Read This: Fosse

When Sam Wasson saw Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for a film course as an undergrad at Wesleyan in 2001, he “felt something… like depressive exhilaration,” he recalls. “It ate my imagination. I’d had some version of that feeling before, of being consumed by a great work, but it had always registered more like catharsis. It felt good. All That Jazz I loved with an intensity that erased me.”

His reaction isn’t hard to understand. All That Jazz is the type of overwhelming creative vision that can convince even the most hardened materialist to accept the auteur theory—but, more than that, it’s one of a handful of films where the filmmaker’s vision becomes inseparable from his personality to the point that you find yourself on a guided tour of his psyche. In Fosse’s case, despite his superficial attempts to obscure the issue, it was an explicitly autobiographical tour spurred by a series of heart attacks in 1975, when he was simultaneously trying to edit the film Lenny and launch the original Broadway production of Chicago. The film’s climactic number, “Bye Bye Life,” stretches the Everly Brothers classic “Bye Bye Love” so far that it nearly becomes meditative—and would be, if it weren’t for the non-stop choreography and the way Fosse extends the dream-like quality of the Hollywood dance sequence into a provocatively surreal realm… then brutally pulls the rug out from under his fictional stand-in (played by Roy Scheider) and the audience.

That college screening planted a seed in Wasson that has culminated, more than a decade later, in Fosse, a massive biography that builds upon previous accounts of the director-choreographer’s life with extensive original research and interviews. His efforts to explain his subject’s genius are relentlessly psychological, taking its cues from the outline Fosse himself laid out: Scarred by his adolescent experiences working alongside sexually aggressive burlesque dancers, in an environment his parents should have known enough to keep him from, he would grow up to love and hate show business with equal passion, sublimating the moves he learned in those cheap joints for the Broadway stage and the big screen. For Wasson, that process becomes a consistently frustrated attempt to work through his youthful suffering.

“Trauma,” Wasson explains, “compulsively seeks expression. Like a criminal, the unconscious mind obsessively returns to the scene of the crime to gain mastery over the pain, putting itself in environments and circumstances, professional and emotional, conducive to reenactment.” Eventually, he calls upon a psychiatric expert who makes the argument more baldly: “If someone endures trauma at the hands of theater people, it would not be much of a surprise if that person ended up devoting his life to the theater.”

It’s hardly revelatory to propose that Fosse drank and smoked and popped pills to “numb the pain” he felt, and the posthumous speculations about “the narcissist’s feelings of utter worthlessness, often caused by a failed attachment to his caregivers early on,” are distractingly reductive. At the same time, there’s a recurring tendency to melodramatic declarations, starting with the framing structure of Fosse’s life as a countdown to death. The choreography for “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees, to take another example, becomes proof of an obsession with “the contamination of innocence” that “stained” its star performer, Gwen Verdon (his third wife and frequent collaborator, even after his constant philandering essentially nullified their marriage), and spread into his films. “It must have been a strange sort of horror to be a famous Broadway director, the star of a hit show… and the husband of the biggest name in musical comedy and yet feel like Bob Fosse,” Wasson muses, and the portrait of Fosse as doomed anti-hero briefly verges on caricature.

In his effort to thoroughly excavate Fosse’s emotional life, though, Wasson sorts through his professional life in exacting detail. As a result, Fosse is filled with great scenes: A star-struck young choreographer finds himself unable to bring himself to say hello to Fred Astaire when they’re introduced on a Hollywood sound stage. His first great musical dance number, “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game, instigates another drama backstage. (During out-of-town previews, one of the show’s co-directors cut the sequence because it didn’t add anything to the story; his partner put it back in because of the audience’s enthusiastic reactions—“standing ovations,” Wasson observes, “justified themselves.”) Fosse and Verdon reject Cabaret when it’s offered to them as a stage concept; later, he would seize upon the movie in order to save his directing career, telling the producer after one vicious fight, “If you want me off the picture, you’re going to have to fire me.”

When the emotional anguish and biographical detail converge, Wasson is capable of truly arresting imagery—a young Fosse “wrestling his tricks and gimmicks” in front of a dance studio mirror, or the embattled filmmaker at the end of his road, seemingly fixated both on recreating the murder of Dorothy Stratten in Star 80 and inserting himself into the story. In such moments, Wasson’s core thesis—“Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it the rest of his life”—becomes seductively persuasive. Writing about musicals may be, to twist the expression, like dancing about architecture, but by focusing on the spirit that animates the production numbers, Wasson hits upon a story that can survive the occasional push into overdrive—perhaps even, like Fosse himself, transforming some of its excesses into momentary virtues.

(I wrote this back in November for The Daily Beast but, as happens sometimes, it never quite found a spot on the editorial calendar—so now I get to share it with you here.)

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13 January 2014 | read this |