Hello all my theatre buffs and Broadway musical appreciators this article is unfortunately not for you. Everyone has gone over and back again about the theatre and dance legacy of Mr. Bob Fosse, which is why I’m going to focus only on the films that he directed for the silver screen, and I’ll leave the great white-way for some other time. From 1969 to 1983 Fosse only directed 6 films, technically Liza was for TV, but to me it was a film. The quality and caliber of movies he was able to produce was although limited in number, they were vast in their power and complexity and have left an enormous mark on American cinema and breathed new creative breath into the medium.
I’d like to begin with 1969’s Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin, the film was the adaptation of Fosse’s Broadway musical of the same name but stared Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon. The interesting thing is the show was based on the screenplay for Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini, which really makes Charity an adaptation of a remake of an adaptation (wait I think that’s it). The end result is an outstanding movie musical that was a wonderful introduction to Fosse as a filmmaker. It’s hard to believe that without having ever gone to film school or really ever studying the craft that Fosse would end up being so unbelievably talented.
The next film up is the uncompromising Cabaret from 1972. This is where things really start to heat up for Fosse because he was the first person to win a Tony Award an Emmy and The Academy Award all in the same year, which was 1973 and it had a great deal to do with Cabaret. The film is set in Weimar Berlin in between WWI and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. We’re transported to the Kit Kat Club where newcomer American singer Sally Bowles performs and falls in love and lust with several men.
The film was shot in a noir style but in color, the grainy low light mixed with the vibrant production design creates a haunting and captivating environment that you can’t get enough of. The cast is also unbelievable; Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli both won Oscars for their work in the film and Fosse won the Academy Award for best Director. That isn’t too bad for a Broadway dancer/choreographer turned Hollywood filmmaker, I’m not sure there are many directors out there that could have done a better job.
In 1972 Fosse also directed and choreographed Liza with a Z for television, and okay I know it was a concert/one woman show, but when you watch it on DVD for the first time since I was born in 1980 and missed its original airdate, it plays much more like a film for me. Liza is what they call on Broadway a triple threat, much like Shirley MacLaine, it means you can sing, dance, and act which is I don’t know IMPOSSIBLE. Liza with a Z is a timeless piece of history that just kicked my ass the first time around. I had really no idea just how brilliant Liza was.
The collection of songs performed are a truly wonderful cross-section of material from funky dance numbers like Son of a Preacher Man to a medley of songs from Cabaret. If you have never had the privilege of watching Liza in her prime then I might suggest checking this one out, I promise you won’t regret it. Netflix the sucker like I did because you’ll have no luck getting it at your local video store.
Lenny Bruce was one of the greatest comedians and social satirists of any age in American comedy and long before George Carlin’s 7 dirty words, Lenny was cursing up a storm and throwing the social meaning of words and language right in our faces. The 1974 film Lenny staring Dustin Hoffman is probably the best portrayal of a historical figure ever done by an actor next to maybe Ben Kingsley’s Mahatma Gandhi. The movie is also so brilliantly creative that it boggles the mind. To do the thing in a documentary style was genius, way before it was popular to do Mockumentary projects, especially a serious one, Fosse had his sights on Lenny and when it was all said and done he had achieved a stupendous piece of work.
The movie was shot in black & white which added to the sense that we were really watching Lenny, Dustin Hoffman being the hardcore method actor that he is completely takes over the spirit of Lenny Bruce and transforms himself into the late and troubled comic. The scenes where Lenny is trashed out of his mind on heroin are some of the most tragic and hard to watch moments ever captured on celluloid. If you’ve ever known someone who was wonderful and talented and seen them destroy themselves using drugs, the acting is spot on. The bottom line is that Lenny is one of the best movies ever made; it’s on every list AFI etc, and is top ten on my favorite movies of all-time, PLEASE RENT THIS FILM.
Three words are all that are needed to describe Fosse’s next film, All That Jazz. Roy Scheider is Joe Gideon and Joe Gideon is Bob Fosse, and if you keep that in mind when you watch the film, I think, you really learn to feel for the filmmaker as well as the character. The autobiographical fantasy trip through the drug and sex riddled life of Mr. Gideon is also a wonderful ride through song and dance. The story is based on what Fosse went through while cutting together his film Lenny and trying to put Chicago on its feet.
What a whirlwind time that must have been, flying from LA to New York and back again, living life through the end of a 20 dollar bill and drinking your meals. In All That Jazz Gideon dies, the lifestyle was in the end too much to take, but in real life Fosse was able to have his cake and drink it to. Yes, it did its damage but at least he was able to enjoy the public success of his efforts long before he kicked the bucket. The final number of the film Bye Bye Love with Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider is one of my favorite movie musical numbers ever, not only is it a great disco dance song, but a sad and wonderfully tragic telling of Gideon’s departure from earth. Like so many others that were too fast to live.
In 1983 Fosse directed his last film. Star 80 is the true story of murdered Playboy playmate of the year Dorothy Stratten played by Mariel Hemingway. Eric Roberts plays the role of Paul Snider, Dorothy’s estranged and murderous ex-husband. The title for the film was taken from Snider’s personalized license plate, which I’ve always thought, was creepy. The screenplay was also written by Fosse and based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning Village Voice article by Teresa Carpenter.
The movie is very dark and pretty darn bloody, but overall I feel an amazing film. Fosse isn’t trying to hold anything back and Eric Roberts gives the best performance of his life by far. Hemingway is pretty good but not great, if you keep your eyes fixed on Roberts you won’t be disappointed. A shit load of critics have paned this film over the years and I’ve never really understood why. It might be because Star 80 isn’t quite as good as Lenny or Cabaret, but it’s really just different, not better or worse. It’s a challenging piece of cinema that takes a dark and sinister look at the world of glitz and tits and for most people who feel that Playboy and Hollywood are fantasy lands where nothing bad ever happens, Star 80 is a crude wake-up from the dream.
In 1987 Fosse was in Washington D.C. to attend the opening of a revival of his musical Sweet Charity, he collapsed in his room at the Willard Hotel and died later that evening of a heart attack. Fosse was only 60 years old but he lived a hell of life, he lived the life of two or three people. Most men would not have lasted as long as Fosse did if they’d used and abused their bodies in the same manner. I think its his hard living and fast lifestyle that has drawn me near to him creatively. I love his body of work and I think he’s one of America greatest treasures and I wish more filmmakers and people in general would look to Fosse for creative inspiration. All Images Copyrighted and Courtesy of Wikipedia