b. Robert Louis Fosse, Chicago, Illinois, June 23, 1927
d. September 23, 1987, Washington, D.C.

Although Bob Fosse died at the relatively young age of 60, he had a career in show business extending for almost five decades. Fosse started training as a dancer at the age of eight at The Chicago Academy of Theatre Arts under the management of Frederic Weaver. Weaver was an eccentric devotee of vaudeville who sported a waxed mustache and always wore formal dress. Young Bobby Fosse learned his first dance steps at the Academy under the tutelage of Marguerite Comerford. When Fosse’s family could not pay tuition, Frederic Weaver offered to keep Bob as a student on scholarship. In exchange, Bob’s father Cy Fosse agreed to sign over 15% of Bob’s earnings over to Weaver until Bob reached the age of 21.1 Soon Weaver paired Fosse with fellow student Charles Grass and they became the dance sensation “The Riff Brothers”, named after the great dance team The Nicholas Brothers. 

Starting at a young age, Fosse would develop a personal style which was somewhat grounded in his defects as a dancer. “He was always told to keep his fingers together and his hands down, but up they’d go again” said dancemate Grass. “He was doing Jolson and Eddie Cantor.”2 His number one idol was Fred Astaire. By his early teens The Riff Brothers were playing professional gigs throughout the Midwest, including bars and strip clubs. Fosse’s identity as vaudevillian Bob Riff and formative sexual experiences in strip joints had a permanent influence on his relationships and aesthetic interests. 

The Riff Brothers

During World War II Fosse traveled to Pacific islands and Japan as part of an entertainment troupe. After the war he moved to New York and landed the part of lead dancer in a production of Call Me Mister. Castmate Carl Reiner noted Fosse’s work ethic and burgeoning creativity – “He was always there early, warming up and doing his steps over and over again, and he was always making up new steps, always inventing.”3 When the tour came to Chicago Fosse married his new dance partner Marian Niles. In 1949 they made several appearances on the CBS program The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue. When they finally landed on Broadway with Dance Me a Song Fosse met and fell in love with Joan McCracken, a dancer ten years his senior who had danced in some films at MGM. Fosse and Niles appeared on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s The Colgate Comedy Hour. This was Fosse’s first major work as choreographer for a large ensemble. Sam Wasson notes that “the group number showcased Fosse’s details, like wrist isolations, limp hands held up high in the air, flopping like the teeny-weeny wings of a fat bird.”4

In 1951 Fosse was given the lead in a summer stock production of Pal Joey and signed a seven-year contract with MGM.5 More than anything, he hoped to be the next Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. He landed the male lead in Stanley Donen’s Give a Girl a Break, forging a lifelong friendship with Donen. On set Fosse was snubbed by co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Marge and Gower Champion.6 The film, lean on story, was not a success and his year in Hollywood was bitter and lonely. In December of ’52 Fosse married Joan McCracken who was emaciated from diabetes.7  Soon after he befriended Gwen Verdon at a party of choreographer Michael Kidd’s. Fosse admired that Verdon was an assistant to Jack Cole and Verdon in turn had Joan McCracken as an early role model. Verdon had numbers cut from several Hollywood films because she was considered too risqué for the public.8 After the major disappointment of Give a Girl a Break Fosse had smaller roles in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me Kate. Fosse was perhaps too bald and too thin to be a star and he slouched – defects which he would later incorporate into breathtaking choreographical signatures. Hollywood had been brutal to Fosse, yet as the great Stanley Donen noted, he was as talented as Astaire and Kelly.9

In 1954 Fosse made his Broadway debut as choreographer in George Abbott’s The Pajama Game, a musical about pajama factory workers and their union struggles. Fosse, used to staging only two or three dancers at a time, received guidance from co-director Jerome Robbins.10 Later that year, Fosse flew to Hollywood to choreograph his first Hollywood film My Sister Eileen, also playing a small role. Fosse was allowed a chance to direct his own sequences, and shot them with a full view of the figures, after Fred Astaire.11 

In 1955 after Fosse won his first Tony, George Abbott offered him another choreography gig, Damn Yankees which was to star Gwen Verdon, but Fosse insisted on auditioning her.12 The audition went on for hours, dancer and choreographer both impressed with each other. It was soon apparent to the cast that Fosse and Verdon were having an affair.13 Fosse would find himself back in Hollywood to choreograph film versions of The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). Long before Fosse started directing, he made an impact on the Hollywood musical, directing numbers like “Steam Heat” and “Whatever Lola Wants” performed by a red-hot Verdon. Impact enough, that in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 film A Woman is a Woman Anna Karina’s character sings that she’d “like to be in a musical comedy starring Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. Choreography by Bob Fosse!” If you’d like to see Fosse and Verdon dancing together, look up “Who’s Got the Pain” (from Damn Yankees) on Youtube, a mambo of tiny articulations, tilted hats and perfectly synched trenches. With its references to pain and addiction, a number could hardly be more bespoke for Fosse. Fosse made his directorial debut on Broadway with Redhead (1959) starring Verdon, continuing to direct and choregraph musicals into the 80s such as Sweet Charity (1966), Pippin (1972) and Chicago (1975). He married Gwen Verdon in April of 1960.14

