Playing the Whore: “You've Every Cause to Doubt Me” -- Bob Fosse's Martyrs
Playing the Whore, which takes its name from Melissa Gira Grant's book on sex work and policy Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, is a new column examining and surveying queer sex work in film, from Bruce LaBruce to Chantal Akerman. Playing the Whore seeks to interrogate ideas of power, eroticism, desire, capital, artifice, performance, pornography, politics, and film.
Cy Feuer probably wouldn’t have hired Bob Fosse to direct the film adaptation of Cabaret of his own accord had Fosse not taken things in his own hands, especially after the glitter bomb of Fosse’s first outing as filmmaker, Sweet Charity. That film, based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, lost over ten million dollars. But Fosse, ever the showman, was determined to get the job: to prove himself, to keep working, to whittle away at his own self-loathing, to channel his own (perhaps deluded) sense of martyrdom on film. That’s what he did with every film, no? His fixation on “razzle dazzle” was an obsession with the fakery that both hid his own self-described imposter persona and revel in its artifice. He could make an example of himself without really sacrificing much at all. “Long as you keep ‘em way off balance, how can they spot you’ve got no talents?” croons shark lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, the original 1975 Broadway production of which he directed and whose book he co-wrote. That was his calling card; he was both Billy and Roxie, putting himself on trial, ready for the flashing bulbs to make him feel alive.
To call the women of Fosse’s work martyrs is reductive but not necessarily inaccurate, for the most part. That Sweet Charity was an adaptation of a blithely spirited Italian magical realist film turned into a buzzing fantasy of New York, turning its sex worker lead into a dancehall worker, was the first taste for audiences regarding Fosse’s fascination with finding a glimmer of light in the dark. The Times Square of Sweet Charity, as busy and bustling as it is, was papered with a veneer of workability, that Times Square was not the Seventh Circle of Hell. It’s as if Charity, played by Shirley MacLaine in a role originated by Gwen Verdon on Broadway, exudes such optimism in such a dark work that she miraculously transforms the New York around her into anything other than a Hell hole.
But the darkness of the material, the pulsating and beating broken heart that was always part of Fellini’s film, still looms, even if it’s been translated twice and recontextualized twice over. Charity, like Giulietta Masina’s Cabiria, is still lovelorn, still seeking an escape from her life, still hoping domesticity is the way to get out of it all. It’s not. And while Fosse knows it’s not, his ambivalent, even bleak worldview wouldn’t bleed into his frames until Cabaret. Though it isn’t as legible in Sweet Charity as it is in Nights of Cabiria, the final heartbreak leading to some sort of transcendence beyond a physical realm is still hinted at by the end of the film. But Fellini’s Catholicism has been switched out in favor of late ‘60s era hippie-dom, muddling its afterlife, in spite of a buoyant number with Sammy Davis Jr. celebrating just that, the “Rhythm of Life.” Charity’s is a cutesy death, not literally, but it might as well be.
Fosse’s biographer Sam Wasson claims that the famed director/choreographer just kept making the same film over and over again, in an attempt to seek absolution for his sins: the abuse of power, the abuse of narcotics, the self-abuse. (None of these things are ever contended with adequately on the new prestigey miniseries Fosse/Verdon.) All he ever wanted was to be famous, to be a star, and his self-lacerating answer was to juggle his divas both literally and figuratively. To imbue in them deep pathos and a tangible thirst for the kind of celebrity and power that could relieve all of their anxieties and self-loathing, but in reality would only ever compound those things, as they did for Fosse himself.
The tragedy of Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles is not the same tragedy as the Sally Bowles of John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera or Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin, on which all other things are based, or even other versions of Cabaret. In all other versions of Isherwood’s story, Sally is a mediocre talent, delusional. In Fosse’s Cabaret, his Sally is a knowing firecracker, exploding with voice, crackling with kicks, and radiating with beauty. Can she see the Browncoats lining up outside? Does she care? That’ll always be the central question of every version of Cabaret -- to what degree is Sally ignorant or just deliberately evasive of the rise of Fascism? -- but that Liza’s Sally really could be a movie star makes her sad and desperate in another way. Fosse and Liza’s Sally knows she’s doomed, knows she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave, or to become politically aware enough to fight. She’s as self-immolatory as Fosse, riding out her last pleasures in Berlin, even with the knowledge that it’ll all soon go down in flames.
Was there any sight so intoxicating as Sally in that black, suspender-like outfit singing “Mein Herr,” fiddling around with a chair like it was a submissive lover? Her complicated cocktail of performance and authenticity on stage and in the spotlight is certainly what makes numbers like “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” so incendiary. And as Cabaret marches to the end, and Michael York’s Brian decides to leave what was at first a seedily queer Utopia of sorts, what’s to come of Sally? Cabaret is her big sendoff, but not so much into the future as into a never ending life on the stage, not the dream she maybe once conjured up as a child. Her emerald green nails, spelling “Divine Decadence” wherever they caught the light, are just going to be there night after night until the Nazis fill up the room and maybe shut the Kit Kat Club down, or something else horrible. Sally’s wicked life upon the stage was once Paradise, and now it’s become Purgatory.
