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The Forgotten Auteur: Bob Fosse

 

Most people today would likely be shocked to think that in 1972, The Godfather went into the Oscars anything but a sure bet for Best Picture. Aside from Casablanca and Citizen Kane it is recognized as the greatest American film of all time and in hind sight most people forget that not only was it tied for nominations in 1972, but Coppola lost Best Director.

Because hindsight is anything but 20/20 when popular consensus takes over, the narrative of the Hollywood Renaissance is one of Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas getting snubbed for Taxi Driver, Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars. But looking at the 1970s and the race for Best Director, what you see instead is two directors fighting it out for director of the decade, each earning three nominations.

Obviously one of them is Francis Ford Coppola. With both Godfathers, The Conversation, and, Apocalypse Now most people would say that he won that fight. The other is Bob Fosse, the man that Coppola lost to in 1972. His three films were Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz, and in the court of public opinion he would definitely place below the other renaissance directors. But it’s not fair to Fosse, film history or films future to ignore him like this.

Recently, the latest in a stream of lackluster musicals was released with Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. There have been two great pieces written about this and how Hollywood needs to put true masters of the craft in front of and behind the camera to get musicals to a new heyday. Bob Fosse was the kind of director they were talking about. Fosse directed three musicals in the renaissance but none of them were conventional. He also directed a biography of Lenny Bruce and with his final film a biography of a Playboy playmate. He made controversial films expertly. He was a master of pacing, bringing films from entertaining to dramatic with you not realizing it until it’s too late. Fosse is a spectacular director, a forgotten auteur, a director that has not gotten his due in the court of public opinion. So here are the five films of Bob Fosse and why you should find them, watch them, and tell your friends. If you are a cinephile, a lover of Broadway, a lover of musicals, or a lover of controversy, you owe yourself that much.

Sweet Charity – 1969

The film opens and Shirley MacLaine is dancing around central park celebrating about the money she’s got in her purse and her new fiancé. She’s singing the song “My Personal Property” which while good feels like the kind of musicals of the 50s and 60s. It’s too happy; it’s not a renaissance song. The film almost loses your attention but then MacLaine gets back to her job and shocks you into attention with the first example of how Bob Fosse is a spectacular director.

What’s amazing about this, and eventually every one of Fosse’s musicals is how like no director since, he is able to put Broadway on screen. This number is perfectly edited, perfectly shot, and it feels like you’re watching a stage show. The music takes you half way but the filmmaking gets you to the point where you can’t look away.

 

There’s some great acting from MacLaine, John McMartin and a particularly great supporting performance from Ricardo Montalban. The music is good all-around, if not great, and the film takes you to the typical happy ending point. But then it goes down an unexpected path: it doesn’t let the happy ending stand. The third act of the film is weaker than the two before it, but the decision to show a story that wasn’t happily ever after, but only hopefully ever after is courageous and a sign of things to come from Fosse.

Cabaret – 1972

This is the film that won Fosse Best Director over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather. This is also the film that had the Joel Grey performance that beat Al Pacino in The Godfather. This is also the film that made Liza Minelli, the butt of too many jokes at this year’s Oscars, an Oscar winner. This is still recognized as one of the best musicals ever put on screen and Fosse’s direction is the most important part of this winning equation.

Cabaret is not a joyous musical. While the songs are fun and the tone is very Broadway this film is set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. What Fosse does that the show does differently is playing the film as a slow burning tragedy. Minelli’s first song is pure cabaret and it pulls you into the film really effectively. It’s good times in Germany (relatively) and the cabaret is strong.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX-24Zm0bjk

The story is interesting but it’s really playing second fiddle to the musical numbers. Each number becomes more topical then the last and Fosse uses that style first on display in “Big Spender” to keep us entertained as he shows the artificiality of that entertainment. Grey introduces Minelli the same way both times, but the first one is full of hope and the second is just intoxicating.

So, were those Oscars deserved? Yes and no. Joel Grey’s was not a better performance than Pacino’s, but considering the category fraud for Pacino

(he is the lead of The Godfather) he would have deserved it had the nominees been different. Minelli absolutely deserved Best Actress for her role because of how she fused theatrical and musical acting with incredibly subdued and nuanced film acting. And while Fosse wasn’t better than Coppola, he certainly wasn’t a bad choice.

Lenny (1974)

Speaking from a purely auteurist sense, Lenny was the film that proved that Fosse was an auteur. In spite of being a completely different type and style of film, Lenny is still a film that is identifiably Fosse’s. The film is put together in a part documentary format; mixing interviews with his wife and friends with recordings of his performances and milestones in his life.

