Fosse/ Verdon, an FX limited series, focuses on the relationship between married creative partners Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.
Even if you don’t know the name “Bob Fosse”, you know Bob Fosse. He’s one of the most prolific American choreographers. He directed the Oscar winning film Cabaret, the Broadway revival of Chicago that inspired another Oscar winning movie, and created seminal dance film All That Jazz. Oh, and you might recognize his choreography from a little Beyonce music video called “Single Ladies“.
Bob Fosse was a womanizer, but two women in his life had special status: Gwen Verdon, his wife, and Ann Reinking, his girlfriend from 1972 to 1978.
In 1960, Fosse married Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), a Broadway star. Gwen became Bob’s most trusted creative adviser. Bob used Gwen to further his career, casting her in his Broadway shows and valuing her advice behind the camera but leaving her out of acting roles on his film projects.
Margaret Qualley, who you might recognize from the fantastic KENZO World promo, plays Ann Reinking. Qualley’s character provides a strong foil to Gwen.
In one scene, Ann accuses Gwen of defending Bob’s exploitative behavior and pushes back against Gwen’s suggestion that it’s her job to keep Bob alive.
“It’s not gonna last, Bob and me,” Ann tells Gwen.
“He’ll give you what he gave me,” Gwen counters.
“You mean Nicole?”
“Yes, Nicole… and Lola. Charity. Roxy.”
Ann gives Gwen a look that says “I don’t get it.” Gwen gives Ann a look that says “I tried.”
Qualley’s performance inspired me to research Ann Reinking. Like many women connected to Bob Fosse, I recognized her face but not her name. Ann played herself in All That Jazz and starred in Fosse’s productions of Dancin’, Sweet Charity and Chicago. She created the Broadway review Fosse in 1999. She became a legendary choreographer in her own right, choreographing many of those same titles after Bob’s death.
She also did not have quite the progressive attitude of Qualley’s character. In this interview from 1978, she talks about a woman’s dance career versus a man’s dance career.
“Men can go longer,” she tells Merv Griffin. “They’re stronger than women. It’s just a physical thing.”
Fosse/ Verdon depicts Fosse sleeping with the talent during auditions, during rehearsals, on set, in the editing room, and everywhere in between. In Ann’s 2019 The New Yorker interview, she doesn’t see anything wrong with that.
“I think everybody he was with was completely willing to be with him,” Ann says.
Fosse’s game went like this: he’d call up a girl, make small talk about the production, and ask her to meet at a hotel bar. Sound like anyone else?
Bob asked Ann out during Pippin auditions in 1972.
“I said, ‘Don’t you think it’s not a good idea? Aren’t you being unfair to ask me out and we’re still auditioning?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but do you want to go out?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t!’ ”
“I didn’t feel that there was any casting couch or anything…he never played favorites. He just wanted you to be good, and if you got the part it was because you were right for it.”
The show also contains a scene where Fosse is overly critical of a dancer who resists his sexual advances.
“I know he has a reputation for being abusive, but he’s not,” Ann says.
In the interview, Ann seemed to miss the power dynamics inherent between a director and an auditioning actor, a man and a woman, or someone old and experienced and someone young and inexperienced.
Fosse/Verdon does offer some explanations for Fosse’s behavior. Bob suffered from low- self esteem. His parents and manager exploited his talent for money. He was raped by prostitutes at age 13. He also struggled with addictions to pharmaceuticals and cigarettes. Ann Reinking doesn’t feel victimized by Bob Fosse’s seedy behavior, and women have not united en masse to indict Bob Fosse a la Harvey Weinstein. So maybe he really was just a tragic hero in need of lots of pity sex.
Ann eventually left Bob because she wanted to start a family. “I couldn’t be looking over my shoulder all the time,” she said. Ann’s relationship with Bob appears mutually beneficial. Bob took greater advantage of Gwen.
The show depicts Bob pressuring Gwen to start a family. Michelle Williams, who plays Gwen Verdon, pointed out the long gap in Verdon’s career while she stayed home to raise their daughter. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, who consulted on Fosse/Verdon, wanted to make sure Gwen’s story was told.
“As wonderful as Wasson’s book [Fosse, the source material for Fosse/Verdon] was, it was really incomplete, because it did not really include my mother. As of this moment, there’s not even a biography of her,” Nicole tells Vulture.
Gwen’s absence from Fosse’s existing life story speaks to American culture’s silencing of women. Ann Reinking was born 24 years after Gwen. Either because of Bob, because of herself, or because of the culture, Ann had more autonomy than Gwen. But she still seemed to believe that men deserved power over women, and she still excuses the way Bob treated women.
I loved Ann in Fosse/Verdon. Qualley’s character made no excuses for Bob. She never seems too intimately attached to Bob, although he cheats on her, too. She maintained her sense of self. Gwen acted like she had to play a role her whole life. Ann played herself, and left the role of Bob’s caretaker when she wanted to. I wish the show had more Ann… but I guess then it wouldn’t be Fosse/Verdon.