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‘Fosse/Verdon’ Is a Portrait of a Marriage Nobody Wants, Except Them

Plus some other random thoughts about the much-anticipated FX series

It’s stupid to judge other people’s romantic relationships. What works for one couple won’t work for another — and it’s not as if yours isn’t full of complications, compromises and outright weirdness, too. Listen, we’re all just stumbling around in the dark, so it’s best not to speculate about (or throw shade at) what’s going on in somebody else’s bedroom.

And yet, I feel compelled to break my rule while discussing Fosse/Verdon. I’m not equipped to evaluate the on-again/off-again relationship of the real-life couple that inspired the new FX limited series. But in terms of how it’s depicted on the show, the tumultuous love affair between choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon is an anguished nightmare that most of us would run screaming from. The series’ challenge is trying to convince viewers that, for the two combatants, the agony was worth it.

Fosse/Verdon runs eight episodes, and only the first five were made available to critics, so I can’t say for sure where I’ll ultimately land on this series — or its central couple. At this point, though, what’s clear is that the series (based on historian Sam Wasson’s 2013 Bob Fosse biography) wants to sweep away one show-biz cliché and replace it with a new one.

The series’ central thesis is that, yes, Bob Fosse was a genius choreographer and director who won Tonys, Emmys and an Oscar (for directing 1972’s Cabaret) — but, you see, he couldn’t have risen to such heights without Gwen Verdon’s patient, unwavering, nurturing support, guidance and sharp eye. Like a lot of genius male artists, Fosse was a real asshole — a womanizer, an addict, a tormented soul who took out unresolved childhood trauma on those around him — but we in the audience must accept that we couldn’t have had his incredible work (such as Broadway smashes like Chicago and acclaimed films such as All That Jazz) if he hadn’t been such a heel.

That’s the old cliché — the “horrible people make great art” trope. Fosse/Verdon lands on a new one by throwing in a crucial twist to that dusty maxim. As executive producer Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for the book to Dear Evan Hansenrecently explained to The Atlantic, “[T]he only way to tell this story was to make it a two-hander, because Bob’s story is incomplete without Gwen. There’s something about his relationship with Gwen, and that love story — however strange and twisted it was — that really fills out the picture of who he was. It felt that at every point in Bob’s career, if you widen the angle just a bit, you find that she’s there — and that felt really important.”

In other words, sure, Fosse was an asshole, but don’t feel bad for his wife — she was her own woman, and complicit in the whole thing. Although Verdon wasn’t nearly as abusive as Fosse was, she was hardly an innocent. (They wed in 1960 — it was his third marriage — and separated in 1971, but never divorced, remaining in each other’s lives until his death in 1987 at the age of 60.) Fosse/Verdon suggests that she tolerated the womanizing, in part, because she saw in him an opportunity to remain at the zenith of her profession. In one scene, Verdon, a four-time Tony winner who’s played by the excellent Michelle Williams, explains to Fosse’s exasperated new lover, a rising actress, why it’s worth putting up with him. “Because he’ll give you what he gave me,” Verdon says. But she’s not talking about her daughter Nicole. “Not just Nicole,” she explains. “Lola, Charity, Roxie” — evoking the three iconic characters she made her own in Fosse productions.

It’s a chilling sequence that underlines these two characters’ linked fate. On some foundational level, Verdon knows that as much as Fosse strays — his ego and hormones stoked by all the attention he gets in the wake of Cabaret’s colossal response — he still desperately needs her. Sam Rockwell plays Fosse as a man of crippling insecurity, chasing after yet another pretty girl but then frantically begging Verdon to give her opinion on a cut of his latest movie. Fosse and Verdon never say it out loud, but they seem to have worked out an arrangement: He’ll keep cheating and selfishly following his muse at the expense of her and their child, and she’ll tolerate it because he’s her ticket to immortality and she has him wrapped around her finger.

That fraught agreement is Fosse/Verdon’s new show-biz cliché. In the bad old days, genius male artists were celebrated/lamented for their inexhaustible entitlement. In a nod to our Time’s Up moment, the FX series revises that cultural truism by positioning both Fosse and Verdon as ambitious, driven artists looking out for themselves. Much like the societal pushback against the well-intentioned but naïve belief that women would automatically make better leaders because they’re not as bad as men — a theory based on the patronizing assumption that women couldn’t possibly have the capacity to be calculating, ruthless or seduced by power — Fosse/Verdon tries to squash the poor-wife stereotype that often occurs in these narratives.

