Bob Fosse was a jack of all trades. He started out as an actor before segueing into a successful career as a choreographer. He is best known for helming numerous popular films of the '50s, including My Sister Eileen, Kiss Me Kate, and White Christmas. In 1969 Fosse transitioned to directing with the musical adaptation of Sweet Charity. Audiences new to his work will finally get a chance to learn more about him in FX's new series, Fosse/Verdon but most importantly, they'll learn about his unique and complicated history with women.
In 1960, Fosse married successful Broadway actress, Gwen Verdon. The two eventually became professional collaborators, but Verdon's success always led Fosse to unintentionally compete with her. Wrapped up in their tumultuous relationship, Fosse was able to examine problematic relationships and even led several actresses to the biggest roles of their career.
This particular list is inspired by Fosse and Verdon's iconic relationship. Since the forthcoming FX series, Fosse/Verdon, will premiere on April 14, we didn't include Michelle Williams' performance as Gwen Verdon. This list honors both the characters Fosse created and the leading ladies who played them. Looking at every film Fosse directed, the seven women below represent Fosse and Verdon, both in how Fosse directed them on-screen and how his relationship with Verdon inspired his on-screen craftsmanship.
5. Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy Stratten in Star 80 (1983)
Star 80 is Fosse at his most cynical, showing the most toxic and murderous relationship ever presented on-screen ⏤ and worse, it's all true. In 1980, 20-year-old Playboy model Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her ex-husband, Paul Snider. Stratten's story shows all that's dark and frightening about Hollywood, particularly for women. As Fosse illustrates, Dorothy is exploited and vaunted as something special, her body sold for male consumption. She's the most abused of Fosse's ladies. Yet, it's easy to see what the allure is about the real Stratton and Fosse's interest in her. She's beautiful and doomed. Stratton, as Fosse sees her, was a modern-day Marilyn Monroe whose death was a result of male domination.
Fosse frames Hemingway in an ethereal light. As boyfriend Peter Bogdanovich wrote about her after her death, she was a unicorn and Fosse depicts that effortlessly. With her blonde hair and wide smile, Dorothy's the ultimate babe in the woods, a common trope used by the director. Her naivety and belief in Snider's good intentions place her in danger, and yet it's easy to understand why she'd believe in the goodness of a father figure who's cared for her. The audience sees this relationship as doomed and tragic, and you wish you could warn Dorothy about what's going to happen. She's a woman you want to protect and care for, whose death is equated with the death of purity. Even more important is how the movie showcases toxic, abusive relationships.
4. Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity (1969)
Fosse's directorial debut was an adaptation of Neil Simon's 1966 stage play, Sweet Charity. The film and play follow Charity Hope Valentine, a woman who has had terrible luck with men. In the film's opening, she's pushed off a bridge by a man who doesn't want her. The entire movie follows Charity in her quest for romance, before ultimately being rejected at the end and going off into the world to live "hopefully ever after."
Sweet Charity showcased Fosse's penchant for an unhappy ending. His movies were authentic in that they completely eschewed Hollywood filmmaking standards. In this case, for Charity not to end up with the mild-mannered Oscar, after all her travails, was unthinkable. Fosse himself even filmed a happier ending in case the studio demanded it.
The character of Charity is lacking in verve and often gets lost in her own story, thus the lower ranking, but there's no denying Fosse directed some titans of acting, and to kickstart your directing career with Shirley MacLaine was no small feat. Like Fosse's wife and partner, Gwen Verdon, MacLaine cultivated a large body of work before she tackled the role of Charity, and her casting was a coup for a neophyte director. But the two made magic. Charity isn't MacLaine at her best, but she is one of Fosse's more optimistic heroines. She gets kicked by love at every turn yet still have the ability to lift herself up and persevere (or at least not throw herself off a bridge at the end). Sweet Charity remains one of Fosse's more forgotten films and it shouldn't be ignored because MacLaine dazzles.
3. Valerie Perrine as Honey Bruce in Lenny (1974)
After his Oscar-winning success with Cabaret, Fosse turned to examining the life of controversial comic, Lenny Bruce. Bruce, in many ways, was like Fosse himself: self-destructive, narcissistic, and consumed by his own genius. Lenny was also the first of Fosse's features to create a child-like, innocent young woman who found herself equally destroyed, but who remains devoted, to the man she loves.
