The working collaboration and intimate marital life of choreographer-director Bob Fosse (1927-1987) and dancer-actor Gwen Verdon (1925-2000) – what could be so awful and dramatic in that subject matter?
In fact, Fosse himself had already imagined – and pictured – the worst of it in his scarcely veiled autobiography, the classic “mutant musical” All That Jazz (1980). Once you have survived, from that film, the relentlessly drawn-out spectacle of Roy Scheider as Fosse alter ego Joe undergoing open-heart surgery and (39 year-old spoiler alert) getting zipped up in a body bag – all to the tune of Ben Vereen hammily performing “Bye Bye Life” – you are ready for almost any screen extreme.
This element of the grotesque was, indeed, a crucial part of Fosse’s mature, creative work in theatre and cinema, at least from the time of Sweet Charity (1969) until his final film, the underrated Star 80 (1983), by way of Chicago (1975) on stage. (The subsequent 2002 film version of Chicago by Rob Marshall is something of a betrayal of the Fosse aesthetic, while still retaining many “archaeological” traces of the original production’s conception.)
Fosse/Verdon, created by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail with the full co-operation of the star couple’s daughter (Nicole Fosse) and The VerdonFosse Legacy, owes a lot to the model of All That Jazz – while dialling back on its proud excesses. Like the film, the series darts about in time, shuffling the (often traumatic) highlights of both subjects' lives. (In the type of odd echo that has become increasingly common in contemporary TV, young Verdon here is played by Kelli Burgland, co-star of Gregg Araki’s Now Apocalypse!)
There is, again, the fatalistic sense of a countdown to death, marked out by ominous date-stamped intertitles. And there is, one more time, a dazzling array of pills popped, productions for stage and screen mounted, and sexual affairs consummated, especially by Fosse (Sam Rockwell) – one of the most captivating vignettes of interpersonal drama presents him with Verdon at his door and another woman in his bed. Ah, yes: It’s Showtime!
The series offers something of a compromise between portraying the types of trashy sordidness and vulgarity that Fosse himself was never afraid to embrace on screen (see his fascinating underground-showbiz biopic Lenny , which comes around for much exposure both here and in All That Jazz), and a somehow more affirmative message – especially angled toward the supposed rehabilitation of Verdon’s career (but does she really need it?) for the Me Too era.
There’s no doubting that Michelle Williams (like Rockwell, also serving as executive producer) is particularly impressive as the adult Verdon, combining both uncanny mimicry and psychological depth. But the slanted depiction of her as someone increasingly cast into the shadow of her outsize auteur husband, even well beyond his death? Things do tend to get a little contrived on this retro-retribution, settling-history’s-accounts ideological plane.
More intriguingly (for me, at least), Fosse/Verdon trades shamelessly in fantasy-shortcut depictions of the creative process. It’s made to seem as if the big musical numbers of Cabaret (1972) were caught (like porn scenes in The Deuce) in a single master shot (they weren’t); as if choreography magically happens with Verdon mindreading the moves Fosse hasn’t yet shown her (she didn’t); and as if films are edited by people pacing a darkened room and merely snapping their fingers (if only). In this respect, mainstream cinema and TV have hardly advanced beyond the sight of Cary Grant as Cole Porter in Night and Day (1946) sitting down at the piano, fiddling a few keys, and instantly producing an immortal song-standard.
The “working” of art (any kind of art) is still rendered so magically that it seems an almost taboo item of mass-cult representation; either that, or it’s just too darn complicated and difficult to show quickly.