Indeed, Verdon wasn’t some defenseless doe left with a broken heart while the mean man ran off and became a superstar. As Fosse/Verdon tells it, she was a star long before Fosse was. (Early on in the series, we watch him quietly seethe at others’ impression that he needs her to keep his fledgling career afloat.) And she knew exactly what she was getting into by falling for him. The show repeatedly moves back and forth between time periods, devoting one episode to their courtship, which went on while his second wife was suffering from a debilitating illness. Verdon’s love may have been genuine, but she understood that she was destroying a marriage to be with Fosse.

No doubt the producers want to bring Verdon out of the shadows in order to demonstrate how critical she was to his legacy. Levenson has said as much, noting in that same interview, “[T]here’s this obsession with the idea of the singular genius, and the auteur, and who created this film or who created this musical. And the truth is, it’s an army of people every time. And Bob Fosse in particular was someone who was desperately in need of collaborators. … He was also someone who deeply resented the fact that he needed collaborators. It was a struggle for him to admit that he needed collaborators and couldn’t do it all himself.”

I appreciate that revision to the Fosse legend, which underlines my long-held suspicion that plenty of talented men have been assisted by their romantic partners far more often (and far more profoundly) than we as a society have acknowledged. But I’m not sure how much more comforting it is to know that plenty of Hollywood couples contained two monsters, not just one. In the show, love is part of the equation for Fosse and Verdon, but so is bald ambition and craven expediency. They’re in a cutthroat business, and often romantic fulfillment means a whole lot less than feeding that insatiable desire to feel adored by the public. Their love is at war with their competitiveness, that endless chasing of the brass ring.

As much as Fosse/Verdon wants to be a wised-up, progressive look at this pair, there’s still a lot of the old biopic clichés. You could make a bingo card out of the hoary narrative tropes that put in an appearance, including “No one believes my film is going to work, but I’ll show ‘em!” (Cabaret), and “I’m finally successful and have gotten everything I wanted — but it will never fill that void inside me!” (everything after Cabaret). We’re meant to understand that Fosse and Verdon had a classic “Can’t live with him/can’t live without him” relationship but, five episodes in, Fosse/Verdon stays on the surface, never quite illuminating what galvanized their bond. If it was simply a shared desire for stardom, that’s not a particularly compelling answer.

Funny enough, Williams has played a few roles in which she’s part of destructive/magnetic relationships. In everything from Brokeback Mountain to Blue Valentine to Manchester by the Sea, she’s essayed characters who are tethered to their men, even if they’re no longer together. In those previous films, you wouldn’t want to be in those relationships, but you recognized yourself in them — understanding the conflicting anger, love and codependency that make some romances feel like a sickness but also euphoric.

That insight is lacking in Fosse/Verdon, at least so far. Other people’s relationships are a mystery. But for the creative team behind this series, Fosse and Verdon are a mystery not worth unraveling. Sometimes it’s hard to know what makes a couple tick. With these two narcissists, though, maybe we’re better off not knowing.

Here are three other takeaways from Fosse/Verdon.

#1. What’s Michelle Williams’ best film?

It’s now been 16 years since Dawson’s Creek went off the air. The popular, much beloved teen drama introduced the world to young stars James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes, whose characters were involved in a love triangle over the show’s run. So it was natural to assume that they’d have the most impressive post-Dawson’s careers. And while they’ve all certainly done well for themselves, I don’t think many people would have predicted that the show’s other central figure would end up being the most acclaimed.

That, of course, was Michelle Williams, whose Jen was the perpetual outsider in the group. Tellingly, when Dawson’s creator Kevin Williamson conceived the series finale, he killed off Jen, mostly for the benefit of the other characters: “I thought what a beautiful way to let her be the catalyst for everyone’s turning events. I also wanted Joey [played by Holmes] to finally make her decision between Pacey [played by Jackson] and Dawson [played by Van Der Beek], and I thought what better thing to launch that life decision than the immediacy of a death.”

