In 1974, Bob Fosse—the director-choreographer best known then for his smash Broadway musicals and his film Cabaret—set out to adapt a literary novel, Ending by Hilma Wolitzer, about a man dying quietly from cancer. Fosse’s style was associated with sequins and pelvic thrusts, deliberate excess that pleased immediately, while speaking to like-minded cynics through its undertones. By contrast, this project would be somber and austere: a drama about existential confrontation.
Fosse went to great lengths to avoid that confrontation; susceptible to depression the moment he slowed down, he lived to die on his feet. He took amphetamines in the morning and afternoon; smoked more than five packs of Camels a day; slept around recklessly, sabotaging his most loving relationships; and took on more work than his system could handle. At the time, he was already editing a biopic about Lenny Bruce, and staging a musical, Chicago, to star his estranged wife, Gwen Verdon. Before Ending could get underway, he was hospitalized with severe chest pains and told he was about to have a heart attack.
When he emerged from the hospital a month later—after bypass surgery followed by another heart attack—the project took on a different significance. “The closer we got to shooting the more depressed I became,” he told the New York Times. “I thought, there must be some way of making death lighter, more interesting, and sharing it in terms I could handle. I didn’t know if I could live with that kind of pain for a year and a half.” He realized that his death movie would have to be a musical, and that the material had to be his own.
Fosse, along with Robert Alan Aurthur, whom he’d hired to write the script, began interviewing friends, family and colleagues, people who’d been around during Fosse’s health crisis. Partly for research, and partly because the project would fail if it didn’t include their perspective; he couldn’t redeem his character without their sympathy. Fosse had put his loved ones through a lot, particularly the women, and he wanted the film to be “honest”—at least in terms he could handle. Interviewees were instructed to be unsparing, although most knew him well enough to guess what he could stand to hear. “You list your crimes at the slightest provocation,” said his friend Herb Gardner, quoted by Martin Gottfried in his 1990 Fosse biography. “I think you do it to absolve yourself. You go on record with your sins. It’s the final play, the biggest con of all.”
One of Fosse’s greatest gifts was drawing the universal out of his own negativity: Cabaret, for instance, a show-business love story set against the rise of the Nazis, worked because it used every sensorial resource to establish a mood of dread and inevitability at the corners of pleasure. This mood was Fosse’s default, and he could extrapolate from it. His work was always personal, but All That Jazz was the first piece to make that self-involvement explicit.
The film tells the story of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing director-choreographer who is staging a musical starring his estranged wife as he edits a film about a standup comedian. He takes uppers every morning, smokes in the shower, cheats on his girlfriend—played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s former partner—with dancers in his employ, while insisting she remain faithful to him; he breaks promises to his daughter and receives glares from his ex (Leland Palmer). In quiet moments he retreats to a room in his mind, where he reflects on his many indiscretions to a beautiful Angel of Death (Jessica Lange). In the end, as he succumbs to a heart attack, he directs his own finale: a multipart spectacle replete with fan dancers, glowing-eyed mannequin heads, and an audience of everyone he’s ever known.
All That Jazz was a great success. It won four out of its nine Oscar nominations, tied for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and grossed more than anyone expected at the box office. The reviews were ambivalent, but clear on the film’s importance: Critics fixated on Fosse’s narcissism, and noted the character’s chauvinism, but many were doubly impressed that he’d pulled off a premise so obnoxious. The film works because it’s not about Bob Fosse—it’s about death, remorse, and moral failure, grim but mundane emotional realities familiar to anyone, disturbing to everyone, and somehow rendered entertaining. The film’s great generosity was to make terrible feelings bearable, doing for dread what the musical comedy normally does for romance: blow it up like a fireworks display and give it movement. As Fosse told an interviewer, “I made All That Jazz because I thought it would be a good show.”
It was hard to know what to do next. Not only had Fosse directed his own life and death—blown his load, thematically—he was feeling exposed: while he might have judged himself relentlessly, in publicizing his flaws he’d invited outside moral scrutiny. The film had set up a self-reckoning he wasn’t prepared to complete: He’d made a public admission of his failures while, in staging his own execution, declining the possibility of atoning for them.
Fosse toyed with various projects, but nothing really stuck until his best friend, Paddy Chayefsky, passed along a true crime feature from the Village Voice. It was an awful, brutal story, much grislier than anything Fosse had adapted in the past. But it resonated with him immediately.
“Death of a Playmate,” by Teresa Carpenter, told the story of 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, who’d been “discovered” at a Vancouver Dairy Queen by a former pimp and self-described talent manager named Paul Snider. He romanced her, convinced her to pose nude, and sent the pictures to Playboy; then he followed her to Los Angeles to cash in on her sudden success. Snider’s desperate, controlling manner alienated the Playboy crowd, and created a huge strain on Dorothy, who agreed to marry him out of a sense of obligation. She began an affair with the director Peter Bogdanovich, who had cast her in his film They All Laughed, and Snider hired a private detective to follow them around. When Dorothy came by Snider's apartment on August 14, 1980, to discuss the financials of their separation, he violently raped her, shot her in the face, desecrated her corpse, then shot himself.
