Friday, June 24, 2016

The Auteurs #56: Bob Fosse

While his name maybe synonymous more with musical theatre and Broadway, Bob Fosse does hold an important place in the world of cinema. Despite only making five feature films and a TV concert special that was shot on film, Fosse’s contributions remain vital for its approach to choreography and how musical numbers are captured on film. Even as he would break the rules of what could be done in a musical as well as delve into elements of darkness that the genre wouldn’t venture into. Though it has been nearly 30 years since his passing, Fosse remains an important figure in the world of entertainment whether it’s through film, dance, or the musical theatre.

Born in Chicago, Illinois on June 23, 1927, Robert Louis Fosse was second youngest of six children to Cyril and Alice Fosse as he was raised in an environment surrounded by music. Upon meeting dancer Charles Grass where they formed a dance duo that played several theatres in Chicago, Fosse would later be recruited to dance for a variety show that played in military bases in the Pacific. After moving to New York City where he married dancer Mary Ann Niles, Fosse and Niles would be a dance duo in the city as they got the attention of the comedy duo of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1950 where they would be part of Lewis and Martin’s act until a year later where Fosse and Niles divorced. In 1953, Fosse would sign a contract with MGM where he appeared in a few films as a dancer as well as choreograph one of the dances in the film Kiss Me Kate. Yet, Fosse didn’t enjoy his time with Hollywood as he took the risk of going back to theatre where he would choreograph the stage musical The Pajama Game to great success.

While getting work as a choreographer where he would work on George Abbott’s Damn Yankees, Fosse met dancer Gwen Verdon who would become his third wife as Fosse would later choreograph the film version of Abbott’s musical play. Despite getting work in both film and theatre as a choreographer, Fosse realized he wanted to do more as he would get the chance to direct a musical play in Redhead as he would also do the choreography. The play won five Tony Awards which includes Fosse for choreography and a Best Actress prize to Verdon. Throughout the 60s, Fosse was a big name in the world of stage theatre as he was also considered an innovator for fusing different dance styles into one as part of the choreography. Fosse also would use lighting as a tool in how to stage his production and dance numbers as it raised his reputation as the go-to man for lavish musical stage productions.

Sweet Charity

In 1966, Fosse directed and choreographed a musical stage production of Sweet Charity that was written by Neil Simon with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Cy Coleman as it was based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. The story revolved around a woman who works as a taxi dancer for a dancehall as she seeks love in New York City while enduring many trials and tribulations in her quest. The play was a smash both on Broadway and at London’s West End a year later where Fosse was offered the chance to make his feature-film debut as a director on a film version of the play. Fosse said yes though he knew he couldn’t have wife Gwen Verdon to play the lead role of Charity as Fosse would get Shirley MacLaine to play the role. While Fosse was able to get John McMartin to play the role of Oscar like he did in the play, Fosse would get a big ensemble in the likes of Ricardo Montalban, Chita Riviera, Barbara Bouchet, and Sammy Davis Jr.

Despite his inexperience in directing film, Fosse knew he didn’t want the film to be set too much into the confines of a soundstage as he would also shoot the film entirely in Manhattan which was considered risky. Even as he was given a $20 million budget from Universal where Fosse would shoot a different ending to appease them. Still, Fosse was able to get things his way in sticking with the film’s original ending as it plays into elements of reality as much of the film is about reality vs. fantasy just like in the play. Fosse also wanted to incorporate some of the visual elements of Fellini whom he is fond of as a way to give the film a unique look that was different from many of the musicals that were coming out at the time.

The film made its premiere in April of 1969 where despite some excellent reviews, the film was a commercial disappointment making only $8 million against its $20 million budget. Despite receiving a rousing reception at the Cannes Film Festival a month later and receiving three Oscar nominations for its art direction, score, and costume design. The film’s box office failure was something becoming common with the musical genre as it was in decline due to audiences wanting something more real. Nevertheless, Fosse was proud of the film as he went back to the world of theatre as he would do so whenever he isn’t making a film.


Having seen the Broadway musical play Cabaret, Fosse was interested in turning the play that was based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel about a cabaret singer and her relationship with an American writer in 1931 Berlin in the early days of Nazi Germany. While he wanted to helm the film version of the play, many weren’t sure due to the commercial failure of Sweet Charity. Still, executives Fosse would be the right filmmaker as he teamed with screenwriter Jay Allen in turning the play into script while retaining the songs written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. During the pre-production, Fosse wasn’t happy with Allen’s script as he asked Hugh Wheeler to do re-writes though Allen would retain credit and Wheeler credited for research as the latter wasn’t a member of the Writer’s Guild of America.

