Bob Fosse Essay - Critical Essays

Fosse, Bob

Introduction

Bob Fosse 1925–

American director, choreographer, dancer, actor, and screen-writer.

The world Fosse creates is artificial and theatrical. His films are "musical dramas," musically-oriented films with sophisticated themes and stark realism.

Following a career as a dancer on Broadway, Fosse began to choreograph. The stage musicals he later directed developed his creativity in dance as well as his awareness of show business. These elements are reflected in his first film, Sweet Charity, which he had previously directed and choreographed on Broadway. Based on Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity has received critical acclaim for Fosse's distinctive musical numbers. However, some critics feel that Sweet Charity is not indicative of his later style, believing that Fosse felt compelled to film a flamboyant production with an established star such as Shirley MacLaine. Cabaret is considered a landmark film: a movie with music rather than a movie musical. This film, based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, provides musical entertainment while analyzing Nazi Germany. By focusing on the cabaret's stage to draw a sharp contrast between reality and fantasy, Fosse makes the nightclub a microcosm of life.

Fosse's autobiography, All That Jazz, has been likened to Fellini's 8 1/2. Fosse portrays himself as an obsessed, exhausted director who drives himself to death because of his desire to succeed. Although Fosse has been criticized for emphasizing the destructive side of show business, his view of the theater and his choreography are considered exciting and innovative.

Of his decision to create a dramatic musical form, Fosse says, "Today I get very antsy watching movies in which people are singing as they walk down the street…. You can do it on the stage. The theater has its own personality—it conveys a removed reality. The movies bring that closer."

Tom Milne

[The trouble with Sweet Charity is that its star, Shirley MacLaine, is] required to dance—and in Bob Fosse country at that….

[Choreographically] speaking the most exhilarating moments in the film are two numbers—'Hey, Big Spender' and the trio of eccentricities that make up 'Rich Man's Frug'—in which the star does not appear. Here, with his characteristically tight, neurotically precise and almost off-balance steps, where the dancers hug close together as though afraid to break the magic circuit, Bob Fosse is Bob Fosse as he is nowhere else in the film.

For, doubling as director, he pulls constantly against himself, undermining his own meticulous algebraics by inserting choppy efforts at mise en scène instead of choreographing his way out of difficulties…. Subsequently the direction settles down to become much less queasy, but there is still a plethora of irritatingly unnecessary dissolves, zooms, frozen shots and pretty montages, usually illustrating the extremes of happiness or despair that Charity has already expressed, or should express in dance.

All of which may make it sound as though Sweet Charity doesn't work at all. Contrariwise, it does, often magnificently…. [For] all his Lelouchian devotion to decorative bravura, Mr. Fosse is obviously very good with actors….

[Charity herself] is irresistible, carrying the film over its stylistic flurries and only at the end falling into the kind of sentimental whimsy that dogged … Fellini's original. It is perhaps symptomatic of the film's indecision, however, as to what it should be doing and with whom, that emotionally her part is allowed to build to two dance numbers, one for each lover….

[One hopes] that in his second film Bob Fosse will get a chance to create a musical with, by and for dancers. Meanwhile, Sweet Charity joins [Francis Ford Coppola's] Finian's Rainbow and [William Wyler's] Funny Girl in proving that there is still musical life in the old Hollywood dog. Who, watching the electrifying contortions of a row of pleading, hissing, finger-snapping taxi-dancers for the superbly weary, sleazy erotica of 'Hey, Big Spender', could doubt it?

Tom Milne, "'Sweet Charity'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1969 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring, 1969, p. 98.

Robin Bean

[Sweet Charity] is Bob Fosse's first film as a director, and the result is breathtaking…. [While] one would expect the staging of the musical numbers to be exceptional I wasn't prepared for the instinctive and sensitively imaginative way Fosse works with film as a visual medium. He shows more understanding of images and technique than any director of a musical before. (p. 39)

Sweet Charity represents the Hollywood musical at its very best, and is possibly the greatest one. Inventive, invigorating, fresh, never letting up for one moment, it makes [Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's] West Side Story seem very unsatisfying in retrospect; though the latter had a brilliant score, visually it lacked the dynamic impact which Fosse achieves. For Fosse, Sweet Charity is a great achievement…. By the time the flower children arrive, the cinema is almost awash—and that is a remarkable thing these days. (p. 40)

Robin Bean, "'Sweet Charity'" (© copyright Robin Bean 1969; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 7, April, 1969, pp. 39-40.

