Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
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.
“Providence” is the only episode of Fosse/Verdon that’s not named after a song from one of Fosse and Verdon’s musicals. Instead, this episode title comes from the middle name of their daughter, Nicole. We saw Gwen pick the name in a flashback in the previous episode, because she believed that after the couple’s struggle with fertility issues, their daughter was a miracle.
But even fulfilling their ingrained purpose is not enough to bring these people lasting peace.It’s a fascinating choice of name, both for Nicole and for this episode. As we’ve seen over the course of the show, faith never played much of a role in this family’s lives. There was, instead, what has often been called a God-shaped hole—a deep yearning, amid all the color and drama and excitement, for something that would truly comfort and heal . . . something that was always just out of reach.
But if he had ever come too close to that something—however badly he needed it and even desired it—it’s quite possible that Bob Fosse might have drawn back in fear. As bold and innovative as he was in the theater world, something in him shrank from certain possibilities in the real world, especially the possibility of change.
The ever-insightful Paddy Chayefsky nails it in the sharply written opening scene of this episode, while the two men are discussing Bob’s upcoming film musical about his own life, All That Jazz:
“The problem with your movie, Bob, is very simple. Your character doesn’t change. Your hero doesn’t change.”
Bob protests: “Lenny [in Lenny] didn’t change. Charity [in Sweet Charity] didn’t change.”
“Exactly. None of your characters ever change, which is why your endings are always s—.”
It’s almost a direct continuation of Bob’s fight with Gwen over the ending of Chicago, when she wanted to show that her character, Roxie, had changed. Bob still doesn’t buy the idea. He insists that he creates works about reality, whereas character transformation is just a “fairy tale.”
As Paddy suggests, Bob’s autobiographical character has good reason to transform—for the sake of the wife he’s alienated but has never really gotten over. But even if that’s true, Bob contends, it makes no difference. “He already knows all that. He knows he should’ve been with her. . . . It doesn’t matter what he knows. Knowing doesn’t change anything.”
It’s one of the bleakest moments in a series that has known its share of bleak scenes. It’s been tempting to speculate, as Bob has used and exploited people, that his problem involved a lack of self-awareness. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, he had too much self-awareness. He knew what he was doing; the trouble was that he wanted to go right on doing it.
There’s no escaping a fact like that when you’re making a movie about your own life, as Bob is doing here. Cringeworthy moments abound as Bob interviews Gwen on her feelings about him, and then auditions Ann, now his ex-girlfriend, for a role playing, essentially, herself. Making her read a scene in which she denies that she loves another man, Bob presses her to repeat it over and over and over, until the even-tempered Ann finally breaks: “This isn’t a scene. . . . This is my life. These are my words. You took our life and you put it into a f—ing scene in a movie.”
An unmoved Bob simply makes her do it again, until he finally gets the line reading he wants from her. For the good of the movie or to satisfy some sadistic urge of his own? As always with Bob, it could be either, or—more likely—both.
But even knowing how he operates, Gwen simply can’t resist the lure Bob dangles in front of her, of starring in the national tour of Chicago. When her long-suffering romantic partner, Ron, finally draws the line—“I’m so sick of being in a three-way relationship. I’m tired of being the consolation prize to Bob Fosse”—Gwen chooses the tour over Ron. The siren song of the stage always pulls her back, even if it means facing a life of loneliness.
Fosse/Verdon makes no bones about the fact that an artist’s life demands sacrifices—sometimes sacrifices so great that they can warp every other area of one’s life. At the same time, the show has consistently made a strong case for just how valuable art is. Dance, for these people, is as natural and essential as breathing: It enhances emotions, creates and strengthens bonds, speaks a language all its own. Dance sprinkles grace notes throughout this episode, moments of true beauty and poignancy.
Bob and Nicole relax into each other’s company as they improvise a number together in the living room. Bob performs a somber, elegant tap solo at Paddy’s funeral, in fulfillment of an old promise. Gwen lights up all over as she steps onstage to show a young Debbie Allen the steps to a number from Sweet Charity. Watching that moment is to see her doing what she was born to do, and to feel sad that she had to fight so hard, against so many obstacles, to do it.
But even fulfilling their ingrained purpose is not enough to bring these people lasting peace. Nicole understands this as she watches her father put their rare and precious interaction into his movie, and her face falls. There are times, especially for a vulnerable teenager, when the line between art and life blurs too much.
We see the tragedy at work here during Bob’s great moment of triumph. He’s directing the famous death scene from All That Jazz, a wild, hallucinatory free-for-all where the protagonist says goodbye to all the people who care for him, before the last shot where he’s zipped into a body bag. Roy Scheider, the actor who’s essentially playing Bob (played here in a cameo by Lin-Manuel Miranda), runs through the cheering crowd of performers, stopping now and then for hugs. The experience is such a thrill that he suggests Bob try it himself. Many of these performers are actors and dancers who’ve worked with Bob many times; their embraces, despite all he’s put them through, are genuine and heartfelt. Bob drinks in their adoration, feeling a joy he’s rarely felt.
We cut back and forth between this scene, a scene of Gwen watching Ron pack up and leave, and a scene of Nicole getting high with her friends and nearly falling off the roof of a building. Even Bob’s natural high soon fades as his old feelings of worthlessness reassert themselves.
None of it is enough. None of it could keep this family together.
But the love of their art does bring Bob and Gwen, at last, to a fragile sort of peace with each other, as they collaborate on the revival of Sweet Charity. This commitment, at least, they still have in common. As Paddy had observed, these two people, with their gifts and passions, were uniquely fitted to be together . . . if only Bob’s insatiable cravings hadn’t kept pushing them apart.
Yet they are together at the very end, when Bob collapses on the sidewalk as they’re walking together to Charity’s opening night in Washington, D.C., in 1987. It’s Gwen who holds and soothes Bob as he dies. He never did change, but there was a little more grace at his own ending than he would have allowed one of his characters.
An epilogue tells us that Nicole, after years of struggling with her own addictions, eventually moved to Vermont, had a family of her own, and got clean. A few years later, Gwen went to live with her daughter, but died shortly thereafter.
“I didn’t say it was true, Bob. I said it was a satisfying ending. You want true, go to a priest, not a playwright.”
In that throwaway line, in the conversation back at the beginning of the episode, Paddy Chayefsky was on to something. Though not quite all the way there. Both truth and satisfaction are bound up in that mysterious Providence that Bob Fosse never quite brought himself to face.
As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The books or the music [or, in this case, the dance] in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.” This series has poignantly shown us that it was longing, in the end, that defined the lives of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. A lifetime of longing for something, of working toward something, of being so close to perfection and yet so far from peace.
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