark secret behind this creepily close-knit father/ daughter duo? Or will her pugnacious, Nancy Drew-curiosity and fortitude (“…well, I’m just one grade too tough!”) only serve to place her and her family in greater danger? 

The answers to this and many more suitable-for-a- Black-Sabbath questions are answered in The Mephisto Waltz …a Quinn Martin production. No, really, it is. The sole foray into feature film production by the man who gave us The Fugitive, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, etc. However, to my great disappointment, The Mephisto Waltz is lacking in those two great QM Production trademarks: the authoritarian narrator and the title card breakdown of the story into separate acts and an epilogue.
This strikingly bizarre publicity photo showing Barbara Parkins in the company of a dog wearing a human mask was used extensively in promoting The Mephisto Waltz in 1971
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As I’ve stated in a previous post, I consider Rosemary’s Baby to be one of the smartest, most effectively chilling films ever made. It’s flawless both as a horror film and a psychological thriller. It’s not just Roman Polanski’s cleverly black-humored approach to the material and the finely-observed performances he elicits from his cast; but Ira Levin’s story itself is a masterfully structured bit of Modern Gothic. A superior example of contemporary horror.

When The Mephisto Waltz opened in theaters, the promotional buzz was all about its similarities to Rosemary’s Baby...just as scary only sexier. I was all hopped up to see it, but, being only 14 at the time, my mother (whose attentions were well-intentioned, if inconsistent) wouldn’t let me see the R-rated feature. I had to satisfy my curiosity with a paperback copy of the novel from the local library. I was delighted to find it a genuinely suspenseful page-turner with an endangered, resourceful heroine at its center. Just the the sort Ira Levin specialized in.
FACE-OFF
Bisset and co-star bare their fangs

Jump ahead to the 1980s and adulthood, and I finally get to see The Mephisto Waltz at a revival theater on a double-bill with its spiritual cousin, Rosemary’s Baby. I wasn't disappointed. It’s no Rosemary’s Baby by a longshot, but what it is is a nicely crafted thriller that attempts to earn its chills honestly: through atmosphere, character and suspense. If the contrivances of plot seem somewhat rushed and the performances and direction only occasionally above standard, 70s-era, movie of the week TV, The Mephisto Waltz distinguishes itself from the usual occult fare by force of sheer style. The ante is raised in the kinky sexuality and overall amorality of its theme and lead characters.
The entire premise of The Mephisto Waltz asks that we accept that these two breathtaking beauties would be willing to fight, commit murder, and bargain their souls to the devil for...
...this body.

PERFORMANCES:
When it comes to movie stars, sometimes (too often, in fact) I find myself guilty of the kind of superficiality I thoroughly abhor in others: I cut the beautiful a great deal of slack. Jacqueline Bisset is so stunning that I think I’m not as objective about her acting ability as I might be. Frequently saddled with ornamental roles, The Mephisto Waltz offers Bisset a sizable lead part requiring a broad range of emotions. How does she fare? With her clipped British diction and somewhat remote demeanor, she handles the scenes requiring scorn, sarcasm, and assertiveness pretty well. She’s less effective with scenes where she has to convey her character’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state. 
OK, call me superficial, but Jacqueline Bisset is absolutely GORGEOUS in this movie and I think I would be would be happy just watching her defrosting a freezer.
Jacqueline Bisset goes to Hades
Apparently, converting to Satanism requires considerably less formal instruction that converting to Christianity or Judaism
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s lovely Barbara Parkins (looking like a million bucks) cast in the kind of bad girl role her steely eyes and honeyed voice always hinted at (she would have made a sensational Catwoman). She’s terrific and her bitch-fest scenes with Bisset always seem on the verge of a cat-fight that never materializes (I can dream, can't I?). 
Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all this portentous pulchritude is ol’ “Hawkeye” himself, Alan Alda; looking for all the world like a film-school intern who’d wandered accidentally in front of the camera. Alda has always seemed like a very nice guy to me, so I won’t go on about how badly miscast he is (Bisset’s then-boyfriend, Michael Sarrazin, would have been great in the role...or perhaps, Keir Dullea who was also very easy on the eyes), just suffice it to say that a huge chunk of plot credibility flies out the door every time he appears.
Alan Alda                                      Michael Sarrazin
  