When Williams started showing up in indie films after Dawson’s, like The Station Agent and The Baxter, it was a pleasant surprise, but I always assumed she’d be a character actor. There hadn’t been anything on Dawson’s that made me think she could command center stage. Clearly I wasn’t paying attention, because she received her first Oscar nomination soon after for Brokeback Mountain, playing the put-upon wife of Heath Ledger’s closeted cowboy. And by the end of the aughts, she delivered what remains her finest performance. It’s a little-seen movie, but it’s one of the best this century. It’s called Wendy and Lucy.

This 2008 drama from director Kelly Reichardt is pretty straightforward. Williams plays Wendy, a young drifter on her way to Alaska in hopes of a job. But when her car breaks down in Oregon, she and her sole companion, her trusty dog Lucy, face a series of mishaps that imperil their journey.

Running only 80 minutes, Wendy and Lucy has the preciseness of a great short story. (Indeed, the film was adapted from author Jon Raymond’s “Train Choir.”) Wendy doesn’t have much money, so how will she be able to afford the car repairs? And when Lucy subsequently goes missing, will she be able to find her? Each miniscule plot point in Wendy and Lucy feels momentous, and Williams is wondrous as a woman who has so little and may soon have to learn to live with even less.

Williams has received four Oscar nominations, but none of them were for Wendy and Lucy. I saw the movie again recently, and it remains heartbreaking. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. It’s the film where Michelle Williams cemented the fact that she was destined to be far, far more than just a WB star.

#2. Here’s the last shot of Cabaret.

One episode of Fosse/Verdon focuses on the triumphant unveiling of Cabaret, which won eight Oscars in 1973. (It lost Best Picture to The Godfather.) As the episode begins, Fosse is hanging out in the lobby during the middle of Cabaret’s glitzy premiere, looking dejected. His producer Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser) tries to convince him that the movie’s great, but all Fosse can see are the mistakes he made. Feuer implores the director to come back into the theater: “I can’t wait to watch them watch that last shot!”

If you’ve seen Cabaret, you know what he means. (And if you haven’t — and don’t want the ending ruined — it might be better if you scroll down to the next Fosse/Verdon takeaway, which involves Sam Rockwell’s dancing prowess.)

The film takes place in Berlin in 1931, right when Hitler was ascendant. Ostensibly, Cabaret is a musical — much of the story is set at the Kit Kat Klub, and the movie was based on the 1966 stage musical — but it’s among the darkest ever made. The sexy, catchy tunes are mostly a way for the characters to escape the frightening rise of Nazism that’s happening all around them. They keep singing in order to forget, for a little while, that the world is going to hell.

Which brings us to the final shot. The Kit Kat’s freaky master of ceremonies (Joel Grey) is saying goodbye to the crowd at the end of the show, but we suspect he’s also saying goodbye to the Germany that once was. Fosse slowly reveals who’s in the audience, and through a distorted mirror, we see a slew of men in Nazi uniforms. Not even the Kit Kat Klub is immune to Hitler’s noxious influence anymore. The image is chilling.

As alt-right groups have grown in prominence in recent years, it’s been especially hard to watch Cabaret. History has a nauseating habit of repeating itself. And that last shot really stings.

#3. Okay, let’s just watch Sam Rockwell dance.

When fans of Sam Rockwell learned he was going to be playing Bob Fosse, their immediate reaction was, “Oh my god, how much do we get to see him dance?”

Rockwell won an Oscar last year for his work in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but even before then he was a respected character actor. Also, he was known as a dude who would find any excuse to dance, whether in his movies or on talk shows. In fact, there were YouTube tributes to his fantastic moves:

In 2015, Sam Rockwell was the star of a music video for Flight Facilities, cutting a funky rug for the duo’s “Down to Earth.”

“It was a way to meet girls” was how Rockwell once described his early love of dancing, later saying, “My school was interracial, and I met a cool group of friends who introduced me to some other friends. I used to do really bad break dancing, when Thriller and Purple Rain came out.”

To answer your question, yes, Rockwell does dance a decent amount in the first five episodes of Fosse/Verdon. For those who love his moves, though, it’s not nearly enough.