Sunday, August 9, 2020

Fosse, Verdon, and all that jazz.

Ben Vereen (left)
Several years ago, we had the opportunity to hear Ben Vereen speak as part of an arts education event sponsored by Cleveland State. Following his address, I met him and had a picture. I told Mr. Vereen that when I was a child, one of my favorite movies was All That Jazz and he gave me the most peculiar look.

All That Jazz is an autobiographical film, directed by Bob Fosse, ostensibly a version of his own life and career -- from his own point of view, of course.

My brother’s copy of the soundtrack album was in constant rotation in our house, all through the year 1980. That was my gateway to the movie, through the music, which I knew by heart well before knowing anything about the content of the film. Snatches of dialogue included on the record, like “It’s showtime, folks!” “Pretty pictures,” and “You can applaud if you want to,” became catchphrases, dropped into conversation among the many young people who frequented our home.

It premiered on cable in the summer of 1981, just as I had turned thirteen, and it was an event screening. A crowd was invited to our place to watch. Here my troubles began.

Roy Scheider & Ben Vereen
(All That Jazz, 1979)
The story, in brief: Broadway director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) has been courting Death (personified by Jessica Lange) his entire life. He’s overworked, strung out on pills, cigarettes and alcohol, oppressed by his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, producers, rival directors, and the critics. Through it all, however, he maintains a sense of humor, style, and above all, he is cool.

One very bad lesson this impressionable adolescent took away from the film, aware even then that it was based on the life experiences of the filmmaker, is that your personal life is fair game in the creation of your work.

And not by half -- Ann Reinking, aforementioned ex-girlfriend, plays a version of herself in the movie. How much more permission do you need to use facts from your own deeply personal or intimate moments in your stories, comic strips, plays? You don’t even need to ask permission.

Of course, that makes you a terrible person. But even that’s okay, because you are surrounded by terrible people. But you alone are cool.

Ann Reinking, center
(All That Jazz, 1979)
Last summer, All That Jazz was playing on the big screen at the Palace, and I brought my daughter to see it. She was sixteen. I didn’t think the subject matter was more adult than anything she regularly watched on her screen.

Driving home, however, she said, “I don’t know why you wanted me to see that.” I knew what she meant. It doesn’t hold up. I mean, I think it’s hilarious. But in 2019, with my engaged and empowered teenager next to me, I was aware of how toxic the character of Joe Gideon is. How entitled, how arrogant, how terrible he is, to everyone. Unapologetic and manipulative.

It is just another Great Man story, where time and again Gideon (i.e. Fosse) is shown to take bad writing, bad performance, bad situations, and turn them into art. All by himself.

And then there is his long, drawn-out, graphic death. And we have all had enough death in this family.

Since the start of the pandemic, the wife and I have been making our way through TV series. Watched High Fidelity in March or April, very disappointed it won’t continue.

The past two weeks we consumed Fosse/Verdon, a high-profile event from last year, produced by the creative team from Hamilton, with a mission to set the record straight on Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell), to incorporate the story of Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), his muse, collaborative equal and partner, ex-wife, and mother of his only child, into his creative legacy, a place where she by all accounts rightfully belongs.

Sam Rockwell & Norbert Leo Butz
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The eight-part program also passes judgment on All That Jazz, revealing it to be the flawed, solipsistic, and disingenuous thing that it truly is, Palme D’Or notwithstanding.

In the final episode, which focuses largely on the production of that movie, Fosse’s best friend, writer Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) provides strongly worded and helpful criticism on the script, prior to production.
“The problem with your movie, Bob, is very simple. Your character doesn’t change. Your hero doesn’t change … none of your characters ever change, which is why your endings are always shit, I say this as a friend.”
This helpful piece of advice, “Storytelling 101,” says Chayefsky, is not heeded. Gideon dies at the end (a full eight years before Fosse himself actually did, in 1987) with everything a mess, his movie, his musical, his relationships, and everyone feels sorry for him. But death is not redemption. It’s just another number. Then Merman starts singing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” roll credits. Death is a joke. The ending really is shit.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Roy Scheider

(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The final moments of Fosse/Verdon, which portrays Fosse’s actual death, is just sad. A sixty year-old man has a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk, while his creative and life partner watches, helpless. Sad. That’s the problem with life histories, they always end in death. But the hero still hasn’t changed.

However, let’s back up a bit. In setting the record straight, Fosse is stripped of the cool with which he bestowed upon Gideon. Just-Bob is revealed to be terribly insecure, racked with doubt, and in constant need of emotional and artistic assistance from Verdon, a woman who is driven, determined, and very smart, who herself needs to appeal to the men who hold power -- most notably Bob Fosse -- to achieve her dreams.

She’s not a perfect mother, but Fosse is a horrible father (unlike Joe Gideon, of course) they are each negligent “Ice Storm” generation parents, it’s eleven o’clock and they have no fucking idea where their children are.

Here’s the thing, I really enjoyed Fosse/Verdon. I mean, I would watch both Rockwell and Williams in anything, anyway. It's gorgeous, it's dramatic, it's witty. But in the end, the series felt like a long, drawn out, somewhat depressing version of All That Jazz. Only now we have reasons for toxic behavior.

Sam Rockwell & Michelle Williams
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The behavior itself is not excused, but providing reasons, backstory, we do lean into forgiveness. And I am not sure that is warranted.

People without number have been molested as children, emotionally abused by their parents, had difficulty bearing offspring, but who are not themselves reprehensible in their behavior. Some of them are even great artists.

And while this may be the right time to reassess the life and artistic contribution of Gwen Verdon, once again she does the heavy lifting in a program which still feels like its mission is to rehabilitate the reputation of its more dominant, "Great Man" protagonist.

I say this as a friend.

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