Friday, December 30, 2011


Spoiler Alert: 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’s 1967 novel - The Mephisto Waltz is a Satanic thriller that succeeds in being enjoyably stylish, suspenseful, and marvelously kinky, while never actually giving Roman Polanski’s now-iconic 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 aging virtuoso (“I happen to be the greatest pianist alive!”) marvels at Myles’ perfect-for-the-piano fingers and declares him to possess“Rachmaninoff hands.” Hands that, according to Duncan (who should know, I guess), only one in one hundred thousand possess.
And for the record, Duncan, when not discovering new talent or 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!”), finds time to be a practicing Satanist.
While studying those concert pianist fingers, Miles fails to note 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 find out that Duncan, who is dying of leukemia, has plans to serve Myles’ soul with an eviction notice and take up residence in his 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 of Parkins in the company of a dog wearing a human mask was used extensively in promoting The Mephisto Waltz in 1971

As I stated in a previous post, I consider Rosemary’s Baby to be one of the smartest, most effectively chilling films ever made; flawlessly effective both as a horror film and a psychological thriller. It’s not only Roman Polanski’s cleverly black-humored approach to the material or the finely-observed performances he elicits from his cast, but the source novel by Ira Levin itself is a masterfully structured bit of Modern Gothic. A superior example of contemporary horror.

When The Mephisto Waltz opened in theaters, the advance promotional buzz centered around its similarities to Rosemary’s Baby. It promised to be 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. Upon reading it, I was delighted to find the novel to be a genuinely suspenseful page-turner with a resourceful female protagonist trying to protect her home and family from sinister forces. Just the sort of thing Ira Levin specialized in.
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 spirit cousin, Rosemary’s Baby. I wasn't disappointed. It’s no Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot, but what it is is a nicely-crafted thriller that earns its chills honestly: through atmosphere, character, and suspense. If the contrivances of plot seem somewhat rushed, and the performances and direction only occasionally above your average '70s-era Movie of the Week TV standard; The Mephisto Waltz distinguishes itself from the usual occult fare by force of sheer style. It's a great-looking movie enlivened by the air of kinky sexuality and amorality present in both its theme and main 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.

When it comes to those flickering images of the gods and goddesses of the silver screen, sometimes (perhaps too often, in fact) I find myself guilty of exactly the kind of superficiality I thoroughly abhor in real-life: 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 during this stage of her career (she matured to a much more accomplished actress later), The Mephisto Waltz offers Bisset a sizable lead role offering a considerable emotional range. So, how does she fare? With her precise, clipped British diction and somewhat remote demeanor, Bisset handles the scenes requiring her character to be sarcastic and confrontational pretty well. But she's a tad less effective in scenes requiring she convey her character’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state. 
That being said, who cares! (OK, call me superficial) Jacqueline Bisset is so absolutely GORGEOUS in this movie, I'm certain I'd be content just watching her defrosting a freezer.
Jacqueline Bisset goes to Hades
In The Mephisto Waltz, we see that converting to Satanism requires considerably less formal instruction than converting to Christianity or Judaism

As if that weren't enough, there’s lovely Barbara Parkins (looking like a million bucks) cast in the kind of femme fatale role her steely eyes and honeyed voice always hinted at (she would have made a sensational Catwoman). She’s absolutely splendid and a great deal of fun to watch. Especially as her frequent bitch-fest scenes with Bisset always seem on the verge of turning into a literal cat-fight which 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 I think 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 (pertaining to his sexual desirability) flies out the door every time he appears.

I think one of the reasons I've never seen an occult film to ever come close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s intensity and efficacy is due to the fact 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 though he were constructing a paranoid psychological suspense 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 more implausible particulars of the occult gimmick in question (soul switching, in this case) are introduced so quickly that scant time is devoted to convincing us how otherwise practical characters come to believe in the inconceivable so swiftly.
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're given no sense of his values from the getgo, so we never know whether his abrupt acceptance by the jet-set crowd compromises them) that the eradication of his soul holds no dramatic weight. How poignant his death would be were we afforded a sense of what it meant to him to reignite his abandoned music career. To know this would certainly inform our understanding of how his defeated sense of self is flattered by the attentions of one as rich and successful as Duncan Ely.