Fosse debuted as a filmmaker with Sweet Charity (1969), based on the Broadway play he directed, inspired by Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. The story follows Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine), an out-of-luck taxi dancer we watch mugged and thrown off a bridge by her “fiancée” (married lover) in the first scene. In the original film Cabiria is a prostitute. By altering her profession to taxi dancer, Charity is painted as someone existing more on the fringes of prostitution, like the strippers of Fosse’s youth. After she tells them of her mishap in the park, Charity’s coworkers perform “Big Spender”, one of the most powerful song and dance numbers on film. We first view the dancers from behind, frozen in static, suggestive postures blocked in a way as to take advantage of a deep staging which is at once theatrical and decidedly filmic. Static gesture becomes a writhing in place… Then one by one, the women turn around to proposition the stranger while they hang on a barre on a proscenium (a reminder of the number’s theatrical origins), promising him “good times”. They finger-snap and hip-wiggle, much with the atmosphere of harpies zoning in on their prey… It’s a great dance number which is barely a dance. Or rather, a dance of gestures within a syntax of immaculately-placed cuts and cross dissolves which are their own kind of dance. Big Spender illustrates well how much Fosse demanded from his dancers – to not just dance, but to become their character. Fosse wanted all his dancers to be a triple threat. The number was shot twice because the first time Fosse didn’t manage to convey the dancers close enough while also capturing the whole.15 One rainy evening, Charity encounters film star Vittorio Vitale (Ricardo Montalbán) having an argument with his girlfriend. After the girlfriend storms off in a taxi Charity goes with Vitale to the Pompeii Club. This is the scene for the energetic set piece “Rich Man’s Frug” which showcases many Fosse signatures – dancers hunched forwards or back, and tiny, isolated movements. For instructions on staging big numbers, Fosse looked to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story (1961).16 Starstruck Charity goes back with Vitale to his apartment. Wanting some memento as proof she was there, he not only gives her an autographed photo, but a hat and cane used in his films. When asked why she works as a taxi dancer, Charity shrugs and says “Fickle finger of fate.” Dancing alone with her new props, a Chaplinesque number replete with gag sounds, the image is bittersweet, as the hat and cane hint at a personal power and self-expression as yet undiscovered by Charity. When Vitale’s girlfriend comes to the apartment, Charity obligingly spends the night in the closet so as not to upset her. One day after a job interview which reveals to us that Charity has no skills, she gets stuck in an elevator with insurance salesman Oscar (John McMartin). When Oscar panics, Charity calms him and the two begin a romantic relationship, Charity hiding her true profession. Although Oscar discovers that Charity is a taxi dancer, he asks her to marry him. This leads to Charity performing the ebullient “I’m a Brass Band”. “I Love to Cry at Weddings” like “Rhythm of Life” is a number which adds little to a perhaps overly-long picture. The film concludes with Oscar dumping Charity at the marriage license bureau and we can’t care, because he’s such a coward and a wet blanket. Sweet Charity’s major flaw is its unevenness, presenting a rag-bag of different moods, themes and textures which don’t quite come together to form a whole. It somehow feels wrong that the star, Shirley MacLaine, does not take part in a lot of the song and dance although the film must be seen for “Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug” as great stand-alone numbers reeking of Fosse’s genius. The style of the film is experimental and some would say that Fosse suffers from film school syndrome without actually having attended film school. Sam Wasson informs us that as inspiration Fosse watched a few later films by his longtime friend Stanley Donen: Charade, Arabesque and Two For the Road.17 Towards the end of Two For the Road we find some daring shots using a whipping zoom which might have given Fosse inspiration. However in Fosse’s case, the use of whipping zoom shots at transition points seems more whimsical than part of a coherent language. His unusual zoom shots and use of still photography were probably used for a touch of distantiation, as he would have found a-plenty in those later works by Donen. Vincent Canby was correct in stating that Sweet Charity is a film haunted by the spectre of Gwen Verdon, who originated the part on Broadway, although he unfairly states that MacLaine “is a dull, shapeless dancer”.18 The fault in Sweet Charity lies not with its star, who is more than talented, but in Fosse’s lack of a unifying vision.


