The most compelling image in this episode, the one that sums up Bob Fosse’s (Sam Rockwell) psychology and worldview in a single shot, is in the last five minutes of “Glory”. Fosse has been on a rollercoaster of openings and award ceremonies, and he places each golden idol atop the dresser in his small, generic hotel room. Fosse avoids his own eyes in the mirror as he lugs the latest in his collection to the tabletop, the symbols of career success staring him down. The silence of his solitude is replaced by lines from Pippin, as he becomes unable to untangle the narrative of his successful Broadway show from his destructive internal monologue and the reality of his messy interpersonal relationships.
After the disappointing opening of Sweet Charity years before, Fosse is reluctant to go into the Cabaret opening with any expectation at all. He can’t even bring himself to watch the film, let alone attend the after party, and instead retreats to the hotel room he calls home since Gwen kicked him out. In the bleak grey of the next morning, Paddy Chayefsky (played excellently by Broadway’s Norbert Leo Butz) bursts in to announce the good news — Cabaret is a hit. As Fosse takes the newspapers and begins to read the raves, a ray of yellow sunlight crosses the newspapers in his hands. The glowing words are illuminated by the glowing light, and Fosse himself seems to glow as he remembers in flashes moments of greatness (always including audience applause and a wide, showstopping smile) from his childhood. But this glimmer of happiness is short-lived. Soon, the organic ray of sunlight streaming through his hotel room is replaced by blinding flashbulbs, glaring award ceremony stage lights, and the neon strobes of after-party clubs. The artificial and ceremonial loom larger than the real, as Fosse descends into a depression that deepens with more notoriety and acclaim. The parties and ceremonies blur together (pills don’t help), and Paddy explains why success isn’t making Fosse happy. “Your problem is you learned at a very young age that everything is bullshit,” Paddy tells his friend in the backseat of a limo, amidst multiple golden figurines.
Fosse’s newfound success also emboldens his misogynistic attitude towards his own work and the women in it. The Pippin rehearsal room becomes a revolving door of dancers whose prominence in the show is determined not by their talent, but by how eager they are to sleep with him. When one blonde dancer refuses him — this takes her physically defending herself against him when he attempts to sexually assault her on the street outside her building — he replaces her. Gwen, present for this event, comments “Lousy dancer or bad lay?” Fosse responds tellingly, “She doesn’t know how to take direction.” Later, the girl who said no becomes the girl who’s playing the game. She invites Fosse out for a drink (and implies more) with the understanding that if she allows the director to sleep with her, it will advance her career. It’s a disgusting reality of the power dynamics in show business at the time, although the #MeToo movement has shown that the entertainment industry has not moved on from such quid pro quo behavior.
Gwen (Michelle Williams) meanwhile is being pulled in two directions — being a caregiver, and fighting for her career which seems to be stalling out. The play she has been torturing herself over closes after just one performance. It’s a huge loss after all she has been through to try and make the show a success — dealing with an abusive and undermining director, writers who have cut the play down to a one-act, and a demanding schedule that leaves her away from her daughter Nicole for long hours. The domestic life that she left behind to pursue show business is bearing down on her again, and Gwen finds it difficult to admit that she wants career success more than she wants to be a homemaker. And there’s nothing wrong with that — although in 1973 and still today plenty of people would disagree. On her deathbed, Gwen’s dear friend Joan asks her to look after Nicole. It’s a difficult request, and a frustrating one too. Gwen wants so much more from her life than to be a mother, and Joan who has very little life left to live wants domesticity and motherhood. The burden of childcare and domestic labor has fallen on Gwen — we never seen Fosse cooking dinner or babysitting — and now her best friend is calling her out and asking her to do more. It’s the infuriating, inequitable paradox of motherhood. Why do we expect women to “have it all,” and then punish them for every attempt?
Pippin is the perfect fictionalization of Bob Fosse’s existential crisis — success does not cure mental illness, nor can it bring stability, happiness, or fulfillment. In the musical, the lead character ultimately discovers that a simple, domestic life is more fulfilling than achieving an incredible purpose. Fosse acts out the ending moments of Pippin in his real life, contemplating suicide while egged on by a chorus of dancers from the show and people close to him in his real life. All the accolades cannot replace the sense of belonging that he craves, but ultimately it is the memory of his daughter that keeps him from jumping out a window. Like Pippin, he will make an attempt at family life, but like Pippin, he may find that he feels “trapped, but happy.”
Photo and video credit: FX Network – Read the previous review here