Apology Tour Cinema

Apology Tour Cinema


Can art redress harm?

In many ways, generic categories are increasingly irrelevant (or pure gamesmanship– please loop me out of your next discussion about whether Die Hard is a Christmas film. Thank you.) There is increasing genre hybridity across film and television; and genres are not, in the first instance, static and natural– they are fluid, dynamic discourses. None of this, though, will stop me from telling people about my new favorite genre of film: apology tour cinema. ATC, if you will. 

This revelation was sparked when, in a single week, I (re)watched two films that have, facially, absolutely nothing in common: Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia1 and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz2

Demme and Fosse were quite different, not only as creators, but as people. Demme, especially since his death in 2017, is usually spoken of in terms of his humanism, his empathy, his “unforced grace”.3 Fosse was described by his first biographer as having “his heart on hold.”4 Demme had a wide-ranging filmography, tackling thriller, romance, and drama with a basically psychological-realist approach. Fosse made five films, all of which had more or less the same thematic concern: the seedy and sinister side of show business. His style was expressionistic, rhythmic, and flashy– for example, using so many filters that the studio attempted to confiscate them on the set of Cabaret.5 But they are both fairly construed as grand apologies: Demme for the reputational blow the queer community took from Silence of the Lambs. Fosse for, well, most things he did to his lovers and/or collaborators. 

It is intuitive that this genre overlaps quite a lot with autofiction. All That Jazz is a (barely) fictionalized retelling of the period in Fosse’s life when he was simultaneously editing his third film, Lenny, and directing the musical Chicago. It was also the time when Fosse, overworked, with a hereditary heart condition, and smoking four packs of filterless cigarettes a day, had two coronaries. In real life, of course, Fosse survived for over a decade more. In the film, Fosse lets the second heart attack finish him off. 

Fosse, though, still hemmed and hawed about Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), the protagonist of his penultimate film, being a direct self-insert. Let us, then, catalog the extensive differences between creator and character. Sure, both Gideon and Fosse are director-choreographers with one daughter from a failed marriage, who edited a film about a standup comic (their follow-up to a critical smash) while simultaneously directing a musical starring their estranged wife. But, you see, Gideon’s musical is called NY to LA and Fosse’s was called Chicago. So, y’know, loosely based on him. 

It is not only basic biographical information that is lifted from Fosse’s life. Gideon also shares Fosse’s psychological damage: obsession with death, unrelenting perfectionism, history of childhood sexual abuse from his time as a child performer. Ditto his vices: alarming numbers of cigarettes, a fondness for alcohol and amphetamines, overly demanding and unfair treatment of fellow artists, and constant, ceaseless infidelity. To really drive that last point home, Fosse cast his actual longtime partner, Ann Reinking (whom he openly cheated on, but wouldn’t allow to take her own lovers) to play Gideon’s partner Katie Jagger. He also cast actual dancers he had worked with (and manipulated, seduced, and berated) throughout his career, to play their beleaguered narrative counterparts. His daughter Nicole Fosse, who he regularly neglected in favor of his work, appears in the background of one scene.

Half of the film takes place in the world of shabby rehearsal studios, crowded cutting rooms, and the brightly-lit (hostile to the hungover) West Fifties apartment where a burnt-out Gideon daily applies eye drops, chugs Alka-Seltzer, and hypes himself up for another day of work with Dexedrine and recitation of his morning prayer: “It’s showtime, folks!” The other half takes place in Gideon’s mind. Well, it takes place in a black void cluttered with theatrical detritus (clown noses, tightropes, chests of discarded costumes) and inhabited by Gideon and a white-clad ingenue (credited as “Evangeline”, and played by an unfathomably lovely Jessica Lange) that we soon understand to be the Angel of Death (“Ever since he was so high, he’s always had such a crush on you!” Gideon’s mother coos to her.) 

