What a wonderful example of how a life with so much potential can turn into a disaster! Loveable and highly creative Joe Gideon---pill popping (Dexedrine/speed), incessant smoker/cougher, boozing, womanizing, lying, adulterer (he cheated every chance he could by his own admission). His personal and family life are screwed up and work is all there is for Joe. What went wrong?
"It's showtime folks."
Joe Gideon is editing a film on Death and Dying (Kubler-Ross: Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) at the same time he is putting together a new Broadway musical. All the symptoms of impending heart attack are obvious to everyone but Joe. He can't pause to pay attention to himself. He can pause only long enough to attend to his passions. The only time in the movie that you see Joe really happy is when his daughter and girlfriend perform a dance routine for him at home one evening. At that moment, if he had been more aware of himself, he should have experienced an epiphany---ding! The light should have gone on. "Hey, this is what really makes me joyful! This love I am receiving right now! I better slow down and give this the priority it deserves!" But, not Joe. He just goes smoking along!
As his mother says in one scene where she is cooking and talking to the angel of Death (the Jessica Lange character in white): "He has always had a crush on you." Most of us do have a significant relationship with death. We fear death, we are driven to get ahead NOW before death comes and takes us away. Our wide ranging neurotic urges propel us toward action, possessions, consuming, sex, drugs, smoking, alcohol as a substitute for real meaningful love and a way of avoiding our fear of death. No where in the movie do you see any concern for the spirit, for God and how God should fit into Joe Gideon's life.
God wants you to be creative, but God also wants you to take care of your body and to love others empathetically. This requires balance. Joe is on the wire, high above most of us; therefore, the need for balance is even greater for Joe. The more you have to offer the greater the need for balance because you have that much further to fall, that much more potential to get distracted by life's temptations.
One of the greatest and briefest and most important scenes in the movie is right after Joe has given the backers of the musical a glimpse of his vision of how the music will play out on stage. It is a wonderful, sensual, powerful glimpse of what Joe is capable of doing. The backers are concerned, in part because they see the family audience not coming and other financial positives being undermined---they had hoped for some airline backing but see now that will not happen with the Air Erotica theme. Joe then asks his ex-wife, mother of his only child, and lead dancer for the show what she thinks. She says it is the greatest work he has ever done…and then curses him!?? Why? Why does she praise and attack him in the same breath? Because she sees that Joe is aware of all his personal faults, he is a very intelligent, sophisticated, and aware human being. (The motto of Air Erotica is: "We take you everywhere and get you nowhere.") And that is why she curses him. She loves him and wishes he would take that awareness and change. She wants him to at least love his daughter. She sees that if he had only been willing to commit to and act upon this awareness, then they could have had a wonderful loving marriage. That is why she curses him. She curses him for all the lost opportunities for herself, for her child, and for Joe. (What is fascinating is that much of this movie is autobiographical. Bob Fosse created the movie and the Joe Gideon character is modeled after him just as the ex-wife character is modeled after Fosse's real life wife the great dancer Gwen Vernon.)
If you think that this movie doesn't have anything to say to you, then think again! This movie is a metaphor of American life---greedy, lust focused, fast paced, exciting, and shallow! Just as Joe is constantly ignoring the heart attack symptoms, we ignore all the symptoms within our society and within our personal life that are symptoms of decadence and/or an unwillingness to commit ourselves to evolve into a higher more loving human being.
As the Joe Gideon character says: "Sometimes I don't know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins." Joe is lost in his own games. Since childhood he has been on the stage and performing. He has always been surrounded by temptation and given in to those temptations more often than not. When he gets into the hospital (Fosse had open-heart surgery shortly before making this movie) he is unable to change his behavior even when he is told it will cost him his life. (Fosse in real life died of a heart attack at age 60 just before one of his shows opened.) He leaves his room and wanders the hospital and comes across an older woman writhing in agony in another hospital room. He tenderly, passionately, lovingly kisses her and says to her: "I think you are the most beautiful thing in the world and I love you." She smiles, is no longer in agony, and falls asleep. This is another great scene that can easily slip by almost unnoticed. In it we see the inner Gideon/Fosse, the one without the bullshit and facades, the Joe that can be thoughtful, tender, loving, without expectation for some return on his investment. We all have that essence lurking within us if we will but release it, let it be free of its shackles and express itself. What is holding Joe back from being this way all the time? What is holding you back from being this way all the time?
The elderly woman Joe kissed was in pain and then the pain immediately left. We all have this capacity for change. The pain, the fear, the resistance to growth is all in our attitude toward life and we have the potential of changing that attitude in an instant. As the Zen Master Muso Kokushi said:
"It is always there, right where you are; if you seek It, obviously you do not see It."
Part of the mystery of life, one of the keys that unlock the doors of transformation, is acceptance. Acceptance of yourself, acceptance of others, and acceptance of God's presence and ability to transform you through love and grace.
In the final hospital number he performs the song: "You better change your ways today!"
That is the metamessage of the movie. Joe is warning us all. Fosse is warning us all, including himself! You better change your ways before it is too late! The "you" is me and you. The "you" is our society. Please note that the backers of the show are going to make a profit if Joe dies. Capitalism will suck you dry, then spit you out.
The price of not changing your ways is death, loneliness, alienation, fear. The reward is that you evolve, you learn to love yourself, your God, your fellow human beings and live a more joyful ecstatic and fulfilled life. Our fears drive us away from that evolutionary urge within.
Even the final death scene is glitzy, exciting, with a pulsating up-beat. "Bye bye life, Bye bye happiness. Hello loneliness, I think I'm going to die, bye bye my life goodbye." Right up to the moment when they zip up the body bag the movie is pulsating.