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I think one of the reasons I've never seen a film about the occult to ever come close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s intensity and efficacy, is that few of these films, once they latch onto their particular Satanic gimmick, ever give much thought as to how the film might play to those who find it impossible to buy into the traditional concept of Satan. Polanski was smart enough to make his horror film as if constructing a paranoid psychological thriller. It works because the structure of the plot is viable whether you buy into the religious myth or not. 
In films like The Mephisto Waltz, the fantastic particulars of the occult gimmick need to be introduced so quickly (in this instance, the ability to switch souls) that scant time is devoted to showing us how otherwise practical characters gradually come to believe the impossible.
Bad Romance
In his shot from the decadent New Year's Eve costume ball sequence, Alan Alda (in fez and monkey mask) and Barbara Parkins offer further proof that just about everything Lady Gaga does has been done before

Jacqueline Bisset’s Paula is far too suspicious far too soon and it tips the hand of the plot. Likewise Myles’ swift, unquestioning acceptance of Duncan’s largess. Alda’s character is such a blank to us (we have no sense of whether his abrupt acceptance into the jet-set compromises his values) that the eradication of his soul holds no dramatic weight. How poignant his death would have been had we had a glimpse of what the rejuvenation of his abandoned music career might have meant to him, or to what extent his defeated sense of self is flattered by the attentions of one as rich and successful as Duncan Ely.
Similarly, I’ve never seen the death of a child in a movie given such short shrift. First off, Bisset looks like nobody’s mom on this planet, least of all the overexposed child actress cast in the role*; secondly, in order for the plot to progress, Bisset's character appears to grieve over the murder of her child for about 24 hours, then it’s back to the witch-hunt.
*(Pamelyn Ferdin, immediately recognizable as the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the Peanuts TV specials, was near- unavoidable in the 70s, appearing on everything from Star Trek to The Streets of San Francisco.)

In skimming over the human drama, The Mephisto Waltz, like so many other genre films, miss the opportunity to have audiences engaged in anything other than the mechanics of plot and plotting.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As an occult thriller, The Mephisto Waltz plays it pretty straightforward down the line, telling its story crisply and entertainingly.  It has its suspense and tension, but never once is it disturbing. Certainly not as disturbing as it could be, given the fundamental amorality of it all. 
There’s a layer of a body-fetish subplot lying below the surface of The Mephisto Waltz’s soul-transplant theme that calls for a director attuned to the revulsion/attraction of body horror…someone like David Cronenberg. The fetish object in The Mephisto Waltz is Myles Clarkson. Duncan Ely wants him for his youth, but specifically for his hands. Roxanne wants her father, Duncan, and is willing to get to him through the body of Clarkson. Most perverse of all, when Paula finally learns that her husband is dead and that another man inhabits his body…it’s the body she wants, and (to her own surprise) she doesn’t really care who its owner is.
 The film is awash with scenes and dialog emphasizing Myles’ body and physical desirability, both before and after its possession by Duncan: 

Roxanne: (Ostensibly asking Paula’s permission to make a life-mask of Myles)  “It’s alright then, I can do him?”

Abby: (To Paula about their newly acquired dog) “He wants daddy.”
Paula: “Don’t we all.”

Paula's best friend: "Oh! He's sexy...don't you think he's sexy? You should know better than I!"

Roxanne's ex-husband, Bill (Bradford Dillman) to Paula after she confesses that she still finds Myles sexually irresistible even though she knows it isn’t truly him: “They say the truth is, once you've had one of them (a Satan-worshipper), nothing else will quite satisfy you.”

