Day 43: Fosse’s fancy footwork is BTS

In the cabaret of Fosse masterpieces, death and eroticism are old chums that can’t keep their hands — and rhythmic heels — off each other. 

Conjure up an iconic moment from any film in Bob Fosse’s oeuvre — from the slinky gyrations and vocal bravura of Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) in the bowels of the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret” to the feverish exertions of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in the back-to-back showstoppers escalating into the climax of “All That Jazz” — and you’ll be hard-pressed to miss that maniacal display of virtuosity and neediness and damn fine footwork. It’s a mix that has not only induced many a cinephile’s le petite mort but also reveals a lesser-known guise of Fosse: a pimp with a heart of darkness. 

Desire is a pimp’s stock-in-trade and, in Fosse’s case, his drug of choice as well. In “Cabaret” (1972), a musical reworking of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories which set out to juxtapose the socio-political tenor of 1931 Weimar society with the smoky, kitschy milieu of a Berlin nightspot on the eve of German Nazism, Sally Bowles is a young American performer hoping to break out of the Kit Kat Klub and make the silver screen her stage as a UFA movie star. Sally is doggedly driven by need and neediness, often blurring indistinctly into each other. It’s the hunger to both dazzle and seduce her faceless, nameless audience that sustains Sally and ultimately makes her a casualty of the Weimar-variety sex, drugs and rock n’ roll she’s become chummy with. 

What’s remarkable about Sally (as played by Minelli, so staggeringly pitch- and pathos-perfect for the role that she’s never fully recovered from it post-”Cabaret”) is the dichotomy of charming naivete and seasoned worldliness in her inevitable descent. Who else is she, really, but Holly Golightly’s enfant terrible half who’s not above choreographing her own moral collapse to realize her potential (or legitimize her self-perception) as an artist. She beatifically surveys the carnage that is herself, buttressing her tenuous grasp on sanity by ricocheting between the affections of two men as the debris continues to pile up from under her. It’s a vision both macabre and captivating: Sally and her Kit Kat cohorts chanting “Wilkommen! Bienvenus! Welcome!” and morphing into goose-stepping Nazi soldiers. When Sylvia Plath, who fashioned her own dramatic exit within years of the film’s release, penned “Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you,” she couldn’t have crafted a more prescient postcard-quality bon mot. 

Sex, genius and self-destruction are again in play and transparently more so in Fosse’s thinly veiled autobiographical masterpiece celebrating his own larger-than-life persona, “All That Jazz” (1979). Film critic Peter Hemp calls Joe Gideon “not a character but a stage name”. Indeed. It is no accident that Fosse bathes his alter ego in reflected doubled images in case viewers miss the parallels. Gideon glories in his excesses — from his carnival of inamoratas to the madman’s passion for his art to more mundane types of poison — and expects the audience to drink in every abuse and be mesmerized by it. And for the most part, we do and we are. It is a testament to Fosse’s talent, which he pulls no punches in flaunting in this sensual overload of musical and choreographic delights. Quite simply, it’s all in a day’s work: Gideon works, fucks, gets high, and chainsmokes himself to death, literally. The angel of death pays Gideon a visit who, to no one’s surprise, can’t quite resist his charms. 

Fosse’s footwork might have gotten the ink — and deservedly so — in accounts of his cinematic legacy but it is his oceanographer’s investigation — and celebration — of the nether regions of the human id that need to be discovered. After all, it’s that cabaret the old chum has always invited us to.

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