Perrine's performance is utterly heartbreaking and elevated her to the number three position. She may possess the doe-eyes and blonde hair typical of a Fosse female, but she's a tragic heroine utterly decimated by her husband's actions. Honey Bruce was no saint, a stripper and drug addict, but Fosse lays many of those problems at Lenny's feet. At one point, Honey is forced into a threesome only to have Lenny accuse her of cheating on him because she agrees to do it! Fosse was no stranger to laying his life out on the screen and Lenny is as bold as it gets for his narrative features. The relationship between Honey and Lenny is one of a woman so in love with a man she lets him destroy her, and while that wasn't the Fosse/Verdon relationship we know, it's indicative of Fosse's inner psyche at the time.
2. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972)
Sally Bowles, as played by Liza Minnelli, is Fosse's most famous female character. The prolific director's film adaptation of his own stage play follows a group of ex-pats living in Berlin to the lead-up of WWII. Sally is a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing American who fancies herself an actress. Until that dream materializes, Sally is the star attraction at the Kit Kat Club.
For 1972, what Bowles undergoes is nothing short of revolutionary. She's an independent woman making her own way in the world. She lives alone, doesn't necessarily seek or want male attention, experiments with her sexuality, and at one point has to undergo an abortion. Like Charity, she wants a happy ending but understands that it will come at the expense of her career. Sally Bowles is a woman committed to her performance. Where Fosse usually portrayed the mad creative genius as a male, it's amazing that Cabaret looked at it through the feminine lens. The character remains a staple of theater acting and that's due to Fosse's choreography, the show-stopping ballads like "Maybe This Time," and the way Bowles is written to be a nuanced character with multiple complexities.
You also have to touch on Liza Minnelli's performance. The daughter of a Hollywood legend like Judy Garland was always going to put Minnelli in the public eye, but Cabaret proved she was her own actress. She has the humor, sadness, and fortitude that Sally Bowles ⏤ as a character ⏤ demands, and yet Minnelli never makes the character tragic. She's always able to put a smile on her face and realize the show must go on. With this feature Minnelli proved she was her mother's daughter and more.
1. Jessica Lange as Angelique, Anne Reinking as Kate Jagger, and Leland Palmer as Audrey Paris in All That Jazz (1979)
You can't close out a look at Fosse's women without putting the movie that is his life at the top. All That Jazz is Fosse at his most vulnerable, actually examining his life and career and the legacy he would leave behind. The film is a bleak elegy from a man who knew his life was rife with screw-ups. Fosse burned the women he loved and while this film acts as an apology, he never fully allows Joe Gideon ⏤ the leading man ⏤ to admit fault. Fosse himself never truly repented his sins, yet as the women in his orbit prove, that was part of the appeal. Loving him was loving his flaws.
With Gideon (Roy Scheider), Fosse puts all his flaws on display, particularly Gideon's issues with women. While coping with a growing drug addiction and health problems, Gideon finds it difficult to juggle his ex-wife (Palmer's Paris), his current girlfriend, Kate (Ann Reinking), his young daughter, and the Angel of Death herself, Angelique (Lange). For Fosse, and by proxy, Gideon, these women are all important and yet he can never fully give himself over to them. The characters of Kate and Audrey have heard his lies and are emotionally exhausted from loving him, while the Angel of Death wants him to make the ultimate commitment.
Considering Fosse's relationship with his wife, Gwen Verdon, whom Audrey Paris is based on, and his relationship with Reinking herself, there's a verité quality to these women. Hearing Reinking plead with Fosse to stop cheating takes on added poignancy; this is easily a conversation she's had with the director off-screen. Because the emotions Reinking conveys are so real, it's understandable why Fosse creates the character of Angelique. She's in the unique position of hearing Gideon's story first hand, acting as a confessor while he lies and spins tales about being a faithful man, all the while she knows the truth. Fosse was never able to admit his faults to Verdon or his mistress, Reinking, and All That Jazz acts as an explanation for his own failings as a man.
These rankings aren't definitive. Each of Fosse's works will have a different personal connection for everyone. His women aren't monoliths and each showcases a component of Fosse and his relationship with Verdon that he loved, whether that be Stratton or Honey Bruce's vulnerability, Sally Bowles' fortitude, Charity's optimism, or the authenticity of the women in All That Jazz. By looking at the women Fosse created, the audience sees what he loved in Gwen Verdon because they're all avatars made in her honor. Hopefully this list will inspire you to watch Fosse's work and research Verdon and the real women at the center of the director's heart.
Fosse/Verdone premieres on April 9 at 10/9c on FX.