In the wake of the critical and commercial failure of Sweet Charity, Fosse’s next film was the highly successful Cabaret (1972), based on the play I am a Camera by John van Druten, which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Years before, Fosse and Verdon had been offered the material to use on Broadway, but they had decided that Nazi Germany had no place in a musical.19 Through the film’s production credits we see a blurred crowd projected onto a shiny, warped chrome backdrop. We are told the setting is Berlin, 1931, then on the chrome surface, a heavily made-up face is revealed to be a cabaret’s sleazy master of ceremonies (Joel Grey). Behind the scenes, Fosse called Grey’s character “Mr. Porno”.20 It seems here that Fosse learned a lot from Stanley Donen’s mirror shots, and one-upped him, while at the same time revealing the cabaret and its audience to be illusory – deceiving and self-deceiving. It is one of the most enthralling openings of a film. “Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!… Fremder, étranger, stranger” sings the emcee, assuring the crowd of his sophistication. As with most of the music in the film, it was written by Kander and Ebb. Joel Grey reprised his role from the original Broadway production. From the nightclub’s dark interior it is cut to the image of Brian Roberts (Michael York), a Cambridge PhD. Student, arriving on a train. The shots inside the cabaret (The Kit Kat Klub) are dark, smoky and the cinematographer used a lot of filters. At one point producer Cy Feuer, who was at odds with Fosse for most of the production, came to the set and took off with a box of filters which, according to camera operator Peter MacDonald, were mere decoys.21 In the end, Fosse was allowed the artistic freedom to use his footage, which gives a real sense of being in a small, crowded cabaret. Brian, seeking a room at a boarding house, meets entertainer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and moves across the hall from her. Friendship seems to develop instantly between the two. We cut to the Kit Kat Klub once again and Sally performs the now iconic “Mein Herr” in a black shirt and tipped-to-the-side bowler. The black shirt she wears was actually a vest of Bob Fosse’s.22 As was the case for “Big Spender” Fosse’s shots capture dancers in static poses on chairs and when making movements, they are isolated to hands, a knee, a foot, and then the movements expand as the piece progresses. The far shots give the MGM-style of a number but they are intercut with medium and close shots which explore the filmic possibilities of the material. Fosse would obsessively walk around the stage to discover the best shots, only knowing what he wanted when he saw it.23 While creating the impression of being in a live cabaret, Fosse also wanted to show people all those viewpoints one wouldn’t have access to in an audience. He acknowledged a debt to the shooting style of John Huston’s marvelous film Moulin Rouge (1952) which not only shot dancers from a distance, but parts of their body in close-up.24  After the performance, we see a Nazi being kicked out of the Kit Kat Klub. The emcee, in a ring with female mud wrestlers, takes some of the mud off the ground and above his lip, makes a Hitler mustache. – The crowd roars with laughter. On the way home from the club, Sally tells Brian she’s going to be a film star “That is, if booze and sex don’t get me first.” She’s ambitious, a bit conceited, promiscuous and has an infectious lust for life which somehow draws Brian, who is shy and bookish. Brian admits to Sally that he made three disastrous attempts at sex with women, hinting he is gay, but they start a romantic relationship anyway. “Everybody loves a winner” belts out Sally at the Kit Kat Klub. In the wings, Mr. Porno lurks in the shadows, impassive, smoking a cigarette – a reminder of her promiscuous past. One day Sally meets the wealthy and handsome Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) at a laundry. We cut to the Kit Kat Klub and Sally and Mr. Porno perform the delightfully avaricious “Money”, now a timeless classic. “I think it’s my duty to corrupt you” says Maximilian to a bedazzled Sally and skeptical Brian. Maximilian takes them out on the town and buys Sally an expensive fur coat. As they drive by the aftermath of violence at a street market, Max says that once they get rid of the communists, Germans will be able to control the Nazis, who he says “are just a gang of stupid hooligans”. Back at the cabaret, Mr. Porno does a number “Two Ladies” which alludes to the nature of Maximilian’s friendship with Sally and Brian. Max takes them to his family’s estate and plans a trip with them to Africa. At a beer garden, a Nazi youth sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and other Nazis in uniform and the crowd rise and sing together in solidarity. In an argument, Brian and Sally both confess to having slept with Maximilian. Soon after, Brian is beaten up by Nazis in the street after confronting them. Max writes Sally and Brian a brief note stating he had to go to Argentina, disappearing as quickly as he appeared into their lives, leaving them 300 marks for their time, like prostitutes. Sally reveals she is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is. She plans on selling her fur coat to pay for the abortion. Brian asks her to marry him and she says yes. At the Kit Kat Klub Mr. Porno does an anti-Semitic number, suggesting the rising power of Naziism. Sally goes through with the abortion, still dreaming of becoming an actress. Brian, going back to Cambridge, says goodbye to Sally at the train station. “Life is a cabaret, old chum!” Sally sings vivaciously at the Kit Kat Klub. Mr. Porno comes out to do one of his spiels – “Even the orchestra is beautiful!” The camera pans onto the same warped chrome backdrop we saw at the film’s beginning, but this time the reflection reveals an audience populated with Nazis. 