With the utter disposability of Myles, the man, contrasted with escalating battles for his body, the overarching feeling you’re left with is that everybody loves Myles in parts, but not as a whole. Kind of like a perverse corruption of Cole Porter’s “The Physician.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a story to tell and relaying it in as efficient and entertaining a manner as possible. The Mephisto Waltz succeeds on that score. But had it taken the time to explore the story’s emotional and sub-textural themes…who knows? It might have been a genuine Rosemary’s Baby contender.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

MOMMIE DEAREST 1981

“After Michael Redgrave played the insane ventriloquist in Dead of Night, bits of the character’s paranoia kept turning up in his other performances; it would be hair-raising if Faye Dunaway were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan.”
Pauline Kael The New Yorker  Oct.1981

I grew up during a time when it was common practice to apply hairbrushes, belts, or sturdy switches (a thin branch from a tree or a stalk from a root or plant) to the backsides of children for the purpose of discipline. Back then, kids knew the likely consequence of disobedience was to get “a whipping” (spanked) or, if in public, a pluck to the ears or smack to the back of the head (seriously!). Misdeeds that failed to warrant physical punishment were met with shouts (“Shut up back there!”), threats (“Mouth off to me again and I’ll slap you clear into next week!”), or other colorful forms of what we now call verbal/psychological abuse (“What are you, stupid?”). 

Welcome to Parenting 101: The Pre Dr. Spock years. Whether it be corporal punishment, verbal abuse, or psychological intimidation (“Wait ‘til your father gets home!”); our parents did it to us because their parents did it to them. No one bothered to question such behavior for it was widely held to have been the single ingredient marking the difference between the raising of a juvenile delinquent or a contributing member of society.
This hurts me more than it does you
That’s one reason why when I first read Mommie Dearest—Christina Crawford’s bestselling memoir detailing the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her adoptive mother, screen legend Joan Crawford— I was among those who had no problem believing the allegations made against Crawford were true. For those of us who grew up in the "spare the rod, spoil the child” era, the behavior described in Mommie Dearest was considerably less shocking than who was engaging in it: Mildred Pierce herself, Joan Crawford.
If ever there was an individual who epitomized the words “movie star,” it was Joan Crawford. Everything about her finely burnished image fed the public perception of her as a hardworking, glamorous star of ladylike hauteur and refinement. While other stars were battling studio heads, suffering public meltdowns (would Mommie Dearest have caused such a sensation had its subject been one of Hollywood’s more famously unstable stars like Judy Garland?), and living flashy lives of decadent excess, Joan always conducted herself as if she were Hollywood’s goodwill ambassador.  

Published in 1978 (only one year after Crawford’s death), Mommie Dearest caused quite a sensation. Not only was it one of the earliest examples of the tell-all celebrity memoir but one of the first popular books to shed light on the problem of child abuse. These days, I would welcome any public figure who didn’t seize on every opportunity to publicly air their abuses, addictions, and mental-illnesses; but in 1978, it was rare indeed to read such an incendiary airing of dirty-laundry about a movie star. Especially one with an image as scrupulously manicured as that of Joan Crawford.

I saw the film Mommie Dearest the day it opened at Hollywood's Mann's Chinese Theater in 1981. By this time the bestseller had become something of a cause célèbre, galvanizing public opinion into three distinct camps: 1) Those who accepted the portrayal of Joan Crawford as a child-abusing, alcoholic, germaphobe; 2) Those who believed Christina’s allegations to have been greatly exaggerated and motivated by greed and vindictiveness; and, 3) Those who reveled in the memoir’s voyeuristic sensationalism and camp-tastic portrayal of a headstrong diva thoroughly out of control.  

To this latter group, the events of Mommie Dearest somehow bypassed sympathetic analysis and barreled headlong into being a book enjoyed as a Jacqueline Susann- esque hybrid of old Joan Crawford movies (specifically Queen Bee, Harriet Craig, and Mildred Pierce) crossed with The Bad Seed. I don’t know whether it was Crawford’s grand diva posturing or society’s deep-seated resentment of the rich and famous, but there was just something about Mommie Dearest that many found irresistibly satirical.
Pathos Undermined
Being screamed at by your mother:Traumatic
Being screamed at by your mother who's decked out in a sleep mask, chin strap, and night gloves: Priceless
However the memoir was received, the one thing everybody agreed upon was that Mommie Dearest had wreaked irreparable damage to Joan Crawford’s image. Virtually overnight the name of Joan Crawford had become an instant punch line (no pun intended, but see how easy that was?).
Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford
Diana Scarwid as Christina (adult)
Mara Hobel as Christina (child)
Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt
The audience that crowded The Chinese Theater that opening day in 1981 was abuzz with that rare kind of anticipation born of knowing you were about to see a film that promised a rollicking good time whether it was a triumph or a travesty. A win-win situation!