Lenny starts out funny, getting the best of Bruce’s humour in an incredible performance from Dustin Hoffman. It’s funny and powerful and Hoffman has the presence that infers the importance of Bruce’s comedy on the counter-culture. But then his story starts getting darker and the performances looser, to the eventual conclusion of his rambling rants about his personal problems. Hoffman’s comedy bits are like the beautifully staged musical numbers in the other Fosse films: completely enticing until the entertainment becomes dreadful with thematic complexity.

The best editing the film has to offer is the intercutting between Lenny’s wife talking about the effect of finding out he had cheated on her and him doing a skit about the same topic. You’re laughing and kinetically the film cuts back to his wife, forcing us to understand Lenny’s own hypocrisy.

Lenny Bruce was important, but he was flawed. And that is what the film points out so clearly, that while he may have been a great comic and had great insights into the social hypocrisy of his time, his own hypocrisy kept him from seeing the change he had sparked. He was pointing out the hypocrisy in society, but his pride kept him from seeing his own faults.

 

All That Jazz (1979)

This is Fosse’s best film. This is the film that he should have won Best Director (and Best Screenplay) for. While I would still put Apocalypse Now above this as a full film, the direction in All That Jazz is immaculate. Fosse starts the film off with a typical movie musical opening, except it does more than just entertain us, it introduces us to Roy Scheider’s incredible character – inspired by Fosse himself.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz-tWu9VpWg

He is a control freak but he really loves what he does. His co-producers are annoyed with his perfectionism but see the beauty in what he does. Even his ex-wife appreciates his genius. He opens by giving us a deeply flawed genius in a hugely entertaining scene, like Fosse always does and always does well.

But it wouldn’t be a Bob Fosse film if the film didn’t get darker. In another example of Fosse’s style we have the best choreography he put on screen in the song “Take Off With Us.”

This is the most blatant example of his bait and switch style of entertainment with darkness. Considering that All That Jazz is fundamentally autobiographical it’s particularly fitting that this scene is here. Its eight minutes of theatrical dance and song rendered beautifully by the cinematography and editing.

What makes this his masterpiece is that while it is autobiographical, the story still works. It’s not self-indulgent; it just plays to the strengths Fosse knows he has. Beautiful cinematography, great acting, perfectly paced editing and all that jazz. It’s funny, sexual, exciting, dramatic, and has characters that you can’t help but love even if they do repulsive things. It is the perfect expression of Fosse’s directorial talent. And it deserves more respect then it gets.

Star 80 (1983)

If you are going to watch the films of Bob Fosse you should do it in one of two ways. Either do it in order and feel a little disappointed with Star 80 or watch Star 80 second, just after Sweet Charity to get the imperfect bookends out of the way and finish with All That Jazz. This isn’t to say that Star 80 is bad, it’s just filled with the dread his other films touch on more lightly, and that makes it a hard film to end with.

Just as Lenny was about a controversial figure, Star 80 documents the fame of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten and her obsessive and deranged husband Paul Snider. This film also shares the semi-documentary style of Lenny but is far keener on balancing the dread through the entire film instead of slowly moving into it.

Whereas the rest of Fosse’s oeuvre balances the darkness of humanity through narrative, Star 80 does it through juxtaposition of character and style. Mariel Hemingway’s Dorothy Stratten is everything good about the world. She is naïve and believes that there is good in everyone. The performance is a strong and natural one, Hemingway allowing Eric Roberts to sink his character into the ground as she looks on in pity and sympathy. She is an incredibly strong character in the vein of the rest of Fosse’s leading women. Her husband is self-obsessed and while he convinces himself that he loves her, he simply sees her as his key to the good life. Her murder at his hands is even focused on his self-obsession; taking his life saying, “they’ll remember Paul Snider.”

The juxtaposition of style is important because it specifically highlights how the people around Paul did not see his violence either. All of the interviews (taken after the killing) are people shocked that he would do such a thing. And the ultimate irony is that the only people who did see through his façade are the people he was desperate to become, Hollywood successes.

Star 80 is a film that is incredibly hard to watch, but it is a great film. And more importantly it is a fitting conclusion to Fosse’s career – controversial, artistic, unconventional.

The Forgotten Film Brat

Bob Fosse may not be as great a filmmaker as Scorsese, Spielberg, or Coppola, but in different ways he offers things those directors didn’t in the 70s. His female characters were far better than Scorsese’s and his male protagonists were never all encompassing powers on screen allowing for multi-faceted characterizations to occur. He presented a cynicism that was balanced with hope as opposed to the uncomplicated worldview of Spielberg’s 70s films. But most of all, his production values truly put him on par with Coppola. Fosse made entertaining films with incredible depth and a steady hand on the cinematography and the editing. His films are tightly constructed to provide enjoyment and meaning. Fosse is an unfortunately forgotten auteur so go out and find All That Jazz and sink into the brilliance of his work. This is cinema at its richest.

Bob Fosse


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