When Sam Wasson writes about Bob Fosse’s open-heart surgery in his biography Fosse, he depicts the long recuperation process in much the same way as this week’s Fosse/Verdon episode, “All I Care About Is Love,” does. Both the book and the miniseries show Gwen Verdon playing traffic cop, managing the hospital staff and finding ways to sneak Bob’s many friends (and girlfriends) in and out of the private room she secured for him. In Fosse she even pulls the “aging up” trick with Nicole, disguising her to look like just another young dancing starlet, in order to bypass the ward’s “no kids allowed” policy. According to the bio, that visit was just as awkward and melancholy in real life as it is on TV. (“You look like a machine,” the painted and padded Nicole whispers. “I don’t want to say what you look like,” her dad croaks back.)
But Wasson frames Fosse’s hospital sex with Ann Reinking very differently than this episode’s credited writer Ike Holter and director Minkie Spiro do. In the book, the erotic interlude is all about Bob. He’s feeling especially insecure and needy after surgery, and when he’s able to successfully have sex with Ann — proving he’s not impotent — he weeps with relief.
“All I Care About Is Love,” though, shifts the focus to Ann, who in this version clearly isn’t feeling too amorous as she sits at the bedside of a frail old man hooked up to various tubes and wires. Bob pressures her, wallowing in self-pity and making it sound as if he might die right there unless he’s reassured that he can perform as a man. So she reluctantly obliges. And at the end of the episode, she cries in the hallway, telling a concerned older gentleman nearby that the man she’s visiting is her husband — doubling her shame and humiliation, since even that little lie feels like crossing a line.
“All I Care About Is Love” is a solid Fosse/Verdon episode but the miniseries’ weakest so far. A lot of it feels like an info dump: While dropping a batch of new tidbits about Fosse’s working habits and psychological underpinnings, it clarifies a major piece of backstory that has been hinted at repeatedly in previous weeks, having to do with the Chicago burlesque strippers who robbed young Bob of his innocence. Here, Fosse describes that experience as “Pleasure, confusion, humiliation … all at the same time.” He adds, “It screws up your relationships for the rest of your life.”
The parallels between the way the teenage Fosse felt after getting groped and the way Reinking feels after being coerced into some sad hospital-bed sex are way too neat. The intention’s good — to show how some bruises that sexual trauma leaves behind are more likely to spread than fade. (Indeed, Fosse spent a lot of his career poking at that bruise, choreographing scenes and dances involving characters who could be called sex workers and the other characters who feel shaken by them.) But Fosse/Verdon at its best usually sees the cause-and-effect of romantic dysfunction, artistic creation, and general dickishness as way more complicated than just “A leads to B.”
It doesn’t help that Bob delivers this pat assessment of his warped sex drive as a literal monologue onstage in a fantasy sequence in which he takes over for Dustin Hoffman in his Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny. Through this conceit, Sam Rockwell’s Fosse can reminisce about the parents he couldn’t please, his gut feeling that he should’ve died young, his habit of dragging projects out longer than is reasonable or cost-effective, and so on. Like I said: an info dump. It’s not a bad idea to cover a lot of ground like this, but after a while it does start to feel as if we’re watching a dramatic recitation of CliffsNotes.
(Ironically — or perhaps aptly — the movie Lenny’s biggest flaw is that Fosse divorces Bruce’s routines from their comedic context, turning his stand-up act into a succession of thesis statements.)
It doesn’t help either that — on TV as in real life — Fosse’s heart attack and surgery came at such an inopportune time. The story of how Chicago came to life, through a process of experimentation and lively debate, is rich, and I’m sure (I hope) we’ll get to it next week. In this episode, though, that show is more of a symbol representing the ever-mercurial Gwen’s place in Bob’s life.
To be fair, the Verdon scenes are the highlights this week, precisely because Gwen’s role in this unfolding medical drama is so open to interpretation. Fosse/Verdon suggests she may be partly responsible for Bob’s heart attack because she hounded him into doing Chicago, then refused to let him table it while he was working on Lenny. But Gwen also took the initiative to put the show on hold when Bob got sick, refusing even to entertain the notion of hiring a new director or choreographer.
Yet Verdon did this partly because her vision of Chicago demanded “the Fosse touch.” After waiting so long to get the production going, she wasn’t about to settle for a compromised version. As Chita Rivera (played by Bianca Marroquín) puts it on the first day of rehearsal, the dancers working with Fosse will feel aches in parts of their body they didn’t know existed, but, she says, “Trust me, you’ll never be better.”
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about “All I Care About Is Love” — let’s say “mildly frustrating,” because again, this is mostly a pretty good episode — is that it’s the sixth chapter out of eight and there’s still so much good material left to cover in both Fosse’s and Verdon’s lives. As the words flashing onscreen in Fosse/Verdon keep reminding us, we’re running of time.
Once more, from the top …
• The music in the burlesque flashbacks sounds like a rudimentary version of Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender,” reinforcing the idea that much of Fosse’s most personal work in cinema and theater was inspired by his trying to understand the mixed feelings surrounding his first sexual experience.
• Several of Fosse’s most notorious personality traits are on display in this episode. He grumbles that he should’ve played Bruce himself (Fosse frequently theorized that the main source of any production’s problems was that he wasn’t starring). He gets frustrated with a sequence in Lenny and wonders if it should be dropped (editors often had to talk Bob off the ledge when he was ready to trash months of work rather than look at a cut one more time). And he insists to Gwen that Lenny is “a piece of shit” (publicly, at least, Fosse bad-mouthed a lot of his work before it came out, simultaneously fishing for compliments and bracing for disaster).
• The best part of Gwen’s finessing a better hospital room for Bob comes when she casually says, “I’m Gwen Verdon,” to a doctor who’s a Broadway fan and then quickly says, “Oh no, no,” when the doc tries to apologize for not recognizing her. That’s old values. Fine morals. Good breeding. Class.