Gideon’s first line in the film is delivered to Evangeline: “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” This is not only an accurate summation of his life philosophy (read: performance is the only thing that feels real) but is also, notably, plagiarized. Which he admits openly, in his next line. Thirty seconds in and we already know what Fosse thinks of himself– or, um, of Gideon. Addicted to performance. In close dialogue with the Angel of Death. A fraud. A self-aware fraud. Intercut with his morning ablutions (shower, cigarette, Visine, speed, etc.), it is a perfect, economical sketch of a self-destructive artist. 

Before Fosse zips himself into a body bag in the final shot of the film, he stages a scene where Audrey Paris (the film corollary of Fosse’s third wife and longtime collaborator, the legendary dancer Gwen Verdon) and his girlfriend (Reinking) stand over his hospital bed. Turning first to Audrey (Leland Palmer), he says “If I die, I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you.” He then turns to Katie and says “If I live, I’m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do.”

I’m always heartstruck by the simplicity, even the awkwardness, of those lines. Like a child’s apology: “bad things I’m gonna do.” This, in a film that traffics in conspicuous displays of one-linery such as “You give… presents, clothes. I just wish you weren’t so generous with your cock”; and “How dare you use my telephone to call someone who isn’t gay?” ; and “To a Catholic, death is a promotion.” 

This apology doesn’t feel metatextual so much as it pierces through the text, through the screen. Fosse knew he would either die soon or fail to; and knew that either way, he was sorry. And wanted us to know it, too. 

In addition to this literal apology, Fosse also makes sure to consistently, unflinchingly bare his faults to the audience– artistic, as well as personal. Gideon watches a television film critic, Leslie Perry (Chris Chase), review his film The Stand-Up (which shares everything but its name with Fosse’s film Lenny.) In the excoriating review, she calls him out for “his usual weakness of trying too hard to please, to entertain” and his overreliance on “razzle-dazzle” that “obscures reality” and “obliterates drama.” 

There is even a direct-to-audience address by a megawatt-smiling television host (Ben Vereen) that sums up his character at the close of the film: “this cat allowed himself to be adored but not loved. And his success in show business was matched by failure in his personal relationship bag…” All That Jazz is, above all, an exercise in searing, devastating self-insight. But then again, what is that worth?

Further, that knowledge of self is alternated with grievance (obvious stand-ins for collaborator Fred Ebb and rival director-choreographer Michael Bennett are portrayed as a mincing buffoon and a Machiavellian snake, respectively) and self-aggrandizement (Not-Gwen Verdon tells him, with tears in her eyes, that his latest orgy-themed ballet is the best work he’s ever done. It calls to mind the last-shot-of Inglourious Basterds, when the closing line is “I think this may be my masterpiece” right before the credits blare “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.) Fosse amply proved he could make himself look terrible, but less so that he was willing to make others look good. 

Reportedly, as he shot the film’s final sequence, in which Gideon sings his farewell to an assembled crowd of lovers, enemies, collaborators, and rivals, Bob Fosse turned to Roy Scheider and said “The best part is, they all forgive me.”6


ATC is however by no means synonymous with autofiction. Enter Demme. 

Larry Kramer, in his famous pan of Philadelphia, reminds the reader that its director was fresh off a wave of Oscars for “The Silence of the Lambs, which many gays consider one of the most virulently and insidiously homophobic films ever made.” He continues, “Is Philadelphia some sort of attempt on his part to offer an apology?”7 Silence has no textually gay characters. Kramer refers to the depiction of serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Levine), who murders women and wears their skin in a sort of mockery of gender affirming surgery. The film stresses, repeatedly, even didactically, that Bill is not a “transsexual”, who are usually “passive.” Demme, unfortunately, could not account for people willfully ignoring this line, and audiences reportedly shouted “kill the faggot” at screenings.8

Artist Juan Botas (a friend of Demme and his wife) reportedly told the director, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they’re either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer.”9 Botas himself was diagnosed with AIDS, prior to the release of Silence. Demme cited his illness, more than any desire to make amends with the gay community at large, as the inspiration for Philadelphia