Although Cabaret was a financial and critical success, it still remains something of a divisive film. Mention it in cinéphile circles and you might be met with dismissive comments – “Meretricious!”… “Vulgar!” These reactions are due undoubtedly to the film’s camp aesthetic. Susan Sontag rightfully noted that “one must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve.”25 Fosse’s style of camp is of the knowing category, deliberate, inspired by his vaudeville days performing in strip clubs and his work in Hollywood musicals. Joel Grey also had a background in vaudeville and even met Fosse as far back as 1948. “I used to go where my father [Mickey Katz] worked as a singer” stated Grey. “I saw plenty of sleaze. I tried to remember all the cheap and vulgar acts.”26 On her foray into camp Sontag says that it requires “a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.”27 This distancing and fascination mixed with revulsion is precisely what knowing camp requires, and describes perfectly the relationship to camp experienced by both Fosse and Grey. Can camp be serious? “Camp and tragedy are antitheses” states Sontag.28 Yet camp mixed with very real tragedy, that of Nazi Germany, is exactly what Cabaret offers. For those who don’t think it works but wish they more understood what Fosse is getting at, perhaps viewing other films with a similar mix of camp and serious material might help – the work of Peter Greenaway, John Waters or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for example. According to Sontag where there is more camp, there is less developed character. However, in Cabaret we find the characters to be decidedly developed for a musical, with stellar characterizations by Minnelli, York and Grey. In our deep sympathy and fascination for Sally Bowles, we are given a new, human dimension to camp. And somehow we love Brian Roberts too, who is not only her lover but her bookish, plainly-dressed foil. We are especially drawn to Sally and Brian because they both have a different kind of wisdom about the world, but they’re still naïve enough to be taken for a ride. Having a male lead who is bi (or more gay than bi) was as risqué a move for Fosse as having Nazis in a musical.  It is one of the ways in which Cabaret is ahead of its time, the traditional musical so deconstructed it should be dubbed a revisionist musical. Note in the scene with the Nazi youth singing how the viewer is stirred without knowing initially he is a Nazi. The scene serves as a powerful statement on the banality of evil. Not to be underestimated here is the influence of Gwen Verdon, who although Fosse was having an affair with the set translator right in front of her nose, shopped around second-hand stores in Munich for most of Minnelli’s wardrobe, giving her an authentic look. Sally Bowles’ charming green nail polish – “Divine decadence” – was also Verdon’s idea.29 Acknowledgment must also be given to Liza Minnelli, who, following her father’s recommendation, studied flappers Louise Brooks and Louise Glaum, cutting her bangs to a point after Brooks. Does Sally ever make it? We are left suspecting that like Fosse’s alter ego Bob Riff, she’ll remain a first-class talent in a third-rate show. Stanley Kubrick said of Cabaret that it was “the best movie I think I have ever seen.”30 

Fosse’s next film was Lenny (1974), a grainy black and white feature which follows the life of foul-mouthed, drug-addicted comedian Lenny Bruce. The film opens with an extreme close-up of Bruce’s wife’s Honey’s (Valerie Perrine) mouth, which informs us that Lenny Bruce was busted 9 or 10 times, for obscenity and possession of narcotics. In clips of his stand-up routines, Bruce jokes that Jerry Lewis should have a telethon for the clap. He says it will never happen, because “talking about it makes you the worst person in the community.” Questioned about first meeting her husband, in flashback we see Honey performing a strip routine. Afterward in a cafeteria, we see him staring at her and she asks about him. She’s told that he’s a lousy comic, but this doesn’t prevent them from getting together. “Did you ever get the feeling that you’re in an amateur contest… and you’re losing?” he says, after a series of horrible bird impressions.


A voice off camera (Bob Fosse’s) asks Honey what could have attracted her to her husband if his act was so lousy. She smiles and says that he was just “huggable”. Scenes from Bruce’s life are presented in a non-linear way, cut with interviews with his wife, manager and family. One night, we see Lenny apologetic to an audience about something he said another night, then he says that to make up for it, he wishes to urinate on the audience, a statement which causes outrage to club owner Jack. In one routine, Bruce advocates for sex, saying a stag movie is better viewing for his kid than King of Kings, because the stag film has no killing. “What is dirty and what is clean?” he asks the audience, challenging cinematic taboos. After a car accident leaves Honey badly injured, she is given morphine. Lenny and Honey move to California and playing little clubs, get hooked on heroin. Although Lenny doesn’t wish for his wife to strip, she goes back to it in order to support them and their new habit. He talks her into having a threesome with a woman, but afterwards berates her for it. They clean up for a while, and have a child, Kitty, but soon Honey is back on drugs and they separate. Lenny supports his family emceeing strip joints and Honey goes to prison for drug possession. One segment of his act we are shown is overflowing with shocking racial epithets. He claims the suppression of words makes them powerful, and perhaps he is partially right. While often he is met with a rather indifferent audience, at one point we see his popularity increasing, and he receives a standing ovation in the smoky club. We see Bruce arrested and in court a couple of times for obscenity. His lawyer compares his satire to the works of Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. He is declared not guilty by a jury, a triumph in free speech. He becomes even more in demand as a comic. Honey is released from jail and soon the two of them are back on junk. Deteriorated, Lenny goes onstage in a raincoat without pants, obviously high out of his mind, his speech fragmented. “I’m not funny” he finally says, and coughing, exits the stage. After continuing legal problems from obscenity and drug possession Bruce is no longer able to perform and he’s found dead of a drug overdose.

