Saturday, December 20, 2014

'All That Jazz' Told a Creative Tale

"It's showtime, folks!"

Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider)

I remember seeing "All That Jazz" for the first time. After I saw it, I earnestly believed it should be the Best Picture winner. At the time, I thought it was the most creative movie of 1979. Still do, for that matter.

If that was the only factor in choosing a Best Picture, then I would believe, as I did when the Academy Awards were given out the following spring, that "All That Jazz" got robbed. But I have come to realize that there are many factors to consider, and, if I had to choose the Best Picture of 1979 today, I probably would go along with the choice that was made ("Kramer vs. Kramer").

The absence of a Best Picture statuette took nothing away from "All That Jazz," which received nine Oscar nominations — and it did win four of them (Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing).

It did well in the technical categories, but it came up empty in the major awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor — and that is where it lost the battle to "Kramer vs. Kramer."

I was really impressed with "All That Jazz." As I have written here before, the era of the Hollywood musical really ended in the '60s and, with the exception of 2002's "Chicago," practically no musical has been so well received by both critics and garden–variety moviegoers since. "All That Jazz" was an exception — in a sense. I mean, it was pretty well received by critics and did reasonably well at the box office, but it suffered from the audience's general fatigue with heavy movies in the late 1970s. It fell far short, for example, of the public's reception of the more light–hearted "Grease" the year before.

The movie was director Bob Fosse's semi–autobiographical account of his life — and anticipation of what the end would be like for him (he died in 1987). He wasn't too far off. Like his lead character, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), he died of a heart attack.

Joe Gideon was motivated by his work, but he never felt that he measured up. That was at the heart of a conversation he had with Angelique (Jessica Lange), the angel of death.

"Nothing I ever do is good enough," Gideon said. "Not beautiful enough, it's not funny enough, it's not deep enough, it's not anything enough. Now, when I see a rose, that's perfect. I mean, that's perfect. I want to look up to God and say, 'How the hell did you do that? And why the hell can't I do that?'"

Angelique, who had probably heard it all before, replied, "Now that's probably one of your better con lines."

"Yeah, it is," he answered. "But that doesn't mean I don't mean it."

"All That Jazz" was filled with moments like that.

I guess the word that best described Joe Gideon was driven. It was why he took daily doses of amphetamines — so he could juggle his work on his Broadway show and a movie he was editing. He was just as driven in the other direction, though. A hard–drinking, chain–smoking, drug–abusing, womanizing sort, Joe was burning both ends of his candle with blowtorches. At some point, the movie's viewers realized where the movie was inevitably taking them. It was just a matter of time before Gideon's reckless lifestyle would land him in the hospital — or the cemetery.

En route, the audience watched him try to gain the approval of the backers for the content of the show, which became considerably more risque than the backers had anticipated.

Joe Gideon was always pushing boundaries.

It occurred to me once, as I was reflecting on "All That Jazz" after watching it for the umpteenth time, that Joe Gideon was probably one of those people who was told from a young age that he was special, gifted, and he would do — and be — great things.

I'm not sure if parents who tell their children such things do them any favors. In some, it may serve as catalyst to achievement, but in most, I fear, it may only encourage a sense of entitlement, a conviction that the rules and natural laws that apply to others do not apply to them. At the very least, excessive praise for things that deserve little, if any, praise fosters a belief that little effort is required from them. It gives them little to shoot for and often seems to lead them down a self–destructive path.

I have no children so what I say on this may be irrelevant, but I have come to the conclusion that it is best to let children discover for themselves what their strengths and weaknesses are and try to nudge them toward their strengths. Encourage them to confront and overcome their weaknesses — and let them learn for themselves what their talents are.

I understand parents who want to boost their children's self–esteem, but sometimes there is a fine line between self–esteem and self–absorption.

Of course, I don't know what kind of parents Joe Gideon had — but we can get a pretty good idea what kind of parent he was.

Mostly an absent one.

Viewers never saw Joe Gideon in a domestic setting. His marriage had already ended by the time the movie began, and his interactions with his daughter were confined to his workplace and his weekends with her, not a day–to–day existence.

I was very impressed with Erzebet Foldi, the young girl who played Scheider's daughter (but never, to my knowledge, appeared in another movie again). Only 13 when the movie came out, Foldi's character was the one who succeeded — sort of — in keeping Scheider's character grounded.

But she and her mother often seemed to be living in a different world from Joe. They both vividly recalled one of his conquests — "the blonde with the television show" — but he couldn't remember her name.

Perhaps more than any other time in my memory, the movies of 1979 paid attention, indirectly if not directly, to the plights of the children of divorce. Justin Henry of "Kramer vs. Kramer" became the youngest person ever nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and lost to perhaps the oldest, Melvyn Douglas) for his portrayal of a child torn by the divorce of his parents. Foldi's character had already been through that; in "All That Jazz," we got to see how she was coping with the aftermath.

I always thought one of the most engaging scenes in the movie came when Foldi and Joe's girlfriend (Ann Reinking) performed a song–and–dance routine to "Everything Old Is New Again."