I’ve only seen three of the eight episodes that constitute Fosse/Verdon (FX, 4.9) so I’m obliged to restrain myself. But I know it when all the main elements (editing/montage, screenwriting, pitch-perfect performances, exactly the right rhythm and tone, cinematography) have come together in just the right away.
I’m telling you that Fosse/Verdon — the decades-spanning story of legendary director, choreogrqpher and more-than-slightly-flawed human being Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his longtime wife, lover, best friend and trusted creative colleague Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) — is really, really top-drawer.
I actually think it’s masterful.
In All That Jazz, Roy Scheider‘s Joe Gideon was all this and more. The difference between Jazz, which presented a Verdon-like character (played by Ann Reinking) as a peripheral figure, and Fosse/Verdon is that Verdon is just as essential and deeply-dug-in as Fosse, if not more so. This may be the best performance Williams has ever given. Seriously.
Largely directed by Keaton Kail (five of the eight episodes) and written by Steven Levenson (and based upon Sam Wasson‘s “Fosse“), this is one pizazzy, well-seasoned, theatrically-staged saga of a louche genius who was touched by the dancing godz and who also knew how to direct films, and a wonderfully gifted, spirited and emotionally buoyant dancer-singer who put up with a ton of shit until she left him (even though they never divorced), and the truly great stuff they created for the Broadway stage (as well as their collaboration on the Oscar-winning Cabaret).
Right now the miniseries has Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings of 82 and 68, respectively. Why doesn’t it have higher scores? Because, I’m guessing, some critics resent sitting through a miniseries about Fosse, by any measure a fairly selfish, not-nice person. He’s a bad fit into the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, but then again the series was gradually changed from being a Fosse study (based, again, on Wasson’s book, which I’ve been reading over the last few days) into a Fosse-Verdon thing.
The first episode (“Life Is a Cabaret”) is about the difficult shooting of Cabaret, Fosse’s 1972 adaptation that went on to win eight Oscars, including a Best Director win for Fosse, and the casual martial infidelities which eventually drove Verdon away. Episode #2 (“Who’s Got the Pain?”) happens 16 or 17 years earlier and is mainly about the assembling of the Broadway stage version of Damn Yankees (’55) and Fosse and Verdon’s collaboration, and the start of their love affair while Fosse was still married to Joan McCracken. (Fosse and Verdon were married in 1960.) Episode #3 (“Me and My Baby”) is about the editing of Cabaret.
It’s basically a fascinating portrait of a very difficult, long-lasting marriage that was both glorious and shattering for both parties. In a general way the series is saying that marriage is tough no matter how you slice it. Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987, at age 60. Verdon died in 2000 at age 75.
I love the occasional theatrical touches (suggesting time travel with simple scenery and lighting changes) and the invisible fleet editing. And I adore the surreal touches, like when Fosse, depressed after the financial failure of Sweet Charity, leaves his tenth-floor apartment, walks out to a terrace and jumps off. Another bit happens when Fosse arrives at a Manhattan studio to edit Cabaret, and it’s suddenly a brightly-lit dance sequence with pretty women greeting him like the sexy conquering hero. But then frustration kicks in when Fosse realizes he doesn’t know how to make the film work, and he’s suddenly on the floor and being dragged by editing machines into some kind of horrible dark abyss.
There isn’t a single supporting performance in Fosse/Verdon that isn’t seriously impressive — Evan Handler as Hal Prince, Nate Corddry as Neil Simon, Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky, Susan Misner as Joan McCracken, Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Paul Reiser as Cabaret producer Cy Feuer, Aya Cash as Joan Simon.
A much better written review than this one was penned by The Atlantic‘s Sophie Gilbert — here it is.
Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 pm eastern.