“Bye bye life….
Bye bye happiness….
I think I’m going to die….”
So sings Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) at the end of the 1979 film, All That Jazz. And he’s right! It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that All That Jazz ends with Joe Gideon in a body bag. It’s not just that Gideon spends a good deal of the film flirting with the Angel of the Death (Jessica Lange). It’s also that, by the time the film ends, we’ve spent a little over two hours watching Joe engage in non-stop self-destruction. Joe is a director and a choreographer who is so in love with both death and show business that his greatest triumph comes from choreographing his own death.
Joe wakes up every morning, pops a handful of pills, stares at himself in the mirror and says, “It’s showtime!” He spends his day choreographing a Broadway play. He spends his nights editing his latest film, a biopic about Lenny Bruce called The Stand-Up. He’s particularly obsessed with a long monologue that Lenny (played by Cliff Gorman) delivers about the inevitability of death. When he’s not choreographing or editing, he’s smoking, drinking, and cheating on his girlfriend (Ann Reinking). It’s obvious that he’s still in love with his ex-wife (Leland Palmer) and that she loves him too but she’s also too smart to allow herself to get fully sucked back into his self-destructive orbit. He loves his daughter (Erzsébet Földi) and yet still ignores her when she begs him not to die.
When Joe has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital, he doesn’t change his behavior. Instead, he and the Angel of Death take a look back at his youth, which was spent hanging out in strip clubs and desperately trying to become a star. Joe Gideon, we see, has always know that he’s going to die early so he’s pushed himself to accomplish everything that he can in what little time he has.
As a result of his drive and his refusal to love anyone but himself, Gideon is widely recognized as being an artistic genius. However, as O’Connor Flood (Ben Vereen, essentially playing Sammy Davis, Jr.) puts it, “This cat allowed himself to be adored, but not loved. And his success in show business was matched by failure in his personal relationship bag, now – that’s where he really bombed. And he came to believe that show business, work, love, his whole life, even himself and all that jazz, was bullshit. He became numero uno game player – uh, to the point where he didn’t know where the games ended, and the reality began. Like, for this cat, the only reality – is death, man. Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody’s friend. In his final appearance on the great stage of life – uh, you can applaud if you want to – Mr. Joe Gideon!”
Now, of course, Connor doesn’t really say all that. Gideon just imagines Connor saying that before the two of them launch into the film’s final musical number, Bye Bye Life. It should be a totally depressing moment but actually, it’s exhilarating to watch. It’s totally over-the-top, self-indulgent, and equally parts sincere and cynical. It’s a Bob Fosse production all the way and, as a result, All that Jazz is probably about as fun as a movie about the death of a pathological narcissist can be. This is a film that will not only leave you thinking about mortality but it will also make you dance.
All That Jazz was Bob Fosse’s next-to-last film (he followed it up with the even darker Star 80) and it’s also his most openly autobiography. Roy Scheider may be playing Joe Gideon but he’s made-up to look exactly like Bob Fosse. Like Joe Gideon, Bob Fosse had a heart attack while trying to direct a Broadway show and a film at the same time. Gideon’s girlfriend is played by Fosse’s real-life girlfriend. The character of Gideon’s ex-wife is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s real-life ex-wife. When the film’s venal Broadway producers make plans to replace the incapacitated Gideon, Fosse is obviously getting back at some of the producers that he had to deal with while putting together Chicago. It’s a confessional film, one in which Fosse admits to his faults while also reminding you of his talent. Thank God for that talent, too. All that Jazz is self-indulgent but you simply can’t look away.
It helps that Gideon is played by Roy Scheider. Originally, Scheider’s Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss was cast in the role but he left during rehearsals. Dreyfuss, talented actor that he was, would have been all-wrong for the role of Gideon. One can imagine a hyperactive Dreyfuss playing Gideon but one can’t imagine actually feeling much sympathy for him. Scheider, on the other hand, brings a world-weary self-awareness to the role. He plays Gideon as a man who loves his talent but who hates himself. Scheider’s Joe Gideon is under no illusions about who he is or how people feel about him. When Fosse’s own instincts threatens to make the film unbearably pretentious, Scheider’s down-to-Earth screen presence keeps things grounded.
I love All That Jazz. (Admittedly, a good deal of that love is probably connected to my own dance background. I’ve known my share of aspiring Joe Gideons, even if none of them had his — or Bob Fosse’s — talent or drive.) It’s not for everyone, of course. Any musical that features actual footage of open heart surgery is going to have its detractors. For the record, Stanley Kubrick called All That Jazz “the best film I think I’ve ever seen.” It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it was nominated for Best Picture, though it ultimately lost to the far more conventional Kramer vs. Kramer.
All that Jazz would be the last of Fosse’s film to receive a best picture nomination. (Fosse directed five features. 3 of them were nominated for Best Picture, with the other two being Cabaret and Lenny.) 8 years after filming his cinematic doppelganger dying during heart surgery, Fosse would die of a heart attack. Gwen Verdon was at his side.