To adapt the story at all was ethically suspect. But it contained all the themes Fosse had wrestled with his entire career—sex, show business, failure, death—and harked back to the personal trauma that had spawned them to begin with. While All That Jazz had swapped out the worst for a decoy, the events of Stratten’s murder were too recent for aesthetic distance; adapting them would require the kind of painful, exacting honesty he’d been avoiding. Each character in the narrative spoke to some part of his own psyche and personal history, and together they formed a case study in the pathologies of attention, exploitation, and male entitlement. But Fosse, raw and defensive, saw himself in Paul Snider; and set out, disastrously, to tell his story.
At another stage of his life, Fosse might have identified most with Stratten, with whom he shared certain formative experiences. She was only 17 when she met Snider, and her dreams were adapted to her circumstances: raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living and later studied nursing at night, she was used to helping out with family finances, and figured she’d go to work as a secretary after graduating high school. Her experiences with men were limited, and painful: her father had left the family when she was four; her only boyfriend had been emotionally abusive, and she’d never enjoyed sleeping with him. “I dreaded the end of the night when I had to give myself up to him,” she said in her private writings, excerpted by Bogdanovich in The Killing of the Unicorn, which he wrote in the aftermath of her murder. “It was sort of like a game I kept losing and that was how I lost.”
Snider was sweet at first, Carpenter writes, and his life was much flashier than anything she was used to. He drove her around in his Corvette, bought her jewelry, took her to prom, and made her feel beautiful. With his prodding, she took naturally to the camera, and handled herself with poise at the Playboy Mansion, although nothing in her life had prepared her for glamor, or condescension, at such scale. She was lavished with attention she’d never dreamed she might command, while expected to perform for strangers who treated her like a dish at a free buffet.
Fosse’s own sensibilities were forged under similar circumstances. Born in Chicago in 1927, Fosse was the youngest son of six kids in a middle-class Methodist family. His father sold insurance, and later worked on the road as a salesman for Hershey. They lived modestly and weathered the Depression relatively well. Bob had an early knack for performance, though he became a dancer almost by accident: his mother had asked him to accompany his sister to dance class; she was too shy to participate, so he took her place. The school, stationed in a former apartment above a drugstore, was a show business academy, meant to teach kids the art of entertaining and groom the most promising ones for professional management. The school’s overseer, a mustachioed vaudeville enthusiast named Frederic Weaver, paired Fosse with a boy named Charles Grass, and booked them for gigs around Chicago and on the road.
The duo took what they could get—and what they got, often, were slots in down-and-out burlesque clubs, where the two barely teenage boys were tasked with dancing for drunken patrons between strip acts. In their downtime they’d finish their homework backstage or in Charles’s mom’s car. Fosse’s life until then had been sheltered: he’d been a religious kid, and this new nighttime existence instilled excitement, terror, and shame. “I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1979. “I was very lonely, very scared. You know, hotel rooms in strange towns, and I was all alone, thirteen or fourteen, too shy to talk to anyone, not really knowing what it was all about, and among—not the best people.”
Fosse received a lot of attention from the dancers. They rubbed up against him and may have coerced him into acts he wasn’t ready for; they also humiliated him, waiting until he was about to go onstage and then fondling him to give him an erection. The adults he trusted weren’t concerned: His mother, who doted on him, figured he just wouldn’t look at the naked ladies. Weaver, a mentor, had booked the gigs in the first place. Fosse was making money.
In high school, Fosse was a star student, and popular—athlete, Latin club and prom committee member, senior class president. “I could go back to school and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true,” he told Rolling Stone. “It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.” He didn’t tell anyone what he got up to at night and struggled internally with the shame. “I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to… It left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out,” he told the Examiner. “He coded it as an early sexual initiation,” Sam Wasson said in a Vanity Fair interview about his 2013 Fosse biography, on which the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon is based, “so it hasn’t really been spoken of as abuse until this book.”
The strip clubs were where Fosse learned to give pleasure, both intimately and publicly, and where the two would fuse; also, where pleasure connected with dread. As a choreographer he would adapt much of his physical vocabulary from burlesque, but the sex in his work is striking less for its erotic power than its grotesqueness—his dancers seem menacing, disassociated; they telegraph glee, but not pleasure. Cognitive dissonance would become the de facto mood of his work, down to the grain of his gestures. (“Every movement is against itself,” one dancer, quoted by Gottfried, said of a seemingly breezy dance in the musical Pippin. “Your body is moving one way, and you’re pulling it the other way… the audience will feel it, this tension working against this appearance of great ease, and that will draw them in.”)
The people he met in those strip clubs would become, in Wasson’s words, his “dramatis personae,” and his characters were often drawn from his self-image as it formed within that environment: sweet people stuck in demoralizing situations, longing for some version of wholesomeness they feel life has barred them from, an archetype neither male nor female. Sally Bowles, of Cabaret, performs in a cheap nightclub, but dreams of stardom and flirts with domesticity. Lenny Bruce and his wife, Honey Harlow, meet on the nightclub circuit, where he does standup and she dances; they fall in love, start a family, and self-immolate together.
Like Stratten, and at least half his audience, Fosse knew what it felt like to understand sex as a cruel joke at one’s own expense. But his foundational pain had long twisted away from the root, and taking her experience seriously would have required a self-interrogation that he was not, or was no longer, prepared to do.
