I'M A SUCKER for a dance movie. I don’t mean musicals — I mean movies that are about dancers pursuing their art to the death (or, more realistically, to the last broken bone). I don’t care if it’s an award winner like Black Swan, Fame, or The Turning Point, or a lowbrow romp buoyed by high melodrama like the short-lived show Smash. The first season of Smash was great, with all that peanut poisoning and pill popping between pirouettes. If you think Smash is embarrassing, you should also know that I’ve seen the movie Center Stage about five times. I still find it exhilarating and inspiring watching Zoe Saldana’s rebellious ballerina Eva rising through the ranks at the “American Ballet Academy” in New York. Some of the performances in Center Stage are on par with the ones you see in those lo-fi “sell your gold for cash” ads, but who cares? The characters are laser-focused and grinding their toe shoes into resin and bleeding for their art. It’s electrifying.
Sam Wasson’s biography about the great dancer/choreographer/director Bob Fosse gave me the same sort of exuberant rush I get when I watch dance movies. This fast-paced, fascinating read (even at over 600 pages) also got me thinking about why we crave stories involving intense, often excruciating physical struggle in the pursuit of art. These tales always land with a final, triumphant performance, the sweet payoff that takes us from backstage to a cushy, prime orchestra seat where we can enjoy the ballerina and her humble curtsy, basking in the glory of applause and long-stemmed roses. But the gist of the story is about what’s hidden behind the frilly tutus and under the dramatic makeup; it’s about the grit, sweat, bunions, broken bones, and blind determination that it takes to reach such heights, all of it made even more poignant by crippling self-doubt and the realization that your on-stage career is likely over by 30. It’s about the cost of making art.
Fosse was one of the first popular choreographers to include the ugliness and pain behind the glamour of dance, to bring it, so to speak, into the spotlight. In the book, Wasson calls Fosse’s Cabaret — a musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories about the Nazi’s rise to power — the “bejeweling of horror.” In the film version, Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles paints her nails bright green and flits around the room batting impossibly long, thick eyelashes, but Fosse forces you to peer past that, to the fear and pain inside of her, and to the suppressed terror in the world around her. She dances and sings night after night at the Kit Kat Klub while swastika arm bands and Hitler salutes become more de rigueur than tuxedoes. For Sally Bowles, showbiz is everything. She’s aware of what’s happening around her, but the show goes on. She has to perform. She needs to be seen. She’ll put on those false eyelashes even as the world encircling her morphs into a horror.
In many ways, Bob Fosse was Bowles. Even as his body was breaking down (he suffered seizures and a heart attack while his career was in full bloom), he worked as if his life depended on it until the very end, and maybe it did. Ann Reinking — actress, dancer, and longtime Fosse girlfriend who is quoted throughout Wasson’s tome — says, “The thing you love can also be the death of you. Dancers are aware of that much more than the average artist.” This might sound a bit theatrical, but have you ever seen a dancer’s feet? It’s a wonder the profession even exists. What other art form is as brutal as ballet? Writers don’t really bleed for their art unless they get a paper cut, and nobody uses paper anymore anyway.
Singers scorch vocal chords, actors mentally torture themselves and painters inhale poisonous amounts of turpentine over the years, but dancers’ bodies contort, bend, break, and shatter on a weekly basis. In addition to the intangible psychological torture endured by any creative person, dancers also live with a savage, physical manifestation of artistic passion — wrapped in pretty pink tutus, of course. Filmically speaking, dancers make better subjects. Would you rather watch a frustrated writer hurl crumpled up pages into a wastebasket, or a gorgeous woman in swan feathers consumed by passion, swirling in light, finally adored by masses of people as the embodiment of the perfection of the human form?
On the surface, it seems like Fosse lived his life as if he were constantly and intentionally pirouetting himself to death — with the help of Dexedrine, Seconal, alcohol, overwork, and an endless chain of cigarettes and women. Wasson frames the book as a backward march towards Fosse’s big finale in 1987 at the age of 60. It begins with an intro called “The End,” which details the big bash friends and family had at Tavern on the Green to celebrate Fosse’s life after he passed away. At the Central Park restaurant’s glittering ballroom, his wife Gwen Verdon (she and Fosse separated but never divorced) stormed the dance floor with their daughter Nicole and with Fosse’s ex Reinking, and Liza Minnelli, Elia Kazan, Roy Scheider, E.L. Doctrow, Ben Vereen, and Neil Simon mourned their friend the way he wanted them to — with cocktails, music, and dancing. Razzle-dazzle in the face of death.
Wasson keeps his subject’s death always in the present, by naming each chapter with the amount of time Fosse has left on this earth. “Sixty Years” takes us back to his Chicago childhood, when “Bobby” started dancing in vaudeville. In “Forty-Five Years” we witness his formative adolescence years as part of the Riff Brothers duo, a dancing act that had Fosse working late nights at seedy burlesque clubs before he’d reached puberty — a time that Wasson pinpoints as the source of Fosse’s fascination with “the dreck, the true showbiz.” The strippers, no doubt working out abuse of their own, lavished more on the virginal kid; theirs were background stories that that never ended up in glossy magazines or hardcover books. These were the experiences that would haunt Fosse’s work and life forever, and Wasson’s prose mimics the breakneck, impassioned pace of his subject’s teen years. “All those nights in all those shitholes burned red sequins into Fosse’s eyes,” he writes. Glitz would always tango with grime.
