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Bright Wall/Dark Room June 2018: Bob Fosse's Dance with the Five Stages of Grief in "All That Jazz"

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest edition of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. The theme for their June issue is "That's Entertainment!", focused on movies about movies. In addition to this essay by Travis Woods about "All That Jazz" below, there are also pieces on "Boogie Nights," "8 1/2," "The Player," "The Red Shoes," "Bombshell," "Hearts of Darkness," "Scream 3," "Bowfinger," "The Celluloid Closet," "Shadow of the Vampire" and more. The above art is by Tony Stella.

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You can read previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or purchase a copy of their current issue, click here


A hedonistic, wildly talented showbiz multi-hyphenate (writer-director, choreographer-theatrical director, husband-philanderer) spends his days developing a Broadway musical and his evenings editing his biopic about a death-obsessed comedian. His exhausted midnights end in bed with women who are not his estranged wife or his girlfriend. His bloodshot mornings are spent cat’s-cradling his mind and body back together with a succession of Vivaldi, Visine, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and a daily mantra: “It’s showtime, folks.”

It’s a feverish run through life. Especially for a middle-aged man permanently squinting through curlicues of smoke from his ever-present cigarettes, screaming “Again! Do it again!” at his weary-boned dancers. All in service of The Work.

The man, whose dedication to The Work is equaled only by his fascination with death, has a heart attack. Open-heart surgery follows. Death ceases to be an abstract. It kisses him.

It’s a kiss that sends him reeling back into his life, an angry trajectory in which he surveys the wreckage wrought. The separated wife who remains his dedicated professional partner. The dancer girlfriend he keeps at arm’s length with a succession of other women. The daughter he sees too little and disappoints too often. The Work, to which he has given everything.

And it is through The Work that he chooses to redeem himself, fashioning a phantasmic work of art that interrogates and embraces (and slightly reorganizes) the Kübler-Ross model—the five emotional states experienced by those confronting death: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The nights and mornings go on, the cascade of drugs and drink and sex. “To be on the wire is life,” he says. “The rest is waiting.” It can only end within the sleek fog of a body bag. 

That’s how the character Joe Gideon lives and dies in All That Jazz. It’s how Jazz writer-director Bob Fosse lived. It’s how and why he made the film. And it’s how he died.

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But Joe Gideon lives after death. He’s reborn every time the film begins again. Bob Fosse lives after death, too. Ironically, in crafting a frenzied love letter to life and death, in fusing his own confrontation with mortality into a hallucinatory epic of showbiz razzle-dazzle, he denied death its finality by embracing it with a film so extraordinary that he achieved cinematic immortality.

~ ~ ~

September 23, 1987/ 6:00 PM

You finish your speech to the cast. It’s longer than your typical final rehearsal/pre-premiere rah-rah, but this has not been the typical rehearsal. Tempos are off. Cast isn’t ready. Material isn’t fresh…but this is The Work. And you know you’d have it no other way, would you, Bob? What’s the point of doing this if you don’t have the opportunity to pull off another miracle?

Gwen meets you outside. After everything—the lies, the women, the separation—here she is. Still believing in you. Still your best friend. Still seeing whatever it is they all recognize in you, but you’ve yet to see staring back from the mirror.

It’s a cool day in Washington, D.C. but Morse codes of sweat bead through your shirt. A ground-glass hacking cough ripcords your lungs. Turning 60 isn’t easy for anyone, let alone a man with a five-pack-a-day habit and that dimpled white brand running from sternum to clavicle.

Fucking hell. Can’t afford to be sick now. Curtains raise in 90 minutes. Why is this happening now? Goddamn it. Enough. Power through. Hot-step it to the hotel with Gwen and dress for your premiere. Got a miracle to perform, remember?

You light a smoke. You start walking. You’ll live.

4…

Bob Fosse was born on June 23, 1927, or as his biographer Sam Wasson more aptly put it, Bob Fosse was born “60 years before he died.” The man he would become, though, was born some 15 years later.

