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Fosse, a biography by Sam Wasson, is a very good show-business and personal biography of Fosse (the brilliant dancer, choreographer, director of stage and screen, and film editor) but the focus is too tightly on Bob Fosse, his relationships, and detailed descriptions of his role in musical theater history, to the neglect of a feminist socio-political analysis that could have made more sense of Fosse and his obsessions.

This mini-review touches on a few of these themes.

The book, importantly, repeatedly makes reference to the ambiguous combination of community, sexuality, and abuse he experienced as a young teen on the burlesque-vaudeville circuit. At his best (Cabaret, All That Jazz), Fosse mined these experiences to articulate his confusion about how liberating sexuality (and the art of show biz) can be, but how exploitative it often is. These are works of beauty and artistic genius married to the exploitation they deplore.

Fosse lacked an overt feminist analysis that might have helped him emotionally and politically make sense of both his traumatic experiences and his artistic subjects. Wasson reports that Bob Fosse's teenage daughter Nicole tried to confront him on his personal chauvinism, but then passes over this incident without enough commentary.

Liza Gennaro touches on a few of these themes in an analysis of the stage version of Sweet Charity, which I haven't yet seen. See also a scholarly analysis by Linda Mizejewski of the ambiguous roles of misogyny and homophobia in the film version of Cabaret, though it's unfortunately behind a JSTOR payroll.

I believe Bob Fosse's great subject was how misogyny ruins art, beauty, and love, including his own. Fosse's tragedy, I believe, is that he didn't understand that. Wasson provides us with great raw material to analyze, but doesn't apply feminist lenses to make sense of them. Wasson's biography is thus a fine personal and performance biography, but mirrors its subject too closely in its failings.

Originally posted to Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 01:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by Theatricals and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

    by samdiener on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 01:05:55 PM PDT

  •  It's a difficult question: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slowbutsure, samdiener, slksfca

    He was a genius, and geniuses are seldom brilliant in ALL areas, y'know?

    English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

    by Youffraita on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 01:22:25 PM PDT

    •  As I wrote above: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ballerina X

      "These are works of beauty and artistic genius married to the exploitation they deplore."

      I think that analyzing works of genius, for both their brilliance and their flaws, is quite worthwhile.

      Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

      by samdiener on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 02:11:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  What does that mean? Your quote. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        samdiener

        How are Cabaret and All That Jazz married to and deplore exploitation?  I am a huge fan of Fosse (have not read the latest bio, but have read all of the other books on him) and don't really understand your point.  

        You should check out the film of Charity.  Much of the choreography is the same as the show's (allowing for editing and camera angles).  

        •  I mean they're complicated (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          orestes1963

          Cabaret has a very complicated relationship to sexuality.

          The sexually ambiguous emcee is partially a stand-in for Hitler in Cabaret's indictment of fascism. The attitude towards female sexuality is ambiguous as well. Partly, it celebrates it, certainly. But partially it's portrayed as dangerous, as decadent, as something that might even lead the way towards fascism.

          Similarly, the movie partially protests homophobia, and partially traffics in it.

          All that Jazz also has a a very complicated and fraught attitude towards women's sexuality, epitomized by Jessica Lange's seductive Angel of Death. Fosse and Lange, by the way, also had a sexual relationship, according to Wasson. Even We Take You Anywhere/Air Rotica, which has a much more frankly positive portrayal of lesbian and gay sexuality than that in Cabaret, focuses much more on presenting to the viewer images of female body parts than on male body parts.

          As I and others commented down-thread, All That Jazz also has a very critical take on Fosse himself, and thus it could be said to be deploring the very exploitation it is itself utilizing.

          I will check out the film of Sweet Charity. And I just found Liza with a Z online, at:
          http://www.youtube.com/...
          which I also haven't seen yet.

          Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

          by samdiener on Tue Jul 22, 2014 at 08:28:53 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            samdiener

            I have always viewed the cabaret as a metaphor for Weimar Germany and the emcee a metaphor for creeping fascism, rather than Hitler.  Remember that the Nazis are thrown out of the cabaret early on; that does not comport with a reading of the emcee as Hitler.  The emcee ingratiates the audience with his antics, until we discover late in the second act that we are now participating in the ugliness of Naziism ("If you could see her").  We are unknowingly seduced by him, just as Germany was seduced by Naziism.  (This is why I found the Sam Mendes production of the show so wrongheaded.)  Accordingly, I don't think the film is an indictment of Naziism (although it certainly does indict it).  I see it more as an indictment of solopsism- if one is concerned only with one's own pleasure, very bad things can happen to self and others.  In the final scene between Sally and Cliff, Cliff leaves on a train (in an inversion of the metaphor of being shipped off to a concentration camp), while Sally gleefully and foolishly marches back to the cabaret, with her divinely decadent fingers flickering behind her, to sing her anthem to solopsism (the title song) and ultimately to meet her demise.  She has blindly acceded to Naziism.

            Given my reading of the film, I don't see sexuality portrayed as dangerous and decadent.  Sexuality is the one area in which Sally is wise.  It is she who understands that giving up the baby is the correct move and she asserts her agency in having an abortion.  By doing so, she frees Cliff to be himself.  Importantly, the film does not recriminate her for this act.  

            I don't see how the film participates in homophobia.  I am interested to hear your thoughts on this because I may have missed it.  To me, homosexuality is handled matter-of-factly.  It is Isherwood's tale, after all.

            All That Jazz is much more complicated, I would say.  As I mentioned below, I believe Fosse is cruel to Audrey, as well as Victoria (the ungifted dancer in the troupe whom Gideon hires to sleep with).  Gideon is dismissive of Audrey's feelings and anxieties and sees Victoria as an object.  But I think Fosse is indicting himself for his poor treatment of women.  The film reflects his own religious/moral guilt and the need for punishment for his transgressions (the hallucination numbers).  Indeed, he is killing himself in the film.  Interestingly, Gideon/Fosse has more trouble with men and feels no guilt about it.  He has no male friends in the film and views the men in his life hostilely.  He takes thinly veiled swipes at Dustin Hoffman, Harold Prince, and Fred Ebb.

            I also think the portrayal of homosexuality is actually more problematic (in a sense) in ATJ than in Cabaret.  It is a desire (portrayed only in sexual terms) that lurks in the corners of the film.  It is both open and secret- as expressed most fully in the character of the show's accountant.  

            For history buffs, the show they are working on in the film is Chicago.  Fosse allegedly did the show as a favor to Verdon who was too old for the part, but wanted a hit.  

            As an aside- my favorite metaphor in the film is the dancing ventricles during the death finale.  The development from smooth, coordinated movement to the jerky spasms of the heart attack wows me every time.  

            Thanks for the discussion about one of my absolutely favorite artists.        

  •  Bob Fosse rules! Nuff said. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    orestes1963, NonnyO

    Bob Fosse rules! Nuff said.

  •  Bob Fosse explored it himself (9+ / 0-)

    In ALL THAT JAZZ, which he wrote and directed to deconstruct the myth that people made of him, and lay bare his own failings. Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon is a hard drinking, speed taking, womanizing chauvinist who failed his family.

    I think Bob Fosse got himself pretty well.

    This revolution is not scheduled!

    by harrylimelives on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 02:24:27 PM PDT

    •  yup (5+ / 0-)

      i think if asked he'd agree with Tennessee Williams; with the quote: "If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels."

      support Thomas Lofgren, progressive candidate for Minnesota house of reps district 20A http://thomaslofgren.us/

      by mollyd on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 03:09:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's a great and tragic line (0+ / 0-)

        and you very well might be right that Fosse would have agreed with it.

        But that was apparently part of his tragic self-delusion and was part of the denial of an addict.

        The fact that he was honest about some of these demons (the pill-popping and alcohol abuse for example) is to his credit, but doesn't change the reality of the self and other destructiveness of these aspects of his behavior.

        Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

        by samdiener on Tue Jul 22, 2014 at 07:11:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  There is one line in that film that (3+ / 0-)

      I always find cruel.  It occurs when Audrey (Gwen) asks him to name the news reporter from Philadelphia with whom he had an affair.  He can't.  And he then says to her, Audrey, why do you always have to think so small?  

    •  I partly agree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      orestes1963

      and that's what makes All That Jazz such a brilliant work.

