Fosse Verdon review: Michelle Williams stuns in this tale of a horrible marriage but perfect partnership
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams
Creators: Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson
FX’s Fosse Verdon begins much like Bjorn L Runge’s The Wife, the story of a genius artist and her husband who robs her of all credit. Both the men -- real life Hollywood director and choreographer Bob Fosse and fictional writer Joe Castleman -- are nothing without their wives, but the wives could be so much more without these men. If only the series realised it too.
In several interviews and roundtables, both the lead actors of Fosse Verdon -- Oscar winners Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams -- have oft repeated that what makes the series special is that though it is based on Sam Wasson’s biography on the director, titled Fosse, it brings his wife, actress and dancer Gwen Verdon’s life into the forefront. However, the deeper you sink your feet into the series, with each episode, one begins to realise such is not the case.
Watch the trailer for Fosse Verdon:
Soaked in the tangiest flavours of jazz, cabaret, theatre arts and filmmaking of the 1960-70s, Fosse Verdon is the real life story of Hollywood and Broadway director, dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse and his horrible marriage and perfect creative partnership with wife Gwen Verdon. Beginning from their meet cute at an audition to the night Fosse, quite poetically and tragically, died in the arms of Gwen outside a theatre on the opening night of their musical decades later, the story moves through time like a malfunctioning time machine. The non-linear editing could sometime get confusing but Rockwell’s many stages of hair loss prove a good instrument of calibration. It all begins in the middle of their stories -- Fosse has suffered the biggest flop film of his life while Verdon is fresh off delivering stellar performances. No one wants him if Verdon is not a part of the package.
But as the years go by and the cruel Hollywood sexism and ageism bind Verdon’s arms behind her back, she struggles to find roles that don’t involve her playing mother to men her age or a lady in the street who gets her purse snatched. Her husband doesn’t make things easy either, not for her, not for anyone else and not even for himself. He is addicted to drugs, women, lying and to proving himself better than what people think of him. Except, no one has asked him to prove anything. Making movies or directing musicals, he stretches himself thin, doubting himself every step of the way and seeking validation in sharing meaningless nights in bed with chorus girls and German translators. When caught, he makes promises to his wife that this is the last of his philandering days but both of them know how it’s all a lie. How could she not? She, too, was one of these girls; one he cheated on his dying wife with. If it has begun to sound more and more like The Wife, wait till you hear the next part.
Amid all the lying, cheating and selfishness, when his films turn out to be a hot pile of garbage in the editing room, he comes begging to Verdon for help. She is the ‘eye’ he needs to assure him he is a great and true talent. Thankfully, for the sake Hollywood’s fascination with its geniuses and the unwillingness to let their names be forgotten even if they are guilty of anything horrible, Fosse’s talents are largely his own. But that doesn’t say what Verdon got in return was fair either. As he climbed heights of success with more films and award nominations, Hollywood now wanted him. They did not want the aging Verdon anymore if Fosse is not part of the package.
The show does a brilliant job of showing the changing dynamics between this married couple through some really tense scenes and dialogues, played masterfully by Williams and Rockwell. From the electricity that charges through them when they first meet to watching her break glass cups on his head, from telling her how he has fallen in love with a young girl to her desperately reminding him through a thick veil of anger how she made him who he is; the two never miss a beat. Fosse’s character is written in much more detail, attention and complexity, which leaves Rockwell with a lot of notes to work with but with whatever little Williams was given of Verdon, she hits it out of the park. Verdon’s harrowing past of childhood sexual abuse is just casually mentioned through one flashback in a single episode while a similar, equally disturbing episode from Fosse’s life is revisited again and again throughout the show. It flashes in front of our and his eyes every time he is using and discarding yet another woman, as if excusing his behaviour as the product of what he went through as a child. While that could very well have been the reality of Fosse’s life and psyche, the show’s treatment of those used and harassed women in his life was not different either.
One particular incident--that might some day read like yet another confession of an actress against a perverted producer--should make things clearer. While dropping a dancer home, Fosse tries his luck on her, pressuring her to invite him over, give him a proper kiss and when she resists, he plants his face on hers. She tells him to stop, maintains politeness as long as she could, and at long last, throws her knee into his groin. As he drops to the ground, she apologises profusely, afraid to lose her job. The next day, he humiliates her at work and replaces her, just like she had feared. Verdon knows what is happening but she, too, excuses it. The new girl that replaces her is very good at what she does. Fosse and Verdon agree that this other girl would never knock on his hotel door because ‘she knows she is good’. So, less talented women are open season for sexual harassment? The show does seem to hint at it. The demoted girl comes around to do what she first didn’t want to just to keep her job and we never hear again from her, or any other of the many women he treated like scum. Even the girl who was ‘too good’ ends up in his bed. A movie mogul will have his way after all.
But Who’s Got The Pain When They Do The Mambo? The glitzy and glamourous world of movies and theatre is still able to distract one from the glaring issues with morality. Several musical numbers from Fosse and Verdon’s films and plays are recreated perfectly for the show. Sometimes the numbers spill over out of the stage and into Fosse’s real life to either show his drug-fuelled excitement at the editing table or the delirious attempt at suicide while his characters egg him on to ‘fly’. He even takes to stand-up comedy in one fantastical moment, like his character Lenny, telling his life’s story to an audience who wouldn’t laugh. This is a television show about movies and theatre and it gives the utmost respect to both.
But as you might have noticed, the songs and the fantasy are used only to tell what is in Fosse’s heart. We never really hear Verdon’s side of it all. The series is still incredibly faithful to Fosse and the turmoil in his heart, his addictions, his flaring mind and excusing his abusive behaviour and brushing past the stories of the abused by quite literally forgetting all about them. Fosse Verdon was supposed to be a story for the post #MeToo world and yet, it seems to be making a case for the ugly old days of the powerful. In first two episodes she is a devoted wife, in the next two, she is one who wants her due. She then transitions into this selfish ex-wife who wants her way even if it kills Fosse and finally, she is back to being the motherly figure in his life and even in his death. She is either one thing or the other while Fosse is several things at the same time. Maybe simply attaching her name to the title wasn’t where the job was supposed to end.
Fosse Verdon begins airing in India on Star World from Monday.
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