If you’re a theater junkie or even schooled in the the history of movie musicals and dance, you know the name Bob Fosse. A legend of the stage and screen, he revolutionized choreography, directed many stage musicals and had a highly successful career as a film director, though he only made five movies. But you’ve heard of them. 1972’s Cabaret and 1979’s All That Jazz are his undisputed classics. His life is fairly well known, not least of all because All That Jazz was an autobiographical musical, so a biographical television series is going to cover some familiar territory.
But less well known was his 27 year marriage and partnership with Gwen Verdon, herself a legend of the stage, a Tony winner before the two of them even met and before his career really took off. She acted in many of his shows, winning multiple awards for many of those roles, and the two of them even performed together occasionally. She also served as his collaborator on several of his films, as well as playing the inevitable role of the long suffering wife to his serial philanderer, to the point where she could no longer live with him, though the two never officially divorced. As Fosse’s muse, Verdon was never that famous outside theater circles, but her contribution to the work they made together was monumental, and the true discovery of this miniseries is her life, as portrayed through an astonishing performance by Michelle Williams.
Based on the biography Fosse, by Sam Wasson, and co-produced by Nicole Fosse, Bob and Gwen’s only daughter, this FX limited series takes you through the life of each of them in non-linear fashion. It starts out in present day 1971, right as Bob is getting ready to direct Cabaret, still married and living with Gwen, but in the throes of all his self-destructive habits and lifelong depression (as covered so well by All That Jazz). The making of Cabaret is interspersed with selective cuts to earlier days in either Bob or Gwen’s life, so that in any episode we may get their first meeting, childhood, early romance and solo careers as we then careen forward from the early 70’s through the major milestones of Fosse’s career. If the first episode is Cabaret, the next one is Lenny, then the staging of Chicago (the actual plot of All That Jazz), before landing on the making of All That Jazz itself. As I said, anyone familiar with Fosse’s career trajectory will know the high points, but that makes it insanely entertaining to go behind the scenes of what was going on in each era.
Sam Rockwell gives what seems at first to be a somewhat muted performance as Fosse, but as the series moves along you realize just how subtly and casually he captures the nonchalant charm and laidback attitude of a man wrapped up in his addictions and riddled by a quiet narcissism. The show doesn’t go easy on him, even showing how his womanizing may have been harassment, which is correct- these days, it doesn’t feel right to celebrate the “ladies’ man” image of the kind of man used to getting what he wants..and yet it was another time and he did get what he wanted, from women to drugs and power. But the real standout, as I mentioned, is Michelle Williams, who absolutely transforms herself into Gwen Verdon, embodying her completely, from an incredible vocal impersonation to the way she carries her body, to the way she sings. She steals almost every episode, giving so much dimension to this character, from her own tragic background to her professional success, to supporting and shaping her husband’s career even after they had separated. If anything is Emmy worthy, she is.
Not everything is perfect about this show- some of the editing in the earlier episodes is confusing and unnecessarily distracting, and Nicole Fosse herself is terribly miscast about halfway through the series when the original actress is inexplicably replaced by a 26-year-old playing her from ages 12-15 (why on earth did they do that? Talk about distracting). But other supporting performances are spot on- Norbert Leo Butz is wonderfully funny as Bob’s best friend Paddy Chayefsky, and Margaret Qualley is superb as Ann Reinking, and all eight episodes are vibrantly, musically alive and infused with a feeling of love and admiration for the showbiz career and unique relationship of these two unique people. As an aficionado of movie history and a musical lover, I enjoyed it immensely.