In All That Jazz, director Bob Fosse’s sort-of-autobiography, Fosse cast Roy Scheider as sort-of-himself: a philandering, bearded, black-clad, hairy-chested satyr of the ’70s, a Penthouse personal ad come to life. Relating his life story to Death (Jessica Lange), he finds she’s the one woman he can’t bamboozle. That’s a bamboozle, too, because as we learn in Sam Wasson’s new biography, Fosse, even when this moment of truth arrives, it’s just more show business.
Fosse’s remarkable body of work onstage and on-screen as choreographer and director includes Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Pippin, Chicago, Lenny, All That Jazz, and Star 80. He created an elegant yet pervy style of dance and a variety of female characters who own their sexuality (sex workers, killers, women trading sex for career advancement). Like Lenny Bruce and Hugh Hefner, both of whom Fosse depicted on-screen, he specialized in bringing smut to respectable people. What Fred Astaire was to top hat and tails, Fosse was to garter and, well, tail.
Bob Fosse was born on Chicago’s middle-class North Side in 1927 to an absentee father, a vaudeville dancer turned traveling salesman, and an in-denial mom. It was the sort of house where secrets were kept, where something never mentioned never officially happened. At age nine, Fosse was sent to dance class and found a calling. By his early teens, his dance teacher (also an agent) booked him and a male tap partner regularly into local variety shows. Fosse’s parents didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, that during World War II he played burlesque houses. As portrayed in All That Jazz (and as related by Wasson), when the sexually aggressive strippers found out Fosse’s tender age, they teased and seduced him. But in an episode left out of All That Jazz, one of the dancers showed up on the Fosse family doorstep, pregnant. Fosse’s mother got the dancer help on one condition: Her boy, who had just been drafted by the navy, could never know. As for Fosse, before shipping out, he eloped with a local girl. His condition: No one could ever know.
A well of self-serving rationalizations, Fosse blamed those wicked strippers for the decades of sexual deception, manipulation, and harassment of women to come. It’s here that readers will take Sam Wasson seriously—or elect not to. Wasson agrees with Fosse, portraying the women as sexual monsters who set Fosse on his road to ruin.
Wasson’s done solid reporting in documenting Fosse’s career over an impressive range of time. In 2013, however, Wasson’s apologia for Fosse’s lifetime of piggery is a hard sell. Wasson’s (and Fosse’s) further argument that sex with the director actually improved his dancers’ work (it’s that director-performer intimacy, you see) is ridiculous. Wasson assures us that even when Fosse exposed himself to a horrified sixteen-year-old dancer, it was all just laughed off. The obvious power imbalance—compelling a teenager hired by Fosse to dismiss his unwelcome advances or quit her job—never really figures into Wasson’s account. A favorite Fosse ploy: Tell a performer he’ll let her know the next day if she has the part, then call her up that night for a date. Wasson, to his credit, does not silence critics. Those with complaints—the dancer he tried to pimp out to a studio executive, performers who loathed his midnight calls for sex, the writer whose script he stole for Sweet Charity—are heard. Still, too often these sources get spun in the service of Wasson’s forgiving narrative.
Fosse’s mother had his teen marriage annulled. He had three more to talented dancers, marrying up each time. He ascended from nightclubs and TV to a short-lived MGM contract and choreographing hits like The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. As he moved up, he left each wife for the next. By 1958, his fourth wife, Gwen Verdon, got him his first directing gig, only by insisting on it as a condition of her appearing in Redhead. He was hired, and from the way he treated Verdon after that, apparently never forgave her for it.
It’s easy to sit back and judge Fosse. After all, he was perfectly awful. Yet Fosse the artist is hardly the misogynist one might expect. It’s sex as power he’s interested in—as currency—as opposed to contempt for women. Wasson excels when reporting Fosse’s peak directing years (1966–83), which coincide nicely with the descent—or golden age, depending on your tastes—of Times Square into New York’s porn and prostitution supermall. Fosse knew that sleazy aesthetic well and brought it in off the street into the theater. Like Helmut Newton or Russ Meyer, he had a genius for hypersexualized, powerful women. He first tried out his patented Broadway-sleaze fusion in 1957’s New Girl in Town with “The Red Light Ballet,” a prostitute’s dream about bordello life, played as dark, erotic comedy with some simulated sex. Deemed obscene in its New Haven tryout, the scene got the show closed and Fosse’s producers cut it. In Damn Yankees, Fosse staged Verdon’s “What Lola Wants” striptease. Later, he and Truman Capote planned a Breakfast at Tiffany’s musical. Eventually, Capote thought Verdon too old to play Holly Golightly. Left unsaid: Fosse was much too peep show for Capote’s uptown call girl.
