‘All That Jazz’ starring…Richard Dreyfuss? It nearly happened
It’s showtime, folks.
Joke all you want about Bob Fosse’s jazz hands, deployed throughout “All That Jazz” by Roy Scheider in the very, very Fosse role of Broadway and Hollywood phenom-in-flames Joe Gideon. But the brazen 1979 film, returning Monday at 7 p.m. for one showing only (on 35 mm) at the Music Box Theatre, courtesy of the Chicago Film Society, is entirely about showtime. The physical demands and psychological compulsions of Fosse’s life left little time for any other time. And that’s why this extravagantly self-absorbed musical holds up, even as its subject falls apart.
“All That Jazz” expresses Fosse’s death wish, along with his self-pity, torturous guilt and perpetual drug regimen, the drugs being success, seduction, women, seduction and turning carnality into cold, hard, witty, often sinister choreography. As Fosse biographer Sam Wasson wrote in his fabulous 2013 book “Fosse,” the boy from North Side Chicago — graduate of Ravenswood Elementary and Amundsen High School — led a double life: model student and respectable citizen by day, strip club hoofer by night and early morning.
He was, in Wasson’s words, “the best thing ever to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it forever.”
Fosse’s parents never knew what was really going on with their son’s nascent life in the spotlight. Strippers molested him backstage. With misleading discretion, “All That Jazz” revisits some of that childhood trauma. Cowritten with Robert Alan Aurthur, Fosse’s screenplay slides back and forth in time and memories, as Gideon taunts Death (Jessica Lange as the devilish angel, or angelic devil) while editing his movie “The Stand-Up” (aka “Lenny”), while choreographing his latest Broadway show “NY to LA” (the one with the “Airotica” number, “Take Off With Us”), while the cigarettes and pills and stress land him on the operating table for heart surgery.
This leads to a musical finale, “Bye, Bye Life,” with Scheider paired with Ben Vereen, ending when the zipper goes up on a body bag. In the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey,” which Fosse performed on stage years before “All That Jazz,” there’s a striptease routine called “Zip.” “All That Jazz” is “Zip” squared, by way of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2″ and Fosse’s fertile, paradoxical ego — a cry of need, a plea for forgiveness and a sentimental rebuke of sentimentality.
Imagine Richard Dreyfuss in the Fosse role! He wasn’t merely considered for “All That Jazz,” he was signed to do it, and in fact was many days into the project when his insecurities (also, according to the Wasson book, his habit of directing the other actors behind Fosse’s back) got the best of him. Dreyfuss’s fellow “Jaws” alum, Scheider, took over.
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Seeing the film again, after a few years, it is hard, truly, to imagine anyone else. Scheider was no dancer, and Fosse’s somewhat compromised and makeshift “All That Jazz” finale would’ve benefited from a stronger musical theater performer. But Scheider’s terrific en route to that finale. The talent around him? For starters, the movie captures Ann Reinking’s finest screen work, and seeing a top-tier Fosse dancer (and longtime romantic partner, in and among others) in stunningly precise action remains a singular performance thrill.
Fosse spent a panic-strewn year editing the picture. It’s not entirely the film he envisioned; money and time ran out before he could deliver the finale he wanted. (The fate of Gideon’s Broadway-bound, relationships-are-hollow musical remains unaddressed.) Then again, Fosse suffered, always, through the creation of everything he did in his 60 years. The evergreen joy of his finest work, in various keys of harshness and exuberance, remains ours to rediscover.
“All That Jazz” is 7 p.m. July 18, presented by the Chicago Film Society at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; tickets $10-$12 at musicboxtheatre.com or at the door.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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