The third episode of FX’s compelling Bob Fosse biographical mini-series reveals the hidden cost behind Gwen Verdon’s career and contrasts the gendered expectations and inequity both halves of the couple experience.
“Me and My Baby” opens with a gorgeous fantasy that illustrates Bob Fosse’s theatrical introspective mind. In past episodes, flashbacks to childhood memories have been conveyed through continuous shots, where the camera moves from Fosse to reveal another space where he watches his childhood self. The seamless blend of present and past create an eerie, foggy dreamscape. We’re unable to separate physically Fosse’s past from his reality, and neither is Fosse, mentally. When he’s happily strolling down the hallway to an edit suite to begin the post-production work on Cabaret (1972), his fantasy fills the hall with pastel-clad female dancers gyrating through perfect, Fosse-style dance movies that are escalatingly suggestive. He’s the suave star, the center of attention for these women whose only role is to literally roll out a red carpet for the controlling, egomaniacal director/choreography. But Fosse’s mood darkens when he learns that the editing team has prepared a cut without his input — after viewing the four-hour rough assembly, he lethargically tosses his cigarette into his coffee and offer the feedback, “I feel sick. It’s unwatchable.” As he leaves the screening room, he excuses himself with “I’m going to throw up.” He leaves through the same hallway, though this time it is chaotic. No women are worshipping him with their bodies; instead, disembodied mechanisms of chaos tipping over shelves and chairs, then eventually dragging him down to darkness.
This is the pattern for Fosse, as again and again, he falls for the fantasy of an objectified, controllable woman, and later leaves her when she either shows her humanity or proves no longer useful. This is the case with Gwen, who has separated from Fosse at this point in the series. She’s struggling with single parenthood (though she does have the help of a humorless nanny), cooking dinner while arguing on the phone about a new acting role. Gwen is experiencing the classic paradox of the career woman that modern females are also forced to contend with. It’s not enough to win Tony’s; she is also expected to be a great parent and get dinner on the table for her daughter. This drive to be excellent to her daughter, we later learn, is in part atonement for a child she left many years ago to pursue her dancing career. Raped at a very young age, she became pregnant and was forced to marry her rapist, whom she later left to join a national tour. Her regret over abandoning the child haunts her — at the opening night of Can Can on Broadway, she is rushed back to the stage for an encore, but instead of applause and accolades, all she hears is the cries of her son. Fosse and Verdon’s relationship is about the derailment. The pair meet and give up their current relationships for each other. Gwen repeatedly sacrifices her own career to support her husbands. She can’t break the pattern — even after Fosse cheats on her during the production of Cabaret, she still finds herself drawn to sit with him in the editing room to provide insight on the cut. It’s undoubtedly one-sided — while Gwen invariably and essentially assists Fosse in his creative endeavors, Fosse only helps Gwen by accident. When she asks his advice on a scene in the play she’s working on, he suggests re-writes and cruelly reminds Gwen that she has no experience in the subject matter: raising a son. It’s the hurt of his snide remarks that eventually drives Gwen to the emotional place she needs to get to deliver an exceptional performance (for which she receives no credit from a judgmental and reductive director).
It’s miserable to see the talented Gwen Verdon, again and again, have to smile at comments about how she’s not a real actress, how she’s just a dancer. Her real questions about the play she’s working on are casually brushed aside with a “what, you want choreography?” Despite being in the business for over a decade, she continues having to audition for roles. She gracefully takes each bullet, a stark contrast from her first meeting with Fosse where she challenged him every step of the way. It’s as though her relationship with Fosse has emptied her reserves — it’s much easier to roll over than to fight back. And who has the energy to fight back against anyone else when you’re married to a controlling, narcissistic, would-be “genius” who takes credit for all your work? When Gwen has been objectified and infantilized over and over, by directors, her parents, her husbands… perhaps she has start to believe it. Or, more optimistically, she may be playing a longer game. Fosse/Verdon continues Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on the FX Network.
Photo and video credit: FX Network – Read the previous review here