Fosse had less in common with Snider, whose attitude toward sex was much less complicated, and who measured prestige in cash, though, as Carpenter writes, he wasn’t particularly good at making it. He made an income organizing automotive shows and sometimes wet t-shirt contests, but his hustles fell short of making him rich, and he was once hung by his ankles off a hotel balcony by loan sharks to whom he was in debt. Like Fosse, he was consumed by ambitions so intense that their frustration felt like suffering, but Fosse’s frustrations were largely illusory, as real as they felt.
Success had come relatively easy to Fosse, an overachiever by nature; he landed his second audition after moving to New York in 1946, and by the late 1970s exercised near total control on his sets, receiving more leeway than most directors could expect. He also commandeered troops of young women, whose bodies were his material. But early experiences with doubting producers and Hollywood casting directors had given him a chip on his shoulder, and he liked to think of himself as an underdog. Fosse kept a low overhead on his ego. In some ways this was a style—he wore basic black, kept his number listed in the phone book, and took his lunches at the Carnegie Deli—and in some ways an ethos; he was known for his helpfulness and compassion toward the hopefuls who auditioned for his shows. Work coming above all, it was a motivator: Success depressed him nearly as much as failure—it promised more failure ahead, and unsettled his self-image—and he did his best when he imagined himself up against a goliath. (When Cabaret won big at the Oscars, the same year he won Emmys and Tonys for Liza with a Z and Pippin, he fell into a serious depression and briefly checked himself into a mental health facility.) In all, it was a bulwark against guilt. As long as Fosse felt persecuted, he could ignore the ways he abused his own power.
Snider was a pathetic character—a true failure, professionally and morally. In him, Fosse saw his own malignant emotions manifest, decades’ worth of bitterness and resentment that festered without a material corollary. What they actually had in common was less sympathetic, but Fosse was looking to show that Snider’s pain—and his own—had a basis. “I somehow identified with him because he was trying to get in,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “It’s not that I’ve been excluded that much, but I know that sense of them all knowing something I don’t know. And that makes me very angry. I’d like to be offered all of Hollywood’s perks, just so I could refuse them.”
Ignoring the obvious—the fact that Snider used and manipulated women for his own gain, and turned violent when his claim to other people was frustrated—Fosse attributed Snider’s crime to rejection by the Hollywood elite, which aligned better with his own self-mythology. “If they would have accepted him into that group,” Gottfried quotes him, “then the tragedy would not have happened.” The only way to justify this approach was to diminish Dorothy to a variable—to think of her, as Paul did, as a means to an end.
Fosse, in earlier years, had shown a rare empathy with women; this affinity, in fact, gave rise to his gifts as choreographer and director. He could relate to his dancers and actresses; he could also render their experiences with care and attention.
Fosse’s first self-conceived Broadway show, Sweet Charity, had transposed Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria—about a woman who works as a prostitute in Rome, hopes for true love, but who is defrauded by the men in whom she trusts—to a Times Square dance hall. The protagonist is drawn with real identification, as well as real cynicism: It’s not her line of work, dancing with men by the song, that sources the pathos—Fosse, refreshingly, mostly avoided “fallen women” tropes—but the fact that she’s stuck in a dead-end gig she hates, with no prospects. She was partly inspired, as Fosse biographer Kevin Winkler notes, by the female dancers Fosse worked with, who made great physical and emotional sacrifices for their craft, only to see their opportunities steeply limited with age.
From his earliest years as a performer, women were Fosse’s mentors, closest collaborators, eminences grise, and fodder for his vision. As a capability and a resource, his empathy was double-edged: It made his work powerful and humane, and allowed him to direct star-making performances by talents such as Liza Minnelli; but, like Snider, he learned very early how to use it to his advantage.
The women who did the most for Bob Fosse were, as with Snider, the ones to whom he was married. He met his first wife, Marion (later Mary Ann, or Mary-Ann) Niles, on his first show, a revue called Call Me Mister. She was a little older—24 to his 20 at the time they got hitched—and a beautiful tap dancer, who had performed in more exclusive venues than he had; they formed a duo, and started gigging around the US and Canada. Eventually they landed jobs on a revue called Dance Me a Song, starring Joan McCracken, a comedic actress beloved by Broadway audiences and producers alike. Fosse fell for her, and, in Wasson’s words, “snapped Mary-Ann from his life like training wheels.”
“Joan was the biggest influence in my life,” Fosse would tell American Film magazine in 1979. “She was the one who changed it and gave it direction.” McCracken, who was ten years his senior, was worldly, bohemian and eccentric—she read widely, painted, and attended parties with people like Truman Capote, the partner of her ex-husband, Jack Dunphy. She wrote stories and essays—including a 1946 essay for Dance Magazine in which she proposed new methods of capturing movement in cinema—and shared her inner riches with her younger boyfriend. McCracken told him he was too good to be dancing in nightclubs, and encouraged him to study movement, acting and music, as well as to undergo psychoanalysis. She also pushed him to try his hand at choreography.
Fosse was reluctant at first. He’d signed a contract with MGM in 1951, and though he wasn’t getting much work in the movies, he still dreamed of being a performer. But McCracken lobbied on his behalf to the Broadway powerhouse George Abbott who, at her insistence, hired him to choreograph an adaptation of the Book-of-the-Month Club novel 7 ½ Cents. Abbott was skeptical of hiring someone so inexperienced, but the musical, retitled The Pajama Game, would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and—for 27-year-old Fosse—Best Choreography.
