Film & TV

Fosse/Verdon and the Dismal #MeToo Obsession

Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in FX’s Fosse/Verdon (Trailer image via YouTube)
An FX series gives equal billing to a genius and his boring wife.

In the final episode of Fosse/Verdon, one of the two titular characters, Bob Fosse, is shooting one of the greatest films of all time. The other, Gwen Verdon, is having a quarrel with her unspeakably dull boyfriend about whether he approves of her performing in a road-show production of a Broadway musical. These two matters are given roughly equal importance, as are the lives of Fosse, a genius who left an indelible mark on both Broadway and film, and Verdon, a second-tier showbiz figure whom nobody would be thinking about, much less making a series about, if she hadn’t been married to Fosse.

So it went throughout Fosse/Verdon, an eight-episode miniseries shown on FX (still available on demand) that had flashes of brilliance but also proved to be a victim of the #MeToo movement, or rather a victim of Hollywood’s obsession with that movement, or mindset, or complaint. Fosse/Verdon was originally conceived as a show about Fosse. It was to be based on a biography called Fosse. It should have been called Fosse. Then #MeToo hit, and the (male) creators of the show panicked. Everything had changed! (No, it hadn’t. It rarely does.)

How, the creators and their bosses wondered, should they work #MeToo into the show? Correct answer: They should have ignored it and carried on as planned. Actual answer: Just as #MeToo morphed almost instantaneously from a movement about punishing sexual misbehavior in men to an affirmative-action reparations/hiring policy for Hollywood women, the makers of Fosse/Verdon decided they had to apply a sort of retroactive affirmative-action admittance policy to the genius club, or at least to the important-figures club. Hence Gwen Verdon, a forgotten hoofer whose work barely survives anywhere unless you count the memory of elderly Broadway veterans, had to be sanctified and made the equivalent of Fosse, a larger-than-life figure who directed Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Chicago on Broadway and the films Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz. Sure, the series tells us, Cabaret was a revolutionary screen musical unlike anything ever seen before on screen and won eight Oscars (including one for Fosse over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather), but did you know Verdon picked the gorilla costume used in the “If You Could See Her from My Eyes” number? Clearly the whole movie would have fallen apart with a lesser costume.

I’m wondering how far #MeToo feminism is going to take its logic. Maybe next year we’ll get a show called Rembrandt/Mrs. Rembrandt. No! Foolishness. What am I thinking? It would have to be Mrs. Rembrandt/Rembrandt. Still not enough. She had a name, you know. Saskia van Uylenburgh/Rembrandt. Actually, who cares about Rembrandt? Men’s stories have been told for too long. Time for some herstory. Coming soon on FX: Saskia. Do we know enough about Saskia to fill up eight hours of television? Never mind. We’ll just imagine her being suffering yet proud, suffused with unrecognized brilliance, a woman ahead of her time. It’ll sweep the Emmys. Get Michelle Williams on the phone; she’ll play it to the hilt. (You think I’m joking: The New Republic’s television critic Rachel Syme wrote “Fosse/Verdon is a pas de deux. . . . Part of me wishes it was a solo.” Guess which character she considers expendable?)

A glance at Variety reveals that, among 113,887 mentions of #MeToo (this isn’t a joke either), the topic has furnished storylines for Will & Grace, GLOW, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Godless, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Murphy Brown, Younger, Great News, Jane the Virgin, The Good Doctor, The Romanoffs, and Bojack Horseman. I could go on. For pages. This is monomania. Isn’t there anything else to talk about? Artists are attaching the headlines to themselves like leg irons, then bragging about their resultant limping. Typical line in the trades these days: “‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Review: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie Fiercely Bring #MeToo Movement to the 16th Century.”

At least they’re fierce. Williams isn’t. Her colossally irritating performance as Verdon is going to win her every award short of the Nobel Peace Prize (though I wouldn’t bet against Stockholm finding a reason to give her that too). She can be a subtle actress but in Fosse/Verdon she is the opposite of that. If Verdon was one-third as annoying as this in reality, the most amazing thing about her is that Fosse stayed married to her as long as he did. (The pair wed in 1960 and after much philandering on his part separated in 1971, though they never divorced. He died in 1987, she in 2000.)

Verdon, passive-aggressive, needy, and perpetually on the verge of collapsing under the weight of her own tics in Williams’ portrayal, was much brassier and savvier as portrayed by Leland Palmer (the character called “Audrey Paris”) in All That Jazz, the 1979 movie that is Fosse’s autobiographical masterpiece. In its best moments, of which there are many, Fosse/Verdon channels the black-comic, death-aware spirit of that intoxicated and intoxicating self-critique, the most penetrating examination of an artist ever put on film. The miniseries begins and (nearly) ends with a knock on the door to which a tired and sickly Fosse replies, “You’re a little early.” The “you” is Verdon but is also death, just as All That Jazz was structured as a confession to a showgirl/angel/emissary to the grave.

Topping, or even matching, All That Jazz is not something anyone should attempt, but Fosse/Verdon’s creators, Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail, take Fosse the way he took himself: as a man who burned the candle at both ends and used a blowtorch in the middle. Portrayed with a disarming gentleness by Sam Rockwell in the series (Roy Scheider was far more dynamic, charismatic, and abrasive as Fosse’s alter ego in All That Jazz), Fosse found himself in a temptation predicament the likes of which few could imagine: He was a straight man at play in the world of musical theater. In the Seventies. And he was the most revered figure in that world. Kid-in-candy-shop falls short as a metaphor. He was a kid on the loose in a candy planet, a candy universe. He fueled himself on drink and drugs and rewarded himself with sex, knowing a reckoning would come due. His autobiographical film ends with its 40-something Fosse proxy being zipped into a body bag (to the strains of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). In reality Fosse lived to be 60.

Ultimately Fosse pushed himself to the brink in order to entertain us, but Fosse/Verdon wisely doesn’t let him off the hook about the damage he did to others. Growing up amid decadence did a number on his daughter Nicole — there’s a priceless scene of her, as a little kid, nonchalantly clearing a place on the breakfast table for her bowl of cereal amid a Caligulan tableau of empty glasses and other detritus from the previous night’s bacchanal. She lost a chunk of her life to addiction, which, if the series is to be believed (and it was made with her input), got started when she began rooting around in Daddy’s pills. Verdon may have known what she was getting into with Fosse (he was on his second wife when the two began their affair) but Nicole was an entirely innocent victim of his general depravity — and it’s damning that Fosse took no notice of this in All That Jazz, in which he reached so far as to rename Nicole “Michelle.” All That Jazz’s Michelle is sad about maybe losing Daddy, but Nicole, in Fosse/Verdon, gets drunk or stoned and nearly falls off the top of a building while he is off filming All That Jazz. Nicole also doesn’t appreciate it when her father reworks a tender moment when the pair danced together into fodder for his film. Her point of view adds considerable texture to the miniseries.

In the poignant final minutes of Fosse/Verdon, he muses in notes for an unfinished book (provided to the show’s creators by his daughter) that there is a woman who knew his birthday, rubbed Vicks on his chest when he was sick, babied him in his sorrows, gloried in his triumphs — yet between her and whoever the sexy new thing was, he’d always choose the latter. It’s a tragic moment, and yet the honesty of his self-appraisal is admirable. Must a man be hollow if so enslaved by his desires? Would a Fosse who came along in an earlier, or a later, era have lived his life more judiciously while still creating breathtaking artistry? Does the atrocious personal behavior of a genius detract from the value of his art? Bob Fosse embodied important questions and left much that endures. Gwen Verdon did not.

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