Although a collage of many different times intercut with interviews, Lenny is a seamless and engaging film, a triumph considering 11,000 feet of film were cut from the original 360,000.31 Screenwriter Julian Barry referred to Fosse as an “auteur tap dancer”.32 Pauline Kael wrote that “I don’t know any other movie director who entered moviemaking so late in life and developed such technical proficiency. Fosse is a true prodigy.33 The grainy quality of the film and interviews give the impression of a documentary. Some of the interviews have a quality of interrogation to them – although, with the subjects shot unconventionally in extreme close-up, from the side, three-quarter view or even from the back, we question exactly how much truth the film uncovers. Thus the form of the film acts as its own caveat, and the unusual close-ups and angles also serve to distantiate the viewer. Although Lenny is the film where Fosse wanted to prove himself with doing drama instead of a musical, one might note that the film has its share of razzle-dazzle. Fosse is camping in black and white. Honey’s strip-tease costume sparkles with sequins, and in another scene, she wears shiny, metallic tights, gleaming in values. These pleasing details, of razzle-dazzle in black and white, Fosse would have learned from the early musical, especially his beloved films of Fred Astaire. There is also something of Fosse’s alter ego Bob Riff in the character of Lenny Bruce, and as a director he had his own struggles with censorship. In New Haven police put a padlock on the door of Fosse’s production of New Girl in Town because of a number he and Verdon called “The Whorehouse Ballet”. Is Lenny funny? Sometimes, but often more of a chuckle or groan. It is a film which is more provocative than entertaining, the comic making one question societal taboos and hypocrisies, much of the debate centering around use of language we take for granted.


Fosse’s next film, the autobiographical All That Jazz (1979), opens with a wonderful bit of exposition. — A tape clicks into a cassette player and plays Vivaldi; a close-up of a red eye receives eye drops; Alka Seltzer bubbles in a glass of water and we see our goateed protagonist drinking it in the bathroom mirror; showering, he takes a forgotten, drenched cigarette from his mouth; a close-up of a bottle of Dexedrine with our protagonist’s name – Joseph Gideon (Roy Scheider). Joe Gideon likes to start his day with speed. “To be on the wire is life” he says in voiceover. “The rest is waiting.” He admits to the white-veiled Angelique, the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) that he borrowed the phrase. We see her in a half-lit space which looks like a storage area for theatrical props. “It’s showtime, folks!” he says in the mirror, another cigarette dangling from his mouth, hands splayed in a Fosse pose. Next, we see him crouched on a stage doing a Broadway cattle call. He painfully shakes his head to people who did not get a part. Speaking again with Angelique, she takes note that he loves booze, speed, and sleeping with many women. No wonder death is interested in him. Speaking to her of his ex-wife Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer) he admits he cheated every chance he got. He is unable to see his daughter on the weekend because he must work. “All there is” he tells Angelique. We discover he not only is directing a Broadway play, but editing a film, The Stand-Up, he directed about a comic (Cliff Gorman) who says “death is really a hip thing now.” Joe tells his girlfriend Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking) that he’ll probably be working late. Victoria (Deborah Geffner), one of his dancers from his show, comes to his apartment. They go to bed together, although he tells her he doesn’t think she could be a movie star. Later, Katie lets herself in and discovers Joe sleeping in bed with Victoria. She says she’s sorry and should have called. In flashback we see a young Joe (Keith Gordon) studying Latin in a strip club dressing room. Before he goes on stage, a few strippers fondle Joe and the audience laughs at the semen on his pants. Katie makes a dinner date with another dancer and Joe is angry. It’s okay for him to see other women, but he expects Katie to be faithful. Joe has a coughing fit, cross cut with an image of him lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask. He continues to chain smoke and pop dexies. Talking to his ex, he tells her he’s only doing her show because she wanted to play a 24-year-old. She replies that he’s only doing it out of guilt for never being faithful to her. Joe’s troupe rehearses “Take Off With Us”, a jaunty number which showcases hand and wrist isolations, the dancers in hats like airline stewardesses. Next, the troupe performs “Air-otica”, a number with nudity and a lot of couples doing bump-and-grind, including gay pairs, as well as erotic trios. “Uh-oh, I think we just lost the family audience” gasps one of the producers. They politely say that the piece is “interesting” but Audrey says it’s his best work. Katie and Joe’s daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi) perform a surprise song and dance for Joe, “Everything Old is New Again”. At a script reading for Audrey’s musical Joe seems unwell. The sound is cut and there is the enhanced sound of putting out his cigarette and lighting a new one. He clutches his wrist as though in pain. Joe goes to a hospital with chest pains and a numb left arm. The doctor says he has angina and will die if he leaves. Images of a helpless Joe lying with an oxygen mask are cut with a producer letting the dancers know the show will be put off for three or four months. He says they’ll try to get them temporary jobs or even lend them money. Joe is moved to a private room in the hospital, promising he will rest. He smokes, parties in his room with guests, and makes passes at the nurses. As Joe is wheeled in for bypass surgery it is cut to a meeting of producers with insurance brokers. They list the show’s expenditures as Joe is prepped for surgery. They stand to net about half a million dollars if Joe dies by a certain date. After surgery Angelique appears by Joe’s hospital bed, stroking his face. A double of him stands by as well. “You want to shoot it now?” he asks his helpless self. A production slate is snapped and a voice says “Hospital hallucination, take one!” 