Much in the manner that the incredibly stylish cubist/art deco title sequence for Lucille Ball’s Mame (1974) proffered hopes (quickly dashed) of a classy entertainment that never materialized, Mommie Dearest gets off to a very promising start with a dramatically evocative, cinematically economical montage detailing the pre-dawn preparations that go into the creation of Joan Crawford, the movie star.
It’s a marvelous sequence of compulsive self-discipline and dues-paying that turns a morning bath into a near-religious purging ritual built upon the duty and sacrifice of stardom. (I particularly like how Crawford, autographing photos in the back seat of her limo as she’s driven to the studio, never allows for a moment of idleness. It calls to mind my perception of what Oprah Winfrey must be like in her private moments…I seriously don’t know when that woman finds time to sleep.) 
Joan Crawford, world-class multi-tasker
For about five minutes Mommie Dearest really looks like it’s going to work...and then the audience gets its first look at Faye Dunaway in her Joan Crawford makeup. Although the transformation is impressive, the effect is startling in all the wrong ways. Gasps are followed by giggles, giggles erupt into guffaws, and Mommie Dearest never really regains its footing. 

Which is really too bad, because Dunaway, who works her ass off, is really rather good (at least in that dicey, Al Pacino in Scarface / Jack Nicholson in The Shining way: where a ridiculous performance can be made to work under the right circumstances).  She deserved a better script, a surer production, and a director protective enough of her to rein her in when she goes over top. Which, alas, is pretty often.
Perhaps it was misguided to even attempt to make a serious motion picture about an actress whose extreme sense of glamour (padded shoulders, mannish eyebrows, smeary lipstick, and mannered acting style) had long ago made her a camp gay icon and favorite among drag queens, impressionists, and parodists (Carol Burnett’s Mildred Fierce comes to mind). But director Frank Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Last Summer) and a battery of screenwriters only compounded the risk by failing to find a dramatically viable means of adapting the material. America was years away from seriously addressing the issues of parental abuse, alcoholism, and possible bipolar disorder (the success of 1981's Arthur still pivoted on how hilarious alcoholics were). Which may explain why the mother-daughter conflicts in Mommie Dearest…scenes of familial dysfunction worthy of William Inge…consistently fall short of tapping into the pain at their source.
Mommie Dearest, like its titular subject, gets bogged down with the superficial. Lacking in depth, the dialog, costuming, and performances work in concert to turn each of its setpiece scenes into high-style, $#*! My Mother Says.
The illusion of perfection
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I’m guilty of whatever human frailty it is that causes people to rejoice when cracks are found in the façade of public figures who insist on portraying themselves and their lives as perfect. I was one of those so shocked at Mommie Dearest’s unmasking of little-miss-perfect Joan Crawford as a bit of a nutjob, that I failed to pay much attention to the not-so-funny issue of child abuse, which should have been my focus from the start. Viewing Mommie Dearest today, so many years after its release, I wonder if the film is not guilty of the same thing. The focus should have been on the character of Christina, not Joan. It’s her story after all. Since even the most world-famous parent is likely to be just plain old “mom” or “dad” to a child, the resultant shift in focus might have offered a less traditional view of Crawford and saved Mommie Dearest from becoming what it frequently feels like: the world’s longest drag act.
Joan Crawford's palatial Bel-Air home (top) first appeared as the mansion of gangster J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White, bottom photo, left) in the 1964 Annette Funicello musical, Pajama Party
PERFORMANCES:
In spite of the hours of enjoyment I've had at Faye Dunaway’s expense (countless hours of tears running down my cheeks, cramped stomach muscles, desperate gasps for air between full-throated howls of joyous laughter), as I've stated, I really think she does an amazing job in Mommie Dearest. It’s not so much that she’s good, although she does have her moments; so much as she’s incredibly brave and frighteningly committed. She throws herself into the role so wholeheartedly that I don’t know that she can be completely faulted for failing to land right on the mark.
I’m of the opinion that much of what is accepted as funny about her portrayal of Joan Crawford is only partially her fault. No insult intended to the Joan Crawford fans out there, but the real Joan Crawford in full “Joan-mode” is pretty hilarious. Dunaway’s impersonation is so spot-on that the laughs she gets can’t really be attributed to her completely. I mean those are Joan’s eyebrows and pinched-constipated smile; that is Crawford’s butch, bitch-queen bossiness; and anyone who’s ever seen the level of overwrought emotionalism she’s capable of bringing to even the most easy-going scenes (check out Trog, sometime), knows that even a lot of Faye's overacting belongs to Crawford.

