Commentary Magazine

Sad as Hell

Few friendships have been more intimate—or less likely—than that of Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty and Network, and Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer of the film version of Cabaret and the original Broadway production of Chicago. Beyond the bare fact of their both having been in show business, it is hard at first glance to see what they had in common. Chayefsky was an idealistic, sexually inhibited New York Jew full of angry political passions that infused much of his later work; Fosse was an apolitical sensualist from the Midwest who sloughed off his Methodist background to lead a life in which sex and drugs played almost as large a part as dance. Yet the two men were close, so much so that Fosse, at Chayefsky’s request, danced a soft-shoe at his friend’s funeral in 1981, six years before his own death.

Now Chayefsky and Fosse have been posthumously linked by the publication of a pair of highly readable books that chronicle their divergent careers and dissimilar personalities. Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies (Times Books, 304 pages) is a detailed monograph about the making of Chayefsky’s best-remembered film.

Sam Wasson’s Fosse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 736 pages), by contrast, is a long, gossipy interview-based biography that suffers from having been written by a film scholar who appears to know little about dance or theater, the areas to which Fosse devoted the bulk of his career.But he makes it possible to understand how a man who started out as a small-time burlesque dancer evolved into the most influential musical-comedy choreographer of his generation.

Unlike Jerome Robbins, the most important Broadway choreographer of the 20th century, Fosse had no classical dance training. Born in 1927, he was, like Fred Astaire, a purely popular dancer, a “hoofer” who worked in nightclubs, on TV, and in film before starting to make dances on Broadway. As a result, his technique was restricted and his cultural awareness narrow. It was Fosse’s particular gift to transform these constricting limitations into an instantly recognizable style, one based more on mime-like imagery than virtuoso steps—and one that was closely in tune with the “liberated” age in which he worked.

Most of his dances were about sex, and many of them suggest that he was in deep conflict about his own private promiscuity, which arose from his having appeared on stage with strippers as a boy (an experience that he later dramatized in All That Jazz, the autobiographical film he made in 1979). Dancing is normally the most physically open and directly expressive of the lively arts, but to think of a Fosse show is to summon up the sinister image of a pencil-thin dancer dressed in black, arms held close to his body, with a bowler hat pulled low over his eyes so that nobody can see who he really is.

The subject matter of Cabaret, which is set in Weimar Germany at the height (or depth) of its decadence, was ideally suited to this near-fetishistic style, and Fosse’s imaginative screen adaptation of the 1966 John Kander/Fred Ebb musical version of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories is one of a handful of Hollywood renderings of a Broadway musical to be as artistically compelling as the original stage show. No less potent, though, was the 1975 Chicago, which he co-wrote with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. A Brechtian “presentational” musical whose characters address the audience directly, Chicago tells the story of a tawdry pair of vaudeville chorus girls who murder their lovers, then use their resulting notoriety to win fame on the stage.

The cynicism of Chicago reflected Fosse’s bleak view of the world—and, one suspects, of himself. He claimed that the show embodied “my image of America right now.” Even Arlene Croce, the dance critic of the New Yorker, who hated the “narcissistic display and slithering innuendo” of Fosse’s choreography, was still impressed, if in spite of herself, with what Chicago had to say about America in the ’70s:

Fosse tells us that we not only permit evil to flourish in our midst but actively enjoy it and love making stars out of scheming whores…In both its shock imagery and its scabrous text, the show is a frontal assault on the audience.

Enough of the original Chicago survives in the 1996 Broadway revival to make it surpassingly clear that Fosse was the only other Broadway choreographer of the postwar era with anything like Jerome Robbins’s stylistic individuality and clarity of purpose. Robbins, who was intensely conscious of the inescapable evanescence of theatrical production, accordingly chose to abandon Broadway after Fiddler on the Roof and spend the rest of his life making dances for New York City Ballet in order to leave behind a permanent artistic legacy. Fosse’s solution was to become a filmmaker, but the results weren’t as impressive as Robbins’s. All That Jazz does has memorable moments, but it is laughably self-indulgent, and except for Cabaret, none of the other films that he directed was artistically or commercially successful. Hence it is mainly for Cabaret—and for his contributions to the conception and book of Chicago—that he will likely be remembered longest.

Paddy Chavefsky might well have suffered a similar fate, since he made his name working in a now obsolete genre, the live TV drama.

Born in 1923 to a Russian émigré couple from the Bronx, Chayefsky became famous 30 years later when Goodyear TV Playhouse, a weekly dramatic anthology series that aired on NBC from 1951 to 1957, broadcast Marty, his poignant kitchen-sink drama about a painfully plain Bronx butcher who longs for love. Urged by his mother to find himself a wife, Marty goes to a singles-only dance hall, meets a lonely girl, and falls in love.

That’s all there is to it: The art of Marty is in the telling, not the tale. As Chayefsky later explained:

I tried to write the dialogue as if it had been wire-tapped. I wanted to write a love story the way it would literally have happened to the kind of people I know…Your father, mother, sister, brothers, cousins, friends—all these are better subjects for drama than Iago.

