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Mondays with Roy Scheider: All that Jazz (1979)

One trend which has remained throughout our look at the career of Roy Scheider is consistency. As a performer, he can best be described as an understated workhorse. He’s rarely glitzy or glamorous. He’s a stalwart often tasked with setting up more colorful characters.

However, he tackled everything with grace and poise which endeared him to generations of film audiences. It didn’t matter the part, it didn’t matter the film, he 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 workhorse of an actor. All of a sudden, the rough and understated Scheider is given a chance to be big, brash and to… sing and dance! He’s granted a huge change of pace in the musical drama and is he able to live up to the challenge? Well, read on you crazy kids.

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, this is While All That Jazz is very 70s (coming with more than a fair share of that 70s grit…) it’s a backstage musical directed by Bob Fosse, one of the titans of the American stage.

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 still the case. He’s a workaholic. He’s a chronic adulterer. His health is hanging on by a thread. However, Scheider has no struggles injecting the flash and charisma inherent in the character. Would you expect Chief Brody to throw himself into a musical number? No, you wouldn’t, but it works! This is also important because Gideon we have to understand why people stay with Joe. Audiences have to get his appeal as he’s blazing a fiery trail through his life throughout the narrative.

It is in this complexity that Scheider’s casting becomes immediately apparent. The depth Scheider brings to a character is something we wouldn’t see in the hands of another actor and certainly in another era of storytelling. He brings Gideon

All That Jazz wasn’t a first-time watch for me, but at the same time, it has probably been ten years since I last watched it. 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. I will admit, my previous viewings of this movie were confused into the third act. 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 and it results in a beautiful product.

While All That Jazz’s focus is most assuredly Gideon, the supporting performances in the movie leave nothing to be desired in roles which could often find themselves thankless in similar movies. Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking portray Audrey Paris and Kate Jagger respectively, 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 works, steamrolls through life and indulges in each and every personal vice he has. However, the film is equally invested in these characters. Paris (who is a stand-in for Gwen Verdon) isn’t just Gideon’s struggling wife. She’s a talented actress and dancer. She wants to be taken seriously through everything, but at the same time she’s insecure. She’s a working woman with her own story. Despite everything, she loves her 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 on. 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 likely similar to Audrey, they are at different stages in life. Kate is Audrey before years of being married to Joe. The acknowledgement of these women as characters and individuals is refreshing to see as the women in these stories aren’t often granted the same privilege.

The film is of course dripping with all the Fosse goodness, which makes 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 our final installment in our birthday tribute to Roy Scheider. A legend of New Hollywood, Schedier worked prolifically over his more than fifty year career. So many of his movies are now held up as essentials, from The French Connection, to Klute and especially Jaws. He was an understated gem of a performer whose contributions shouldn’t be forgotten.

Come back in December as we look at the career of Martin Milner.

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Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Critic for Geek Girl Authority.

Twitter: @kpierce624
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