Oscar Profile #449: Gwen Verdon

Born January 13, 1925 in Culver City, California, Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon, known professionally as Gwen Verdon, was the second child of Gertrude and William Verdon, British immigrants to the U.S. by way of Canada. Her father was an electrician at MGM, her mother a former vaudevillian and dance teacher.

As a toddler, Verdon had rickets which caused her legs to be misshapen which were strengthened by dance classes which she took from the age of 3. By the time she was 6, she was already dancing on stage. She made her film debut at 11 as a solo dancer in The King Steps Out. In high school, she was cast in a revival of Show Boat. In 1942, she was forced to marry tabloid reporter James Henaghan after he got her pregnant at 17. She quit her dancing career to tend to her son, Jimmy, but returned to dancing in the 1945 film, The Blonde from Brooklyn. She divorced Henaghan in 1947 and gave her son to her parents to raise. He later became an actor.

In 1948, Verdon became assistant to noted choreographer Jack Cole with whom she worked for the next five years, appearing on screen as a dancer in such films as On the Riviera, David and Bathsheba, Meet Me After the Show, Dreamboat, The Merry Widow and The I Don’t Care Girl. During this period, she also taught dance moves to such stars as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Fernando Lamas Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, the latter two on 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Verdon’s big Broadway break came when she was cast in the second female lead in 1953’s Can-Can, but when she stole out-of-town notices from star Lilo, the star demanded her role be reduced. She planned on leaving the show after its Broadway opening, but she was such a sensation that the audience kept screaming her name until she was brought out to take a bow after the star. She was hailed as the greatest Broadway discovery since Mary Martin was introduced singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Leave It to Me fifteen years earlier. The role brought her the first of four Tonys within a seven-year period.

She was romantically involved with actor Scott Brady when she met Bob Fosse who was hired to choreograph Damn Yankees for director George Abbott. They began a relationship that resulted in marriage in 1960 by which time Verdon had won subsequent Tonys for 1955’s Damn Yankees which she reprised in the 1958 film version, as well as for 1957’s New Girl in Town and 1959’s Redhead. Their daughter Nicole was born in 1963.

Verdon received further Tony nominations for 1966’s Sweet Charity and 1975’s Chicago. Although she and Fosse separated in 1971, they remained married until his death in 1987. Their relationship is detailed in the 2019 TV mini-series, Fosse / Verdon.

After her Broadway run in Chicago and subsequent tour, Verdon became a welcome character actress on TV and in such films as 1984’s The Cotton Club, 1985’s Cocoon, 1990’s Alice, 1996’s Marvin’s Room and 2000’s Bruno.

Gwen Verdon retired to daughter Nicole’s Vermont farm in August 2000. She died there of a heart attack in her sleep on October 18, 2000.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), directed by Howard Hawks

One of the films on which Verdon acted as an unofficial choreographer and coach was this highly successful version of the 1949 Broadway musical starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Verdon taught the stars moves to make Russell sexier and Monroe less so. Verdon herself is said to have been photographed shaking her derriere for both stars at one point in the film. This came a year after she worked uncredited on another famous musical, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. She became a star in her own right in Broadway’s Can-Can that same year.

DAMN YANKEES (1958), directed by George Abbott, Stanley Donen

Twenty-two years after film debut in The King Steps Out, Verdon had her first billed role reprising her Tony award-winning portrayal of evil’s assistant, Lola in the film version of one of Broadway’s best-loved musicals opposite Tab Hunter and Ray Walston. She was still singing “Whatever Lola Wants” to appreciative audiences as late as 1998. Sadly, despite her enormous popularity as a Broadway star, this was her only starring role in a film in her entire career. Her 1970s boyfriend, Jerry Lanning, played Tab Hunter’s role in a 1967 version opposite Lee Remick in Verdon’s role and Phil Silvers in Walston’s,

SWEET CHARITY (1969), directed by Bob Fosse

One of Verdon’s great stage successes, which earned her the fifth of her Tony nominations, was not to be hers to repeat on screen. Her husband, Bob Fosse, was selected by Shirley MacLaine to direct the film (as he had the stage version) and Verdon gamely worked behind the scenes to coach MacLaine in the role. MacLaine had become a star as Carol Haney’s standby in the 1954 musical The Pajama Game which Fosse choreographed the year before he and Verdon met. Years later, MacLaine gave Verdon a part in the only narrative film she ever directed, 2000’s Bruno, which would be Verdon’s last.

COCOON (1985), directed by Ron Howard

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA gave Verdon a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her delightful performance in this comedy-drama co-starring Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Jessica Tandy and Maureen Stapleton as fellow oldsters who are invigorated after swimming in a pool in which alien cocoons are being stored. A huge box-office success, the film won Ameche an Oscar. Verdon was cast as Ameche’s love interest after Joan Bennett turned down the role. Verdon received additional credit as special music and dance coordinator.

MARVIN’S ROOM (1996), directed by Jerry Zaks

Verdon never received an Oscar nomination, but she came close with this one, playing the aunt of both Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton in this moving family drama about estranged sisters, one of whom is dying of cancer. She did receive SAG nominations both as Best Supporting Actress as well as for her ensemble work in the film with Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Hume Cornyn, Verdon, Don Scardino and Dan Hedeya listed in that order. Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe and Keaton for an Oscar. Keaton was singled out along with Verdon with an individual SAG nomination.

GWEN VERDON AND OSCAR

  • No nominations, no wins.

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