Roger Greenspun

"Cabaret" is not so much a movie musical as it is a movie with a lot of music in it…. Fosse's approach has been not to open up but rather to confine, on a small and well-defined stage, as much of "Cabaret" as means to be musical theater.

Thus the film has a musical part and a nonmusical part …, and if you add this to the juxtaposition of private lives and public history inherent in the scheme of the "Berlin Stories" [on which the film is based], you come up with a structure of extraordinary mechanical complexity. Since everything has to do with everything else and the Cabaret is always commenting on the life outside it, the film sometimes looks like an essay in significant cross-cutting, or associative montage. Occasionally this fails; more often it works.

Fosse makes mistakes, partly because his camera is a more potent instrument than he realizes, but he also makes discoveries—and "Cabaret" is one of those immensely gratifying imperfect works in which from beginning to end you can literally feel a movie coming to life.

The film gains a good deal from its willingness to isolate its musical stage—even to observe it from behind the heads of a shadowy audience in the foreground—so that every time we return to the girls and their leering master (by now, a superbly refined caricature) we return, as it were, to a sense of theater. And when at certain moments that theater is occupied only by Liza Minnelli, working in a space defined only by her gestures and a few colored lights, it becomes by the simplest means an evocation of both the power and fragility of movie performance so beautiful that I can think of nothing to do but give thanks.

Roger Greenspun, "'Cabaret'," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1972 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 222.

Pauline Kael

Cabaret is a great movie musical, made, miraculously, without compromises. It's miraculous because the material is hard and unsentimental, and until now there has never been a diamond-hard big American movie musical…. [It] is everything one hopes for and more; if it doesn't make money, it will still make movie history.

After Cabaret, it should be a while before performers once again climb hills singing or a chorus breaks into song on a hayride; it is not merely that Cabaret violates the wholesome approach of big musicals but that it violates the pseudo-naturalistic tradition—the "Oklahoma!"-"South Pacific"-"West Side Story" tradition, which requires that the songs appear to grow organically out of the story. (p. 409)

The usual movie approach to decadent periods of history is to condemn decadence while attempting to give us vicarious thrills. Here, in a prodigious balancing act, Bob Fosse … keeps this period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy, and yet we see the animal energy in it, and the people driven to endure. The movie does not exploit decadence; rather, it gives it its due…. The movie is never cynical (it may be one of the least cynical big movies ever made); it is, on the contrary, so clear-eyed that it winks at nothing. Though it uses camp material, it carries camp to its ultimate vileness—in the m.c.'s mockery of all things human,...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Fosse] has handled Cabaret like a smart Broadway musical director: always bright, always intent—not on authenticity but on keeping one step ahead of the audience's jadedness. He can do it….

Unlike the Broadway version, the musical elements are split off from the rest: almost all the songs occur on the cabaret stage, the rest of the picture is "straight." I suppose this is in aid of realism, but it doesn't quite succeed. First, as usual in movie musicals, the numbers are much too lavish and complex for the theater in which they're supposed to be done. Second, Fosse is much more comfortable with the musical numbers than with "life." But one clever non-number is more than clever. A sequence in a country beer garden begins with a close-up of an appealing youth singing a pleasant heimisch song. Slowly the camera pulls back and reveals his Nazi armband. The refrain becomes fervent, the camera keeps pulling back, more and more people join with Nazi fervor, and what started out as schmaltz ends as scare. Overly neat, perhaps, but so is most symbolic action. (p. 98)

Cabaret is far better than most movie musicals; but Fosse's smartness, Minnelli's professional unhealth, and the scripts chrome-plated carpentry keep it from being as moving as it wanted to be. (p. 99)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'Cabaret'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 166, No. 10, March 4, 1972), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kauffmann), Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975, pp. 97-9.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Cabaret is ultimately pretty weak schnapps. It takes the Berlin of the 1930's—the Berlin of George Grosz cartoons and Christopher Isherwood stories (on which the film was based …)—and turns it into a backdrop for a musical…. An audience today could get pimples from a story like Fritz' and Natalya's, so the sugar loaf has to be sourdoughed with Nazism the way it is in Cabaret—or leavened with a few pogroms the way it is in Fiddler on the Roof. The Czar and Hitler play approximately the same role in these musicals that leukemia plays in Love Story.