Abbott quickly offered him another job: another book adaptation, to be titled Damn Yankees, featuring the rising star Gwen Verdon, who had recently won a Tony for her show-stopping performance in Cole Porter’s Can-Can. The two were nervous to work together; at their first meeting, they smoked in tandem as he showed her the dance that would become one of her signatures: “Whatever Lola Wants.” By day’s end they had melted each other’s reserve. “She was hot when I met her,” Fosse told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam-rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.”
They quickly began an affair, which was no secret on the set of Damn Yankees, or to Joan McCracken. It would mark the beginning of a great romance and a career-making collaboration; also the start of a lifelong cycle of betrayal and self-recrimination that would source the worst of Fosse’s anguish, and power some of his best work.
Having optioned Carpenter’s article with his own money, Fosse sought a backer for his new project, which would be called Star 80, after the vanity license plate Snider obtained for the Mercedes he bought following Stratten’s success. Dan Melnick, who’d produced All That Jazz, declined—he found the material too depressing—but Fosse found a patron in Alan Ladd Jr., who offered him, as Winkler writes in his 2018 biography, “the biggest salary of his career,” along with minimal oversight. Ironically, the biggest pushback on Star 80 would come from the bereaved.
Fosse set about writing the script himself, a goal he’d been working toward, Wasson notes, since the start of his career. This project, he hoped, would be totally his own. There was the matter of Stratten’s loved ones, of course—the people to whom this had happened—who weren’t happy with the film, and expressed these concerns through their lawyers. In a 1982 memo to his attorney, retrieved by Winkler, Bogdanovich decried Fosse’s flat characterization of Stratten and called Fosse’s script “an apologia for a murderer.” (In a recent New York magazine interview, Bogdanovich remembers calling Fosse directly to ask why he was making the film in the first place: “He said, ‘Well, we think it’s a good story.’”)
Fosse wanted Star 80 to look and feel as “real” as possible. He had always been attentive to detail: On Cabaret, Wasson reports, he spent weeks “auditioning” shades of red for a scene in which blood is shown on pavement; for Lenny, Wasson writes elsewhere, he hired real servers to act as extras in bar scenes, because they knew the right way to place a glass down on a table. Charity Hope Valentine’s physicality, notes Winkler, was “suggested to [Verdon and Fosse] by the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s, whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.” These touches deepened the work, creating its mood subliminally.
Fosse retraced Carpenter’s research, poring over police reports and interviewing people who’d known and worked with the couple. He sent Wolfgang Glattes, his first assistant director, out to Vancouver ahead of him to scout locations from Stratten’s life. Glattes found the Dairy Queen where she'd worked; they’d secure a permit to shoot there. Dorothy’s mother’s house was off-limits, so Glattes, according to Gottfried, drove up and down the street in order to recreate the setting at a nearby location.
Back in Los Angeles, at Fosse’s request, he snuck around the house where Dorothy had really been murdered. “You could still see the bullet holes in the walls,” Glattes told Fosse biographer Kevin Boyd Grubb. “That blood was still on the ceiling; someone had tried to paint over it, but it came through.” He told Wasson that Fosse insisted on using Snider's actual carpet. Glattes argued that blood wouldn’t show up on brown, but this didn’t dissuade the director.
It wasn’t clear what this commitment to “accuracy” was meant to arouse in an audience. It might have fostered an uncanniness that feels appropriately sickening, but it seems in retrospect more like a failure of abstract thinking. The ultra-literal, materialist approach did little to establish verisimilitude; instead, it seemed to preclude broader moral and contextual considerations that might have doubled back on the project. (No one watching the film would have known the carpet’s provenance but thinking through what sort of carpet a person like Snider would own might have yielded a more evocative detail.) It was also unnecessarily invasive, with the effect of reducing the lives of his subjects to a set of artifacts—as if by collecting details, Fosse could reassemble the events himself, without thinking too hard about how it had felt to live them.
As Fosse’s affair with Verdon quickened, McCracken’s health began to decline. In the past she’d been relatively tolerant of Fosse’s extramarital flings, but this one, she could tell, was serious. Her heart was already strained by diabetes, but “the problems with Fosse added immeasurably to her distress,” her doctor told her biographer, Lisa Jo Sagolla. “She grew seriously depressed.” In spring of 1955, McCracken received an offer to perform the leading role in a touring production of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, but on the road, the physical demands grew beyond her management. She quit the tour, and, back in New York, had a heart attack, followed by a likely second, followed by a bout of pneumonia.
Fosse, newly in love with Verdon, didn’t come around much to visit her in the hospital. Instead, Wasson writes, he saw his psychiatrist up to five times a week, to wring out his guilt for abandoning her. When he did visit McCracken, he arrived “only at odd hours,” and pitied himself for his own negligence, shifting the burden of his remorse to her—McCracken might have forgiven him, but he wouldn’t let it go. Upon her release, she was told that, for health reasons, her dancing career was over. Verdon had already made the cover of Time magazine for her role as Lola in Damn Yankees.
For months and years afterward, Fosse would call up McCracken when he needed someone to talk to, often in the middle of the night, Sagolla writes; at least once, he trailed her in the shadows down the street. The night of April 2, 1960, he called to ask if she’d ever consider getting back together; long since moved on, she told him no. The next day, he quietly married Verdon. In 1961, McCracken died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 43. Fosse couldn’t bring himself to attend her funeral. Instead, he stood and watched from across West 72nd Street.