As a teen, he danced his way into a touring burlesque act in which he spent his nights in the company of the weird denizens in the outermost circle of showbiz hell. Jugglers, impressionists, “a guy with a bird act,” and bored, standstill strippers. It was the strippers he would never forget—women who were amused by this underage savant, teasing and groping and molesting him before sending him out onto the stage for his top-hat-and-tails routine.

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The grimy backstage collision of sex and trauma scarred Fosse, fusing fear and arousal in a way he spent his life struggling to understand:

“I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life. I was very lonely, very scared…I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early I shouldn’t have been exposed to…it left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out.”

It’s a scar that wrestled and enraptured him for the rest of his days, and hurled him towards the most complex and obsessive relationship of his life, his romance with that which terrified him the most: death.

His audaciously autobiographical masterpiece, 1979’s All That Jazz, highlights this abuse in an otherworldly scene wherein Fosse avatar Joe Gideon (a never-better Roy Scheider) and Angelique, the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange, one of Fosse’s many lovers) watch a teenage Gideon succumb to a pre-show assault from a trio of garish pros. This sequence (one of many in which Gideon vivisects his life for Angelique) immediately follows a scene in which Joe’s girlfriend Katie (Fosse girlfriend/dancer Ann Reinking, in one of the film’s near-infinite hall of mirrors) catches him in flagrante delicto with another woman.

It’s an editing choice that implies Gideon’s early trauma and subsequent attraction to annihilation is what drives him to such self-destructive choices in his personal life…the disastrous consequences of which then allow for creative epiphany and inspiration.  

Indeed, the morning after: Katie’s emotional breakdown (“Oh, you give all right…Presents, clothes…I just wish you weren’t so generous with your cock”) leaves Gideon wide-eyed, but not with shock or shame. “That’s good,” he mutters in reverie. “Maybe I can use that sometime…” This one-two punch sets up Jazz’s ironic tone for the remainder of the film, framing Gideon (and Fosse) in dual halos of self-pity and self-excoriation, acknowledging his selfishness while denying his responsibility for it, all as he continues dancing upon the wire.

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~ ~ ~

Earlier, in Joe’s imaginary, time-fractured love nest, he listened as his dead mother confessed to Angelique: “Ever since he was little, he’s had such a crush on you.”

The Angel of Death smiles. “I’ve always been fond of Joe, too.”

~ ~ ~

September 23, 1987/ 6:15 PM

Your tuxedo fits tighter than it should. You’re dizzy. Feels like there’s a blizzard of glass shards disintegrating the charred cavities of your lungs. Goddamn if you can’t even feel the cigarette yellowing the fingers of your left hand.

Just exhausted, that’s all.  60 years old, the musical, the long hours…Takes a toll. That’s all. This isn’t…Look, it’s just stress. D.C. humidity. Something. Anything. Anything but-

Push past it. You’ve got a show to put on.

You and Gwen step out of the hotel lobby. The sunset glints and sparks in her auburn hair. More and more sparks appear. Almost like stars. A whole constellation erupts before your eyes. You squeeze them shut. The growing star field of light tattoos the inside of your eyelids as well.

Unbearable pain, nauseous and burning, ignites within your chest.

Light everywhere.

3…

Fosse suffered three heart attacks in 1974 during rehearsals for his Broadway production of Chicago and the release of Lenny, his biopic about the similarly death-fixated Lenny Bruce. It was a trio of myocardial exclamation points to a career that had, by that point, already seen the direction/choreography of seven musicals and three films, and earned him several Tonys, an Emmy, and an Academy Award. An incredible body of work, worthy of showbiz legend. But for Fosse, a man haunted by “the dreadful notion that you’re ordinary, not special,” it was not nearly enough.

