In Star 80 (1983), the last film Bob Fosse made before his death in 1987, the director dramatized the grisly, ripped-from-the-headlines story of Dorothy Stratten, the barely legal Playboy Playmate and budding actress who was murdered by her no-goodnik husband, Paul Snider. That Fosse chose to shoot the definitive act of sexual violence on location, in the real couple’s former home in West L.A., speaks to the unalloyed cruelty of this immorality tale. A repulsed Pauline Kael wrote of the film that it is “about the degradation of everything and everybody,” so thoroughly rotted as to be “nauseated by itself.”
Flashback 14 years to Fosse’s first foray into feature directing for the screen: Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of the musical he’d conceived, directed, and choreographed for Broadway, is a big beam of Technicolored sunshine compared to the profound cynicism of his final cinematic statement. Darkness would accrete steadily with each of the intervening films, from the Nazis’ encroach in Cabaret (1972) to the bitter spectacles of self-destruction in Lenny (1974) and All That Jazz (1979). Loosely based on Nights of Cabiria (1957), one of Federico Fellini’s more devastating works, Sweet Charity must be the only instance of Fosse opting to sweeten his source material—even as he retains the narrative beats designed to test the spirit of the woman at the story’s center.
A flame-haired Shirley MacLaine stars as the irrepressible Charity, the role having been ceded to her in the transition from stage to screen by Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s long-suffering collaborator and wife, in begrudging deference to MacLaine’s greater star power (though Verdon would stay on to assist with the choreography). While Fellini’s protagonist, Cabiria (written for his own wife, Giulietta Masina), was a prostitute, Charity is a taxi dancer—that is, a dance partner for rent—at a two-bit Times Square club, a few shimmies and shakes away from outright sex work. Despite being a veteran of this seedy milieu, she retains an essential innocence, approaching the world with a wide-eyed gusto that’s as alien to those around her as it would be to the denizens of Fosse’s other films. Stratten gets snuffed out, but Charity Hope Valentine—that’s her full name—springs eternal.
Sweet Charity was a flop, seriously wounding its volatile maker’s ego. In retrospect, its failure seems like a foregone conclusion: 1969 was the year of Easy Rider, of the Tate-LaBianca murders—of an innocence lost. Fosse’s film was hipper, grittier, than Hello, Dolly!, at least, but the musical form itself demanded a suspension of disbelief that had suddenly become all but unconscionable. (Just a few years later, Cabaret would present an ingenious workaround, with the song-and-dance numbers as part of the diegesis, staged as performances.) Viewed with knowledge of the smoke and sex and mirrors and general abjection to come, Sweet Charity’s brass-band–bolstered ‘cinema of attractions’—“Hey, big spender!”—shines brighter, but burns a little more.
Sweet Charity screens through March 30 at Film Forum in a new digital restoration