“Do you know what the only thing Bob can retain is? Sorrow,” Verdon would tell American Film magazine. “He can have half a million in the bank, all the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys one human being can amass in a lifetime, and all he lives with is the fact that Joan McCracken died so young on him.” Fosse never earned the right to forgive himself; even if the damage was never again so monumental, he would repeat the pattern.
Fosse had liked Melanie Griffith for the part of Dorothy—“she understands girl,” he wrote in his notes, cited by Winkler—but Mariel Hemingway, who shared an agent with Fosse, was dead set on the part. In recent years she’d received an Oscar nomination for her role as Woody Allen’s teenage girlfriend in Manhattan, and she’d starred as an aspiring Olympic track runner in Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Fosse thought she might be too boyish for the part, but Hemingway was persistent.
“Dorothy was a classic victim,” he told her at a meeting. “She let Paul control her, right up until the end. I don’t see you that way.”
Hemingway, recalling this in her memoir Out Came the Sun, explained that while she’d never had a Snider in her life, she knew about the pressure to be agreeable and put her needs aside in order to please other people. “One other thing,” Fosse added. “You’re not a voluptuous person.”
Hemingway had been considering breast implants for a while, she writes. Fosse’s assistant gave her the name of a cosmetic surgeon, and after the procedure, she got the part.
Casting for Snider was a more involved process. Sam Shepard and Mandy Patinkin read for the role. Fosse pursued Robert De Niro, to no avail. Richard Gere, who’d recently starred in American Gigolo, was the frontrunner; but Eric Roberts, though a less established name, had, in Wasson’s words, “a star’s good looks and charm but a character actor’s fearlessness.” After six grueling auditions, he convinced Fosse of his talent and versatility, as well as his willingness to be a good acolyte. Like Roy Scheider, who trailed Fosse for weeks in order to inhabit his mindset and mannerisms, Roberts was to play a version of Fosse.
Fosse closely managed Hemingway’s character research. “He gave me everything,” she told Wasson. “He’d give me tapes to watch, he’d talk about being damaged goods, he taught me how to walk in high heels. He put on my high heels and showed me. Once he said, ‘You’re so innocent and all-American but you’re not. You come from this sick family.’” Conversely, Wasson notes, he encouraged Roberts to take a more experiential approach. “I got a real sense of what it was like to be an outcast,” Roberts told Kevin Boyd Grubb. “I started dressing like Paul, talking like him, thinking like him. I hung out in the same nightclubs he did, and got to know these so-called real people who went there. They gave me a horrible time, made me feel like shit. I’d bring my little reports back to Fosse. He’d wallow in them.”
Amid all this, Roberts and Fosse took time to bond—road-tripping together to Vancouver, touring strip clubs in LA. “Even though he cut himself off from being paternal with me,” the actor told Gottfried, “he reminded me of my dad.”
Verdon and Fosse, despite the origins of their relationship, would be canonized as a pair. Theirs was not a muse-visionary relationship, but a symbiotic one: Verdon animated Fosse’s ideas, and Fosse built showcases for Verdon’s particular talents. He developed Sweet Charity with her, partly as a “gift” to welcome her back to Broadway after the birth of their daughter, Nicole Providence, the apple of his eye—“there was this point of great happiness,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I wanted to give Gwen something wonderful. I wanted to give her the best show she ever had.” Years later he would develop Chicago partly to give her one last star turn before she retired, and out of guilt for what he’d put her through.
Verdon would also serve indispensably behind the scenes. When Shirley MacLaine was picked to star in the film adaptation of Charity, she selflessly flew to LA to help train her replacement. She accompanied Fosse to Germany for Cabaret, working for free on whatever task needed filling. When the German costume crew proved worse than unhelpful (given the instruction, “before the war,” they replied, according to Minnelli, “What war?”), she thrifted some of Liza’s most iconic ensembles. She even flew back to New York to pick out just the right gorilla suit for “If You Could See Her.” Shortly after her return, Wasson reports, she walked in on her husband—who was already involved with a translator on set—with a “couple of German girls,” and walked out.
Verdon would never fully leave Fosse. A few years later, when he was in hospital for heart surgery, she’d play den mother to his much-younger girlfriends. She’d serve as his dance assistant long after she had retired from performing, and, along with Ann Reinking, Fosse’s next great love, work to preserve his choreographic legacy after he died. She put up with him because she loved him, and because she had to—his work was hers, too; and while she embodied and co-developed his vision, and at one time received the applause, he was the author and executor. Since he had no intention of changing his behavior, Verdon accepted the unfair conditions, and by necessity demonstrated the emotional discipline he lacked.
Fosse wouldn’t change, but he would feel guilty; that guilt would provide thematic kindling. In All That Jazz, Gideon’s ex-wife, rehearsing for their show together, listens as he whines about his creative frustrations. “You want to quit the show? Quit the show,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing the show for any other reason except guilt about me.” Chicago’s premise—two murderous showgirls attempt to game the justice system by turning their trials into media spectacle—was a transposition of Fosse’s MO, and foreshadowed what All That Jazz would do in earnest: convert his moral failings into theater.
