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Razzle Dazzle revisited: A fresh look at the film work of Bob Fosse

Razzle Dazzle revisited: A fresh look at the film work of Bob Fosse
Roy Scheider and director Bob Fosse on the set of "All That Jazz" (1979). (20th Century Fox / Photofest)

The angular, stylized movements of his work as a choreographer and dancer have become familiar to the point of parody. But it is his work as a filmmaker, which often combined the fluid expressionism of the movie musical with a flair for bracing drama and lacerating self-examination, that makes Bob Fosse genuinely singular. That work continues to feel fresh and contemporary today, with much to say to modern audiences.

Beginning July 28 with a screening of “All That Jazz” and running through Aug. 26, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s curated series “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! A Retrospective” will include the five feature films directed by Fosse, the television concert special “Liza With a Z” and a handful of films Fosse choreographed or appeared in as a dancer.

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Taken together, the series presents a portrait of an artist who moved easily between stage and screen and bridged eras between classic Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the 1970s onward until his death in 1987 at age 60.

Fosse pulled off the unprecedented and still unmatched achievement of winning the Oscar for directing 1972’s “Cabaret,” an Emmy for directing the television special “Liza With a Z” and a Tony for directing “Pippin” all in a single year.

In "Cabaret," Liza Minnelli plays an expatriate American in Berlin in the 1972 movie by Bob Fosse, considered a milestone in the history of the film musical.
In "Cabaret," Liza Minnelli plays an expatriate American in Berlin in the 1972 movie by Bob Fosse, considered a milestone in the history of the film musical. (Allied Artists Pictures / Photofest)

“Bob had the ability to make you want to deliver the impossible,” said Alan Heim, who won an Academy Award for editing “All That Jazz” and also collaborated with the filmmaker on “Liza With a Z,” “Lenny” and Fosse’s final film, “Star 80.”

“He was tough, but that kind of generosity makes people loyal and you just want to deliver the best you can do,” said Heim. “I regard Bob as a genius, and we don’t have many of them. I consider myself incredibly lucky.”

Alongside “Cabaret,” Fosse’s most widely celebrated film as a director was 1979’s “All That Jazz” and it is the latter film that is arguably the key to understanding Fosse as an artist. Co-written by Fosse, the film stars Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, a choreographer and director of stage and movies. The film shows Gideon at a moment of personal and creative crisis, as he juggles post-production on a movie with directing a stage musical, pushing himself to his emotional and physical limits.

In October 1974, Fosse himself had been finishing “Lenny” and launching the stage musical “Chicago” when he suffered his first heart attack. Though Fosse often tried to downplay the extent to which the film was directly about himself, among other real-life parallels are Fosse’s girlfriend Ann Reinking playing the role of Gideon’s girlfriend and Heim as his editor.

If “All That Jazz” seemed unabashedly personal it was framed through the exaggeration of brutal self-examination. Answering questions via email, Minnelli, who won a lead actress Oscar for her role in “Cabaret,” noted Fosse’s intense curiosity and concentration.

“He wasn’t the person portrayed in ‘All That Jazz,’” agreed Minnelli. “He was serious, but he was a great communicator so that he could tell you what to do and not boss you around.

“Even when we were filming I could see him near the camera, with a very intent expression,” Minnelli said. “He was smoking and looking, and I could tell when he liked it. I could read him. And he was a great director, he told you exactly what he wanted, kindly.”

It is of special note that the UCLA series includes films Fosse worked on as a choreographer before he moved to directing, such as “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees” and “The Little Prince.” According to Sam Wasson, author of the 2013 biography “Fosse,” understanding the choreography is essential to understanding his evolution as an artist.

“If you go all the way back to the beginning,” said Wasson, “you can see the mature Bob Fosse was already present. He was already the man that he was going to become. There’s very little by way of artistic growing pains in Fosse’s dance style. The film style is a different story.”

Shirley MacLaine first encountered Bob Fosse when she was a teenage chorus dancer in “Me and Juliet,” in which Fosse’s second wife, Joan McCracken, was a star. Fosse would later pluck MacLaine from the chorus of the stage production of “The Pajama Game” to make her an understudy to the lead. It would be a huge break for her when she got to go onstage in the role early in the show’s run.

“Of course everybody now likes to put a hat and a cane in their number and say, ‘If it was good enough for Fosse we can do it too,’” MacLaine said in a recent phone interview regarding his signature dance moves. “But his style was unlike any other, because it wasn’t turned out, it was turned in. And of course it comes from some kind of internal, self-contained attitude.”

Shirley MacLaine (as Charity Hope Valentine), Dante DiPaolo (as Charlie) in "Sweet Charity" (1969) directed by Bob Fosse.
Shirley MacLaine (as Charity Hope Valentine), Dante DiPaolo (as Charlie) in "Sweet Charity" (1969) directed by Bob Fosse. (Universal Pictures / Photofest)

It was MacLaine, who by then had become a screen star, who demanded that Fosse be allowed to make his feature directing debut with 1969’s “Sweet Charity.” In playing the title role for the film, MacLaine was taking on a part played onstage by Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s third wife. In true the-show-must-go-on fashion, rather than sulk about not being able to play the part herself, Verdon assisted MacLaine in crafting her performance.

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“I was such an admirer of Gwen’s that I was so grateful that she would come and help me.” said MacLaine. “She saved me. She and Bob both, they were my supporters.”

Moving from “Lenny,” a portrait of comedian Lenny Bruce, to “All That Jazz” and on to “Star 80,” a harrowing depiction of the short life and violent murder of model and actress Dorothy Stratten, Fosse sketched a disturbing descent into an increasingly bleak vision of masculinity and show business.

“He put forth a dark vision because he was a dark man,” said Wasson. “And it got darker because he was in competition with himself. He wanted to one-up himself. And I think he did. Whether or not you like ‘Star 80,’ I don’t think you can deny that it’s one of the darkest movies ever to have a major studio’s logo on its opening credits. Which alone is an achievement.”

Mariel Hemingway (as Dorothy Stratten) in "Star 80" (1983), directed by Bob Fosse.
Mariel Hemingway (as Dorothy Stratten) in "Star 80" (1983), directed by Bob Fosse. (Warner Bros. / Photofest)

Even in “All That Jazz,” Fosse does not let himself off the hook. In fact, Fosse seemed well aware of what would now be deemed “problematic” in his depictions of male behavior — his own perhaps most of all.

“The three movies that I worked on, they have to do with manipulative men in show business, guys who manipulate women, show business is not pictured as a very attractive life,” said Heim. “The critics on ‘All That Jazz,’ the worst thing that people said was that it was an ego trip. I think it was a clubbing of his ego. He was not kind to himself. He was nicer than he pictured himself.”

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Minnelli compared Fosse to her father, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Vincente Minnelli, who himself worked on immersive musicals and expressive dramas alike.

“He changed the way movies were made,” Liza Minnelli said of Fosse. “You felt like you’re really there.”

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“Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! A Retrospective”

Where: UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater

When: July 28-Aug. 26

Price: $10 (discounts for seniors, students, UCLA alumni)

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