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Fosse/Verdon’s beachy bottle episode contains a multitude of revelations

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There’s been so much fast and furious activity in Fosse/Verdon so far (Damn Yankees! Sweet Charity! Cabaret! Pippin!) that now that we’re past the halfway marker, it seems that everyone’s ready for a break, even the cast. So a primarily “bottle episode” (if the bottle in question is in fact an impressive Southampton beach house) is a welcome respite at this point in the series. Bob soon moves out of the mental health facility where he starts the episode, Neil is grieving because Joan has died, and Bob has taken up with Ann Reinking, the woman who will pick up his relationship/muse mantle from his still-wife Gwen Verdon.

I’ve always been a fan of plays/movies that happen when people are all cooped up in one place (and so many of them do): The Man Who Came To Dinner, The Petrified Forest, Key Largo. So this episode was like drama catnip to me: Gwen, Bob, Neil, Paddy, Ann, Nicole, and Ron trapped in the beachhouse due to the rain. As so often in these types of productions, large quantities of alcohol and close proximity makes every interaction more volatile, until things blow up in wild and wonderful ways.

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I’m surprised, actually, that Fosse/Verdon isn’t getting more attention than it is. Shouldn’t an episode showing creative legends like Simon, Chayefsky, Fosse, Verdon, and Reinking all under the same roof be automatic appointment viewing? Granted, the dialogue is fabricated, but I still find it fascinating to see performers when they’re not performing. Part of them still need to, of course—it’s why Neil is such an impressive storyteller even when just hanging around with his friends, or that it doesn’t take much coaxing to get Gwen to break into song. (It’s also why the less-talented Ron painfully fails to join in the storytelling.) But as they all toss around plans and expectations, everyone’s own needs for validation and stardom surface.

Especially Gwen’s. I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about Fosse/Verdon once Moira Rose’s favorite season (“Awards”) rolls around, as the powers-that-be should basically be making up new awards right now just to give to Michelle Williams. Even her every phone conversation is saturated with substance, a thin, shiny facade over a wealth of ambition and heartache. Her wine-fueled dinner party pitch to Bob about Chicago is somehow tinged with both desperation and greatness, as even Bob acknowledges the hard sell. But it isn’t until Gwen sings Joan’s favorite song, “Where Am I Going?” a.k.a. Charity’s lament, that he realizes how much she needs to perform. She’s not like Neil or Paddy, who can hole up with typewriters—she needs a stage, and a performance, and an audience. As they lock eyes over the last line, “Where am I going / You tell me,” Chicago is a done deal, even before they sleep together.

But we also get Bob’s perspective, grappling with the insecurity that he’ll be the first director to get a lousy performance out of Hoffman. And his insatiable need to keep working, even though he knows it will probably kill him. Or is it that men like Fosse and Chayefsky just thought they were invincible? (Fosse eventually died of his heart problems at age 60; Chayefsky died at 58 of cancer.) This episode pointedly focuses on how Bob’s past affected his womanizing, as his loss of virginity involved two older dancers at a nightclub where he was working when he was 13. The story makes Paddy muse about “how unjust the world is; what did you ever do to deserve that,” lines that could be taken two ways. While Ron comments, “some people have all the luck,” the fact is that Fosse was sexually abused by older women, effectively messing up his sexual attitudes for life.

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Of course, from Gwen’s outburst she either doesn’t get that, or has been so hurt by Bob’s frequent infidelities that she no longer cares. I think she’s primarily lashing out over Bob’s refusal to do Chicago: Whatever else Gwen Verdon is, she’s a performer; she needs that show, and knows from her years of Broadway experience that it will be a hit. Even after her bitter speech, it’s rather touching how she apologizes to Ann the next day and tries to coach on her one what her life with Bob will likely be like. Gwen is ready to pass the torch; if she’s not taking care of Bob, someone else will have to, and Ann does, almost until the end of his life.

Ann is young at this point, in her early twenties, so she doesn’t know yet what the others do—they need to create to survive. Even the loss of his wife barely slows down Neil Simon, as it’s mentioned that he has two Broadway hits simultaneously. The “TV news” thing Paddy is working on will turn out to be Network. Gwen is so miserable without work (and desperate for something to take her mind off Joan’s death) she forces Bob into a show, and despite his protests, Bob understands her needs completely. Ann’s trying to save him, but the others know that he wouldn’t even survive a year without work.

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Especially Gwen. One of the many great things about the series’ exploration of their relationship is that at this point there’s no clear definition of the connection between them. They’re still married, but they tease each other about their younger partners. They’re close enough to still have sex, but know that they could never be together in that way forever. At this point Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams have wholly inhabited these characters, so that even as Bob and Gwen viciously argue, the affection between them can not be denied. There are a million different ways to love somebody, and Fosse/Verdon, especially in this episode, explores the myriad intricacies behind this particularly fascinating relationship.

Stray observations

  • Rando Fosse/Verdon factoids of the week: If you like, you can witness Neil Simon’s story about losing his virginity to a prostitute in the film version of his play Biloxi Blues (with Matthew Broderick as the Neil Simon stand-in). Also, he may be mourning now, but Neil is about to meet Marsha Mason and marry her within a month.
  • This week’s featured member of the Fosse/Verdon inner circle: Ann Reinking stayed with Fosse until 1978, but like Gwen, is forever tied to him, becoming an acclaimed choreographer in her own right. She also helped create the 2001 review Fosse with Gwen and Nicole. My favorite movie role of hers is in Blake Edwards’ non-musical Mickie And Maude; Margaret Qualley even nails the appealing raspiness of Reinking’s voice.
  • Even the costuming in this series is incredible: Gwen’s lemon print pantsuit, complete with sailor blouse, just screams 1973; likewise, the patterned short shorts on the men. I will also give it up for the hairstyling, from Bob’s bald patches to Gwen’s fluffy detachable hairpiece.
  • I feel like all the parts of the show from Nicole’s perspective are due to the fact that Nicole Fosse is one of the executive producers. Can’t imagine what it’s like to delve so deeply into your parents’ psyches, but I suspect that without her involvement, we wouldn’t get so many shots of little Nicole making off with the seconal bottle and trying out cigarettes in front of a mirror.
  • Next week: I am out of screeners, so the last three reviews will go up a bit later than usual. But since actors have been cast in the roles of Dustin Hoffman and Jerry Orbach for Fosse/Verdon, I suspect Lenny and Chicago are coming up soon. See you then!
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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.