It’s Everything, and It’s Not Enough

All That Jazz (1979)

illustration by Rachel Merrill

Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is big, brash, and seedy. It’s the exquisitely choreographed orgy of “Take Off With Us,” and the metaphysical musical hallucination that sees troubled genius choreographer Joe Gideon off to the hereafter. It’s tits and sweat and far too much cigarette smoke. It’s a Bob Fosse film—and in a more autobiographical, even spiritual sense, the Bob Fosse film. There’s no better example of the particular kind of sleazy beauty that made his movies and his dances so great. 

Yet nestled amongst all the glitz and the grime is a number as sweet and pure as the driven snow. Though it is by far the movie’s most low-key, simple routine, it’s so packed with complex feelings, which are heightened even further by the offscreen context, that it’s become something of an obsession for me. Every time I watch it, I pick up something new. And because it’s so very full of feeling, it’s my go-to for emotional catharsis whenever I need a good cry, and I’m too weary and jaded to get there by myself. 

Before we get to that scene, however, we are plunged straight into the heart of All That Jazz’s smoky, seedy world. We see famous director-choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) choosing the dancers for his next show and picking out the one he’ll be sleeping with later. Then he’s skipping out on another weekend with his daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), to the unsurprised annoyance of his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer).

We see him editing his new movie, a process he’s been undertaking for seven months and isn’t willing to blow off to spend time with his girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking)—except later that night, she catches him in bed with another dancer, Victoria (Deborah Geffner).

We see him working on a routine he just can’t crack, until he decides to turn the very saleable number—one that even Frank Sinatra might record—into something artistically pornographic.

All the while, throughout the tireless work-sex-work merry-go-round, Joe is looking ever more pallid and sweaty. His heart is failing, slowly but steadily. It won’t be long before his final trip to the hospital. 

Choosing to bail on the first test screening for his movie, convinced it’ll be a huge failure, Joe decides to spend a rare evening at home with Katie and Michelle. To his surprise, they’ve been working on a routine to show him, set to the Peter Allen tune “Everything Old is New Again”. They perform it and, for a few precious minutes, show Joe that everything he needs has been right in front of him this whole time.

*

He’s his breaking heart, and he’s his body. Time and again, his body wins.

In this scene though, his heart takes control for a few minutes. While we spend much of the time watching the routine, whenever we come back to Joe, we see a man awash in a potent, overwhelming mix of love, guilt, and sadness. Roy Scheider’s face—those big round eyes and that perpetually furrowed brow—radiates this complex mix of emotions so legibly.

The movie’s elegiac atmosphere fits perfectly with where Scheider was at this point in his career. All That Jazz was the capper to a formidable run of films for him (including The French Connection, Jaws, Marathon Man, and Sorcerer), and to his best work as a leading man. As the following year began, so would three decades marked largely by supporting roles and unmemorable pulp (often, supporting roles in unmemorable pulp!).

A perpetually underestimated actor, Scheider was, in many ways, out of his depth here; he was few people’s first choice for the role (his Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast, but pulled out during rehearsals), and he lacked the dance background of his female co-stars. Nevertheless, the weary tenacity to his performance style, and his willingness to allow emotional vulnerability in, made him a perfect fit for this brilliant, broken man. On paper, Joe Gideon should be a loathsome character—terminally unfaithful, neglectful to his child, a liar, a misanthrope—but Scheider has an unquenchable, wonky warmth to him that easily transmits to the man he’s playing. Joe may be a profoundly flawed human being, but Scheider at least makes his humanity undeniable.

Joe loves Michelle and Katie so much—as much as he can, anyway, which is far less than they deserve. He knows that. As he watches them perform, speaking to him in his language, both he and we can see all the many hours they’d have spent practicing this dance during all the many hours he wasn’t around, sneaking and laughing and reveling in the gradual improvement. It may be a routine for him, but it’s by them: choreography and performance. They’re the boss now, and they own this. They’re giving it to him out of love, and as a plea.

Yet as he understands this—and he does, because this whole dance is, more than anything else, a conversation—he also understands that he cannot give them what they want. This is a man who’s always been led by his body. He’s tried before to be faithful, he’s tried to be there more for his daughter, but those good intentions always seem to lead to a greater hurt than the one he causes naturally, everywhere he goes. If he were a stronger man, if he hadn’t spent his whole life being a creature of urges and libido, if those urges hadn’t been the engine for the work that has become his everything, if he could visualize a life for himself that went beyond that work—maybe he’d be able to summon up the wherewithal to give these women what they so dearly need from him. But that’s an awful lot of ifs, and he’s living on borrowed time. He’s been around the block enough to know that it’s too late for him now. All that’s left is to watch them, and to love them.