As Fosse accrued more psychic weight, and more power, his girlfriends got younger and younger—from peers and mentors to girls in their early 20s, without established careers of their own. “I like to take these young girls and mold them,” he told American Film. “I guess it’s a Pygmalion complex.” Younger women were easier to take lightly, and to discard. Wasson relays an anecdote: sitting in a van scouting locations for Star 80, the film’s director of photography, Sven Nykvist, asked the director why he preferred girls so green. “Their stories are shorter,” he replied.
Just before Star 80’s rehearsals started, Fosse met with Hemingway in the bar of her hotel for a drink. After a while he suggested they head up to her suite for a nightcap. “The elevator let us off at my floor. I let us into my room,” she wrote, “And then, for the next fifteen minutes, I ran rings around the couch while Bob Fosse chased me for the purposes of sex.” She told him she had a boyfriend—Robert Towne, her previous director—but this only prompted a barrage of insults about his work. Finally, she told him she wasn’t interested, which seemed to catch him off guard. “I have never not fucked my leading lady,” he said. “No, wait. Once,” meaning Shirley MacLaine, “and it was a disaster.”
Hemingway replied, “Meet the first.”
On Star 80, Fosse was setting up a work dynamic to recreate the powerlessness that Stratten—and, long ago, Fosse himself—had experienced in her personal and professional life. His directorial style had, in the past, verged on callous—or instance when, Wasson reports, he’d told the teenage boy playing his teenage self in All That Jazz that it would be “great if you could really get hard” for the scene where strippers molest him before a performance. But with Hemingway handed such a limited emotional palate—the character was, as he’d said, merely a “classic victim”—his demands on her seemed specifically intended to draw out her pain and vulnerability.
“Bob wasn’t just a taskmaster when it came to physical aspects of the film,” Hemingway wrote. “He was an emotional tyrant, too. There were days when he was kind and supportive, and other days when he would look at me icily and say, ‘You’re such a manipulative little cunt.’ He was provoking me, not entirely seriously, but he was also feeding into what he felt the film needed.” During a difficult sex scene, Fosse told Roberts to remove the dance belt covering his genitals, claiming the camera was catching the outline. Roberts was embarrassed—“I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just rearrange the sheets or something so that you couldn’t see the goddamn belt underneath,” he told Grubb—but he complied.
Roberts had been a “dream” during rehearsals, Hemingway wrote, but once shooting began, and he settled deeper into the character, he became a “a monster. He wouldn’t look at me until cameras started, or he would stomp down on my toes before a close-up,” she wrote. “He even spit in my face once, and I let it happen because I knew that his character was all about freakish possessiveness and moments of petulance.” Fosse meant to reprimand him, but decided against it. “I realized what he was doing,” he said in an interview, cited by Wasson. “He was trying to feel what it’s like to say the wrong things and have people reject you and what that does to you and how it sours you.”
During one scene, after Roberts flubbed a line once too often, Fosse summoned him behind the camera. “Look at me,” he said in Gottfried's account. “Look at me! If I weren’t successfu;—look at me—that’s Paul Snider… now show me me.”
Fosse had always been sexually compulsive, never bothering much to respect professional boundaries—Debbie Reynolds recalled being poked in the back by his erection on set at MGM—and he got away with it, mostly, because most men did. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” an anonymous dancer told a reporter for People in 1980. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.” Another dancer added, “He’s not easily discouraged. If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.”
Fosse would claim that this was integral to his creative process. “I have to know we’re in perfect sync,” he told an acquaintance, interviewed by Wasson, “and she has to know exactly where I’m coming from.” By Wasson’s account, Fosse comes across as something of a sexual dynamo, whose talent for giving pleasure, and pain, was holistic and productive. “Sex was a medium for Fosse,” he writes. “It was as much a physical act as it was an opportunity to learn about and merge with his female collaborators, a way of giving to them so they could give back more and better—that is, if they didn’t break under the pressure or retreat in anger.”
Wasson glosses over a story that Fosse’s previous biographer, Martin Gottfried, reports in considerably more detail. Jennifer Nairn-Smith, a Balanchine-trained ballerina, first danced for Fosse in Pippin, and had to kick him in the groin when he first advanced on her after a friendly outing. During rehearsals he bullied her to the point of tears, all the while calling her regularly to harass her for sex. “It made me so nervous,” she told Gottfried. “I’m a ballet dancer, and you do what a choreographer says. You could drag me around the floor. I had no self-esteem.” (Balanchine was known for his own line-crossing and abuse of power.) Finally, Fosse wore her down.
Nairn-Smith continued to see Fosse while he started his relationship with Ann Reinking, but left eventually, Gottfried reports, with a note on the mirror in lipstick: “To whom it may concern/A threeway to nowhere/I’m out!” Fosse called her the next day and “was so abusive that years later she was still suppressing the memory of his rage and unwilling even to repeat what he had said.
Nairn-Smith would inspire two different characters in All That Jazz: a dippy, not especially talented dancer who gladly hops into bed with Gideon after her audition and receives some tough love from him during rehearsals; and an ex-girlfriend in a flashback sequence who abandons their menage-a-trois on a much treaclier note: “I’m sorry. I cannot share you anymore. I want you all to myself, or not at all.” Nairn-Smith appears in the film as a dancer, observing her representation from the sidelines.