All That Jazz

All That Jazz

Joe directs an elaborate variety show set piece, including himself, Katie, Michelle and Audrey as dancers, while he also lies in a hospital bed centre stage. He comes out of his delirium and the producers are hopeful he’ll return to work soon. Joe experiences more chest pains, and when they wheel him out of the room he escapes and wanders the hospital. He splashes through a water-logged basement, dancing about like Gene Kelly. “What’s the matter, don’t you like musical comedy?” he asks Angelique. He bums cigarettes from a hospital employee who sings “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”. He is found and returned to his room. Emcee O’Connor Flood (Ben Vereen) introduces Joe in his final act, “Bye Bye Life” – “Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody’s friend.” Decked out in sequins, Joe and Flood sing “Bye Bye Life”. After doing a long knee-slide, Joe goes into the audience to shake hands and embrace people who were in his life. Embracing his daughter he says to ex Audrey – “At least I won’t have to lie to you anymore.” Joe dollies down a dark corridor towards Angelique. Before he reaches her, the scene is cut to the image of Joe being zipped into a body bag.

All That Jazz could hardly subvert more one’s expectations of a musical film. How many musicals end in a body bag?! When he completed it, Fosse was aware he had made something unique. – “Good or bad, if you like it or you don’t like it, it is not a copy of anything. That I’m very proud of.”34 The film documents his extreme work schedule, drug abuse and womanizing ways, the period when he was simultaneously working on the musical Chicago and editing his film Lenny. Joe Gideon/Bob Fosse is the ultimate absurd anti-hero, drifting from one irrelevant sexual conquest to another, finding meaning only in work, and even in this he is prone to negation and self-parody, as the number “Air-otica” is something of a parody of Fosse at his best and worst. As in his film Cabaret, Fosse stages music only where it would be, in rehearsal spaces or in the hallucinations of his protagonist, an admirable device which leaves room for anything to happen. The existential angst grappled with by Joe Gideon culminates in the ultimate existential statement of the body bag being zipped – a carpe diem to be sure. The opening Broadway cattle call is provocative in how it contrasts the very real pain and effort of the dancers with the boredom and constant judgment of the producers who watch from a distance. Fosse once said to Janet Leigh – “I can cope with the problems of putting a show together, and I can even deal with the producers, who can sometimes give me a terrible time. But this – having to choose a handful of them out of hundreds – it just breaks my heart.”35 Fosse hated to shatter people’s dreams. One might note how warped mirrored surfaces which appear throughout the film recall the warped shots of Mr. Porno in Cabaret, also loaning something to the film’s existential currency. Fosse is not beyond a bit of nostalgia for himself. There is also a nostalgia in the depths of his hospital hallucinations. Here the dancers, lips painted luridly in two different colours, present themselves in a fan dance recalling Busby Berkeley or Ziegfeld Follies (1945). It is yet another place in Fosse’s oeuvre where camp might make the viewer uneasy and make them prone to negate the film’s substantial content. Also nostalgic, the references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the marching song Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, which was performed by Judy Garland in Berkeley’s 1942 film For Me and My Gal. This nostalgia seems somehow to fit as a facet of a complex being, mixed as it is with so much cynicism. These contradictions of character perhaps make Joe Gideon more believable, being as complex as life itself. While the film lost at the Oscars, it did garner a well-deserved Palme d’Or. 