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“The only salvation for me is work,” he said in a 1986 interview. “Just to keep on rehearsing. Only then do I experience total happiness.” His mortality shaken after the heart attacks and body-breaking surgery that followed, Fosse returned to The Work determined to leave something behind, something special. Bigger than showbiz. Bigger than life. A kind of glittery, smirking, toe-tapping redemption.

A musical comedy about death.

~ ~ ~

“The heart attack he suffered took him from a bullshit engagement with death to a very real engagement with death,” Wasson told Vanity Fair in 2013, and All That Jazz undeniably feels born of an almost superhuman level of concentration from a workaholic auteur at the height of his artistic power and nadir of his physical health. An impressionistic weave of Gideon’s artistic successes and personal failings, it is at once a confession, a self-promotion/flagellation, a showbiz love letter, an apology, a middle finger, and a darkly-comic musical, all braided into an exploration of the five stages of grief that precede death.

The bulk of the film spotlights Gideon as he grapples with salvaging a mediocre Broadway musical featuring his ex-wife, Audrey (a stand-in for Fosse’s wife, dancer Gwen Verdon), while also finishing his new film, The Stand-Up. No personal life, only a series of work-adjacent moments in which he, we, and Angelique witness Gideon abdicating the roles of father, husband, and partner as he gives himself to The Work.

It’s only there, in The Work, that Gideon redeems himself. As producers, financiers, and family are routinely dismissed or forgotten, Joe reconstitutes the musical’s banal, family-friendly theme song about air travel (“Take Off with Us”) into a thrillingly orgiastic “air-rotica” dancefunk sequence that prisms his sexual obsessions into a sweaty, limb-thrashed fuckfest, transmuting the tepid original into a work of arch, gaudy art. Later, he transforms The Stand-Up into a well-received (by the studio, anyway) masterwork of gallows humor.

Then his heart literally breaks from the strain of it all.

It’s here that All That Jazz portrays a massive ontological bargain being attempted: by laying down all that he has upon the wire for The Work, by sacrificing any semblance of personal contentment, by being able to take the unremarkable and make it remarkable, make it entertainment, doesn’t Gideon deserve escape from Angelique? Is he not redeemed? Isn’t he, finally, special enough.  

Or, as Joe whispers to Angelique in a moment of quiet, shaken desperation following his massive coronary, when all the flirtation has left him and he looks into the twin voids of her eyes: “No, no. Come on, not now. Please leave. Please?

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~ ~ ~

September 23, 1987/ 6:17 PM

You fall back against Gwen. Just like you always did.

You open your eyes and there she is, looking down at you. She’s fallen with the weight of you. Just like she always did.

Your head is in her lap now. You can’t feel much. It’s hard to hear her words. All you know for sure is you can’t breathe. Your heart is stopping. Again. You are dying, Bob. If the muscles in your face could work, you’d have to smirk a little at the hammy mise-en-scène: dying at sunset, a growing audience of onlookers, your head cradled in this sweet woman’s lap, her final act of love and devotion that you never earned.

God always gets away with this corny first-draft bullshit. You’d never write something so on-the-nose. And doesn’t that count for something, the things you’ve done? Cabaret. Star 80. Chicago. All That Jazz. Everything you ever were, laid out in those songs, those stories. That matters, goddamn it. Let’s do one more. Just one more.

So much more to do. The show is tonight. Please. Please.

2…

The final 30 minutes of All That Jazz feature an extended, otherworldly outro in which Gideon succumbs in a hospital bed to the damage done, lost in a delirium of memories and showtunes and regret. The film becomes his (and Fosse’s) personal 8 ½, as he watches from his deathbed while an idealized version of himself directs the musical of his life.

What does that musical look like? A series of phantasmal downers, as the women that make up his world—Audrey, Katie, his child Michelle, and an entire chorus line of lovers—sing and dance his mistakes and misdeeds back to him through old-fashioned Broadway standards. It’s Gideon’s moment of true reckoning: with no chemical, sexual, or professional distractions left, he sees himself reflected in the pain of the women he loves, and understands that he has not only sacrificed his life to The Work, but their lives with him. A cataract of depression drapes upon him. He has made innumerable mistakes and is now too old, and it is too late, to change his life. Or to save it.

