Theatre in Film Series: All That Jazz (1979)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

August 6, 2016

Have a love affair with theatre and film? Me too! It’s an ongoing relationship that’s a thrill to have, and Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series celebrates the great films that effectively depict a life in the theatre. Part III in our ongoing tribute to theatre-centric cinema begins with Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz from 1979.

All That Jazz (1979)

Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, and Ann Reinking

What happens:

Theatre director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is in the middle of working on his latest Broadway musical while trying to cut together a Hollywood film he’s directed. Gideon smokes and drinks his way through rehearsals and begins every day with a dose of Dexedrine, Alka-Seltzer, and Visine. His continuous escapades with different women frustrate his ex-wife (Leland Palmer) and current girlfriend (Ann Reinking), and in numerous fantasies, he flirts with an angel of death named Angelique (Jessica Lange). Gideon is rushed to the hospital when he complains of chest pains during a table read. He’s mandated to stay at the hospital for three to four weeks. After negative reviews for his film are released, Gideon has a massive coronary and is rushed in for bypass surgery during which he dreams scenes from his life. In his final moments, his death is shown in a large variety show featuring people from his life, each of them wishing him well as he says goodbye.

Why it matters:

All That Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film, was directed and co-written by Bob Fosse. Though Fosse couldn’t predict his own death, he would die eight years later meeting the fate of his character Gideon — a heart attack. He died after the final dress rehearsal of the Sweet Charity revival in 1987. His cast wasn’t told of his death until after the opening night’s performance of Sweet Charity had concluded on that following day. Fosse’s legacy as a director is manifested in All That Jazz: his choreography, his passion, his drive, and his desire for absolute perfection.

The most striking aspect of this film is its accurate portrayal of the audition and rehearsal process — and how that process can sometimes take a toll on artists, from the producers to the director to the performers.

One of the most famous scenes in the film is the opening sequence in which dancers audition for Gideon’s Broadway show. Hundreds of performers dance onstage in unison, all led by Gideon’s dance captain. We see dancers warming up, actors watching others while they attempt to memorize the steps, dancers practicing moves, and Gideon quietly telling some that they’re no longer needed. The way in which this scene is edited together mimics the way an audition process sometimes feels: quick and not long enough to show your worth.

Following the casting process, Gideon’s drinking and amphetamine intake increases as he tries to cope with the stress of editing his film and directing his show. His collapse is something that some actors and dancers feel emotionally after a long and stressful rehearsal process. Other times, our bodies literally give out when we haven’t given ourselves enough time to bounce back between shows — we experience fatigue, chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and illness. If we’re lucky, our bodies can hold out long enough to get through the closing night of a show; adrenaline helps us push through aches and pains. But if work is constant, and there’s never a recuperation period, disaster can strike.  If nothing else, All That Jazz reminds us that our health comes first as artists and that our bodies and voices are valuable, irreplaceable tools.

Below are three videos: the first features the opening scene from All That Jazz in which dancers audition for Gideon’s Broadway show, the second is B-reel from the film in which Bob Fosse directs actors in that same audition scene, and the third is the ABC Nightly News obituary that played following Fosse’s death on September 23, 1987.

This film is the first featured in Part III of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part III.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933). Didn’t get to read Part II? Begin with The Band Wagon (1953).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from All That Jazz. Copyright © 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures, 1979.