Jumping forward, “Fifteen Years” chronicles the glory days of Cabaret, Pippin, and Fosse’s groundbreaking TV special Liza With a Z. In 1973 he became the only person in history to win the Oscar, the Tony, and an Emmy in a single year. The Godfather won Best Picture, but Fosse, not Francis Ford Coppola, took home the directing prize. The famed film critic Pauline Kael said of Cabaret, “Until now there has never been a diamond-hard big American musical. If it doesn’t make money, it will still make movie history.”
It did make money, and Fosse — who was already considered a talent after hits like The Pajama Game, Sweet Charity, and Damn Yankees — became a living legend. He had a reputation for being a difficult perfectionist, a womanizer, and an addict, but still Hollywood and Broadway came begging. He bragged of turning down Frank Sinatra. Some might think that after such unparalleled success an artist could kick back with confidence. Instead, Fosse checked into the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, beset by the notion that he was a fraud and that rather than having significance and meaning, all of his work was just “razzle-dazzle.”
He wasn’t the first artist to experience the terror of feeling like a fraud, but he did approach art as if his life depended on it more than most. Dustin Hoffman, who starred as self-destructive comedian and cultural rabble-rouser Lenny Bruce in Fosse’s Oscar-nominated Lenny, said of his director: “This guy wanted so desperately to be an artist — and that was his tragedy — because he already was.” According to Wasson, Hoffman and Fosse got along like two cocks in a fighting ring, but that didn’t stop the actor from recognizing Fosse’s talent. It was undeniable.
There are other great choreographers and great directors, but Fosse’s style is still, decades after his death, burned into our brains. You think Beyoncé or Michael Jackson just started spontaneously dancing that way? Bob Fosse’s influence is all over their work, as it is over countless others.
Wasson’s book does not shy away from the salacious; this is a fun biography, but he manages never to stray into tacky, Kitty Kelley territory. Supposedly Fosse was just as talented in the sack as he was behind the camera, and oodles of female dancers share their stories of being seduced and abandoned by their director. Verdon and Reinking loved Fosse and always spoke well of him, but you can guess that loving him could not have been easy.
Meanwhile, Michael Jackson desperately wanted Fosse to direct his video for Thriller but was turned down. One of my favorite stories was learning that Fosse and his competitor Jerome Robbins (West Side Story) would pass a pair of gold cufflinks back and forth throughout their lives — if Robbins had a hit, the cufflinks were his; when Fosse triumphed, they came his way again, on and on in a circle, mirroring the up and down trajectory of a career.
Fosse rode that wave until the end. Death, dressed in feathers and a sequined top hat, dances across every page of Wasson’s book, just as it does in Fosse’s work. All That Jazz, Fosse’s masterful, autobiographical film about a pill popping, womanizing director choreographing his own demise, is often seen as a story about death. Watching the film again after reading the book, I understood much more than I had before about this paradoxical artist. Fosse wasn’t just aiming for a grand jeté into the abyss. As obsessed as he was with the end, he was gripping onto life with all his might in the face of death. His body, like most dancers, fought against him. The booze and pills and obsession with perfection didn’t help.
“Was he an artist?” Wasson writes. “The question always embarrassed Fosse. Calling oneself an artist was like calling oneself beautiful; it was for others to decide. But still he wondered. Was he an artist?” Maybe if Fosse could have loosened his grip on this need to create and to shatter the firmament with his art, he wouldn’t have suffered as much. Federico Fellini, a director Fosse admired, had a more prosaic attitude. “Of course I call myself an artist,” he once said. “What should I call myself — a plumber?”
But Fosse wouldn’t have been Fosse without the constant battle between the razzle-dazzle and the grit, between life and death. He came from vaudeville, from burlesque, and then became a legend. After finishing Wasson’s book, you feel like you’ve been steeped in a life, enveloped in a whirlwind of jazz, sex, struggle, song and dance, and one man’s quest to break things open with his art — convention, sameness, phoniness, tradition. Fosse is a book celebrating a life, even though, as Wasson writes, Fosse “had the jazzman’s crush on burning out.”
“I always thought I’d be dead at 25,” Fosse once said. “I wanted to be. I thought it was romantic. I thought people would mourn me.” Romanticizing death was maybe a way for Fosse to choreograph his own life. It was a Broadway show, not reality. He accomplished that with the “Bye Bye Life” finale in All That Jazz, which ends with Roy Scheider (as Fosse doppelgänger Joe Gideon) being zipped into a body bag, but in real life Fosse kept living, and creating, and holding onto life for nearly a decade after the film premiered. He’d contemplated choreographing a classical ballet for years, like his buddy and rival Jerome Robbins, but never felt he was good enough, and never felt he was ready. At the very end, Reinking says, “He wanted to do a full ballet for the first time in his life. He thought he was ready.”
What a ballet it would have been.