[This story contains spoilers from episode three of FX’s Fosse/Verdon.]
The first two episodes of Fosse/Verdon have established Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) as something of a contradiction: an immensely intelligent, talented and capable woman who makes a conscious, ongoing choice to stay in a marriage that diminishes her, with a man who is unfaithful to her. Even after her separation from Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) — whose affairs during the production of Cabaret prove to be the last straw — she remains deeply entangled in his life and his work, unable to cut ties despite how deeply he has betrayed her. Wednesday’s third episode — “Me and My Baby” — offers more insight into Gwen’s origins, the dark circumstances of her first marriage, and the abusive past that shaped her.
After Gwen makes the mistake of trusting Fosse with the care of their young daughter Nicole for the evening, she returns home to find Fosse gone and Nicole being looked after by his long-suffering friend Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). Her fury at Fosse is understandable, but it’s also clear there’s a more complex reason why she is so viscerally uncomfortable with seeing her daughter in the care of a much older man. Through flashbacks the full story unfolds: at 17, just as her career was beginning, Gwen caught the eye of theater reporter James Henaghan, who pursued her in a way the FX drama depicts as deeply predatory. After leaning that she is pregnant with Henaghan’s child, Gwen’s parents give her no choice but to marry him. Despite being set many decades into the past, it’s impossible to miss how profoundly Gwen’s experience resonates with the stories of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation that emerged during the #MeToo movement in Hollywood. According to executive producers Joel Fields and Steven Levenson, that revolutionary moment crystallized why the story of Fosse/Verdon was worth telling.
“In this moment, it’s really notable that both of these characters are abuse survivors,” Fields (The Americans) tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s the reason to tell the story, at a time when the culture is really looking at these things anew. It’s easy to look at any of these people, whether the perpetrators or the victims, and to see just a part of that. To see just the survivor, or just the perpetrator. Both of these characters came out of abuse, and they were desperately trying to see whether they could break out of that cycle. And a huge part of the eight episodes is also the question of, will their daughter be able to get out of that cycle?”
The limited series does depict Fosse as both perpetrator and victim, exploring his multiple intimate relationships with women who were at best his collaborators, and at worst his employees. “We felt we had a responsibility to really talk about abuse of power,” Levenson says. “Bob used his power for good and bad, and we want to be honest about the way that he interacted with young women especially, and the pressure that those women were under to go along to get along.” At the same time, flashbacks to Fosse’s past illustrate that he, too, was a victim of teenage sexual abuse during his early days as a dancer.
Fosse and Verdon’s shared past experience of abuse as young performers creates a deep understanding between them, creating what Williams characterizes as a twin-like bond. “They come from this very similar place, these abusive backgrounds, and it manifests inside of them in different ways,” says Williams. “Bob went dark, and Gwen went light. Gwen wanted to rise above everything, she refused to feel pain, whereas Bob wanted to delve into it.”
The other dividing line between the two is what options the industry makes available to them, particularly as they age. As a young woman Gwen is able to extricate herself from her toxic first marriage, leaving both Henaghan and her infant son behind in order to pursue her soon-to-be flourishing Broadway career. But decades later when the cracks in her marriage to Fosse become impossible to ignore, she doesn’t have the same freedom.
“That informs a lot of their relationship, in terms of trying to understand: why does she stay with this guy?” Levenson says. “You realize that he’s sort of the only safe harbor she had, at a certain point. Her choices were limited, as they were for women at that point in time.” As Fosse’s star goes from strength to strength with the success of Cabaret and All That Jazz, Gwen’s begins to fade, a dynamic that underscores double standards that still exist in the industry today. And though the show makes it clear that Gwen played a critical role in the work that made Fosse a household name, she reaps few of the rewards he does. “Gwen danced for a lot longer than most dancers do, well into her 40s she was still starring in Broadway shows,” Levenson notes, “but at a certain point her cachet as a female actor started to decline, and that luster she once had started to fade. Her options were limited.”