Most weeks on this remarkable series, the themes of Fosse/Verdon transcend our two extraordinary main characters into something more universal. The main character of Pippin is told, over and over this episode, “Your search for meaning and fulfillment was doomed from the start.” We think that whatever we’re looking for will make us happy—but if we’re hollow to begin with, all the awards in the world won’t fill us. It’s a painful lesson Bob learns this week, even though it’s the same one his lead also learns in his Tony-winning musical.
The incessant tapping (like Gwen’s crying baby—both Fosse and Verdon have constant inner soundtracks) signals Bob’s insecurity, so deep that he has to run away from the Cabaret premiere. He gets over it quickly enough to swagger in front of his new stage cast, but Bob’s swirl of success gets him in over his head quickly, this time without Gwen to tether him. He accomplished in a year what most people could never even come close to achieving—to this day, no one else has ever won a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar in the same frickin’ year. And yet when all this success finally happens, Bob’s moving too quickly to even really enjoy it, even with all the sex and drugs. His best friend, writer Paddy Chayefsky functions as his sounding board in the limo (an inspired creative choice—what does actually happen in the post-award-show limo?), from a rant against the stupidity of awards in the first place to the simple and cutting “you happy now?,” as Bob slumps listlessly with awards in his lap.
And of course, Bob isn’t happy, because he’s never fixed what’s wrong in the first place. Bob is deeply, deeply conflicted (hinted at by flashback shots of a young dancing Bob and the strippers he was dancing with) and the way that he treats women is straight-up appalling. There’s a lot of credit due to Sam Rockwell for not softening the blow of who Fosse really was—a man who used his position and power to maneuver women into bed, a man who sexually assaults one of his cast members on the street, then punishes her for it. When Gwen visits the Pippin rehearsal, she knows exactly what’s going on, astutely realizing that Ann is good enough to get a solo without a visit to Bob’s hotel room. It’s remarkable, and a little disappointing, how blithe she can be about the womanizing behavior of her husband and father of her child. But as we’ve seen in previous weeks, Gwen is smart, and she’s a survivor—she’s not going to entertain denial when the ugly truth is staring her right in the face.
After all, Gwen is a performer as well—she needs to work, and she knows Chicago is destined to be the next big hit for her and Bob. Their partnership has always been a bit one-sided: He can’t pay attention to Gwen’s awful play, and he can’t even think about their next production, while she’s willing to fly all the way to New York from Berlin just to pick up a gorilla suit. There are two cheerworthy moments this episode when Bob finally gets some comeuppance: when Stephanie knees him in the groin, and when Gwen finally hangs up on him at 3 a.m. Why should she always be there for him if he can’t be there for her? He’s completely self absorbed.
Yet it’s a conceit bolstered by flimsy insecurity, which makes all those successes seem thin and fleeting. Once Bob gets kicked out of his wife’s bedroom by her boyfriend in a farce-worthy scene, he has no one and nothing left to turn to. I really liked how the musical forces behind Fosse/Verdon gave this version of Bob his own personal musical number, when faced with ending his life. This episode used only the music from Pippin, no original music (like “Corner Of The Sky” to score Bob’s hedonistic funnel cloud). Looking at that open window, Bob hears “Extraordinary” from his cast—“When you’re extraordinary/You gotta do extraordinary things” and in his unnerved, fractured state, he believes that killing himself at the height of his success would be the most extraordinary of all. After all, when the Pippin creators push for Pippin to choose love at the end, Bob instead wants him to jump right in to the fire, ultimately achieving nothing but death. All his forces chime in, encouraging him to take the fatal leap toward supposed legend, like Paddy and even a younger Gwen, with Michelle Williams somehow playing the part as the most sinister kind of Lola temptress.
He’s saved by an odd, heartfelt rendition of “Guess I’ll Miss The Man” by his daughter Nicole (in a wonderful performance by Blake Baumgartner): “Some days he’d scowl and curse/But there were other days/When he was really even worse… But please don’t get me wrong/He was the best to come along/In a long, long while.” The brilliant and awful sides of Bob are so at odds with each other; we can’t take one without the other, and fortunately, Fosse/Verdon doesn’t want us to. That final moment of Bob’s defeat is all-encompassing; he’s fallen about as far as he can from those heights we saw just moments before. Of course the first thing the afraid-to-be-alone Bob does in his hospital bed is look to his side: There’s no one there.
- Rando Fosse/Verdon factoid of the week: A commenter pointed this out last week, just in case you didn’t see it: Gwen’s one-night only play, Children! Children! was actually made into a movie in 1986, starring Christian Slater, of all people. It’s apparently about an evil boy (or boys) who terrorize a kindly babysitter, played by Gwen in the play and Lois Smith in the movie. Thanks EricMontreal22!
- This week’s featured member of the Fosse/Verdon inner circle: I swear I was saving him for this week anyway, midnightkitkat: Norbert Leo Butz plays Paddy Chayefsky, Bob’s best friend and no stranger to awards himself. He’s the only person to win three screenwriting Oscars solo, with no co-writers: for Marty, The Hospital, and Network. I hadn’t realized that he also wrote Altered States as well. He and Bob had a deal: If Bob died first, Paddy would give a long eulogy at the funeral; if Paddy died first, Bob would tap-dance at his funeral, which he did.
- Even after getting that motherhood pep talk from her best friend Joan, Gwen still avoids The Partridge Family, while Nicole watches it with her babysitter. Pointedly, the scene show Laurie Partridge talking to her mom, Shirley. Don’t know why Gwen wasn’t into it, I loved The Partridge Family. It kicked The Brady Bunch’s ass in reruns when I was a kid.
- Next week: Bob, Gwen, Paddy, and Neil hit the beach in a differently paced Fosse/Vernon episode.