The film's heroine, Sally Bowles, is a lot like Fritz. She too is saved from herself by her own ineptness and endeared...

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David Brudnoy

Cabaret is superb drama enriched by music, not a "musical" padded with the usual tacked-on, hoked-up plot. While its story centers on an American showbiz-obsessed girl, her affair with a Cambridge graduate student, and their joint friendship with a wealthy German aristocrat, Cabaret's theme is the gradual obliteration of freedom in Germany as the National Socialists rise from hooliganism to apparent idealism to—in the years after that covered by the film—supreme power….

Cabaret never oversteps drama into bathos, never bludgeons its point, never obscures the simple love story with the political message. Instead, it merges the two with remarkable effectiveness. Its...

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Joe Blades

What one remembers from [Cabaret] are the visual elements:

(1) the touching moment in which Fritz hides his frayed cuffs from Natalia;

(2) Joel Grey's garish makeup and facial contortions;

(3) the Nazi beating intercut with the Swiss hand-clapping dance at the cabaret;

(4) the splattered body of a murder victim on the streets as Max's limousine passes;

(5) the ugly spectacle of the Kit Kat Klub—ladies wrestling in mud; the laughing crowd; the telephones on the tables; and most of all,

(6) the method by which the sweet-faced youth is revealed to be a Nazi brown shirt. (p. 237)

These...

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Vincent Canby

["Lenny"] looks to be about three-fourths dramatized biography and one-fourth recreated stage performances….

This one-fourth of the film is so brilliant … that it helps cool one's impatience with the rest of the film, which is much more fancily edited and photographed but no more profound than those old movie biographies Jack L. Warner used to grind out about people like George Gershwin, Mark Twain and Dr. Ehrlich. In movies, now as then, genius is principally defined by the amount of time spent dealing with disappointment….

However, "Lenny" is never very precise about what happened to Lenny or why….

[The] interviews are full of phony, simulated cinéma...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[In Lenny Fosse has moved] toward a directing style that would itself approximate the anarchic effect that Bruce used to have with his performances. Apparently Fosse has modeled his work on the arch-anarchist of our film era, Godard…. Lenny wants to be, in form and feeling, an anarchic "act" about a man who did anarchic "acts," and, in that form and feeling, it succeeds much more than in what is actually said and done….

The film's troubles are in the script by Julian Barry, who wrote the poor play of the same name. But the troubles here are not exactly the same. The play was toothless and was festooned with arty touches…. The film script has none of that artiness and it does have...

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John Simon

[Lenny] is a mess—precisely because it is neither fact nor imaginative fiction. Fosse and Barry never figured out for themselves how this nothingy little comic grew into a heroic figure and, rightly or wrongly, a legend; they further becloud the issue with "arty" fragmentation and time shifts, so that past (the unknown, two-bit comedian), present (the phenomenally risen and fallen, one and only Lenny Bruce) and future (his mother, wife, and agent spinning out his myth in posthumous interviews with a heard but unseen journalist) are utterly scrambled, and we cannot even superficially follow the transitions, evolutionary and deteriorative, that marked the man's story.

The film makers were...

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Caroline Lewis

Bob Fosse and Julian Barry are singularly unsuccessful at suggesting the complexity beneath the masks of [Lenny Bruce in Lenny]. Where the camp extravagance of Cabaret was a fitting metaphor for the theatricality that both masked and exaggerated the incipient frenzy of Nazi Germany, Fosse's staging of Lenny at all times serves to obscure his subject. Lenny's wife, mother and agent (themselves put across in unnuanced, stereotypic roles) are interviewed in the present, and at every point in Lenny's career Fosse cuts back for their view of events—a technique guaranteed to flatten out the film by showing the comedian who insisted on speaking for himself (down to the final, self-destructive...