Fosse was beloved, if conflictedly, by many of the performers who worked with him; he cared about their careers and appreciated their talents, and he had the personal and structural power to compel forgiveness when he hurt them. In turn, this allowed him to think of himself as forgivable, and removed the pressure to reform. When his guilt mounted a depression, he had plenty of sympathetic women to call in the middle of the night for consolation. Even his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, received his cries for support—“though reluctant,” Lisa Jo Sagolla writes, “she always invited him in.”
Joe Gideon is shown as a womanizer, not a rake—a powerful and attractive man who simply takes what’s offered. His self-awareness is proposed as a saving grace. (“Oh fuck him, he never picks me,” one dancer says after an audition. “Honey, I did fuck him, and he never picks me either,” another replies. This plays as a roundabout testament to the character’s integrity.) Gideon’s take on his own odiousness feels like deliberate overstatement, a public relations trick—the character was a cad; he did things that 1970s-era critics might have called misogynistic; but he never went over the lip of what was allowed to men like him.
As production on Star 80 wore on, dread mounted on set. One day, Fosse received a letter from Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, “handwritten in her tenth-grade cursive,” Wasson writes, “telling him he didn’t know the truth, that he was hurting her and her family.” Fosse “professed to be overcome with guilt. He did not want to hurt her. He did not want to hurt anyone.” The moral questions Fosse had avoided during pre-production were barging forth in flashes of doubting panic—doubting panic was normal, but this time it had a basis. The project was collapsing the neurotic cycle that sourced his best work: Fosse would behave badly, reflect on himself, and reproduce the churnings of his conscience. Star 80 was the violation itself, and these moments of clarity might have felt like waking during surgery.
Fosse performed his remorse in strange and maudlin ways, Wasson continues—muttering to the actor Cliff Robertson, playing Hefner, about the necessity of saving Dorothy Stratten from her inevitable fate; placing bouquets of roses on the craft services table, with a note addressed “To Dorothy.” Nevertheless, the production ran unabated toward the inevitable murder scene. Fosse had secured a permit to film it in the room where Snider had really raped, tortured and murdered Stratten fewer than two years earlier.
Fosse had choreographed every last movement “like a dance,” Wasson reports, which he directed in soft, appeasing tones to Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. In the film, Stratten’s murder is appropriately horrible to watch, with no shock or thrill attached, nothing to stoke adrenaline—the feeling it most evokes is nausea. This seems almost respectful, until one considers the more unsettling question: if not for reasons of smut, or pathos—if not to make a point, or provoke a bodily response—why film it at all?
Fosse may have grappled with, or suppressed, this question as he sat with editor Alan Heim in post-production, reviewing all the rage and gore and misery he had coerced and captured over the past four months. All the ethical quandaries he had blocked out or deferred during the film’s development might have surged up in the moment of its climax; he may have been penitent and uneasy, as he better understood what he’d done, and the reaction it would invite.
But the impact of these doubts was negligible. Before the film’s premiere, he leaked photographs of Hemingway in character as Dorothy to Playboy, for their “Sex in Cinema” issue, without her consent. It was a strange decision—there’s little eroticism in the film itself; Hemingway’s sexuality is viscerally awkward and ill-fitting, just as Fosse intended it to be. The stunt might have been purely promotional, or a favor to Hefner, who had let him use Playboy’s logo in the film. But whatever his rationale, Fosse’s decision to exploit Hemingway was in keeping with his appraisal of her character’s autonomy, her status as a cipher in the story of her own death. Ultimately, he did it because he could.
“I may have complained to my agent or cried to my friends,” Hemingway wrote. “I may have felt private rage and public shame. But in the end, after I ground my teeth, after I cursed out Bob Fosse’s name in my head, after I worried and wondered how it would all affect my career, I realized there was nothing I could do, and I just let it happen.”
Early screenings of Star 80 provoked uncomfortable reactions. At one showing, Alan Heim recalled to Gottfried, as the film neared the murder scene an entire row walked out in a huddle. At a screening for cast and crew and friends, the room was bloated with unease; Roberts’s performance was the only thing anyone felt comfortable praising.
If All That Jazz had invited moral in addition to aesthetic judgment, Star 80 demanded it. There was no way to look at the film without some disturbing question as to its maker’s intentions; the reviews weren’t all bad, but the negative ones were damning. David Denby called the film “a small pool of dark, ill-smelling bile.” Andrew Sarris, arriving late to the film class he taught at Columbia after a screening, called it “the most disgusting, misogynistic movie I think I’ve ever seen,” a former student remembered in the Village Voice, and said he thought he was going to be sick; his review called it “the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground circuit.” Pauline Kael, who had praised Cabaret as one of the most significant movie musicals ever made, wrote a more tempered and perhaps devastating response: “Fosse must believe that he can make art out of anything.”
The film was garish and profane, they wrote, empty glitz; it failed to develop its protagonists, parading them out as tropes from the start; it dehumanized Dorothy Stratten and made a spectacle of her death for no reason. “Three days after it had opened,” Glattes told Gottfried, “Bob knew it for a flop.”
