Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
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 do you do when the thing you’re good at—so good that people are bowled over by just how good you are—puts you in a trap? And when you find yourself in a trap, just how high a price are you willing to pay to get out of it?
But with two people this damaged, even that one good and valuable relationship risks sliding into codependency.Gwen Verdon struggles with these questions in this week’s episode of Fosse/Verdon. Back in New York after the marital fiasco in Europe, she’s put Bob out of the apartment, though he waltzes right back in regardless (bearing Chinese food that quickly lures their daughter away from Gwen’s home-cooked dinner). She firmly turns down a part in his new musical, Pippin, in favor of the non-musical play she wants to do, even though—some things never change—they’re forcing her to jump through hoops just to get the role. And she does her best to stay out of the editing room where Bob is working on the film of Cabaret, even though he’s feeling stuck and begging for her help.
But it’s not that easy for Gwen to cut Bob Fosse out of her life. For one thing, he’s still Nicole’s father, a fact that comes in handy when Gwen has a dinner meeting with her agent. But when Gwen drops Nicole off at the editing room, we soon learn that Bob would rather do fatherhood on his own terms. Or, as he puts it, “I’m not a babysitter.” (That sound you heard was mothers everywhere grinding their teeth.) He soon foists Nicole on one of his best friends, playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and heads back to the studio for more work on the movie, along with a tryst with his assistant editor. Hannah the translator has left him and Gwen has separated from him, but if there’s one thing Bob Fosse is determined never to be without, it’s female companionship.
Norbert Leo Butz portrays Chayefsky as a lovable schlub—a schlub who’s massively talented, as people in Bob and Gwen’s circle tend to be, but a harmless one. Nonetheless, Gwen is horrified to arrive at Bob’s apartment and find her preteen daughter alone with Paddy. When Bob gets home, Gwen is not pacified by his protests that Paddy is a friend and therefore trustworthy.
For it turns out that there was a family “friend” in Gwen’s own past: a man named Jim Henaghan, who promised to help her with her dance career, and then preyed on her and got her pregnant when she was just a teenager. (Apparently this incident was something that Verdon never talked about openly; Nicole Fosse later figured it out from comments her parents had let drop.)
Unsurprisingly, when her parents forced Gwen and Jim to marry, the situation only got worse. Still a young girl, Gwen put her own dreams aside and scrambled to support a deadbeat husband and a baby son. Not until she met famed choreographer Jack Cole and impulsively asked for an audition did she find a way both to make good money and to start using her gift again. But it meant divorcing her husband—and leaving her son behind with his grandparents.
In the present, then, Gwen is not only juggling career and motherhood and an increasingly erratic not-quite-husband-anymore, but also guilt and pain that go back decades. We see it in the way her hand curls protectively around Nicole’s; we hear it in the way she curses Bob when he callously refers to her choice to leave her son. She didn’t truly abandon the child—she supported him financially and had him with her when she could—but the guilt is still there, and still deep. The show portrays her as haunted by her baby’s cries the way that Bob is haunted by those constantly pounding tap shoes in his mind.
There are vibrant moments of triumph in this episode. There’s Gwen’s 1953 breakthrough on Broadway in the musical Can-Can, complete with the moment when she was rushed onstage in a towel for a curtain call in front of an audience screaming her name. There’s the moment when she wins her long-desired role in the straight play. There’s the moment when she finally joins Bob in the editing room and Cabaret starts to come together.
All of these moments are almost immediately undercut by moments of doubt, conflict, or despair. Gwen, in particular, finds herself trapped by the very expectations and preconceptions that her talent and hard work have brought her. For the skeptical colleagues she’s working with, who see her as nothing but a musical comedy star, she has to reinvent herself all over again. (How dare this multiple Tony Award winner think she can actually act!)
With Gwen struggling to prove herself, and Bob struggling to believe in himself, their working relationship is almost the only source of true energy and fulfillment left in their professional lives, which is why, despite misgivings, they keep coming back to it. But with two people this damaged, even that one good and valuable relationship risks sliding into codependency. We know from episode 1 that these two stayed together, in some form or other, for the rest of their lives. It remains to be seen whether that was ultimately for their good.
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