      According to Wasson's biography, Anne Reinking thought that Fosse was too hard on himself in All That Jazz, too self-lacerating, and didn't show enough of his warm and loving side. Fosse said a number of things in response, but part of his response was that the film was so over-indulgent (co-written, directed, choreographed, and about him) already, that he had to make it bracingly honest about his faults in order for it to be palatable or believable.

      But I think a problem might arise in the term "womanizing." Yes, that might be what Fosse would call it. But the issue is not that Fosse had multiple lovers. He was, apparently, honest with each of his lovers about his multiple relationships. Part of the problem is his double standard: it was fine for him to have other lovers, but he wasn't okay with his lovers having other lovers. And he could be quite abusively controlling about that, especially, as detailed by Wasson, towards the end of his life.

      But a more fundamental problem was who Fosse initiated, or tried to initiate, sexual relationships with. He repeatedly attempted to sleep with the actors, dancers, and aspiring dancers under his choreographic and directorial control. I don't think he ever understood the problem of the sexually harassing sexist power dynamics that he was exploiting.

      The fact that some of these relationships developed into more loving ones (Gwen Verdon, Anne Reinking) is a testament to human complexity and the care which the people involved must have put into it. But even these relationships clearly bore the scars of the exploitative inequalities both of their inception and their continued existence.

      Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

      by samdiener on Tue Jul 22, 2014 at 07:34:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not really sure what you are trying to say. I (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    orestes1963

    haven't read the book nor the articles you cited.  Just this dairy and I have seen the movies.  In other words I don't know anything.  But, it's a biography on Fosse and I would think the writer would want to show Fosse through the lens  of Fosse to show Fosse's character. I want to know how Fosse thought through Fosse's eyes.  I think also that analysis of Fosse through a feminist's lens would be fantastic. But two separate books.  I may be reading the diary wrong.  Fosse was and is a fascinating character. Intend to read the biography.  

    "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubt." Bertrand Russell I'm very certain that is true. 10−122

    by thestructureguy on Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 04:22:31 PM PDT

  •  An important discussion that should be had (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    orestes1963, NonnyO, samdiener

    for much of the dance culture. A place where adult women and men are still referred to as girls and boys among many other issues. Interestingly, My father took me to see All That Jazz when i was about 16. THAT was a bit awkward...

    •  Ha, on All That Jazz (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      samdiener, ballerina X

      I saw it at the same age with a large group of friends and was still a little uncomfortable at times.  

      Yes, the dance culture could stand for some deconstructing.  In fact, I was thinking of that when I read the diary, trying to define for myself Fosse's notions of women as seen through his dancers.  Of course, there is the old fetishization of women and the female body that pervades dance, especially ballet (Hey, Mr. Balanchine!).  In my mind, I was thinking about Fosse's ethos, as opposed to Forsythe or Bausch or deKeersmaker or early Tharp, etc. and couldn't really pull my thoughts together.  Although I have always been of the view that Forsythe has the most feminist notion of the female body.  There is little differentiation in his work between men and women (in terms of strength, movement, body shape, etc.).  Forsythe's dancers, especially the women, are the strongest and most graceful dancers I have ever had the pleasure to watch.  Sorry for the digression, but one never gets much opportunity to discuss dance.

    •  I'd rather hear 'girls and boys'... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      samdiener, ballerina X

      ... to level the field linguistically.

      In other fields it's always 'men' for males and 'girls' for females of every age, childhood to senior citizen ages.

      Patriarchal language heavily contributes to cultural misogyny because it gives tacit "permission" for "men" to contemptuously treat women either as indulged little girls or ignored as lesser beings with a low IQ.

      I'm sick of attempts to steer this nation from principles evolved in The Age of Reason to hallucinations derived from illiterate herdsmen. ~ Crashing Vor

      by NonnyO on Tue Jul 22, 2014 at 03:32:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ballerina X, NonnyO

        I was playing ultimate just last night with some recent college grads who referred to women they were dating, or considered dating (via an app called Tinder, apparently), as "girls."

        I questioned this, saying that I thought college-age females and older deserve to be called women. They said they routinely called their female contemporaries as girls. I asked if they felt comfortable being called "boys." One hesitated, and said, "Welllllll, nooo. We call ourselves 'guys.'"

        Double standsards persist.

        Every relationship of domination, exploitation, or oppression is by definition violent. Dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.-Paulo Freire

        by samdiener on Tue Jul 22, 2014 at 07:05:27 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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