I have spent a non-insignificant portion of my weekly blogs talking about films that focus on the lives of famous individuals. This occurrence was entirely accidental, but I figured that the best way to wrap up my accidental trilogy of biopics and dramatizations was by discussing what I believe to be the most interesting example of autobiographical filmmaking of all-time: All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse, 1979).
All That Jazz is about a legendary pill-popping, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed, musical and film director named Joe Gordon (played gamely by one of my personal favorite actors, Roy Scheider). The film is directed by a legendary (allegedly) pill-popping, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed, musical and film director named Bob Fosse. This would be enough of a self-portrait in itself, but the tendrils of Fosse’s personal life manage to creep into the film as well. Jazz features two relationships Gordon is in the midst of that are based on relationships Fosse had throughout his life. Leland Palmer would play the character based on Fosse’s third wife, Gwen Verdon, while Ann Reinking, Fosse’s real life ex-girlfriend, would play his current girlfriend in the film.
The relationships Gordon has with these women are layered, but they are not complicated. Palmer’s character, Audrey, left Joe because she was tired of his philandering and his drug abuse while Reinking’s character Katie continues to stick by him despite his philandering and his drug abuse. The film seems to be sympathetic to Audrey and Katie, frequently showing shots of the women’s scorned faces and, sometimes, bubbling anger while Joe has frequent meetings with the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) where he expresses regret for what he has done with them.
But the duality of Fosse’s film, basically exhibiting what he does in his life and how he feels about it, is that he seems intent on living his life in the same way he always has. At the start of the third act of the film, Joe has a heart attack and is instructed by his doctor to take it easy and to temper his lifestyle. Not only does he not do this, but he seems to throw himself more into debauchery, leading him to a second cardiac event and his eventual death. It is almost as if he acknowledges the wrongs he has committed, but refuses to change his lifestyle as it would be an act going against everything he lives by.
Fosse suffered a heart attack in 1974. This inspired him to write and direct All That Jazz. The obvious interpretation of the film is that his heart attack put his life in perspective and allowed him to reexamine his relationships, but also acts as a predictor to his eventual death. He had an insight into what to do right, but would not act upon that urge, because he had an idea of who he was and he knew he would have the women he loved by his side no matter what. At the end of the film, after his second heart attack and before his death, he tells Audrey “If I die, I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you” before turning to Katie and telling her “And if I live, I’m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do to you”. Bob Fosse would die of an eventual second heart attack in 1987 after collapsing in Gwen Verdon’s arms. Verdon and his daughter would spread his ashes in Long Island, where he lived with his girlfriend.
All That Jazz is not streaming, but is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion.