The Emptiness of Success in ‘Fosse/Verdon’

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– By Sam Hendrian –

“You happy now?”

These words are spoken by the perceptive writer Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) to his troubled best friend Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) as he sits with a lap-full of awards in the backseat of a limo, and they brilliantly summarize the thematic core of FX’s biographical mini-series Fosse/Verdon. The story of legendary choreographer/director Bob Fosse and his rocky but fruitful relationship with Broadway star Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), it powerfully shows the ultimate emptiness of material success and the destructive effects of marital infidelity.

Ever since he was a little boy, Bob Fosse wanted to be the next Fred Astaire, a dancing legend revered by critics and adored by the public. Fortunately, at only thirteen years old, he was given the opportunity to dance professionally… well, sort of. His tapping feet toured burlesque houses throughout the country, and in the process, he lost his innocence/respect for women when he was sexually assaulted by three strippers. He poignantly reflects in Episode Six: “You know the best part of being scared, turned on, confused, guilty, self-loathing, and lust, all at the same time? It screws up your relationships for the rest of your life.”

Bob does indeed have many screwed-up relationships and a deeply skewed view of sexuality. When he meets his third wife, actress Gwen Verdon, he seems to have finally found someone who loves and understands him on a level that no woman ever has, but this does not stop him from being frequently unfaithful to her. Despite their rocky married life, they successfully collaborate on three Broadway hits: Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago.

Gwen tragically grows desensitized to Bob’s philandering, and she eventually finds an extra bedroom partner of her own, but she never divorces him. As deeply problematic as their open marriage is, there is something hauntingly beautiful about the way they just cannot find it within themselves to leave each other forever. Gwen never stops loving Bob despite how terrible he can be, for she sees the broken soul behind his hard exterior. Bob never stops loving Gwen, for she is the only person who has ever found an ounce of goodness beneath his depravity.

At the height of his choreographing/directing career, Bob wins two Tonys, one Oscar, and one Emmy within the same golden year. But does this fill him with joy and contentment? Hardly. At the end of Episode Four, he has a painful realization that success and fulfillment are inversely related for him. The more acclaim he receives, the more he longs for genuine love in his life, love that transcends bedroom encounters and rote recitations of “Great work, Bob!” But Bob Fosse does not know how to love genuinely, and in the episode’s most powerful scene, he morbidly contemplates suicide in his lonely apartment before envisioning the heartbreaking effect this action would have on his only daughter Nicole.

Fosse/Verdon is definitely engaging and entertaining, especially for musical fans, but it is also not an easy show to watch. Any art that is based on flesh-and-blood human beings who actually walked the Earth is naturally going to be unsettling, for we are forced to look inside ourselves and see how our own sinfulness damages those around us.

Nevertheless, there is still a glimmer of hope to be found beneath the show’s stark bleakness. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon are both incredibly broken people, but they know that they are broken, and it is this humble knowledge that compels them to search for the deeper meaning/purpose of life. Do they ever find what they are searching for? Perhaps not. But as long as we remain humbly aware of our brokenness and are open to redeeming grace, our restless hearts will eventually rest in Truth.


About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.

 

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