For eight weeks, FX is airing Fosse/Verdon, a limited series about iconic choreographer/director Bob Fosse and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, his wife and creative partner. Besides being catnip for theater fans, their story raises thoughts and questions about love, art, sacrifice, exploitation, abuse, and other topics that are both timely and timeless. This series explores both the aesthetic aspects of the show and its handling of those topics.
What is an artist to do with overwhelming pain?
In Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey wants Harriet Vane to “write it out and get rid of it.” It’s good advice—up to a point. An act of creation, especially one into which you can pour your emotions and your experiences, can indeed be cathartic. And yet, sometimes even catharsis isn’t enough. Sometimes pain goes far too deep to get rid of that way.
In the end, it’s hard not to feel a little compassion for this messed-up bunch.We get a hint of this truth in this week’s episode of Fosse/Verdon, as Bob Fosse and his family and friends try to figure out his next step. Some three months after we left Bob in the psychiatric ward, we see Bob, Gwen, their respective significant others, their daughter, their friend Paddy Chayefsky, and the recently widowed Neil Simon converging on a Southampton beach house for a get-together.
It turns out that Bob lasted all of six days in the hospital, and has stopped taking the lithium the doctors prescribed. Despite their advice that he needs a year of rest, he’s decided that work is the best cure for what ails him. And he’s got his next project all lined up: a biopic of comedian Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman, which Bob plans to direct in Miami.
The two main women in Bob’s life are not happy about this. Ann Reinking, now Bob’s steady girlfriend, is concerned that heading out of state to direct a movie will be hard on his health. Gwen Verdon has other concerns. She and Bob have been struggling for a decade to get the rights to do a musical version of Chicago. Now that they finally have them, Gwen is dismayed to find that Bob would rather focus on Lenny. This is her big chance, her one last shot at a big Fosse-directed Broadway musical—but Fosse just doesn’t seem to care about such things anymore. He’s bent on proving himself to “everybody”—that mysterious, ubiquitous “everybody” who he still thinks don’t take him seriously enough—as a major director.
Add in a restless young Nicole Fosse with a burgeoning interest in smoking, a cloud of grief in the air over Joan Simon’s death, and a relentless rainstorm, and the stage is set for one very gloomy and awkward house party.
The entire episode is set within the confines of the house, encouraging long-simmering tensions to boil over. Bob and Gwen needle each other over the youth of each other’s love interests, and bicker over which of their preferred projects has a more important message (Lenny is about a guy who fought the system; Chicago is about what happens when no one can fight anymore and everything is turned into entertainment). Each accuses the other of putting on a show; each tries every trick in the book to get his or her own way; each tries to enlist others on his or her side of the argument.
In a climactic conversation, when Bob demands to know why Chicago can’t just wait a couple of years, both of them finally lay their cards on the table:
“I’m not sure you won’t be dead in two years.”
“You’re not sure you’ll be able to dance it in two years.”
“No, that’s right, I’m not. But I can dance it now.”
Poor Ann, meanwhile, has been a lone voice in the wilderness, insisting that Bob ought to listen to his doctors and take a year off. But everyone she talks to—Paddy, Gwen, Bob himself—tells her that “Bob Fosse doesn’t take time off.” Ann considers herself pretty mature and clear-eyed, and in some ways she is: She knows all about Bob’s womanizing ways; she’s kind and loving toward Nicole, even if a little too permissive. But ultimately, Ann is in over her head. As she hovers on the edge of the group, trying to play hostess and stay out of the crossfire at the same time, you can’t help wishing she could just go find herself some nice uncomplicated guy her own age.
While Gwen and Ann are hashing out what Bob should be doing, the men are engaged in that edifying old pastime of swapping stories about how they lost their virginity. When it’s Bob’s turn, something shifts in the atmosphere. Egged on by Paddy and Neil, Bob laconically recounts how, when he was a 13-year-old boy working as a dancer in burlesque houses, a couple of older strippers “took turns” performing his sexual initiation.
It’s a dark moment, and it’s to the show’s credit that it is dark. Even in this day and age, nearly 50 years after this scene is set, many people still don’t know how to talk about the molestation of boys by adult women. It’s fodder for jokes and even expressions of envy, as we see from Bob’s friends. But here, the uncomfortable expression on the face of Gwen’s boyfriend, and the disquieting flashbacks we see as Bob is talking, and even his slumped posture in his chair as he remembers it all, clue us in that laughter isn’t the right response. And I don’t think it’s by accident that, right after this scene, we hear a tearful Gwen accuse Bob of being unable to tell the truth or to sustain a loving relationship.
It’s not excusing his hurtful, hedonistic behavior to observe that something is broken inside Bob Fosse. It’s not a surprise that he “loses himself in his work”—that, in the end, he decides to do both Lenny and Chicago at the same time. Only Ann is stunned at the end of the episode when Gwen finally makes it clear to her that her job is “to keep him alive,” as he prepares for one of the most grueling years of his life. (Seriously, Ann, please get out of Dodge.)
In the end, it’s hard not to feel a little compassion for this messed-up bunch. These were some of the most talented people in America, perhaps in the whole world, at that time. They created works of art that resonated and endured. And as self-centered as they could be, there was more to them than that: At bottom, they cared deeply about each other’s well-being and about their children’s future. But they couldn’t heal themselves or each other. Their art transformed the culture they lived in, but it couldn’t transform their souls.