*

Yet it’d be reductive to condense the whole scene down to its sadness, when every second of it also radiates joy. However much Katie and Michelle have repeatedly, incessantly, been let down by Joe, his negligence has bonded them. They’ve never had to be alone in their frustration, and have found in each other some of the emotional companionship that Joe is constitutionally unable to provide. All throughout the number, they’re quietly whispering to each other, Katie gently guiding Michelle through the trickier bits (“Watch your feet!” she hints, before a little kiss on the forehead), and the two of them giggling when something doesn’t quite turn out the way they expected it to. In a movie overwhelmed by the charisma of its uber-talented, chronically self-involved leading showman, the scene is a potent reminder that those in his orbit continue to exist, and to thrive, even without his reflected glory.

And the routine itself, the zest and the skill and sweetness of it, is lovely to watch even outside of the context. For anyone with a vaguely embarrassing childhood memory of forcing parents to watch their own bizarrely-constructed dance routines (a childhood obsession with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance yielded some excruciating home movies on my part), the positioning of Scheider as the audience and the heavily featured flight of stairs will feel mighty familiar. At its heart, “Everything Old is New Again” is the routine that was happening in our brains as our unskilled bodies were producing something considerably different; that mixture of childlike exuberance and accomplished talent just makes the dance really, really charming.

But oh, Ann Reinking! She was playing a character based on herself here: Joe Gideon is a thinly-veiled autobiographical cipher for director Bob Fosse, Reinking’s romantic partner from 1972 to 1978. She may have been a relatively untested movie actress, but on an emotional level she knew just what she was talking about. Viewing this scene, I think of the real Bob Fosse watching Reinking just as the fake one is, and I wonder what was going through both of their heads.

Although Reinking had been treading the boards on Broadway for more than a decade, All That Jazz was only her second movie role, and she’d have just a handful more. While she is a fine actress, she was a dancer first and foremost; the second half of the film is full of her doing the thing she does best. Yet this scene, which is actually the first time we see her dance, stands apart from the others. She’s spectacular in it—her legs somehow seem ten feet long, for one thing—but what stands out most is her generosity, the way that she reins her extraordinary talent in, so as not to overwhelm her 13-year-old co-star, Erzsébet Földi.

Reinking had just a few movie roles, but this was Földi’s one and only, which adds even more poignancy to a scene that’s already radiating it. What was it like to be a 13-year-old child in a film so concerned with such adult subjects? To have a role in one of the best movie musicals of all time, and then go on to live the rest of your life as a civilian? She’d been a student at the School of American Ballet for four years when she shot All That Jazz, and so was hardly a rank amateur (despite her age, she keeps up with Reinking well during the more difficult parts of the routine)—and yet there’s not the over-polished, preternatural professionalism to her that there so often is with kids who’ve been in movies since before they could walk. She was a kid, and she seems like it, which gives the character of Michelle—naïve, funny, vulnerable—an authentic innocence that contrasts mightily, necessarily, with the degradation all around. Joe lets down everyone he meets, but we know that no one is going to bear the wounds from that neglect and betrayal as long, or as deeply, as Michelle.

*

The first time we see Katie and Joe together, he can barely tear his eyes from the edit bay as he declines an invitation to spend the evening with her. The first time we see Michelle and Joe, he can barely meet her eyes as he apologizes for bailing on their weekend. Throughout the movie, he’s the proverbial great white shark who’d die if he stopped swimming; taking time to sit and be with the women he loves…well, that’d just give him too much of an opportunity to think. They must fit in with his schedule—even when he eventually does deign to look after his daughter, he uses her to help him work out some choreography—never the other way round.

For these three-and-a-half minutes though, he finally sits and looks at them. For once in his life, a life which is rapidly nearing its end, he gives them the simple, long-belated gift of his undivided attention—a gift he has no problem lavishing on the dancers in his productions, but has all too often denied the ones who deserve it the most. He should have done this a million times, but that’s in the past, and there’s not much present left, so there’s no point in wasting what’s there on regrets. All he can do now is leave them with this one perfect moment.

When I think about film language, I don’t think about dollies and close-ups and whip pans. For me, the language of film is the way it can transmit a raft of different, often conflicting feelings in an innocuous scene like this. I think of how rare it is in life to have a moment be just joyful, or just sad, or just infuriating, and how the best movies understand the emotional multifacetedness of the everyday. 

Each time I return to this scene, I’m wowed anew at the sheer fullness of it; how it can pack so much feeling and information into an ostensibly sweet little dance number. I’m leveled by the understated sorrow of Scheider, delighted by the skill of Reinking and Földi, and fascinated by what the actors were experiencing—but most of all, more than anything else, I’m moved by this exhibition of what my favorite medium can do at its finest. My tears, when they come—and they almost always do—are borne as much from awe as they are from sadness. What magic we can make from our brokenness, our vulnerability.

It doesn’t have the bombast and spectacular sparkly scuzz coating of the rest of All That Jazz, but this number holds the movie’s whole heart, and often my whole heart, in its delicate hands.