8. All that Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
This film is very hard to categorize; it is part autobiography, part fantasy and part musical. The only constant of the film is the main character’s love for the theater. Roy Scheider is perfectly cast as Joe Gideon (Bob Fosse’s alter-ego), a devoted man of the theater who never says no to earthly pleasures.
Joe is hooked on amphetamine – the only way to get through the rehearsals of his new play, the editing of his new film and the relationships with his ex-wife, daughter and numerous occasional mistresses. Throughout the whole film, Joe is more than aware of his upcoming death so he makes plans to greet his demise with the choreography of his lifetime. While waiting his bitter end he is often visited by an Angelic figure that forces him to confront his own mortality and revisit his life.
It is a known fact that Fosse was a huge fan of Federico Fellini and so it is proven once again with this film that borrows heavily from “8 ½” (just like “Sweet Charity” is the American version of “Nights of Cabiria”). Although “All that Jazz” is partially a biography the lens through which Fosse’s life is analyzed has a distinct Fellini feel to it.
Like Guido, the iconic main character in “8 ½“, Joe Gideon reflects on his life and the women that were part of it with nostalgia while the director lets his cinematic imagination run wild with extravagant dances and surreal images (the famous hospital bed scene for example). Fosse was a man of many flaws but when it came to the theater (maybe his only true love in life), he was a workaholic and a perfectionist; he wanted everything to be perfect…just like this film.
9. Le Dernier Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980)
When he was a young man Francois Truffaut made it his goal in life to watch three movies a day and read three books a week. After he became an accomplished director, he made a new goal for himself as to direct 30 movies and then retire to write books for his remaining days. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Truffaut died of brain tumor at the age of 52 – he had 25 films listed under his name failing just short of his personal goal.
All of his films reflect the themes and subjects he was interested in at the time. In the later part of his career, he sat out to do an informal trilogy about the world of entertainment (film, theater and music). He made “La Nuit Americaine” that dealt with film, in 1973 and – in 1980 – he made “Le Dernier Metro” that deals with the theatre. Sadly, his film about the world of music hall was never made.
You will never find a more sumptuous film about the theater than “Le Dernier Metro”. In a Nazi occupied Paris, Jewish theater director Lucas Steiner is in hiding so his wife Marion (Catherine Deneuve) is left to run the facility. She wants to put on a Scandinavic play and use upcoming theater star Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu) as the main character. Working closely together, the two develop a close relationship and the beginning of an affair seems highly likely.
But Truffaut does not dwell too much on the love triangle scheme. Instead, he concentrates on the big picture and the big picture is, of course, the world of the theater. He makes a point of highlighting resistance through art by using songs, clothes and object specific to the time period, in order to recreate the atmosphere of what a night at the theater was like in those troubled times.
10. Mephisto (Istvan Szabo, 1981)
Director Istvan Szabo once said of his film, “The thing that has always interested us was not the authenticity of the characters but the theme itself, the story of the actor playing and eventually becoming Mephisto. Our film dedicated itself to this character, a gifted man, incapable of coping with being overshadowed; willing to pay any price to be accepted and loved by everybody.” The film uses the theater as a launching pad for bigger issues such as compromise, betrayal and redemption.
It tells the story of German stage actor named Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who finds finds unexpected success and mixed blessings in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany. His performance has not been overlooked by the Nazis who secure his way to the top in exchange of his loyalty to the party.
Just like Dr. Faustus, Hoefgen sells his soul to the Nazi party denouncing his old friends and denying his past in order to have a brighter present and an even brighter future. Basically, the classic story of Mephistopheles and Dr. Faustus receives new clothing as it is transported in the troubled world of war and the even more troubled world of the arts.
11. Author, Author (Arthur Hiller, 1982)
At the age of 42 Ivan Travailan (Al Pacino) is finally seeing his dream come true…his first play to be staged on Broadway. He wastes no time to begin rehearsals for the play when his wife announces him that she is leaving him and their five children (all results of previous marriages). Now Ivan must cope with the pressure of the upcoming opening of his play and taking care of the children.
On top of that, Ivan’s mistress is also demanding a big chunk of his time. And now comes the question that most artists are confronted with: what is more important in life? The art or the family?
Keeping in mind that this is a comedy (a dark one but still a comedy) the answer is pretty easy to guess but in real life this dilemma is even stronger and most artists will tell you that the theater take its toll on the actors’ souls and marriages.