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The director in him laments, “I’d like to run it again. I’d like to run the whole thing again. 

His heart breaks for the last time.  

~ ~ ~

September 23, 1987/ 6:18 PM

You don’t want to go like this. Lying in the street. You belong in the show. Under the lights. The roar of blood so loud in your ears you can’t even hear the applause.

This goddamn life. So easy to get it wrong. Here you are dying, and you’re thinking about the show. You look up. What you’d give to mouth the words “I’m sorry” to Gwen. What were you ever thinking?

A wetness on your face. Maybe she’s crying. Maybe you are.

1…

All That Jazz climaxes in every sense of the word with Joe Gideon’s acceptance. He will not be the one. The one person who outsmarts the Angel of Death, as he always thought he might. To be mortal, and defined by that mortality and the mistakes made within it, is as much Joe’s ineluctable fate as it is yours, mine, or Bob Fosse’s.

Yet it’s an acceptance of mortality that happens on Gideon’s terms—a fever-dreamed variety show sendoff featuring a funked-up version of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Love” sung by host Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider, because how else could a film like this end? Just as Joe reassembled “Take Off with Us,” so too does Fosse transform the teenage rockabilly ballad into a Fellini-esque atom-split of disco-vaudeville burlesque, with Joe throwing himself into the audience of his life, peopled with everyone he knows.

It’s in that variety show audience that Gideon and Fosse find their catharsis. There Gideon sees a teenage version of himself, smiling in his old dancing suit. There he wishes Katie well with her new lover. There he tells Audrey that at least he’ll never lie to her again, and she mugs and smiles through red eyes and tears. And there he embraces Michelle, his daughter, who grips him with an intensity that’s painful to watch.

Except for Angelique, the Angel of Death, who watches it all.

~ ~ ~

After the finale, Joe is pulled into a backstage hallway that doubles as the tunnel that leads to the light and, of course, the smiling face of Angelique. As Gideon drifts forward, he crosses an extraordinary emotional spectrum: wonderment, pride, amusement, fascination, regret, horror, acceptance, and peace, all conveyed with dancing twin corners of his bon vivant smile.

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Then we see the zipping of a body bag. Joe is gone.

~ ~ ~

Bob Fosse died, too, succumbing to one final heart attack at the age of 60. But by collapsing his own unique exploration of the five stages of grief into a cinematic meditation in which he finally accepted his own mortality, he ironically created a work of art that was, and is, furiously alive, and has lived long after his own abused body failed him.

All That Jazz is a miracle. It is Bob Fosse. And in that way, Fosse managed to cheat the Angel of Death after all, and found his redemption. It is as if he transferred his very essence—all that work, all that glitter, all that pain, all that love, all that crazy rhythm, all that jazz—into a two-hour vessel that embraces and accepts death as a certainty…and then, in true Fosse fashion, flashes a mischievous wink and pirouettes into immortality.

~ ~ ~

The cast of Fosse’s last musical, Sweet Charity, didn’t learn of his death on September 23, 1987 until after their premiere performance that evening. One of his dancers, a stunned Lisa Embs, told a reporter that night that Fosse “taught me, more than how to dance or how to do a show, he’s taught me how to live.”

~ ~ ~

September 23, 1987/ 6:19 PM

Things are getting black around the edges. Can’t tell if you’re dissolving out of the world or simply closing your eyes to it. But it’s a fade to black either way.

Heart attack. Your life imitating the art that imitated your life. At least you’re dying in character. Right before the curtains raise. Leave them wanting more.

That’s a cliché, but you’ve earned a few at this point. Besides, clichés are clichés because they work, and you can appreciate that. Like how the show must go on. Only as good as your last. No business like show business. That’s entertainment.

And that’s what you loved most of all.

It’s showtime.

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