Dunaway makes some odd choices (the cross-eyed bit during the wire hangers scene is just asking for it, and who exactly thought the whole “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” line was going to work?), but within the confines of a rather choppy script, there is an attempt on Dunaway’s part to add some dimension to the at-times cartoonish monster Mommie Dearest would have us believe is Joan Crawford.
Joan Crawford (center) flanked by the contenders to the throne. Oscar winner Anne Bancroft (r.) was Christina Crawford's personal choice for the role of Joan. When Bancroft declined, Faye Dunaway (who, ironically enough was a favorite of Joan Crawford's) took over the reins. 
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that Mommie Dearest isn’t a bad film so much as a series of gross miscalculations all around. Here are just a few things the makers of Mommie Dearest failed to take into account:
a) 40s era Joan Crawford looks disconcertingly like Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
b) Power plays between curly haired brats and mannish glamour stars are funny.
c) Extreme wealth undercuts tragedy.
e) Casting a legendarily temperamental actress in the role of a legendarily temperamental actress encourages the audience to wonder if they're watching Dunaway being Dunaway, or Dunaway being Crawford. 
Madonna & Child

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There was a time when I really couldn’t get sufficiently past Joan Crawford’s extreme look and affected style of acting to see her as anything other than a comically camp timepiece. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate her skill and talent, and today she’s one of my favorite actresses of all time. Mommie Dearest is too flawed a film for even nostalgic revisionism to one day convert into a misunderstood classic; but I think there stands a good chance that time will be kinder to Faye Dunaway’s performance. Like many of the under-appreciated performances of Marlon Brando that have come to light to be among his best (Reflections in a Golden Eye), Dunaway’s Joan Crawford may be a bit “out there” at times, but it is a fascinating, almost athletic performance, far more layered and intelligent than the film deserves.
Understatement of the Year Dept:
"Today Faye sees herself 'as starting on a second phase of my professional life, just as Joan Crawford did...'"
                                                                                               People Magazine  Oct. 1981

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, December 16, 2011

ALL THAT JAZZ 1979

All That Jazz is the movie I wish had inspired me to become a dancer. Bob Fosse's artily stylized, semi-autobiographical, cinematic dissertation on the artist as a self-destructive skirt-chaser, is just the kind of tragic mythologizing of the fragility of the creative instinct that appeals to the romantic dreamer in me.

As I stated in an earlier post, the movie that actually inspired me to abandon my film studies and embark on a 25-year career as a dancer is the legendarily reviled roller-skatin' muse project, Xanadu (1980). Don't get me wrong... Xanadu, in all its flawed glory, is, and always will be for me, an infinitely more joyous, emotionally persuasive experience than All That Jazz ever was (those soaring notes reached by ELO and ONJ on Xanadu’s title track could inspire poetry). It's just that when one is recounting that seminal, life-altering moment wherein one’s artistic destiny is met face-to-face, it would be nice to be able to point to a serious, substantive work like All That Jazz, instead of a film dubbed by Variety as being about, "A roller-skating lightbulb."
Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon (a.k.a. Bob Fosse)
Jessica Lange as Angelique (a.k.a. The Angel of Death)
Leland Palmer as Audrey Paris (a.k.a. Gwen Verdon)
Ann Reinking as Kate Jagger (a.k.a. Ann Reinking)
Ben Vereen as O'Connor Flood  (a.k.a. Sammy Davis, Jr.)
 All that Jazz is the story of Broadway chorographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider); a pill-popping, chain-smoking, serial-womanizing choreographer/director who struggles to prevent the demons that fuel his creativity from consuming his life. Simultaneously mounting a Broadway show and editing a motion picture, Gideon's intensifying abuse of his health (both physical and mental) manifests, surrealistically, as a literal love affair/dialog with death (a teasing Jessica Lange). Fosse makes no effort to mask the fact that Joe Gideon is Bob Fosse and All That Jazz is Fosse's . But, as gifted as he is, Bob Fosse is no Frederico Fellini. His essential shallowness of character (something he takes great pains to dramatize in the film) makes for the baring of guardedly superficial insights, leaving the larger philosophical questions of "what price art?" unaddressed.
Director/choreographer Joe Gideon engaging in his other talent: disappointing loved ones.
In this case, his daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) a.k.a. Nicole Fosse.

