Fosse/Verdon: 8 part biographical miniseries focusing on the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood titans, director-choreographer Bob Fosse and actress-dancer Gwen Verdon. Premiered in the US on On April 9th (FX) and in the UK on August 2nd (BBC2 and iPlayer).
As a lifelong Fosse fanatic, I was a tad…hesitant going into this. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of…something unsavoury. We’re used to biopics. They’re a staple of the TV and film diet, but to make one while some of the leading players are still alive, struck me as…slightly immoral? Maybe it’s more moral to do it while the people are alive? I’m not sure. But what must Ann Reinking (Fosse’s one time partner) make of all this? Has she seen it? As it happens, she comes out of it very well. The other main characters, the showbiz greats who are no longer with us, Gwen and Bob, they…well…it’s complicated. And, that’s why I loved it. I really loved it.
Let’s be clear, this is no Bohemian Rhapsody with all the unsavoury bits airbrushed out. The unsavoury bits are here, front and centre in a big fat spotlight. I can’t help thinking that Fosse would approve. We see him screwing around and then screwing around a bit more and then leaving his young daughter in a hotel room with his best friend so he can go screw around some more. We see him putting chorus girls in all manner of uncomfortable positions to get what he needs; usually sex, sometimes drugs. His bad behaviour was legend and we see it all. They don’t scrimp on the details. But bad behaviour aside, it seems that if you ask anyone who worked with him what he was like, still to this day they idolise him. Stories abound of how great he was to audition for; how he spoke to you; respected you (this can’t be taken for granted even in today’s climate, let alone in the 60s and 70s). We see that too. We see his colleagues idolising him. We see one young female dancer tell him he’s the kindest choreographer in the business and then a minute later we see him abusing his power as her boss to try to score drugs. A friend asked me if he was a monster or a saint. Both. Also, a genius. We see it all across the series. All the colours.
And then there’s Gwen. Goddess Gwen, patron saint of suffering. The woman who had to put up with all of that; who saved his career on numerous occasions but then ultimately becomes complicit in his failing health. We can see Bob on the brink of another heart attack, desperately in need of rest but Gwen needs to get Chicago made. She’s been waiting over a decade; her career taking a side step to raise their child while his ascended to Oscar-winning glory. Now it’s her turn. She’s blinded by ambition and at what cost? Bob’s health. But can we blame her? NO. It’s her turn. Ohhh, but the man’s gonna die if you carry on like this, Gwen! And also…maybe you need to check in with your daughter. Christ, this show was tense to watch. It was all there.
Then at the centre of it all, Michelle Williams! What she pulls off, moment for moment, is sheer alchemy. As Gwen, she gives us a woman who is constantly putting on a show even when she’s off stage. A show of all is well. Happy, positive. But as the series progresses she shows us the cracks. We can feel the rage simmering. She becomes frankly terrifying. When a doctor in the hospital asks for an autograph I thought the lid was finally gonna fly off. I don’t think I breathed watching that scene. It’s a performance of staggering control. A sustained strip tease over 8 episodes. Polish all the trophies right now!
By the end, I was there for it all. Who am I kidding? I was there by the end of Episode 1. As a Fosse geek, this was very happy making because everything has been recreated with such extraordinarily attention to detail. We get to see the original stage sets for Chicago in all their glorious colour! People who saw the original production rave about how vivid it was; how the revival (designed almost exclusively in black) seems drab in comparison but then I see the grainy bootlegs and faded photographs and it’s hard to believe. Now, having come as close as possible to seeing the original, now I get it. My God, what a treat! Then there’s all the backstage drama. I’d read about those rehearsals, those conversations, those confrontations. Jeez, it was tense and now having witnessed (recreations of) them I don’t know if I’d want to be there in reality any more. Is that not a bit sad then, another friend asked. I don’t think so. To see your idols as human beings you have to take them down from the altar and isn’t that ultimately more healthy for all concerned? If anything I think I love these people more now that I can actually see them as people, as opposed to gods. I don’t think it was amoral to make this series because it was done with such love. To truly love someone you have to see them as they truly are with all their flaws and contradictions. That’s real life. Not the sanitised nonsense we see in Bohemian Rhapsody. That wasn’t real life. I’d argue that that was amoral. This was the real thing. Bob Fosse loathed sentimentality. He craved truth with all the grit included even if that made it less theatrically interesting. It’s abundantly clear in the work he left us and it’s writ large in his characterisation across this series. Like I said, I think he’d approve.