I saw Bob Fosse’s masterpiece “All That Jazz” for the umpteenth time (as Mamaw used to say) today at the Secret Movie Club @ The Vista Theatre in Los Feliz and, as usual, it did not disappoint. I had seen it on the big screen once before, years back at LACMA’s Bing Theatre, and recently purchased tickets again, but missed it, due to a bout of bronchitis. All That Jazz is, without question, my all time favorite film. There is nothing like the way it makes me feel and the memories it triggers.
Back in the day, I went to summer theatre camp. One year, we were lucky enough to have a former principal dancer from San Francisco Ballet join the ranks as our dance instructor, who saw my potential and quickly took me under her wing. I was already a musical theatre lover and soon I fell in love with dance as well. Not long after, I checked out All That Jazz on VHS from the public library - which was surprising as I was growing up in a somewhat small town in Upper East Tennessee, the film was R-rated, had topless women, an infamously sexy dance number, and that library was a stone’s throw from “Church Circle” which was, exactly as it sounds, a major roundabout that had a different Protestant church at ever point along the circle.
I remember watching that movie over and over on repeat. The film solidified my instinct to move to New York City and pursue theatre. It showed me that a kind of life I never could’ve imagined could be mine. At this point, I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen the film. I own it on DVD, and can nerd out with the best of them on minute details from the film. Case in point: In 1987, during my first year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, I went to see Twyla Tharp’s Company perform In The Upper Room, a stunning work with a score by Phillip Glass. Of course, all I cared about was seeing Erzsebet Foldi, who played Michelle Gideon (essentially, Nicole Fosse), who was a member of Tharp’s ensemble. I was electrified to see the little girl that I remembered from that film, now an adult, dazzling as ever, in that breathtaking work by Tharp/Glass.
Rewind to my first acting class at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts - September 1987 - and my first semester acting teacher, Jacqueline Solotar, who I instantly recognized as playing the “Autograph Seeker” in a restaurant scene with John Lithgow from the film. She and I really butted heads that semester. Mainly about background character work she wanted which, from my perspective was secondary to the fact that I had to work to pay the rent and was one of only two students in her class who was not living at home. Part of our homework was to build out the history of each of our characters, writing a biography, going to the Picture Annex of the New York Public Library and literally photocopying photos of our childhood home, a bicycle, our dog, etc. All of which sounded like a fun part of the process, but, working double shifts sometimes got in the way. I was never able to finish as much as I had liked and she pretty consistently dogged me, stating that my class prep was too basic. She pushed me so hard, to the point where we finally had a BLOW OUT in front of the entire class, ending in me saying, “Really? Did you write a 30-page background for the four stupid lines you had as the “Autograph Seeker” in All That Jazz?!?” (Remember, this was pre-IMdb/Internet, so NO ONE in our class knew that she had been in that film except for me, and we had never discussed it in class). Well, you could’ve heard a pin drop. I had crossed a LINE. After a painfully awkward beat, she replied, “Yes. Yes, I did in fact. And that’s because I hold myself accountable for building an entire life for any character I play. Big or small.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist). Seeing the film again today, I realized how right she was - the theatre audience erupted in laughter at her perfect characterization. She was perfect in that role, as were all of the incredible actors that built the fabric of that film. Even the genius Wallace Shawn, who only had one line, got less laughs than Jacquie.
Late last December, I worked on a short film with a recent graduate of AADA, and we traded stories about Jacquie. I wish I could’ve realized sooner how spot-on she was, and reached out to her to thank her for putting that brazen, know-it-all 19 year old in his place, and pushing me to work harder. I so appreciate it now. Today’s screening made me realize that I had learned the lesson that Jacquie gave me long ago, one that I was not ready to hear back then. Years later, I had been couching that experience in the negative, despite the fact that, to this day, my audition and performance prep, are influenced by her intensively thorough, albeit tough-as-nails approach. Thank you Jackie, for pushing me beyond what I knew I was capable of and making me a better actor. And, thank you Bob Fosse, for crafting a film with such intimacy, magic, razzle-dazzle and potency that it continues to inspire and trigger memories that enrich our lives.