Gwen Verdon remembered
One of the saddest things about film is the talents it can't accommodate. Gwen Verdon was visiting her daughter Nicole Fosse in Woodstock, Vermont a week ago, and died in her sleep — which was a great shock to many of us because, even at 75, she had the lithe, fit, muscular body of a dancer half her age. Miss Verdon was the greatest female dancer in Broadway histo- ry. According to the greatest male dancer in Broadway history, Fred Astaire, she was the greatest dancer — period. But, unlike Astaire, she never got to star in movies, just to be in them occasionally, both before her stage heyday and after.
On Broadway, she was an artful blend of sex, comedy and vulnerability under a red- head mop, the star of Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity and Chicago, all of which are the province of my colleague Sheridan Morley, who wrote about Gwen in his excellent book The Great Stage Stars. So I shall say only this: the easiest way to appreciate a star's greatness is in her absence. Back in the Seventies, in the original Chicago, there was a nothing little moment — just some high-heeled cross-step thing that Gwen did across the set and you hardly notice. Twen- ty years later, Chicago was revived, but every time it's come to that itsy-bitsy cross- step all I notice is how whoever it is who's doing it, in New York or London, seems to be working at it. With Gwen, it was an effortless expression of character. With everyone else, it's just steps.
From time to time when I saw her, I'd ask how the film version of Chicago was going. It's been in the works for over two decades now — ever since Bob Fosse, her longtime choreographer and sometime husband, was hot; then he cooled down; then he died; then he was hot again. Gwen owned the rights to Chicago and kept a bemused proprietorial eye on its spirals through the circles of development hell. First time I asked, Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn were going to do it. Then, Sheena Easton and Madonna. God knows who's attached to it now — Gwyneth Pal- trow and Ginger Spice? Whatever. Gwen understood better than most Hollywood's perverse need to hire the wrong people and then spend millions trying to disguise it. For MGM's remake of The Merry Widow (1952), Joe Pasternak thought it would be smart to get Lana Turner: she can't sing oh, well, there goes 'Villa; she can't dance — shame about 'The Merry Widow Waltz'; she can't play Mitteleuropean — so we'll make her an American widow; oh, and she can't act that great, either — heigh-ho, there goes the sexual chemistry on which the whole confection depends. The only sequence worth watching in the whole film is a fabulous can-can routine with Verdon leading the chorus at Maxim's, and even then, halfway through, the idiot director (Curtis Bernhardt) cuts to Lana Turner walking into the joint so he can show a close-up of her looking anxious — or anx- iously wooden, which is as close as Lana got. 'In films,' Gwen told me, 'they got me to dance like mad in the background because nothing was happening in the fore- ground.'
She was a Hollywood baby, not a Broad- way one — born in Culver City, practically on the MGM backlot. Her father was an electrician at the studio, her mother a dancing teacher who got her daughter to dance as therapy for her polio, after the doctor wanted to break her legs and reset them (she was called 'Boots' as a little girl). The therapy worked. At six, she was on stage as 'the fastest tapper in the world'; at 18, she made her film debut in the Judy Garland vehicle Presenting Lily Mars. Then she met her first great dance mentor, Jack Cole. He was into blending jazz dance and Eastern mysticism and a lot of other jive, but his day job consisted of doing the num- bers for films like The Jolson Story, where a kick line and the odd buck'n'wing were all that were needed. Gwen served as Cole's assistant and they did their best with what came their way.
For Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), it fell to Gwen to teach the stars not just how to dance, but to walk — Marilyn Monroe with less sex, Jane Russell with more. 'It's a question of the right swing in the right place,' she said, which is trickier than it sounds. I'm told there's one point in the film where Verdon dubs both Monroe's and Russell's bottoms. (She had a widely admired butt: after watching her in rehearsal on the show Redhead, the lyricist Dorothy Fields went off and added a cou- plet to the leading man's hymn of praise 'Her posterior? Superior!') Unlike Ethel Merman, who lost the Gypsy movie to Ros Russell, and Carol `In this business, Fraser, you have to think positive.' Charming, who saw Hello, Dolly! go to Streisand, Gwen never seemed possessive about her best roles, happy to coach Shirley MacLaine through the film version of Sweet Charity. She helped out on Cabaret, too, finding Liza Minnelli a black vest in a thrift store that Fosse used to cre- ate Liza's signature image in the title num- ber. She even assisted (and dubbed one of the songs) on All That Jazz (1979), Fosse's brilliant and self-indulgent analysis of him- self and his appetites, with Gwen played by Leland Palmer; Ann Reinking, his mistress, played by Ann Reinking; and the Angel of Death played by Jessica Lange, his soon-to- be mistress.
And afterwards? The odd mother role Woody Allen's Alice — and no on-screen dancing at all except for a few exuberant steps on the railway platform at the end of The Cotton Club and some affectionate twirling with Don Ameche in Cocoon. Pro- tective theatrical types like to say that some stars are too 'special' for the movies, and maybe they're right: maybe film is too ordi- nary for extraordinary talents. But do your- self a favour this weekend: rent a video of Damn Yankees (1958), the only Broadway role Gwen Verdon also played on screen, and the only time she danced on film with Fosse, in an electrifying, razor-sharp mambo. Three minutes of Fosse and Ver- don, but worth at least a couple of hours of anybody else.