Fosse’s last venture into filmmaking was Star 80 (1983), a film which was met with a lot of hostility and controversy. Based on a true story, the film follows Playboy bunny Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) who was murdered by her husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). The film begins with Dorothy talking in voiceover about being named Playmate of the Year by Playboy. We see breathtaking nude shots of Dorothy and she tells an unseen interviewer how Playboy seeks girls who are wholesome and fresh. The scene cuts to a deranged-looking Paul in profile before a giant blowup of Dorothy’s face. He brings a hand up to his cheek and there is a smear of blood. Next we have a flashback to Vancouver, 1978. Paul pumps iron in a room with glossy nudes of buxom women all over the walls. He makes muscular poses in front of a mirror and practices greeting people. – “Hi… Hiya!… Hello. Paul Snider.” Then snarling, he says “Ah, fuck you… Fuck you all. Bastards.” It is cut to someone being interviewed in a club. “He was always promoting some cocka-mamey idea!” the man says. It shows a wet t-shirt contest and the man says that Paul used “all local talent”, as though a wet t-shirt contest requires skill. Inquiring further, the club owner says that Paul pimped and provided models for auto shows. Cut to an interview with Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), he says that Paul is “a cheap hustler. He even looks pimpish.” He has no idea why Dorothy wants to marry him. Hefner gets people to investigate Paul’s background. Thugs dangle Paul by the legs outside of an extremely high window and laugh at his fear. Next we see Paul meeting Dorothy at a Vancouver Dairy Queen. “I’d like something sweet, soft and white. – You” he says. Later we see them driving in his car. He asks her if she likes it and tells her one day maybe she’ll have a Mercedes. He will buy it for her. Paul takes Dorothy to her prom and stabs at a football player who took her virginity with a tiny Swiss army knife. He hires photographers to shoot nude photos of her to submit to Playboy magazine. “I know all the tricks. I know all the con games” Paul says to Dorothy’s mother. Paul is going to make Dorothy a star. Dorothy flies to L.A. and calls Paul at a strip club from the Playboy mansion. He tells her to make sure she remembers people’s names because it makes a good impression. Hefner tells Dorothy he will find an apartment for her and give her a job at one of his clubs. He says that Playboy is like a family. Back in Vancouver, we see Paul going to bed with a stripper. Dorothy is slated to be the August Playboy centerfold and Paul asks her to marry him. It cuts once more to the murder scene and Paul says angrily – “We had everything going for us, but you fucks wouldn’t let me in. Big fucking deal. Well, you can take your magazine, your mansion and your movies and shove ‘em all up your ass now.” Paul flies to L.A. and comes to the Playboy mansion with Dorothy and meets Hefner, who is always partying in fancy pajamas. Paul quotes Hef and puts his arm around him in an overly-familiar way. The meeting is not a success. Feeling inadequate, Paul shops for new clothes, black with a flashy gold chain and snakeskin boots. Hefner warns Dorothy to not marry Paul. “He’s got the personality of a pimp” he says. We see an event of male strippers organized by Paul – another one of his cheap money-making tricks. Meanwhile, Dorothy is landing small roles in films, hoping for something better. Phoning Dorothy on a film set asking for money for a new Mercedes, Paul tells her he’s getting a license plate that says Star 80. He also tells her to call Hefner to let him know he’s coming over to the mansion. When he goes there, Hefner ignores him. At a barbecue, Paul shows people a handmade rack for sodomy. He tells the horrified Dorothy that it was made as a joke. Cut back to the murder scene, Paul angrily asks “What did I do wrong?… You rotten, fuckers.” Dorothy lands a film role with director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) and Paul is soon jealous and having tantrums. While she is away working in New York, his suspicions grow. He says to a housemate that she calls it Aram’s “film”, while before she just said “movie” or “picture”. Paul tries to scout talent for Playboy but Hef won’t return his calls. In bed with Dorothy, Aram tells her that she’s grown and Paul is still the same. A private detective confirms Paul’s suspicion of the affair. Meeting with Paul, Dorothy assures him that she’ll take care of him but that she wants a divorce. Against Aram’s advice, Dorothy meets again with Paul, who is still hopeful about a reconciliation. Saying he doesn’t want to live without her, he tells her he has a gun. Begging her not to leave, he brings out photos of her he wants to sell as posters but they don’t interest Dorothy. “I think we should break cleanly” she says. “I want it to be over.” Screaming that she is a liar, he takes a shotgun out of the closet. Dorothy manages to take it from him and holds him. After he violently tears her shirt off, she disrobes, offering herself but he is unable to make love to her. He shoots her in the head and defiles her corpse on his sodomy rack. “You won’t forget Paul Snider” he says, then blows his own head off. 

Star 80

Star 80

As in his film Lenny, Fosse created Star 80 as a time-collage, seamlessly jumping from Paul’s derangement at the murder scene to earlier times. He also revisits using interviews as an exposition device. Severely condemning the film, Pauline Kael stated that “Star 80 is about the degradation of everything and everybody.” She dismisses his flashbacks and interviews as “his whole pack of tricks… Fosse must believe that he can just take the idea of a pimp murdering a pinup and give it such razzle-dazzle that it will shake us to the marrow.”36  Even more excoriating was Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice who said Star 80 is “one of the most glumly misogynous movies ever produced… the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground circuit” He went on to analyze the film as a parallel to Fosse’s own relationship with Gwen Verdon, stating that Fosse’s later successes “never entirely erased the memories, at least according to this theory, of his own comparatively wimpish persona as an actor-dancer.” (Italics mine.) These ad hominem attacks are unfair to the film, which is clearly an indictment of Snider’s character and likewise the realm of Hugh Hefner, who so hated his rather comic portrayal that he sued the producers. Fosse knew what it was to lose in Hollywood, so it’s true he could somewhat relate to the character, but at the same time he knew he was much better than Hefner or Snider. What made him better was that he was an artist and he had much more self-awareness than Snider’s lowlife pimp. While he was admittedly a nymphomaniac, he still valued many women as artists, giving a lot of support to Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking and others. The stunning cinematography by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist perhaps only made critics more vicious, thinking somehow that there can’t be beauty mixed with such horrific occurrences. Eric Roberts’ performance is one of the most subtly-drawn portraits of a loser on film, a pressure cooker of failures and resentments which finally erupts into violence. On the character Fosse stated that “Paul Snider was a guy who seemed a product of the sort of shallowness that comes from buying hook, line, and sinker the slick-magazine philosophy of what the American male should have. That is, if you have the right kind of car or the right kind of clothes, learn people’s names, learn how to say hello charmingly, and all that, then the world will be your oyster.”37 The film provokes questions on the mentality of males who thirst to be the alpha male but can’t win. Could our society make more men feel like winners without them having a need for luxury or cheap sexual conquests? At one point Dorothy compliments Paul on some metal flowers he made… But he couldn’t make money selling them. Society stifles artistic endeavors, so people seek cheaper gratification. Hemingway’s performance is also admirable, although not as nearly as challenging as Roberts’. The nude studies are breathtaking, but not always without a touch of that glossy, two-dimensional feeling of the male magazine world inhabited by Roberts. Near the end of the film it is appropriate that Snider and Stratten meet beneath a giant blowup of her. – She has become an image in his mind, a fabrication and ultimately, his possession. Although panned by many critics, the film was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Roger Ebert spoke of “Star 80 syndrome” referring to Gary Oldman’s performance in Sid and Nancy (1986), stating both performances were disregarded because “Hollywood will not nominate an actor for portraying a creep, no matter how good the performance is.”38 


