Nov 29, 2013

Book Review: Fosse

Sam Wesson
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Fosse slinks along with a slouchy but intense rhythm, just like its subject. It was such a smooth read that I'd forget how long I'd been sitting there reading, and that I really needed to go to the bathroom. I got caught up in Fosse, and the people in his life, as if I were reading about characters in a work of fiction. When I was finished, I missed the world biographer Sam Wasson had recreated.

Choreographer, dancer and director Bob Fosse changed the look of dance. He had an unmistakable style, but despite the familiarity, his work was somehow always surprising. Modeled on his own hunched posture and turned-in toes, its twitches and snaps were a rebellion against all that was familiar in choreography that came before his. It set the template for future generations of dancers and particularly Michael Jackson, who led the charge for the MTV generation.

Fosse often took a dark view of his success and felt deeply hurt by the bad reviews or the unsuccessful ventures in his life. After winning the Tony, Emmy and Academy Award all in one year, he barely celebrated his victories before bracing himself for the inevitable downfall. He lived as if he didn't deserve to, burning his lips with ever-present cigarettes and popping amphetamines to force himself through a brutal work schedule of his own design. Maybe he sold tickets, but he didn’t think he was classy enough. He was razzle dazzle.

Fosse with Viveca Lindfors in Pal Joey
A lot of the darkness came from his days as a teenage hoofer in a burlesque house. The bump and grind he observed on the stage, and his experiences with aggressive strippers backstage, set the foundation for much of his life. It was the root of his sensual, bold and cynical artistry. It may also have also set the stage for his complicated relationships with woman, to whom he could be loyal, unfaithful, tender and cruel all at once, and often was.

Wasson could have gotten himself into a twisty mess attempting to analyze Fosse. He dives into the story instead, aided by interviews with dozens of subjects who knew and seemed to uniformly love the man, despite the pain he could cause. They lay out the confounding, frustrating, but always seductive layers of his personality with the kind of flair you would expect from people who live show business.

Though I adore Fosse as a choreographer above all, I approached this book curious to learn more about his movie career, from his early, brief roles in front of the camera to his turbulent and controversial work as a director. Wasson does a good job digging into the back story of these years, but I was most impressed with his descriptions of his movie dances. He brought them to life with such skill that I almost felt like I was watching them. This gave me more faith in the rest of the book, where he wrote about choreography from stage shows that I hadn't seen.

The chapter titles count down the years and moments remaining in Fosse's life, a morbid choice that perfectly fits his obsession with what he felt was a fast-approaching death. He didn't fight it, he even encouraged it. I wish he hadn't. Even knowing how the story was going to end, even though it came at the end of 700 pages, it arrived too quickly for me. It was upsettingly and appropriately abrupt.

Many thanks to Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a copy of the book for review.

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