In Sweet Charity’s “Hey, Big Spender” number—a Fosse breakthrough featuring taxi-dancer prostitutes—Fosse’s choreography, his fascination with transactional sex, and his obsession with the sexual power yet economic powerlessness of women all come together. The dancers here have Fosse’s trademark look (“the Know”), a blank, thousand-yard stare that lets you know they’re physically available, if not emotionally. They slump, they slouch, they’re tired. Setting his performers off with stylized, isolated gestures—snapping fingers, a hip thrown, a sharp head turn—Fosse makes startling jumps from those contained moves to wild, full-body physicality.
By this point in the film, we’ve seen the women backstage as individuals. Out on the floor, with their colorful yet generic game faces on, they line up for the spender to see whom he’ll pick. They offer their bored come-on lines (“Ooooh, you’re so tall”). “So, let me get right to the point,” they sing with all the sincerity of a Fosse wedding vow. “I don’t pop my cork for ev’ry guy I see.”
Whatever trauma teenage Fosse went through in those burlesque houses, it was a defining moment that reverberates throughout his work. Excepting Pippin, all of Fosse’s major work in his peak creative period features transactional sex. Fosse never types or judges. There’s Charity, a naïf; Cabaret’s happy realist Sally Bowles; Lenny’s Honey Harlow, drifting into drug addiction with her egomaniac husband; Chicago’s sexually irresistible yet terrifying “six merry murderesses”; and then Star 80’s Dorothy Stratten, the saddest, the Playboy Playmate murdered by Paul Snider, her small-time manager-boyfriend, when she and her career outgrew him. Her marketable sexuality brings her into the successively higher orbits of Snider, Hefner, and then filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich—all of whom want her for themselves and their careers. As Wasson reports, Fosse, in perhaps his most honest moment, instructed actor Eric Roberts (as the pimpish manager) to play the character as if he were Fosse—but a Fosse who wasn’t successful.
It’s an honesty lacking in All That Jazz. Even when Fosse depicts himself hiring a second-rate dancer (Deborah Geffner) because she’ll sleep with him, it’s with the rationalization that he can make her a decent dancer (so he isn’t really hurting the show). Still, he can’t quite come to admit that the Verdon-esque wife in the movie (Leland Palmer) is the reason why he’s a director. Instead, she’s an aging beauty who just can’t quit that irresistible scamp husband of hers. Wasson reports that in re-enacting the strip-club years for the film, Fosse seethed at the women playing the strippers, staging their sex with teen Fosse as a gang rape. If you come from a home where you never learn you got a woman pregnant, this kind of self-pity can delude you for life. In a startling moment, Jessica Lange confidently takes Scheider’s face in her hands to kiss/kill him and he pulls back, terrified. The power politics of sex inform Fosse’s whole view of life—even when imagining his death.
Fosse struggled for a long time in analysis to figure out why he was the way he was. Then, when he won an Oscar for Cabaret and an Emmy for Liza with a Z, he fired his therapist, dropped less successful friends, and basically told the world (and Verdon) to deal with it. Always aware of social power dynamics, Fosse knew he no longer answered to anyone. Wasson writes this episode off in Fosse’s favor, too, arguing that a post-Oscar bout of success-borne depression forced Fosse to recede. Possibly, but the episode reads like part of the pattern of a lifetime.
Wasson has done remarkable reporting here on Fosse’s career. Unfortunately, his idolization of his subject, like that of so many in the director’s life, lets Fosse off the hook once again.
Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, and Lapham's Quarterly, and is currently working on a history of American humor between the world wars.