While Liza Minnelli had been attached to the project before Fosse’s involvement, Fosse was excited to work with Minnelli while he also succeeded in getting Michael York to play the role of writer Brian Roberts while Minnelli played the lead of Sally Bowles. Joel Grey, who had played the emcee in the theatrical versions, would also be in the film as the cast would include Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem, and Fritz Wepper. Fosse would receive the services of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth to shoot the film as much of it was shot near Munich. Not wanting to make the film to bear many elements of the musicals of the past, Fosse decided to have the musical be sung live at the club where Bowles’ character would often sing at. There, Fosse would add some realism as well as a sense of danger to the choreography as it plays into this conflict of a club trying to stay alive during this emergence of Nazism in Germany.

The film made its premiere in February of 1972 where it drew rave reviews while also becoming a major hit in the box office grossing more than $42 million against its $3 million budget. The film’s success would be huge as it would win 8 Oscars for its art direction, sound, score, editing, cinematography, a Best Supporting Actor prize to Joel Grey, Best Actress to Liza Minnelli, and Best Director to Bob Fosse while also being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. While the film did court some controversy over its content and sexually-provocative dancing, the film did prove that the musical was still alive as it needed a makeover in the era of New Hollywood.

Liza with a Z

With the massive success of Cabaret being big news, Fosse and Minnelli decided to create a special that was based on the latter’s talents as an entertainer with Fosse directing the production. Made as a TV concert special, Fosse would have the show be presented at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City with Minnelli singing sings as well as doing dance numbers with numerous dancers to Fosse’s own choreography. Having noticed that many TV concert special were shot on video, Fosse hired cinematographer Owen Roizman to shoot the special on 16mm film. Fosse hired film composer Marvin Hamlisch to be the special music coordinator as the concert was filmed on May 31, 1972. The special featured numerous dance numbers and witty monologues from Minnelli as it would be more than just a showcase of her talents.

The special made its TV premiere in September of 1972 on NBC where it was ratings smash as it would win Fosse two Emmys for its direction and choreography as well as two more as overall special and for its music. While the special would air a few more times during the 70s, it wouldn’t be seen for years until Minnelli, who had a copy of special, gave it a re-release in the early 2000s in a new remastered print as it drew rave reviews once again. Around the same year, Fosse directed a stage presentation of Pippin which won him two Tony Awards for its direction and choreography. In the span of a year, Fosse would become one of the most powerful and celebrated men in the world of entertainment.


After a whirlwind year that had Fosse win nearly every accolade in entertainment, Fosse decided to take a detour from the world of musicals by going into another project that revolved around his fascination with the dark side of entertainment. Having seen Julian Barry’s play on the life of the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, Fosse asked Barry to write a script that would be an unconventional bio-pic on Bruce. Especially as it plays into his work as a stand-up comic who would push the envelope on what could be said and the things he would talk about. Fosse and Barry both agreed that the narrative would largely be based on Bruce doing his standup as well as commenting on his own legal issues that would ultimately be his downfall as well as have the story told from his lover in a stripper named Honey.

With Dustin Hoffman cast as Bruce and Valerie Perrine cast in the role of Honey, Fosse knew that he didn’t want to go for something lavish as he chose to shoot the film in black-and-white film with cinematographer Bruce Surtees. It was to give the film a distinctive look that played more into classic cinema but also with a sense of grit. Notably in the scenes where Bruce does his standup as it’s never shown with a sense of polish as Fosse makes it direct and to the point. Even as Fosse wanted to play into that air of realism as it once again marked a recurring theme of fantasy vs. reality that had been prevalent in his previous films. After doing much of the shooting in early 1974, Fosse would take a break to act and choreograph The Little Prince for Stanley Donen where he would return to work on editing the film with editor Alan Heim who would become a key collaborator for Fosse throughout his film career.

The film was released in the U.S. in November of 1974 where it was well-received while doing modestly well in the American box office making more than $11 million. While it would receive six Oscar nominations including a Best Director nod for Fosse, it didn’t win anything. In May of 1975, the film played at the Cannes Film Festival where Valerie Perrine won the festival’s Best Actress prize. Yet, making the film as well as juggling other projects including another stage show for Liza Minnelli was starting to strain Fosse just as he was about to mount one of his most successful projects in a musical play called Chicago that some called one of his crowning achievements.

All That Jazz

Despite all of the success he’s garnered in film and theatre, Fosse was burned out as he would stage another musical production in 1978’s Dancin’ that won him another Tony for its choreography. Still, the experience of trying to stage Chicago and edit Lenny in 1974 forced him to create a project that would reflect not just his manic creativity but also his near-flirtation with death. Teaming up with writer Robert Alan Aurthur in creating a script, the film would be a mixture of fantasy vs. reality as well as the struggle to make art as it would revolve around a workaholic director trying to finish a film as well as a stage a musical production. There, he would have several encounters with the Angel of Death while living on the edge as he stubbornly tries to work as well as do other self-destructive habits that would eventually catch up with him.

