Bob Fosse (1927 – 1987) celebrated the sexuality of female dancers. But he did not ignore the allure of men in his projects, creating compelling, sensual roles for male dancers in Damn Yankees, Pippin, and Chicago, shows that caught the complexities of sexual attraction. In his film masterpiece All That Jazz (1979) a glance between a producer and a young male dancer speaks as much about the sexual and power attraction between them as the story line about the dynamic between Joe Gideon (a thinly disguised version of Fosse), and a female dancer.
Fosse was solidly straight, but after Pippin opened in 1972, he bravely wrote:
“Always before, if I found a male dancer that I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there’. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show a kind of individuality, and they were so happy about it, I think it helped the show.“
He was a brazenly heterosexual director/choreographer who had little trouble admitting his own anxieties about gayness as a youth. In an interview with After Dark in 1980, Fosse said:
“There were many men I found really attractive. I sometimes thought: ‘Is there some latent tendency in me I’m unaware of?’ But I never found it a big problem for me, never.“
Fosse is a fascinating subject: a perfectionist who seemed determined to drive himself into an early final curtain call. He won nine Tony Awards for his stage work before moving to films, perhaps the perfect medium for his considerable talent.
In a shocking surprise, Fosse, and not the favored Francis Ford Coppola, won the Academy Award for Best Director in 1973 (for Cabaret). He was nominated for four more Oscars. Fosse also won an Emmy Award for the television special Liza With A Z and the Tony for Pippin that year, the only time in history that a person has won all three of the big awards in the same year, and the only person to have won all three awards in the category of Best Director.
People seem to think that All That Jazz is his take on his life story, but I find it more of a fantasy and a meditation on death. It is one of my favorite films. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
His work from the 1950s to the 1980s, revealed his world to be a place of bright lights and deep shadows; his subject was often showbiz itself. He understood both the positive and negative powers of the business. Fosse’s world is all about tension: spectacular pleasure set against cynicism, exploitation, and hypocrisy.
After an era that preferred graceful, grand gestures, Fosse’s choreography, a repository of American popular dance history, often looked back at dance from the early 20th century, drawing from Burlesque and Vaudeville; his dancers slouched and used strange postures and shapes, emphasizing small movements, which were repeated. These gestures were borrowed directly from the worlds of work, sports, puppetry, ventriloquism, even of the military, turning his dances into a kind of social satire of the post-war USA.
In the early 20th century, dance acts would perform in Vaudeville theaters all over the USA. By the 1930s, film musicals, the Great Depression, and radio all killed Vaudeville. What had been a family entertainment was now a theatre form frequented primarily by men. The acts were exotic dancers and strippers, who were the focus of the audience; and Vaudeville became Burlesque. Other, more wholesome acts were often interspersed between the dirty stuff.
In Chicago Burlesque theatres in the early 1940s, young Fosse first started performing tamer dance numbers. The tawdry atmosphere backstage at the theatres, where he sometimes felt uncomfortable as a teenager among older women who performed by taking off their clothes, greatly influenced his work.
His talent as a dancer brought him first to Broadway and then, in 1953, to Hollywood. Fosse arrived at the apex of the fame of virile Gene Kelly. Kelly was known for striking athletic poses and emphasizing the power and prowess of the body, but Fosse’s choreography was inspired by the concentrated elegance of Fred Astaire and the eccentric moves of the Vaudeville performers he had loved growing up.
When Fosse choreographed Stanley Donen’s film version of The Pajama Game (1957), a tuneful musical about American labor unions, his Steam Heat number features dancers with what would become the signature “Fosse Look”: bowler hats, spats and suits, imitating steam valves and dancing in unison to form a kind of human assembly line, all pelvic thrusts, hunched shoulders, and turned-in feet. Instead of Kelly’s clean athletic lines, Fosse’s dancers are twitchy with the marks of the world of machines and work. Dancing in the typical postwar American musical was usually meant to express rugged individualism. Fosse’s dancers all wear the same costume and move as if they were all parts of one machine. The movements are quotations, not the expression of dancers’ individual selves. Fosse dancers are sexy but not unique. In Sweet Charity, Fosse satirized popular American dances of the late 1960s, like the Frug, exaggerating them so that the dancers end up expressing not individuality but conformism.
When the film version of Sweet Charity was made in 1969, big musicals were passé, and Sweet Charity bombed at the box-office and it was years before Fosse made another film. When he did, it was Cabaret, where his themes mature from social satire to an urgent critique of showbiz as a dangerous distraction.
During a number written by John Kander and Fred Ebb just for the film, Mein Herr, performed by Liza Minnelli, the movements and gestures of the Kit Kat girls around her begin as erotic poses, but they become more uncomfortable, then degrading, and finally with the women on all fours beating with their hands on the stage as if they are marching feet. It is a version of 1930s German society in transition from sexual freedom to a dictatorship.
Lenny (1975), Fosse’s biopic of controversial comic Lenny Bruce, is another project critiquing a society that chooses to escape into meaningless entertainment rather than acknowledge its corruption and alienation. It is the same theme as the original Broadway production of Chicago (1975): the inability of a society obsessed with fame to tell the truth from the lie. Fosse understood the way that showbiz and politics were already intertwining and had been since 1920s Chicago and 1930s Berlin, so that justice and facts took a back seat to whatever people could be tricked into believing in. Fosse was made for our current era.
Fosse’s direction and choreography are both a celebration and a critique. Even as he criticized entertainment as “razzle dazzle” meant to distract and misdirect, he never stopped trying to show how musical entertainment could also reveal this alienation. After all, there was magic to do and all that jazz.
Fosse left this world on September 23, 1987, taken by a heart attack after collapsing on a DC sidewalk when he was on his way to the final dress rehearsal for a revival of Sweet Charity. He was just 60 years old but had maybe lived a little too much.
Fosse married three times, all were dancers: they were poor Mary Ann Niles, tragic Joan McCracken and most famously, the fabulous Gwen Verdon, who was his equal, muse and creative partner. He met Ann Reinking during the Broadway run of Pippin, and they had an on-again-off-again romantic relationship for a decade. They continued to have a professional, creative collaboration until his passing. Throughout the 1970s, Fosse also had an affair with Jessica Lange. All his women were very loyal to him and to his work. Reinking, Lange and Verdon all appear in All That Jazz.