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Gordon Gow

I suppose there must have been some occasion in the past when I was as emotionally affected by a film as I have been now by Lenny. But I cannot remember when. Lenny, I can say for sure, has moved me deeply….

The film's structure is daringly reminiscent of [Orson Welles's] Citizen Kane…. Bob Fosse's direction, however, goes its own realistic way, inviting no comparison with Welles but maybe renewing appreciation of the [Peter] Bogdanovich influence through the decision to shoot in black-and-white…. For Lenny has leanings towards such organised effects are carefully restrained, and yet the pervading realism is allied quite often to stunning examples of composition and...

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Fred Kaplan

[Lenny is] a travesty. The Lenny Bruce of this film is so prettified that he comes off as little more than a naughty David Steinberg. Hoffman plays him with that charming-cute Benjamin Braddock grin of his as if Bruce were just one of the boys. The Lenny Bruce of this film sermonizes after doing most of his bits on stage, so that in your heart you should know that he was a deep-humanist and loving-reformist…. It's this sort of sanctimoniousness, making Lenny Bruce out to be a goo-goo, that makes the film a runaway disaster.

What's missing from this portrait is the vibrance, the brilliantly zany improvisation, the wild pace, the jazz-like virtuosity in Bruce's performance, in his whole...

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David Denby

All That Jazz, an appalling work, is about an artist helplessly driving himself toward a heart attack. Gideon is the man who has the stuff, the divine fire, the man everyone loves and depends on. No one else counts….

All That Jazz is a characteristic product of our confessional age. After the success of dance musicals like Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line and Fosse's Dancin', it was only a matter of time before the star choreographer-director stepped out in front of his performers and made his sufferings and triumphs the subject of the show. But All That Jazz, Fosse's summing up of life, love, and art, goes beyond mere self-celebration. Not since Chaplin (in...

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Roger Angell

The folks over at MAD [Magazine] are going to have an easy time of it when they get around to putting out their version of "All That Jazz,"… which is based, we are given to understand, on Fosse's own life in the theatre. For one thing, the MAD artists and writers won't have to waste any time thinking up their customary funny, far-out version of the events up on the screen, because Bob Fosse and his associates, including the producer and co-author, the late Robert Alan Aurthur, have come up with a picture that defies further broadening: it is its own MAD, and the balloons in the strips can be filled in with dialogue right out of the picture. (pp. 69-70)

Come to think of it, and...

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Andrew Sarris

To say that Fosse's All That Jazz has been influenced by Fellini's 8 is merely to sum up two decades of a chi-chi Broadway reverence for the European art film in contradistinction to Hollywood's "commercial product."…

The calculations and the imitations have worked to the extent that the film looks dazzling throughout, and several of the dance numbers are genuine show-stoppers. Yet there is something missing at the center of the film. Who exactly is [Gideon], and why should we care what happens to him? Fosse and Company tend to evade these questions as if they are not worth answering in an ambiguous and artsy European-type film…. Fortunately or unfortunately, All That Jazz is...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[All That Jazz is] disguised and altered autobiography. It's about Bob Fosse….

The story of his life might be spectacular, but this is something else. Except for one brief flashback, it's a latter-day self-destructive agon…. (p. 24)

Even this material might have held better than it does, despite the theater's perennial belief that its smallest doings are of cosmic gravity, if several elements had been different…. [These include] the script. It may be substantially true, but it's trite, and about two-thirds of the way along, it slackens and sags…. The last third of the film, Scheider fantasizing in his hospital bed, is a drag, unrelieved by frenetic editing and...

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

[All That Jazz is] an exquisitely conceived meditation on life and death. It is Felliniesque in a narrower sense too—in the flux and reflux of time, in the individuation of the supporting faces, in the imaginative audacity of the images. But Fellini's influence is creative, not constricting. All That Jazz remains entirely American and personal in its idiom and preoccupation….

Scheider and Fosse marvelously evoke the whirl in which movies are made on stage and screen, the thousand things demanding immediate attention, the insistent beat of music in the background.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Autobiography of Frenzy," in Saturday Review...

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