The film follows gay corporate lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and his wrongful termination suit against his white-shoe law firm after one of the firm’s partners identifies Beckett’s KS lesions, caused by AIDS. His representation in the suit is smart-but-seedy personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who also happens to be an open homophobe. All but explicitly, the film is an exercise in getting an American audience that is perhaps casually homophobic to care about AIDS, and specifically to care about people who got AIDS through having gay sex. I do not consider it a commentary on Demme, as much as a commentary on American society, that Beckett had to be nearly perfect (a respectable young man, a high-achiever, with a loving boyfriend, an accepting family (Joanne Woodward!), and bucketloads of dignity and quiet strength– God, if this film weren’t so good, it would suck so bad–) for that empathy to be a possibility. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner couldn’t have happened, for example, if Sidney Poitier was not Hollywood’s (the world’s?) most clean-cut, well-spoken, authoritative and handsome man in 1967. I would also add that Beckett is still far from two-dimensional, and further that the film’s true protagonist is Joe Miller, who is the more thorny, complex, frustrating and contradictory character. 

The plot synopsis, yes, reads like a parody of Oscar bait (She has it all: courtroom drama! Terminal illness! Socially and politically redemptive themes! Race relations!) And, while even favorable reviewers affirm the fact that it is a little corny, I argue that it uses more restraint than it has to. Miller and Beckett, for example, never become best friends (Green Book it is not!) There is no come-to-Jesus speech where Miller realizes the error of his ways. There is never even a conversation between Miller and Beckett where they make explicit the parallels between racism and homophobia that each has faced in the legal profession or in society at large. But, even if I wouldn’t call it saccharine, the tone is determinedly toasty-warm. Demme is a master of the closeup, and when you have Antonio Banderas and Denzel Washington in your cast, a close-up is distinctly pleasant for the viewer. It also promotes an intense identification with the characters, especially fitting in a film whose project is so explicitly to promote empathy. The script also imagines the best possible version of all the people involved. At the risk of rehashing my Letterboxd review on the subject, the casting of Daniel von Bargen (known for playing military men, balding and about as Michigander as anyone has ever looked) as the jury foreman is a great example. As the defense forwards an argument that Beckett is a degenerate who brought ruin on himself and everyone around him with his decadent sexuality, and then we turn to this flannel-clad spokesman for Rust Belt heterosexuality, the viewer starts to feel distinctly uneasy about the outcome of the case. What a pleasant surprise, then (and what a sense of self-recrimination is felt) when the jury almost immediately dismantles the defense’s case, and Beckett receives punitive damages numbering in the millions. Even Miller’s occasionally skin-crawling homophobic outlook is portrayed with something like empathy: POV shots linger over Beckett’s KS lesions, then over every surface he touches in Miller’s office, as Miller speaks about his newborn daughter. You’re forced to feel his discomfort, his terror for the safety of his family, even if you know it’s based on nothing.

There are certainly political problems with the film. For one thing, whither ACTUP? This film positions a random handsome homophobe as the greatest advocate for HIV-positive gays. For another, why cut the kiss between Beckett and his boyfriend (Antonio Banderas)? The stubbornly nondescript, un-homosexual poster art (Men in suits and a gavel! How specific!) and the terminally vague title (if I hadn’t known what it was about, I would have guessed… zoning laws?) also bother me. I am, as well, among those who believe Washington noticeably outacts Hanks in this film, especially when the latter’s Sick Acting ratchets up to ten. 