Not only were his working-class ethnic characters believably drawn, he also had an uncanny knack for the stark visual simplicity of live TV drama, in which actors were forced to change costumes and move from one cramped set to the next as quickly as possible. He also profited from the economy imposed by the hour-long format of the then popular anthology series for which he wrote. His characters, unlike those created by Clifford Odets two decades earlier, always spoke in a down-to-earth, unpoetic way, and though he freely admitted to having been inspired by Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman he had seen the week after it opened on Broadway in 1949, he never succumbed to the windy pretentiousness that was Miller’s undoing.

The 1955 film version of Marty was the first low-budget, independent American film to become a box-office hit, grossing $5 million (it cost $340,000 to make) and winning four Oscars. Its success allowed Chayefsky to set up shop as a Hollywood screenwriter. But he was slow to figure out how to use the larger canvas of film: His screen adaptation of Marty, into which he shoehorned a half-hour’s worth of extra scenes, is flabby, unlike the TV version, which contains not a superfluous line. Significantly, four of the five films written by Chayefsky in the ’50s or based on his work were adapted from his deservedly admired teleplays, and except for Marty, none of them
was successful.

It thus seemed logical for him to simultaneously try his hand at the stage, for which he adapted Middle of the Night (1956, telecast in 1954) and wrote an original play, The Tenth Man (1959), a serious comedy about a group of Orthodox Jews who are attempting to exorcise a dybbuk from a young woman in 1959. Both plays had long runs on Broadway but have since failed to hold the stage, and a recent off-Broadway revival of Middle of the Night showed that like the rest of the teleplays that Chayefsky rewrote for performance in other media, it feels padded by comparison with the taut TV script on which it is based. Nor was his only major film project of the ’60s, an amusing but diffuse anti-war satire called The Americanization of Emily (1964, directed by Arthur Hiller), more than modestly effective.

Not until the ’70s did he find his post-TV footing with The Hospital (1971, directed by Arthur Hiller) and Network (1976, directed by Sidney Lumet), a gripping pair of broad-brush black comedies about decaying public institutions led by unhappy men (brilliantly played by George C. Scott and William Holden) who are undergoing wrenching midlife crises. Network is by far the better-known of the two films, mainly because of its prophetic plot, in which Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a despondent, mentally unstable TV anchorman, cracks up in the middle of the evening news and urges his viewers to fling open their windows and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The program scores a huge success in the ratings, and the network, which was about to fire Beale, decides instead to give him a series in which he is allowed to hold forth at length about anything that crosses his demented mind.

If anything, though, The Hospital is superior, not only because its plot is more tightly knit but because Chayefsky’s satiric target—the inability of well-intentioned liberals to control the roiling chaos of human action—is even better suited to the slashing ferocity of his satire. Here more than in any of his other films or plays, the rage that was so central to Chayefsky’s own psychic makeup is constructively channeled into the self-loathing of Scott’s character, the suicidal chief of medicine at a New York hospital that is, like him, falling apart at the seams.

Chayefsky’s rage, unlike Fosse’s cynicism, is rooted in a disillusion that can come only to those who have previously harbored illusions about the fundamental goodness of human nature. It is revealing that the inscription on his tombstone describes him as a “humanist.” He was the saddest kind of humanist, a chastened one, and the satirical force of The Hospital and Network, like the poignancy of Marty, is rooted in his fear that the world might actually be as bad as it looks. Fosse, by contrast, was sure that human beings are as bad as they can be—as bad, in fact, as they are in Chicago.

What, then, drew two such men together? Perhaps they recognized that they were both serious artists working in the fundamentally frivolous world of mass entertainment. Just as Chayefsky sought with occasional success to inviegle Hollywood into letting him make films like The Hospital and Network, so did Fosse succeed in bringing a musical as caustically frank as Chicago to Broadway, where it then ran for 936 performances (and where the show’s revival has been running for the past 18 years).

Perhaps, too, the difficulty of these self-imposed tasks contributed to the emotional instability that blighted their lives: Chayefsky appears to have been a full-blown manic depressive, while Fosse, an epileptic who was addicted to amphetamines for nearly his whole adult life, suffered from bouts of depression that were at times all but incapacitating. For the creative artist, such instability can be the outward sign of a gnawing lack of confidence in his own abilities. This was certainly the case with Fosse, who was all too aware of the inadequacy of his dance training. Chayefsky, by contrast, appeared to be self-confident to the point of bumptiousness, but no man who grapples with chronic depression can be so sure of his gifts as he affected to be.

Whatever the reason, both men were self-evidently at war not only with themselves, but with their decision to make serious art in an unserious milieu. Such is the inescapable fate of the American artist who embraces the populist ways of democratic mass culture in the hope of engaging with a mass audience. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes not, but he can never forget that he is trying to persuade people who care nothing for art that they should let him spend their money so that he can try to create something beautiful and true. As countless artists who have worked on Broadway and in Hollywood have learned to their cost, that is the hardest of rows to hoe.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Satchmo at the Waldorf, which opened off Broadway last month.

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