All That Fosse

Bob FosseLast year, I wrote, Apologies to Alan Turing for the birthday post. It’s interesting that his birthday comes just a day after another computer pioneer, Konrad Zuse. But when talking about Turing, I can never seem to get into the work that he did. He was so badly abused by our culture. It is sad. I never forget him. But today, let’s think happier thoughts.

On this day in 1927, the great choreographer and director Bob Fosse was born. In terms of his theater work, it was so great that to this day, people produce musicals the way he did. The only other theater director I’ve seen that done for is Samuel Beckett, and that is most certainly not because he was a great director. Fosse’s approach to choreography was highly stylized. You absolutely can’t miss it. At the same time, from talking to dancers, it was a form of dance that was very hard on the body and often led to injuries and otherwise shortened dancing careers.

I’m mostly interested in him as a film director, because that’s mostly where I know him from. I can’t think of a more consistent filmmaker. And this is despite the fact that his films are shockingly different from one another. He started with Sweet Charity, a musical with fairly standard direction. But the dance numbers were fantastic—both for the dance and for the way they are directed. Here is “Big Spender”:

Then he did Cabaret, which is astounding in the advancement on Sweet Charity. Most notable about it is that he changed the play from a standard musical into a film that had musical numbers only in the scenes in the cabaret. This makes it far more real. He also made the sexual aspects of the film far more explicit—quite a change from when film versions usually toned down or completely changed the sexual content as in The Children’s Hour. Here is one of the great numbers, “Mein Herr.” The song works especially well in the film given that Sally Bowles is actually the opposite of how she is presented in the song. She is fundamentally a romantic:

Next, Fosse made his first non-musical film, Lenny about the rise and fall of Lenny Bruce. I remember the first time I saw the film. I had never seen anything like it. It is presented almost as a documentary. It has since become absolutely standard cinematic technique in films like, Leaving Las Vegas. It is a technique he would refine to a much greater extent in his last film, Star 80. That film is generally thought to be his weakest. I long thought that myself. But now I think the film is perhaps his more profound as he demonstrates that the exploitation and murder of Dorothy Stratten was not the result only of her estranged husband but of pretty much everyone in her life.

Between those two films, Fosse made his masterpiece: All That Jazz. It is a film like no other and I still watch it every couple of years. It pulls together everything in his life. As I talk about a lot around here, I like idiosyncratic art. Well, this film is idiosyncratic art by a master artist. It tells the story of a miserable artist who hates himself and pretty much everything else. Yet the filmmaker isn’t wearing a mask. He assaults every part of the entertainment business and himself with great relish. The best moment in the film is where Joe Gideon is hanging out with a janitor at the hospital. The janitor sings, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” at Gideon’s request a few times. It is a rare unpretentious moment in Gideon’s life where he reconnects with what he originally liked about show business: the pleasure of music for its own sake and not as a commodity fine tuned to the point where, at least for the artist, it loses all its charm. Sadly, that scene is not online. (Typical: the scenes I find most important are usually not interesting to other people.) So I’ll show this scene that ought to be shown to all aspiring actors:

Happy birthday Bob Fosse!

3 thoughts on “All That Fosse

  1. Thank-you for remembering the great Fosse. I agree with your assessment of him as a director.

    One thing I should point out, though, regarding the songs in the movie "Cabaret" – not all of them were sung in the cabaret. Here’s the movie version of Tomorrow Belongs to Me" – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29Mg6Gfh9Co

  2. @tucsonbarbara – Ha! I knew about that, but I thought, "No one will notice!" But I felt justified in that slight inaccuracy because that is not a musical song. That is an actual young man bursting out in song. And yes, it gets kind of classical musical when all the other Nazis join in. But there is no pretense. It is actually happening: people in the cafe are actually singing. And that’s made especially clear when Michael York gets in the car and says, "You still think you have control?"

    But nice catch! I thought I’d get away with that one. ;-)

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