It might be useful to figure out the remaining utility of a phrase like “razzle dazzle,” or even of Fosse’s All That Jazz avatar, Joe Gideon’s mantra “it’s showtime, folks,” in a world decades removed from when his work initially debuted. With lucid and intelligent writing reckoning with Fosse’s creative and moral failures, like Alexandra Molotkow’s essay on Fosse and Star 80, is such affect and mugging for the camera -- whether through head cocks and hip knocks or delirious editing and raucous eroticism on screen -- still an adequate way to both disguise and reveal fictional and personal demons?
Should one look to something like Chicago? Rob Marshall’s film adaptation is a pleasantly competent film, one that finds a useful cinematic framework to allow the adaptation to hew fairly closely to the original; it’s still a story of sex, sin, celebrity, and (ironic) sanctity. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is still the hopeful ingenue (ring a bell?) who “plugs her husband” and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is still the temptress who may or may not know the tidal waves of the press better than Roxie, and Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) is still the sleazy lawyer who cares about love. Does it matter that the film seems visibly defanged in comparison to Fosse’s original production, which starred Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach? If Fosse’s Chicago was a conflicted, but ultimately biting and venomous dart aimed at showbusiness, Marshall’s film seems more in adoration of the very artifice and glitz that Fosse was basically critiquing.
The problem with Marshall’s film (which, for the record, I love and has been a favorite of mine since childhood), even nearly two decades later, is that it no longer seeks to play as prophetic or prescient in terms of allegorizing the relationship between public and private, trauma and catharsis, fame and infamy, pain and exploitation, art and commerce. Though the musical was already an adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkins’s play of the same name from 1926, the film, which was released in 2003, was basically almost half a decade in the wake of the OJ Simpson trial. Rather than as prophecy, Chicago had to be in reaction. But the cultural critiques of Chicago were already in the musical and the play, and the film buys into them a little too willingly, and a little too uncritically for an adaptation.
But that Roxie and Velma rise to the top, to success, that they both get off on both of their cases (with help from Billy) is certainly one of Fosse’s most indelible tributes to the power of faking it till you make it, no? All of their trauma is as much of a performance, a desire to convince other people of their experience, true or not, as it is one of the few examples in which Fosse’s women game a justice system that would have thrillingly enjoyed their hanging. They love the short skirts, the jazz and the drink, and their bodies, sold to the public both with and without their agency, become bodies of trauma as performance and trauma as experience. But the public’s adoration of criminality certainly colors things; Roxie and Velma never needed to be convicted for Fosse to prove his point. Their power over the public’s gaze of what’s shocking and exciting (Murder! Sex!) is that testament, perhaps more so than seeing to their death. If anything, the implication is a death of an audience, willing to sell their soul for the best entertainment.
That indictment of the public is supposed to be what drove Star 80, his last film chronicling the murder of former model, actor, and Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) by her former lover Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). It was probably supposed to be the next logical step from all of his work, particularly Chicago and All That Jazz, self-exorciating and yet simultaneously an incision into the heart of a lustful, dirty, corrupt public. But the film is so hollow, as one dimensional as a one of Playboy’s pictorials, and Stratten so devoid of agency, that it is less a horror story of an audience’s misogynistic lust for the objectification of bodies, or the inequity of transactional sexualization in media, or grazed manifesto on the destructiveness of the entertainment industry and more of something else. If it could be argued that Fosse’s confessionals through his work were more spectacle than reconciliation, his worst film is also, ironically, perhaps his most honest. His failure in this doesn’t negate his career or artistic achievements, but it does force into focus the kind of man Fosse was and who he thought he was. Star 80 isn’t the story of a woman and her relationship to her own body as commodity; it’s about Fosse’s martyrdom of himself, self-hating truth-teller, master of ceremonies and self-laceration.
There’s enough complexity in many, if not all, of Fosse’s women, their relationship to sex and work, pain and grief, and everyone’s new favorite buzzword trauma, to interrogate where his demons ended and characters began, or the other way around. As Molotkov surmises, his ability to be as self-critical in something like All That Jazz was a form of both bracing honesty and avoidance. His inward facing scalpal was, like “Razzle Dazzle,” like “Cabaret,” like any of his big numbers, an act of vulnerability and defense. His greatest trick was his Devilish ability to sell the truth as a lie and back again. The sequins are still in our eyes.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Playboy, Brooklyn Magazine, Slate, and Esquire. His work focuses on identity and issues of queerness and race. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.