Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon make glittering subject matter for long-form 4K Peak TV. High-key three-network-“vast wasteland” TV, on the other hand, was the star couple’s bread-and-butter. Back then, a more behind-the-scenes Fosse often choreographed Verdon’s routines on The Garry Moore Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Fosse and Verdon worked on television when, for artists with their gifts, the home medium meant variety shows that were extensions of vaudeville. Fosse’s best-known contribution to television was his direction of Liza with a Z, the 1972 NBC special that won him his Emmy award, completing the probably never-to-be-matched “Triple Crown” that made him the only recipient of Tony, Oscar, and Emmy in the same year. No one else has ever been nominated for all three in the same season. One of his two 1972-73 Tony awards, both for Pippin, was Fosse’s only Tony for Best Director; his other seven Tonys were all for Choreography, from The Pajama Game in 1954 to Big Deal in 1986, making the Triple Crown freakier yet.
Fosse was the diva; this is what auteur directors like him had become at the crest of Cinephilia in the 1970s. Joe Gideon, the Broadway/Hollywood director-protagonist of All That Jazz, muses to the camera, “I wonder if Stanley Kubrick ever gets depressed.” At the time of All That Jazz’s release in late-December 1979, cinephiles knew well that the hermetic Kubrick had been laboring over The Shining, which would be released in May, for going on three years. In one line Fosse sums up the director-centered “aesthetic personality cult,” in André Bazin’s disapproving phrase, of the Auteur Renaissance (257).
By contrast, Gwen Verdon was the trouper, the journeyperson—who happened to be brilliant, as much so in her way as Fosse was in his. Verdon was a working performer rather than a driven artist; she was a collaborator and a member of a show’s company. It’s impossible to imagine Fosse in later years taking guest shots on Magnum P.I. and Love American Style, being the celebrity guest for a week on The $10,000 Pyramid, and playing a doting septuagenarian in Marvin’s Room (1996), a forgotten Weinstein-Miramax prestige item whose big names--Streep, De Niro, Diane Keaton and a pre-Titanic but already Oscar-nominated DiCaprio--crowd out Verdon from even being identified in the trailer. A trouper is what you might call someone who collaborated with her husband’s girlfriend (Ann Reinking) after his death to mount a Broadway revue to his memory (Fosse, 1999-2001). A trouper is probably a person who spends her final remaining years (Verdon, who died in October 2000, outlived Fosse by thirteen years) curating her and her late husband’s extensive show business archive for any space that wants it, like, say, the Library of Congress, where The Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Collection resides today.
Unlike filmmakers, stage performers practice an ephemeral art, one kept alive by those who saw the original performance, but with the Original Broadway Cast (OBC) album not always serving as the next best thing to being there (as a Kodak ad line used to say). Listeners of the 1960 OBC album of Camelot, for example, can feel that they know what Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet were like in that singer-and actor-driven musical. For listeners of Verdon’s New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity and Chicago albums—Not so much. Most of a Verdon performance was in the dancing and her stage presence. A pair of 1966 YouTube clips of Ed Sullivan Show performances made during the run of Sweet Charity might provide the best impressions of her disarming stage technique. Even the occasional film that she made does not put over quite the proper Verdon-ness. In the one movie in which she did recreate a Broadway performance—Damn Yankees (1958)—“Verdon’s body conveys more than her face” (Wasson 131).
It is ironic that Michelle Williams walked off with the Emmy for Actress in a Limited Series for her spot-on performance as Gwen Verdon, while Sam Rockwell lost. Williams hardly has Verdon’s husky-squeaky, nicotine-perforated voice, nor does she try to affect it. She can dance, athough grading an actress’s dancing on the scale of Verdon would be like casting an actor as Michael Jordan and expecting him to re-enact the 1997 NBA Finals (This is why biopics aren’t made about basketball players). But Williams puts across, from her first minutes onscreen, Verdon’s stoic optimism and her hard-bitten, existential sense of love and loyalty. By contrast, Rockwell is miscast, even in this series’ rendition of Fosse as a most anti- of anti-heroes. Bob Fosse was a very charming guy; Rockwell’s murine Fosse could never charm anybody. It’s difficult to think of an actor who might have assayed Fosse’s conglomeration of talents, neuroses, and self-hating egotism. Joaquin Phoenix might have pulled it off.
Fosse longed to be a star performer, “the next Fred Astaire.” To be fair, Fosse’s dancing may well have been nearly up to Astaire-level, but he lacked two things. One was Astaire’s screen charm and star electricity, even though Stanley Donen brought out from Fosse something close to star charisma in Fosse’s brief but stunning performance as The Snake in The Little Prince (1974), in the only sequence in that film that is remembered now. See Fosse co-starring turn in My Sister Eileen (1955), which he also choreographed, for an object lesson in why the young Fosse never “made it in pictures.” Two, Fosse lacked in the early-1950s a musical production unit, like those at MGM where he was briefly employed, that might have made him a star. There was no “next Fred Astaire.”
His celebrity, especially among dancers, licensed his libertine sexual behavior (at least to his mind). If Fosse were around now, in the age of #Me Too, would his career be demolished, like those of Spacey, Weinstein, Singer et al.? The series is very loosely based upon Sam Wasson’s biography, Fosse (2013). Wasson’s thoroughgoing book appeared definitive when it came out, four long years before #Me Too, but the book probably would have required changes had it been published in the #Times Up era. Fosse apparently did nothing close to being criminal; it’s not known whether he sexually harassed any of the many young women he went to bed with, but that’s a question Wasson and an earlier biographer, Martin Gottfried (1990) didn’t ask. Fosse/Verdon stages a scene in which an intended quarry successfully, even humiliatingly, fights him off (Dancers are physically strong, much more so than a middle-aged five-pack-a-day male amphetamine addict). The series shows his “routine” with dancers, asking if they want to stop by his apartment to watch his appearance on some talk show, and seducing them. But “the morning after” shows dancers in rehearsal eyeing each other jealously. This dramatizes the Wasson and Gottfried bios, which describe fights between girlfriends simmering outside Fosse’s room during his hospitalization. If Fosse was a harasser, much less an assailant, no one has ever come forward to accuse him.
The eight-hour limited series deconstructs the Great Man movie, while taking a feminist tack to a female biopic. A cultural structure stands ready to overlook the personal flaws of an artistic “genius,” even if those flaws are vast enough to stage a Busby Berkeley production number in. The Great Man is viewed from the withering perspective of the woman whose own stature and character keep pulling him off his pedestal. The feminist biopic in Fosse/Verdon keeps racking the focus from the show’s own severe warts-and-all treatment of Fosse.
Although the series does not and cannot show why or how Fosse is an auteur, it does demonstrate that he is one, and that is enough. Like other films that have approximated Fosse’s art—Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002) most of all—Fosse/Verdon proves Fosse’s transcendence as a movie director by imitating his style even while trashing his personality. While it provides only slight insight into what makes this drug- and sex-addicted egomaniac brilliant as a director, the show keeps giving evidence that he was a gifted director. It does this in really the only way that it can, by emulating his work.