12. Fanny och Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
“Fanny och Alexander” is not a film about the theater but then again it’s not even a film about Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman’s style is so not like anything else that is very hard for anyone to put a label on his films. “Fanny och Alexander” has the feel of one big stage play done the old fashioned way.
The film begins with a very long Christmas party scene (almost 20 minutes) through which we are introduced to all the members of the Ekdahl family, from the two young siblings to their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and even maids and butlers. There is a moral freedom, existent in the Ekdahl family, which is very shocking to discover; casual sexual encounters are a common thing and jealousy is a word that does not exist in the dictionary.
All this libertarianism – we must remember we are talking about Sweden in the beginning of the 20th century – is explained through the fact that the Ekdahl family is deeply involved and in love with the theater. Bergman uses the moral liberalism of the artists to present his story in his preferred tone – part nostalgic, part Gothic, part comedic and part dramatic. The two siblings’ life takes a turn for the worse when their beloved father dies of a heart attack and their mother remarries a local bishop and widower.
The mother and two children move into the ascetic home of the bishop only to discover a world radically different to the one they are use too. In the bishop’s house the rules are very strict and the punishments are severe…there are no fun and games, no talking or laughing during the dinner table and everything is sterile and even frightening.
Of course, Bergman could not have ended his movies this way, as his message has always been that the fool defeats the knight. The chaotic but charming world of the theater takes the upper hand over the disciplined but cruel world of the bishop (representing the conformist class). Fanny and Alexander are soon reunited with the libertine ways of the artists and with their darling theater.
Although Ingmar Bergman lived until 2007, this film was his last theatrical feature. In the last part of his career, he focused only on television productions. It was intentional that “Fanny och Alexander” be his last film for the big screen as the movie sums up all of Berman’s ideas and concepts on art and artists. The film has a prologue, it is divided between two acts and has an epilogue…just like the greatest play Bergman never wrote.
13. The Dresser (Peter Yates, 1983)
When reading the synopsis of this film – An effeminate personal assistant of a deteriorating veteran actor struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear – one might be tempted to think this is a film about friendship. But this is anything but; sometimes the artists’ egos and vanities are so big that there is no room for friendship or camaraderie.
The substance of this film is really the complicated life of two men who gave their life to the theater without the slightest of reserve. One of them (the actor) can be seen by the theater audience, the other (the dresser) cannot. During the troubled times of World War II aging Shakespearean actor simply called Sir (Albert Finney), continues to tour England but is forced to use non-professional actors (men who have been discharged or suffer disabilities that disqualify them for military service).
This, plus the inability to accept the fact that he is getting old, creates a frustration, in the actor, bigger than anyone can imagine. The only person that remains by his side is his loyal but oddly effeminate dresser Norman (Tom Courtenay). Sir takes all his anger and frustration on his dresser (who also knows all the lines from all the great Shakespeare plays by heart) without realizing that Norman is his only true friend. “The Dresser” is a wonderful and insightful film about the world behind the closed curtains.
14. Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich, 1992)
“Noises Off” enforces the theory according to which what happens backstage has nothing to do with what happens on the stage. Not only that, but his film is out to prove that what happens backstage is even more important than the show on stage. The film opens with the final dress rehearsal before opening night, with the cast still forgetting lines, missing cues, and mishandling props.
The director of the play is reduced to cajoling, yelling at, and pleading with them to get things right. Complicating matters are the personal problems and backstage relationships that have fostered jealousy and petty squabbling and intruded upon any professionalism this motley crew can muster. “Noises Off” follows the concept of a play within a play creating the illusion that life and art are one and the same.
15. Bullets over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994)
Woody Allen is no stranger to the theater; he was written a few stage plays. So it is no surprise that one of his best films has the theater as its main subject. In order to combine his subject with his nostalgic moods and his love for jazz music he made so that the action of this film takes place in the 1920’s.
David Shayne (John Cusack playing yet another version of Woody Allen himself), is an idealistic young playwright newly arrived on Broadway. In order to gain financing for his play he agrees to hire the actress/girlfriend of a gangster for one of the lead roles. She is demanding and talentless, but her gangster escort Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be a genius, who constantly comes up with excellent ideas for revising the play.
As the players prepare for opening night, Shayne is soon in over his head claiming Cheech’s rewrites as his own, cheating on his girlfriend with the show’s seductive, alcoholic leading lady Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), and facing compulsive eating problems of his leading man. Welcome to the wonderful world of the theater!