“Bob Fosse’s movie is all rhythm without notes—fancy footwork and weak surmise, based on insufficient research and knowledge, along with a built-in early decision to create an apologia for the killer,” Bogdanovich wrote in The Killing of the Unicorn, published the following year. The book is a difficult read, not only for its content but because of the eerie, idealizing tone Bogdanovich, then in his mid-40s, takes toward his deceased 20-year-old girlfriend, and the level of intimate detail he divulges about her and their private life. (He’d go on to marry Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, the year she turned 20.) Nevertheless, it’s the only document of Stratten’s life from the time that does much to establish her personhood. From Bogdanovich’s rendering, one gets the impression of a kind and thoughtful person, whose politeness, though it scanned as pliability, was a way of looking after herself.
Despite the book’s sanctimoniousness it devotes an appropriate amount of time and consideration to Star 80’s most obvious omission: the dehumanization of women, a line from Snider through Playboy’s working culture to the director who adapted it. “The film’s showy mediocrity and repressed misogyny define none of us as much as it does its director and his Playboy collaborators,” Bogdanovich writes. More than the violence, it’s Stratten’s absence that makes the film most unnerving: the character’s underdevelopment and absolute passivity, against all the scrupulous attention to the raw materials of her life.
Fosse told Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe that he’d conceived Star 80 “as a neon conceit ‘for all the terrible mental confusion that rejection can stimulate.’” The film does get at a jarring emotional reality: the illusory, abject and violent states one can be submerged by when the ego is frustrated; how painful and debasing and ruinous they can be, to the individual as well as their targets. Fosse, having lived out both sides of harm, and shown a rare capacity to sit in his own shame, was uniquely qualified to direct that film. But Star 80, unlike the best of his work, was not an attempt to stage his own cognitive dissonance—the tension between his feelings and his beliefs, or his behavior and his conscience—but, instead, to resolve it, by doubling down on the worst in himself, by nullifying his targets. The film did exactly what he meant it to, though not in the way he’d hoped.
All That Jazz and Star 80 are outcomes of the same creative process; they represent Fosse at his best and his worst. Looked at now, All That Jazz might seem like an egregious example of an obsolete genre: a nasty protagonist reflecting with self-deprecation on the harm he has done. But what sets it apart is the fact that it tries not to exclude any portion of its audience. A film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan adopts its protagonist’s worldview; to sympathize with Isaac, you have to suspend your empathy for Tracy. Joe Gideon’s humanity is arbitrated by the women around him, and you don’t have to like him to enjoy his death. The film works relentlessly to earn your attention, and it demonstrates Fosse’s grudging commitment to never entirely forgiving himself.
Gideon’s original sin, in Fosse’s conception, is allowing show business to completely consume his personal responsibilities, such that even death is a show. This is also his redemption: he turns his mistakes into a brilliant spectacle. And the film works, against the odds, because it is. Part of Fosse’s genius was the seeming paradoxicality of his talents: both a showman and a neurotic, he married Broadway imperatives—attentiveness to an audience that must be entertained—to art-house themes, and the basic pains of living. Neurosis is stasis, a knowing that makes no difference; through some miracle of vision and technique, Fosse was able to give it motion. This required him to subjugate his worst impulses: to give pleasure without denying the worst, he needed to understand himself in relation to other people.
Star 80’s creative failures were moral ones: the film represents the only instance in which Fosse served himself ahead of his audience. It was the vanity project All That Jazz never was, and the last film he would ever make.
Fosse received other film offers but declined them. It seemed as though cinema had moved on to sex comedies and action flicks, while Broadway had moved on to blockbuster musicals less focused on dance than big voices and pyrotechnics; his final Broadway show, 1986’s Big Deal, closed after two months. Fosse contented himself by helping other people on their projects, and retreated to his house in Quogue, where he took up birdwatching, and began a serious relationship with a gentle 23-year-old named Phoebe Ungerer.
In 1986, along with Gwen Verdon, he oversaw a successful Broadway revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen; he and Verdon accompanied the show on its national tour the following year. On September 23, in Washington D.C., Fosse delivered a speech to the company, and went home to change for the show’s opening at the National Theater. He suffered a massive heart attack, and collapsed at a crosswalk into Gwen Verdon’s arms. By the time the show began an hour later, he was gone.
Today, Fosse’s influence lives in the ether: as a choreographer, his style passed through that of Michael Jackson into basic conversational movement. Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies” was based on a Fosse routine; even Freddy Krueger was modeled in part on his look. His iconography is ubiquitous and seems, out of context, both classy and kitsch, like the signature stamp on a line of collectible antiques. This makes his work continually discoverable: there’s always a new crop of filmgoers, or theater nerds in the making, surprised to learn that Fosse was an auteur.
His current revival makes sense: Fosse was interested in the psychology of living to please an audience, the merging of life and material, and—above all—the impossibility of pure pleasure. Though not always explicitly, his work was concerned with the social, historical, and personal traumas coiled at the heart of our joys and escapes. Rather than banishing difficult truths for the sake of entertainment, Fosse staged their emergence from below, or encroachment from the margins.
This wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning. Fosse’s behavior was never a secret, and not much will be revealed that wasn’t known, or inferable, decades ago; but moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses, and the humanity of those harmed is not so easy to discount, at least in criticism, when it complicates the legacy of someone beloved. The liminal, disturbing emotions that come with this process—the restive coexistence of pleasure and disgust, the disappointment and self-suspicion—form the mood of Fosse’s work; this mood feels appropriate for its consumption.