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Mondays with Roy Scheider: All that Jazz (1979)

One trend which remained throughout our look at the career of Roy Scheider is consistency. He’s an understated workhorse, rarely glitzy or glamorous. He’s a stalwart, consistent performer often charged with setting up more colorful characters. Roy Scheider is the prototypical “straight man” of 1970s cinema.

However, looking over the scope of his career, one thing becomes clear. He tackled each role with grace and poise, endearing his work to generations of film audiences. It didn’t matter the part, it didn’t matter the film, Roy Scheider always brought his A-game.

For this final week in November, I wanted to take a look at one of the most “un-Roy Scheider” performances of the bunch. All That Jazz shows a different side of this cinematic workhorse. All of a sudden, the rough and understated Scheider earns a chance to be big, brash, and to… sing and dance! The musical allows him a huge change of pace. Is he able to live up to the challenge? Well, read on cats and kittens.

All That Jazz is a loose biopic of legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (who also served as a director on the film). Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon (the Fosse stand-in). The story follows as Gideon spirals through life not only trying to edit a feature film he’s directing but also stage a new Broadway musical. Jessica Lange, Anne Reinking, John Lithgow, Leland Palmer, and Max Wright co-star in All That Jazz. As mentioned, Fosse directs the movie from a script he co-wrote with Robert Alan Arthur.

Watching All That Jazz, the film leaps out as a definite rarity in Scheider’s career, especially in the 1970s. He’d spent the decade working in action films, dramas, and police procedurals. Coming in 1979, All That Jazz is still very 70s (coming with more than its fair share of the decade’s trademark grit…). After all, Bob Fosse directs this backstage musical. He is one of the titans of the American stage. The only way this movie gets more “Broadway” is if Fosse starred in it himself.

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In fact, Scheider thrives in this challenging part. He’d spent the previous decade playing complex men who are decidedly rough around the edges. As Joe Gideon, this is still the case. He’s a workaholic. He’s a chronic adulterer. His health is hanging on by a thread. However, Scheider has no issues injecting the flash and charisma necessary to play this man. Would you expect Chief Brody to throw himself into a music number? No, you wouldn’t, but it works! He’s charasmatic and he’s likable as anything despite his flaws. This is also important because we have to understand why these women stay with Joe. Audiences have to understand his appeal as he’s blazing a fiery trail throughout the narrative.

All That Jazz wasn’t a first-time watch for me, but at the same time, it has probably been ten years since my last viewing. It turns out, this is yet another film that benefits from age and perspective. For lack of a better word, the narrative is a trippy examination of not only Fosse’s legacy, but his own mortality. The story gets particularly surreal into the third act after Gideon suffers a heart attack. My previous viewings of this movie admittedly were confused, especially surrounding the finale. However, this time through I found myself captivated by Fosse’s courage as a creator. The film is raw, it’s personal and it leaves nothing unsaid. When all is said and done it is a truly beautiful product.

While All That Jazz‘s focus is most assuredly Gideon, the movie leaves nothing to be desired in supporting roles often labeled themselves thankless in similar movies. Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking portray Audrey Paris and Kate Jagger respectively, as Gideon’s wife and girlfriend.

With a character as tenacious and self-absorbed as Gideon, the women in his life automatically fall into the “ever-suffering” category. They’ve been taking everything on the chin from him for years as he steamrolls through life, and indulges in each and every personal vice he has. However, these women are equally as important in the narrative. We understand them. Paris (who is a stand-in for Gwen Verdon) isn’t just Gideon’s struggling wife. She’s a talented actress and dancer. Through everything, Audrey is desperate to be taken seriously as a performer, but at the same time, she’s deeply insecure. She’s a working woman with her own story, but despite everything, she loves her jerk of a husband.

The same is true of Reinking who is absolutely magnetic on-screen. It’s impossible to tear your eyes from her when she’s doing what she does best (see the number above). Like Audrey, Kate is a woman with a career and a life of her own. However, she’s also at a different stage in life. You can’t help but see that her story is very similar to Audrey’s, but they are at different stages in life. Essentially, Kate shows us Audrey before the years of marriage to Joe took their toll.

The film is of course dripping with all the Fosse goodness, making this a necessary viewing for fans of the stage legend. The look of the film, the development of Joe Gideon as a character, down to the costuming and choreography of the show… everything about it is pure and unadulterated Fosse, warts and all.

This is the final installment in our birthday tribute to Roy Scheider. A legend of New Hollywood, Scheider worked prolifically over his more than fifty-year career and pop-culture now holds up so many of these works as essentials, from The French Connection to Klute and especially Jaws. He’s been gone for more than ten years now, but the contributions of this understated gem of a performer should never be forgotten..

Be sure to come back in December as we look at the career of Martin Milner.

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