Looking at Bob Fosse in the #MeToo Era

As I was finishing Sam Wasson’s biography of Bob Fosse, Molly Ringwald published this article in The New Yorker, and it served as a nice companion piece to how I was feeling about the experience of learning about Bob Fosse’s life. In her article, Ringwald looks back at the John Hughes movies that made her famous and reconsiders them both as an adult woman and in light of the #MeToo movement. The movies don’t come away unscathed–and, really, they don’t deserve to.

Bob Fosse is one of Broadway’s greatest icons. His signature style is instantly recognizable and there is no denying the impact he had on theater to this very day. As he transitioned from dancer and performer to choreographer and to director, he left behind indelible works like Damn YankeesSweet Charity, the film version of CabaretLiza with a ZPippin, and Chicago. He was known to be problematic even in his era: a temperamental perfectionist and womanizer who smoked too much and frequently drove his performers to the brink in order to get their best work from them. But with the benefit of hindsight, Fosse becomes even more problematic.

So many of the descriptors I just used are actually understatements to the man as portrayed in Sam Wasson’s thoroughly researched biography. ‘Temperamental’ frequently blurs the line into just being an asshole. ‘Perfectionist’ is a nice term for a man incapable of being satisfied and who was prone to fits of anger and despair over work he never perceived to be good enough. ‘Womanizer’ is a coded way of referring to Fosse as a sexual predator–and he was a sexual predator. He repeatedly asked out young women who were auditioning for him and invited them to bed with him. He casually told them that all of his leading ladies sleep with him, and he had to know that the implication to these women was that they would not get the role unless they slept with him–after all, why else would he make it part of the audition process? He also repeatedly called dancers and actresses in his shows and propositioned them again and again. Many of these calls came in late at night. He coerced them into coming to his hotel room (also late at night), where he was waiting naked in his bed.

It’s… disconcerting stuff, to say the absolute least. At times I was literally squirming in my chair I was so uncomfortable. And all this bad behavior is shrugged off like a character quirk by all of Fosse’s contemporaries. It is nothing short of maddening that this was allowed to continue. And while you can appreciate Fosse’s genius in his works, it becomes enormously difficult to separate them from the monster he is revealed to be.

Fosse was a complicated man whose insecurities became part of his narcissism over time. His constant need for approval and his constant belief that he was a fraud never left him, but over time they also became tools by which he got reassurance–for simply by confessing his fear that he was no good, his friends and colleagues fell over themselves with praise. Throughout his whole life, Fosse was plagued by fear of death and failure. Wasson reflects this by having each chapter count down the remaining years in Fosse’s life.

The problem is that when the years are up, so is the book. When Fosse’s time runs out and he dies of a heart attack, the book ends. There is no conclusion, no time for reflection on what Fosse’s life meant or what his legacy has been. There is certainly no time to try to reconcile his bad behavior. I see what Wasson was doing by ending the book with Fosse’s death–and to be fair, it does make quite an impact. But this reader needed that conclusion. This reader needed help sorting through how I feel about Bob Fosse now that I know more about him. This reader needed to know what happened to Gwen Verdon, the love of Fosse’s life and his frequent leading lady. The more I think about the way Wasson ended this book, the more frustrated I get. There’s just no getting around that.

While I found the insight into Fosse’s mind and creative process fascinating, I cannot deal with what I learned about him as a person. For a long time, I’ve considered Cabaret to be one of my favorite movies, and now I’m not sure I can watch it without feeling that it has been tainted. And Wasson’s refusal to provide closure feels like a colossal stylistic misstep.

Grade: C+

Fosse by Sam Wasson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s