Philadelphia, of course, further alienated some members of the queer community. Larry Kramer’s review takes it to task for medical and legal inaccuracies, a lack of gay sensibility or gay sexuality, and a grasping, naked desire to be the Definitive AIDS Film. I think the article smacks of a closed mind: Kramer, as much as I respect him (please don’t let this essay prevent me from being able to direct The Normal Heart someday), clearly decided to hate the film, and that hatred leads him to faulty analysis (he calls it a legal inaccuracy that a law firm would fire someone for their HIV status because the ADA prohibits it. As if a corporation has never bent, broken, or ignored the law. As if the film was not inspired in part by real stories of employment discrimination, like that of attorney Geoffrey Bowers.10)

Still, while the apology may not have been universally accepted, the gesture of making the film is an admirable attempt at redressing harm. Film, maybe even more than other artforms, celebrates artistic indiscretions (or, rather, indiscrete artists.) The act of announcing that any film, let alone a five-Oscar-winning film(!) was not considered enough, and to try to make up for that lack of consideration in his next work, should perhaps not be impressive– but it undoubtedly is.


Maybe it’s dangerous to think that art can absolve you. Maybe after he made All That Jazz, Fosse decided that self-laceration was just as good as self-improvement. Maybe Philadelphia bred a complacency around how we speak and act in regards to the AIDS crisis. For all the two film’s contrasts– the range of empathy on display, where they sit on the spectrum of personal versus political, how the apologies were received– they both contain an expression of belief that art has the ability to wound, and the fragile hope that it can also heal. 

There is an assumption of grandiosity or presumptuousness that goes along with the statement of that hope, as if the director is telling us his authorial voice has some awesome salvific power. But there is something to be said, too, for necessity: maybe the director just has no other powers to draw upon. (See also: Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, where it appears at first glance to be that Sammy-Fabelman-totally-not-Steven-Spielberg Must Make Films because he is the Film Messiah. On second glance, the message is that he is freakishly ill-suited for anything other than film.) Fosse was also an individual who, it seemed, could only communicate through the practices of art. (Casting Gwen Verdon in Chicago, for instance. “Sorry about relentlessly cheating on you, babe. Have a Tony!”) Demme arguably made Philadelphia because he had no other way to process the illness and death of close friends, like Juan Botas. There is something that pierces me to the heart about that sentiment, too– that something as expensive, as spectacular, as sprawling and unwieldy and decadent as a studio film, can also be as personal, as fragile, as vulnerable as a whispered apology. 

Demme and Fosse were also, importantly, firing on all cylinders in the making of these films. The pressure of having to make amends is, if nothing else, generative. And maybe that’s it: if you want to get away with keeping your apologies cinematic, they better be damn good movies.  

  1. Philadelphia. Directed by Jonathan Demme, performances by Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, Mary Steenburgen, and Joanne Woodward, TriStar Pictures, 1993.
  2. All That Jazz. Directed by Bob Fosse, performances by Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, and Erszebet Foldi, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures, 1979.
  3. Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 Apr. 2017, https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html#:~:text=This%20idea%20that%20Philadelphia%20was,to%20do%20with%20each%20other. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.
  4. Gottfried, Martin. All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse. Bantam Books, 1990.
  5. Wasson, Sam. Fosse: The Biography. BBC Books, 2019.
  6. “Commentary Tracks – All That Jazz.” Phil on Film, Saturday, May 25, 2013, http://www.philonfilm.net/2013/05/commentary-tracks-all-that-jazz.html. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.
  7. Kramer, Larry. “From the Archives: Playwright and gay activist Larry Kramer explains why he hated Jonathan Demme’s ‘Philadelphia’” LA Times, Jan 10, 1994, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-archives-jonathan-demme-philadelphia-20170426-story.html. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.
  8. Taubin, Amy.  “Philadelphia: un-packaging the Hollywood Aids drama.” BFI.org, 9 May 2017, ​​https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/philadelphia-un-packaging-hollywood-aids-drama-tom-hanks-denzel-washington-jonathan-demme. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.
  9. Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 Apr. 2017, https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html#:~:text=This%20idea%20that%20Philadelphia%20was,to%20do%20with%20each%20other. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.
  10. Blumenfeld, Laura. ‘The ghost of Philadelphia.The Washington Post, 25 Jan. 1994,

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1994/01/25/the-ghost-of-philadelphia/fbaf12f4-0580-4e97-bc04-4af2ccbcda10/. Accessed 30 Oct, 2023.

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