All That Jazz asks us to accept that while Joe Gideon is selfish, an adulterer, a neglectful father, a philanderer, a manipulator and a liar; gosh darn it, at least he knows it! Nobody’s perfect, the film seems to be saying, but what Gideon offers as a means of earthly penance for the pain he causes others, is his genius. And indeed for me, Fosse's choreography in All That Jazz is so brilliant as to justify almost anything. Almost.
And thus we land at what ultimately dissatisfies about All That Jazz. It purports to be introspective, but at its heart, it’s apologist. Fosse isn’t invested in getting to the root of what makes Gideon/Fosse tick, so much as pleading a case for the redemptive power of artistic genius.
"It's showtime, folks!"
I buy happily into the enduring romantic myth of the tortured, suffering artist. The tortured, suffering artist as asshole? Not so much. It seems to me a curiously male perspective that allows for the emotional collateral damage of a life of self-indulgence to be tolerated, and ultimately absolved, through one’s art. (The female equivalent: the fragile, too-sensitive-for-this-world type, more apt to do harm to herself than others.)

Scene after scene of Joe Gideon indulging in the self-serving honesty of the cheater (“Yes, I’m a dog, but I’m up front about it!”) never once feel emotionally revelatory.
Rather, they recall this exchange from 1968's Cactus Flower-

(Walter Matthau's aging lothario prostrating himself before girlfriend Goldie Hawn)
Matthau:  I'm a bastard. I'm the biggest bastard in the whole world!
Hawn:  Julian, please...you're beginning to make it sound like bragging.

Personally, I'm waiting for the day when someone will make a film that sheds some light on what kind of women attach themselves to artistic, self-centered men; never resenting having to  play second, third, or sixth fiddle, as they float, interchangeable satellites, in the orbit of genius.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Gaydar Setting? Off the Chart
Dime-store psychologists seeking the origins of Bob Fosse's serial-womanizing need look no further than these two dishy publicity stills from early in Fosse's dance career.
This guy must have felt he had something to prove.
It couldn't have been easy being a heterosexual (possibly bisexual) dancer in an era when all male dancers were presumed to be gay (the 40s & 50s) and the pervasive concepts of masculinity (none of which applied to the slight-framed, thin-voiced Fosse) were particularly narrow.
The phenomenon is dramatized in the 1977 ballet film, The Turning Point when a heterosexual male dancer admits to marrying and having a child at a young age in an effort to prove to himself he wasn't gay.
(photos courtesy of ilakid.blogspot.com & victim86.blogspot.com)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
If you haven't yet gleaned it, I'm not overly fond of the autobiographical structure of All That Jazz's plot. But much like the women who put up with Joe Gideon because he's a genius of dance, I confess that I endure the clichéd narrative just so than I can enjoy the stupendous dance sequences. Bob Fosse is my favorite choreographer of all time and his work here is beyond splendid. It's absolutely amazing, and among the best of his career.
A legend on Broadway, director/choreographer/sometime-actor Bob Fosse directed but three movie musicals (Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and All That Jazz), yet their influence on dance and the genre of movie musical in general has been far-reaching and incalculable. Raked over the coals by critics for the stylistic excesses of 1969s Sweet Charity (Pauline Kael went so far as to call the film "a  disaster"); by the time these talents were honed and polished to a fine gloss in Cabaret (1972), Fosse's fluidly kinetic camerawork and  slice and dice style of editing eventually became the definitive visual style for contemporary movie musicals.
What has always struck me about Fosse's dance style was how it was so perfect for the female form. If the lines of classic ballet celebrated the idealized feminine form— ethereal and untouchable—Fosse's sensuous style took woman off the pedestal and celebrated her sensuality and reveled in her carnal vulgarity. Drawing from his days in burlesque, Fosse's style somehow sidesteps the passive, camp allure of the showgirl and captures an exhibitionistic hyperfemininity that carries with it a touch of danger. To watch the way Gwen Verdon moves as Lola in Damn Yankees is to see the pin-up ideal come to life. I've always thought that if a Vargas Girl portrait could move, she'd move like a Bob Fosse dancer.

