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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Fosse at the Movies (originally published 8/98)

More than a decade after his premature death, I see by the papers that choreographer Bob Fosse is staging a comeback. Not in the flesh, of course, but in the ephemeral medium of live theater any sort of longevity beyond one's own lifetime is a remarkable accomplishment. Fresh from a six week engagement in Toronto and on its way to a Broadway opening next year, "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance" recreates some of Fosse's most memorable dance numbers under the direction of Fosse protégé Ann Reinking.

This welcome resurgence of interest in Fosse's brilliant stage work prompted me to reflect on his brief but impressive career as a film director. Although very few dancers have branched out into movie directing - only Gene Kelly comes to mind immediately - it has always seemed to me that dancers on the whole should have a real insight into the creation of cinema. Film editing, after all, depends largely on a rhythmic sense, and the interaction of moving actors with the moving camera informs many if not most of the creative decisions a movie director must make. Fosse certainly seemed to bear out my intuition. He directed only five films, but over the course of that brief span, he developed into a stunningly original cinematic stylist. But don't take my word for it. Look for these Fosse film titles on home video.

"Sweet Charity" (1969). Fosse was inspired by Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria" to create a musical play about a naïve young dance hall girl who is relentlessly dumped on by a cruel world. Fosse's wife and collaborator, Gwen Verdon, created the role of Charity Hope Valentine on stage, but was replaced in the movie version by Shirley MacLaine. Fosse, however, was allowed to direct the film, his first experience behind the camera. The result, although not as impressive as Fosse's later film work, was nonetheless a solid journeyman effort, a promise of better things to come.

"Cabaret" (1972). Christopher Isherwood's reminiscences of Weimar Berlin as published in his book "Goodbye to Berlin" had already undergone a couple of layers of adaptation before finding its way into Fosse's hands. Initially the book became the basis for John Van Druten's play "I Am a Camera" before being recreated as the stage musical "Cabaret," which in turn was reimagined as a film musical by Fosse. Liza Minelli's Oscar winning star turn as Sally Bowles is complemented by Fosse's skillful juxtaposition of the "divine decadence" of the Kit-Kat Club with the ugly realities of the rise of Nazism. Minelli's award, by the way, was not the only Oscar awarded to "Cabaret." The film received a total of eight Academy Awards, including one for Fosse as Best Director.

"Lenny" (1974). Fosse's first nonmusical film was this biography of groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role. In an apparent tip of the hat to "Citizen Kane," Fosse and screenwriter Julian Barry structured the film around a series of interviews with the people who knew Bruce, leading from the interview footage into the scenes that make up the movie's narrative. Fosse handles this jigsaw structure with a sure hand, weaving a compassionate portrait of a fascinating and influential entertainer.

"All That Jazz" (1979). Fosse's cinematic masterpiece is this autobiographical meditation on his own imminent death. Having suffered a heart attack and finding himself unable or unwilling to alter the destructive behaviors that had eroded his health, Fosse seemed almost resigned to an early demise. But he wasn't going to go out without having his say on the matter. The sheer creativity of this bravura piece of filmmaking is hard to convey in words. I can only recommend that you see it for yourself.

Fosse made one more film before his untimely death. "Star 80" (1983), a retelling of the tragic death of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, is well worth seeing, but doesn't reach the Olympian heights of "All That Jazz." It's as if Fosse had spent it all on that intensely personal work. In time he undoubtedly would have recharged his creative batteries and given us even more startling and impressive films. Sadly, that time would be denied him, and those films would be denied us. Even so, Fosse's film legacy, though brief, is a rich one. Best of all, the films will still be with us long after the Broadway revival has passed into memory.

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