On a similar note, vis a vis the speed with which The Mephisto Waltz speeds along its course, 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 Pamelyn Ferdin, a child actress who seemed to be everywhere in the 70s (What's The Matter With Helen?). Secondly, in order to move things along as expeditiously as possible, Bisset's character, a mother whose only child dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances, mourns for all of 24 hours before resuming her witch hunt and smoldering with desire for her husband. Whoever he is at this point.
In skimming over the human drama, The Mephisto Waltz, like so many other genre films, fails to give audiences sufficient time to become sufficiently engaged in the lives of the characters. A move that always winds up coming back to bite the film on the ass, undercutting, as it does, audience involvement in the outcome of the conflict.

As an occult thriller, The Mephisto Waltz plays it pretty straightforward down the line, telling its story crisply and entertainingly. That it doesn't always make the most of the possibilities posed by its bizarre story is, to me, the film's major setback. There's suspense and tension, but never once is the film truly unsettling or disturbing. Certainly not as much as it could have been, given the fundamental amorality of it all. 
There’s a layer of a body-fetish/sex-addiction 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. Or his body, to be precise. 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's inhabiting it. 
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, but everybody knows what she's driving at) “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.”
Duncan will feel like a new man when he wakes up. Literally.

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  song, “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  2009 - 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


“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 in the interest of instilling "discipline." Back then, kids knew the likely consequence of disobedience or backtalk 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 failing to warrant physical punishment were met with verbal reprimands ("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 know to be 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 the administering of strict parental discipline was widely held at the time to be the single ingredient marking the difference between the raising of a worthless juvenile delinquent, or a contributing member of society.
This hurts me more than it does you

This is 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 to be 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 though she were Hollywood’s unofficial  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 it was 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 feel compelled to publicly air their abuses, addictions, and mental-illnesses; but in 1978, it was a rare thing indeed to publish 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 readers 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 hard-fought-for 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 got off to a very promising start with a dramatically evocative, cinematically economical montage detailing the pre-dawn preparations going into the creation of Joan Crawford, the movie star.

It’s a marvelous sequence of compulsive self-discipline and dues-paying professionalism 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 to rein her in when she went 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.
For starters, the film can't really decide whose story it is. Are we seeing Joan as Christina sees her (in which case Christina's psychological perspective gets incredibly short shrift), or is this a "behind the facade" look at a famous actress (which leaves us wondering, what's the point?).

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

I’m guilty of whatever human frailty it is which 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 by 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

In spite of the many hours of enjoyment I've had at Faye Dunaway’s expense (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 completely to her performance/impersonation. 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 herself.

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. 

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 inherently 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

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. 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. Perhaps 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 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 self-destructive skirt-chaser, is just the kind of self-mythologizing fable that appeals to the romantic notion of the fragility of the creative process.

As 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 square-on, face-to-face, it would have been to 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 choreographer 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 Joe Gideon is selfish, an adulterer, a neglectful father, a philanderer, a manipulator, and a liar; but gosh darn it, at least he knows it! Nobody’s perfect, the film seems to be saying, but isn't a little of that imperfection mitigated by their ability to bring art into the world? What Gideon offers as a means of earthly penance for the pain he causes others, is his genius. And it's a point well-taken, for (at least to 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 for me. 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.)

Although we're given scene after scene of Joe Gideon indulging in the self-serving candor of the cheater (“Yes, I’m a dog, but I’m upfront about it!”), these confessions 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,'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, like 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 most male dancers were presumed to be gay, and the pervasive concepts of masculinity (none of which applied to the slight-framed, thin-voiced Fosse) were inflexible. The phenomenon is dramatized in the 1977 ballet film, The Turning Point when a straight male dancer admits to marrying and having a child at a young age in an effort to prove to himself he wasn't gay.

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 that 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, the musical genre, and choreography for film 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 women 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 hyper-femininity 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.

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 a 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 whose 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 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 which 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.

In the book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, the collective of authors (several members of the original Broadway cast) recall how, after several 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 documentary short.

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.  
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 died 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  2009 - 2011