PERFORMANCES:
Fosse elicits many fine performances from his cast. Roy Scheider, a non-dancer, is surprisingly good, displaying an easy charm behind a keyed-up physicality that makes him believable as dancer and object of masochistic female affection (my heart blanches at the thought of originally cast Richard Dreyfuss in the role). Leland Palmer is perhaps my favorite; a fabulous dancer and one of those actresses who's edgy quality makes you keep your eye on her even when she's not pivotal to the scene. No surprise that Ann Reinking is a phenomenally talented dancer and truly a marvel to watch, but it's nice that she also displays an easy, husky-voiced naturalness in her non-dancing scenes. Jessica Lange has had such an impressive career that it's easy to forget that her debut in King Kong (1976) almost turned her into the Elizabeth Berkley of the 70s. Wisely turning her back on Hollywood's blonde-of-the-month publicity machine, Lange took three years off and reemerged in the small but pivotal role in All That Jazz that successfully showcased her ability to do more than look pretty sitting in an ape's paw.
Flirting with Death
The brilliance that is All That Jazz pretty much extends to everything but the central conceit of the plot (which somehow worked for Fellini and no one else. Rob Marshall's Nine was pretty dismal). Fosse gets Fellini's cinematographer, Giuseppe Rottuno (Fellini Satyricon), to give the film a smoky sheen, the music is sparkling, and the dreamy stylization employed throughout is sometimes breathtakingly inventive. One just wishes they weren't in the service of such meager emotional epiphanies.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
In the book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, the authors (several members of the original Broadway cast) recall how, after sever years of film treatments, director/choreographer Michael Bennett was unable to land on a satisfactory method to translate his show to the screen. All involved in A Chorus Line thought that Fosse had, for all intents and purposes, beat them to the punch and delivered (in a virtuoso eight-minute opening sequence), everything that a screen adaptation of A Chorus Line should have been. And indeed, the opening of All That Jazz is a matchless example of film as storyteller. It's so perfect, it's like a short film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I'm crazy about all of the dancing in All That Jazz. Understandably, most people recall the remarkable "Take Off With Us/ Air-otica" number, but I have a particular fondness for "Bye Bye Love/Life" number that ends the film. A fantasy fever dream/nightmare taking place in the mind of Joe Gideon as he slips away on a hospital bed, this number is outrageous in concept and phenomenal in execution. We're in Ken Russell territory when you have a dying man dressed in sequins (complete with silver open-heart surgery scar) singing his own eulogy to an audience of everyone he's ever encountered in his life, while flanked by gyrating dancers dressed as diagrams of the human circulatory system.  
WOW!
 I never tire of watching this number as it appeals to both the dancer and film enthusiast in me. Fosse, whose signature style consisted of small moves, isolations, and minimal gestures, always seemed better suited to the movies than the stage. He ushered in the use of the camera and editor as collaborative choreographers, punctuating the rhythms and drawing the eye to the details.

Bob Fosse passed away in 1987, mere months after the death of his closest professional peer/rival, Michael Bennett. Broadway and dance suffered a loss that year that I don't think it has ever recovered from. Bennett didn't live long enough to leave his stamp on cinema, but lucky for us, Fosse left a recorded legacy that represents the best of cinema dance as art. "Thank you" doesn't begin to cover the debt of gratitude.
Bye-Bye, Love
Copyright © Ken Anderson