3. Star 80 (1983)
Bob Fosse’s final film Star 80 adapts “The Death of a Playmate” by Teresa Carpenter, telling the true story of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemmingway), whose rise to fame and success was cut tragically short by her murder at the hands of her jealous promoter/sleazeball boyfriend Paul (Eric Roberts).
This is probably Fosse’s darkest and most upsetting film given its grim subject matter and the age of the vulnerable young woman at its centre, and this isn’t veiled in an over-abundance of style either. It’s like the director knew that Stratten’s story deserved to stand on its own.
Dorothy only had around a year in the limelight, and though it was ultimately her decision to leave her home in Canada for a life of glamour and fame in Los Angeles, it’s clear from the off that she never really stood a chance in this world.
We fall for Dorothy as every man she meets does, largely due to Mariel Hemmingway’s wide-eyed but resilient performance. Unfortunately for her, every man she meets – Paul, Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), film director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) – manipulates and exploits her to various extents, making sure her life is never truly her own, and the film drags them over the coals for this.
No wonder Hugh Hefner condemned Star 80 upon its release over his portrayal, because the culture and uneven power dynamics surrounding those who resided and worked at the Playboy Mansion do not come off well. Cliff Robertson is a Machiavellian Hefner, but Eric Roberts is never better as the ultimate pathetic, toxic man who feels the world owes him something just because he can talk the talk, his increasing derangement and its inevitable consequences truly horrifying to witness.
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2. Sweet Charity (1969)
An all-singing, all-dancing take on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria follows the tumultuous love life of Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine), a down-on-her-luck dancer at a seedy club in New York. After surviving her gangster boyfriend trying to drown her, she provides an ageing Hollywood star (Ricardo Montalban) a night of unglamorous entertainment before meeting perhaps the love of her life, the mild-mannered Oscar (John McMartin).
If there’s a film that best typifies Bob Fosse’s style of orchestrating a dance sequence, then it’s Sweet Charity.
The astonishing “Rich Man’s Frug” dance spectacular from the first act alone earns Sweet Charity its place near the top of this list. The story stops dead for around ten minutes as a group of impeccably dressed dancers take to the floor and show off every Fosse trademark movement – all elbows, knees, exaggerated postures and impossibly quick transitions. Even if you’re not familiar with the musical, the number of bangers you actually know from “Big Spender” to “If They Could See Me Now” and “Rhythm of Life” can take you by surprise.
Charity may be the character who is easiest to root for, and most difficult to sit and watch be hurt time and time again, among Fosse’s filmography. MacLaine gets the balance of humour and pathos just right for a tough life lived as happily as possible, and all credit to her. Despite romantic ups and downs, and an elitist system set against her making something better of her life, she always gets back up, dusts herself off and moves on to the next thing. None of that makes seeing her true happiness slip through her fingers again any less devastating, however.
Sweet Charity is not a typical feature debut, that’s for sure. Despite having leaped from one medium to another, and marshalling large theatre productions being very different to a film set, Fosse butted heads with producers to keep his creative vision for the film version of Charity’s story intact. He even filmed an alternative happy ending to placate them that was ultimately thrown out.
The final film appears to be Fosse doing a big-screen Broadway musical in a vividly colourful if fairly conventional Hollywood style until he throws in attention-grabbing, reality-puncturing camera moves and adjourns the main story to stage his unmistakable extended dance numbers. Sweet Charity was dismissed by critics at the time and was a flop at the box office, but it has since been reappraised as a minor classic, gaining a loyal following among musical fans, Shirley MacLaine fans, and fans of bittersweet romances alike.
1. Cabaret (1972)
Cabaret is a grounded and gritty musical (how many more of those can you think of?) following the complicated relationship between English teacher Brian Roberts (Michael York) and American Carabet performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) in Weimar Berlin with the Nazi Party on the rise. Germany is changing, and before long Brian and Sally’s bohemian lifestyle includes the rich Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) and sweeps up two of Brian’s students, Fritz and Natalia (Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson), whose tentative love affair is soon to be forbidden.
Fundamentally changing the form and function of the original 1960s stage musical that was inspired by the work of Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret is an indelible, iconic slap in the face of a movie that ditches most of its stage musical trappings to keep things immediate and connective.
Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey are our two guides in this world, and the two biggest draws of the film if we’re being honest. The former is a dazzlingly bright star exploding with energy on stage and exposing hidden vulnerabilities in private, and the latter impishly manipulates the story as the Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub, bawdily linking vignettes and deftly weaving the story threads together.
Unusually for a big screen musical, reality is kept in check and every song and dance number is confined to a stage. There is no non-diegetic music here; the audience in the Kit Kat Klub is experiencing everything as we are, and the only way for characters to express their inner-most dreams, desires and turmoil is either to belt it out to a room of paying customers (if you’re Sally) or to quietly seethe (if you’re Brian).
There’s so much substance in Cabaret beyond the normally far more heightened reality of a musical. Signs of the rise of the Nazis, dismissed as simple thugs by an arrogant German aristocracy chiefly represented by the preening Max, slowly creep into the background until the film’s horrifying turning point, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. On a bright sunny day at a country inn, an angelic boy begins to sing what seems like a cheery folk song before it twists and deforms before our eyes and ears into a rallying cry for a pure Fatherland, and an alarming number of the watching audience lend their voices to the ferocious harmonies. From this point on, roughly halfway through the film, the message is clear: nothing will every be the same again for any of these characters.
Cabaret hits like a train not just because of its impeccable staging and pitch-perfect performances, but because it provides entertainment, heart and sheer terror in equal measure. It throws you in at the deep end of a unstoppable shifting tide of history and makes you hope that you can remember some of the good times now shrouded behind the ever-building darkness. Sweet Charity and All That Jazz might have been more personal films to Bob Fosse, but Cabaret is the one that lasts, and only gains in power with every passing generation.
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Agree with our ranking? How many of Bob Fosse’s short but scintillating filmography have you seen? Do you prefer his musicals or his deep dives into the darkness of the entertainment industry? Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for many more insightful movie lists.