Why Did I Watch It? Classic film club selection.
Joe Gideon is a film and theatre director at the peak of his field. With a string of hit productions behind him, and acclaimed on all sides, he ambitiously takes on two new projects simultaneously; finishing a feature film about an acerbic comic, and starting an edgily erotic new stage musical. Meanwhile: his private life is in chaos, with two ex-wives, a mistress, a doting young daughter, and a lot of one night stands.
It’s director Bob Fosse processing his own life through a fictional avatar, an approach that has been used ad nauseum by directors and writers throughout film history. Like a lot of these earlier movies – ‘8 1/2’ is the obvious comparison – it is self indulgent; it made me think of the line in ‘Barton Fink’, where Colonel Lipnik chastises Barton for his narcissism, ‘You think the entire world revolves around whatever is rattling around inside that head of yours?!’ If you are Bob Fosse, regularly cited as the greatest musical director of all time, even while he was alive, it is probably difficult not to think you are at the centre of the universe.
But exactly because this is a Bob Fosse production, the film has a lot to offer. The musical numbers are incredibly imaginative, and varied. And delivered via the director’s trademark, elaborately edited, style. My favourite was the stripped back show Gideon’s mistress and daughter put on for him for his birthday; just the two of them, singing and dancing down the staircase of the house they live in. Contrast this to the heightened razzle dazzle of the final number, effectively Gideon’s death, as he performs his way into the afterlife via an elaborate, neon hued nightclub blowout. Or the punchy melancholy of the rehearsal dance he shares with his ex wife, where she vents her frustrations with him while strutting her stuff. For Gideon, staged numbers have become the way he understands the world, and how he processes all of his emotions.
He struggles outside of that. During a test screening of his movie, Gideon wonders aloud, ‘Does Kubrick ever get depressed?’ And there are some Kubrickian flourishes as the film charts Gideon’s declining health. Notably, a repeated montage set to classical music showing Gideon’s morning routine; haggard face in the mirror, shower, amphetamines. And then a series of very full days, overflowing with drama, more pills, and booze. It seems no one could maintain this routine, and Gideon won’t be able to either. But nor will he be able to stop. The restlessness of his personality, which gives his creative output such a distinctive energy, also refuses to let him ease off. Even when he finally breaks down, and is consigned to hospital, he soon has his friends smuggle him alcohol, while he dances around his room.
Fosse gets a terrific performance from Roy Scheider as Gideon, perhaps the actor’s best. It is strikingly at odds with his other, best known 70s roles; in ‘Jaws’, ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Marathon Man’, he is playing varying degrees of tough. Here he is sensitive and flamboyant, likeable and warm. I wondered if the director wasn’t going a bit easy on himself with the way this character is portrayed; he behaves very badly at times, but no one really calls him on it. His various wives and girlfriends express frustration, at most. But I had to remind myself that this is a fiction, not a biopic, and Scheider is terrific. It is mostly his show, none of the other parts are especially large, but he has great chemistry in his shared scenes with Erzsebet Foldi (his daughter) and Leland Palmer (the ex wife).
Fosse only directed one more movie, the critically not well received ‘Star 80’, and died of a heart attack in 1987, age 60. This movie proved sadly prescient, and gave the director the send off he surely wanted. A fitting self tribute to a great talent; messy, indulgent, in many instances brilliant.