Friday, December 21, 2018

Fosse with an F

Bob Fosse was, first and foremost, a hoofer, a dancer who combined the razzle-dazzle of Broadway with the slap-and-tickle of old Vaudeville routines. To his own surprise, he rose through the ranks to become a top-flight choreographer and stage director (Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago). Along the way, he segued into film projects, winning the 1973 Best Director Oscar for bringing Cabaret to the screen. Cabaret, his second film after the movie adaptation of Sweet Charity, won eight Oscars in all, out of the ten -- including Best Picture -- for which it was nominated. Not bad for a relative newcomer to Hollywood. 

Though Fosse was also an award-winner on stage and television (the Liza with a Z concert special), he continued to return to movies. After Cabaret, he turned heads with a non-musical Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine. His last film, and surely his most controversial, was Star 80, which chronicled the ripped-from-the-headlines death of young Playmate Dorothy Stratten at the hands of her unhinged manager-turned-husband. This 1985 release was notable for Fosse’s insistence on equating himself with Stratten’s killer. Critics, audiences, and members of Stratten’s family reacted with disgust. 

My sudden obsession with Bob Fosse comes from my reading of Sam Wasson’s electrifying 2013 biography, simply titled Fosse. Wasson’s hefty but never ponderous tome benefits from the fact that he seems to have interviewed everyone in Fosse’s orbit. He probes Fosse’s backstory – like that period when he was a tapdancing school kid fending off the comic advances of nightclub strippers – to try to understand the complexities of the man’s behavior. There was a nice-boy aspect to Fosse, but it existed side by side with a quality that was outrageously demonic. He sincerely loved his third wife, musical-theatre star Gwen Verdon, and he was a devoted father to their daughter, Nicole. At the same time, he was sleeping with every pretty young female dancer who crossed his path. To meet the challenge of being Bob Fosse on a day-to-day basis, he was also hooked on amphetamines, and was such a constant smoker that sidekicks had to remove smoldering cigarettes from his lips so he wouldn’t get burned. 

Throughout his time on earth Bob Fosse was obsessed with death and dying. Despite all the gifts that life had given him, he seemed to feel a need to dance on the edge. This death-obsession was brought forward in spectacular fashion in an autobiographical 1979 film called All That Jazz. It’s remarkable in its willingness to frankly confront Fosse’s own character defects. What we see on screen is the obsessive director/choreographer Joe Gideon (vividly portrayed by Roy Scheider) who slaps himself into action each morning with pills, smokes, and an imperative directed at his mirror-image: “It’s showtime!” There’s the talented, loving wife; there’s the adoring teenaged daughter; there’s the loyal, worried girlfriend played by Ann Reinking in a part reflecting her actual role in Bob Fosse’s life. And there are dancers, scores of them, only too happy to bed the big man if this guarantees them a part in the chorus. There’s the heart attack that Fosse actually suffered, and there’s a mysterious angel-of-death figure (Jessica Lange) who may ultimately be Joe Gideon’s truest love. 

Bob Fosse as a dancer can be seen in such 1950s movie musicals as Kiss Me Kate and My Sister Eileen. In 1974 he was coaxed into the Snake’s ominous solo in Stanley Donen’s The Little Prince. It was a role he seemed born to play, and its influence on the later dancing style of Michael Jackson is impossible to overlook.


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