While he retained a few of his collaborators in editor Alan Heim, music composer Ralph Burns, and costume designer Albert Wolksy as well as a few of his theatre collaborators in actors Ben Vereen and Ann Reinking as the latter was his girlfriend at the time. The cast would also include Leland Palmer, John Lithgow, Erzsebet Foldi, and Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death while the lead role of Joe Gideon was given to Roy Scheider. To shoot the film, Fosse brought in renowned cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno who had worked with Federico Fellini in recent years as Fosse cited Fellini as a key influence in the film. The production was ambitious though the budget of $12 million was small in comparison to the budget of his first film. Especially as it played into many of the things Fosse faced in his life as he was trying to slow things down.

Following another extensive post-production period, the film was finally released in December of 1979 where it drew rave reviews as well as grossing $37 million in the U.S. box office giving Fosse another hit. Months later, the film would win four Oscars for its costume design, art direction, music, and editing while receiving five more including Best Picture and Best Director for Fosse. In May of 1980, Fosse showcased the film at the Cannes Film Festival where it share the festival’s top prize in the Palme d’Or with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. While the film did maintain Fosse’s stature as a top figure in entertainment, the specter of death still loomed over him as another project relating to the film in a documentary about why people want to perform fell apart as it would be one of many Fosse would abandon.

Star 80

After a break between projects, Fosse decided to make another film that explored the dark aspects of fame and celebrity as he had been intrigued about the life and death of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten who had been killed in a murder suicide by her husband/manager Paul Snider in August of 1980. Despite the fact that a 1981 made-for-TV movie was made about Stratten that starred Jamie Lee Curtis in the role, Fosse chose to adapt his own version based on Teresa Carpenter’s Village Voice article that won her the Pulitzer Prize. Knowing that certain legalities would prevent him from using certain names including filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who had been involved with Stratten in her final days. Fosse still wanted to tell the story about Stratten as well as her troubled relationship with Snider.

With collaborators in editor Alan Heim, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and music composer Ralph Burns taking part in the production, Fosse received the services of the famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot the film as it would be set on location in Los Angeles and Vancouver as Stratten was from the latter. With a cast that would include Carroll Baker as Stratten’s mother, Cliff Robertson as Hugh Hefner, and Roger Rees in his film debut as a fictionalized version of Peter Bogdanovich. Mariel Hemingway was cast as Dorothy Stratten while Eric Roberts was cast as Paul Snider. With a $12 million budget, the film was presented in an unconventional narrative as it is told through flashbacks, interviews, and other events as it opens with a bloody Snider looking over Stratten’s corpse. Fosse wanted to play into the concept of jealousy and obsession as it relates to Snider being left out while Stratten would mature and find a happier life outside of his control that was unfortunately brief.

The film made its U.S. premiere in November of 1983 where despite excellent reviews including raves for Eric Roberts, the film was a commercial disappointment only grossing $6 million. Months later at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival that February, the film played in competition for the Golden Bear where it was well-received but didn’t win anything. The film would unfortunately be the last feature film Fosse would make in his lifetime as he was dealing with health issues in the remaining years of his life.

Unrealized Projects & Final Years

In 1986, Fosse would stage what would be his last Broadway musical in a production called Big Deal that was based on the 1958 Mario Monicelli film Big Deal on Madonna Street. The musical was well-received as Fosse another Tony Award for Best Choreography as well as four more nominations yet the show only lasted for 69 performances as Fosse was already considering about focusing more on films rather than musical theatres. While he had been attached to direct The King of Comedy, he passed on it despite its subject matter as he was also approached to do a remake of The Bad and the Beautiful but it never materialized. Other projects Fosse turned down was a film version of Dick Tracy and a bio-pic on cult actress Edie Sedgwick that was to star Michelle Pfeiffer in the role with Al Pacino as Andy Warhol.

Among the projects Fosse was interested in helming to the big screen was a bio-pic on the gossip columnist Walter Winchell as it played into Fosse’s fascination with the dark side of fame and celebrity. The other project that Fosse wanted to make into a film was a film version of his most celebrated musical Chicago just as it had returned to Broadway to great success. Sadly, neither projects would materialize as Fosse died of a heart attack on September 23, 1987 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

It’s been 30 years since the passing of Bob Fosse yet his influence in theatre, dance, and film still remains just as the musical has been getting a resurgence in the world of film. Though his work in film is small, his contribution to the medium is still vital and important as he’s managed to influence so many not just in musicals but also other genres where filmmakers note his contribution and what it meant to them. Even as Fosse was someone that wasn’t afraid to go into dark places and make it entertaining as well as create something that is magical in an era where it was about pure entertainment. Even if it isn’t safe as Bob Fosse never played it safe as it’s a big reason why remains so important to the world of entertainment.

© thevoid99 2016


Dell said...

It's crazy that I've only seen Star '80 which seems like a rather un-Fosse type of film. I mentioned a little while back I need to see Cabaret. Sounds like I've got a few more to add to that.

thevoid99 said...

Fosse is the go-to guy for great musicals but also explore that dark world of fame which is why if you see all of his films. There a lot of similarities to what he's saying about fame but also in how there is that need to live a fantasy but also deal with reality.