  • The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) – actor
  • Kiss Me Kate (1953) – actor
  • Give a Girl a Break (1953) – actor
  • My Sister Eileen (1955) – actor and choreographer
  • The Pajama Game (1957) – choreographer
  • Damn Yankees (1958) – choreographer and uncredited role.
  • Sweet Charity (1969) – director and choreographer
  • Cabaret (1972) – director and choreographer
  • The Little Prince (1974) – actor and choreographer
  • Lenny (1974) – director
  • Thieves (1977) – actor
  • All That Jazz (1979) – director, co-writer and choreographer
  • Star 80 (1983) – director and writer

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Melissa. Life is a Cabaret: Melissa Anderson on Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Art Forum. January 21, 2014. 
  • Aradillas, Aaron. “On Broadway” and All That Jazz. Slant magazine. December 29, 2007.
  • Belletto, Steven. “Cabaret” and Antifascist Aesthetics. Criticism.Vol. 50 no. 4. 
  • Benedict, David. Win When You’re Singing. The Guardian. June 16, 2002.
  • Canby, Vincent. Screen: A Blow-Up of “Sweet Charity”. The New York Times, April 2, 1969. 
  • ____________. Screen: Roy Scheider Stars in ‘All That Jazz’: Peter Pan Syndrome. The New York Times. December 20, 1979. 
  • ____________. Screen: ‘Star 80,’ a sex-symbol’s life and death. The New York Times. November 10, 1983.
  • Ebert, Roger. Cabaret. January 1, 1972. RogerEbert.com.
  • __________. Lenny. November 10, 1974. RogerEbert.com.
  • __________. Star 80. November 10, 1983. RoberEbert.com.
  • Folger, Penny. Dancing Toward Death: Bob Fosse and All That Jazz. The Frida Cinema. May 2, 2022. 
  • Giardina, Carolyn. ‘All That Jazz’ Editor Alan Heim: Working With Bob Fosse Was “Always an Adventure”. The Hollywood Reporter. January 17, 2020. 
  • Gottfried, Martin. All His Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003.
  • Greenspun, Roger. Liza Minnelli stirs a lively ‘Cabaret’. The New York Times. February 14, 1972. 
  • Joudrey, Tom. ‘Cabaret’ and the shadow of fascism. The Boston Globe. February 5, 2022.
  • Kael, Pauline. Grinning (review of Cabaret). The New Yorker. February 11, 1972. 
  • Kraus, David. “From Silents to the Seventies: Sweet Charity”. The Bonus View. August 19, 2019.
  • Lambert, Isadora. The Legacy of Cabaret 50 Years Later. Video Librarian. February 15, 2022.
  • Moore, Sam. Cabaret: How the X-rated musical became a hit. BBC Culture. February 10, 2022. 
  • Newland, Christina. A Horror Story For Our Times: Another Look at Bob Fosse’s ‘Star 80’. 
  • RogerEbert.com. November 15, 2016.
  • Russell, Jamie. Cabaret. BBC film review. June 6, 2002.
  • Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp”, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Classics, 1961.
  • Tobias, Scott. “Cabaret at 50: Bob Fosse’s show-stopping musical remains a dark marvel”. The 
  • Guardian. February 13, 2022.
  • Wasson, Sam. Fosse. New York: Mariner Books, 2014. 
  • Westal, Bob. Bob Fosse’s Lenny and the price of freedom. Slant magazine. December 28, 2007.


  1. Martin Gottfried, All His Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003: 12.
  2. Sam Wasson, Fosse. New York: Mariner Books, 2014: 12.
  3. Ibid, 44-45.
  4. Ibid, 61.
  5. Ibid, 64.
  6. Gottfried, 68.
  7. Wasson, 74.
  8. Wasson, 75-76.
  9. Wasson, 72.
  10. Wasson, 93-94.
  11. Wasson, 100.
  12. Wasson, 102.
  13. Wasson, 108.
  14. Gottfried, 116.
  15. Wasson, 236.
  16. Wasson, 231.
  17. Wasson, 231.
  18. Vincent Canby, Screen: A Blow-Up of “Sweet Charity”. The New York Times, April 2, 1969.
  19. Wasson, 194.
  20. Gottfried, 212.
  21. Wasson, 262.
  22. Wasson, 259.
  23. Wasson, 257.
  24. Gottfried, 217.
  25. Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Classics, 1961: 282.
  26. Gottfried, 212.
  27. Sontag, 276.
  28. Sontag, 287.
  29. Gottfried, 214.
  30. Gottfried, 228.
  31. Wasson, 372.
  32. Gottfried, 299.
  33. Wasson, 391.
  34. Gottfried, 394.
  35. Gottfried, 96.
  36. Gottfried, 424.
  37. Gottfried, 415.
  38. Roger Ebert, “Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel”. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Season 1. Episode 7. Fox Network. Fox Entertainment Group. October 17, 1986.

About The Author

Sherry Johnson has published articles on film in print in Film International and online at MUBI, Taste of Cinema and Fandor. Her primary area of interest is French New Wave cinema.

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