How much authenticity do people need in their celebrity biopics?
A little, maybe. Just a little. "Throw in some truth for atmosphere," as the David Zippel lyric from Broadway's "City of Angels" put it. Can't hurt. But play to an audience's collective sighs over the work – the songs, the shows, the movies, the stars – and you can leave out truthful details almost entirely. The worldwide popularity of "Bohemian Rhapsody" proved it.
As usual we look to limited series TV to give us something more intriguing. Premiering April 9, the eight-part FX limited series "Fosse/Verdon" stars Sam Rockwell as director/choreographer/serial runaround Bob Fosse, Chicago's own. His costar: Michelle Williams as Broadway legend Gwen Verdon, four-time Tony winner, and Fosse's longtime romantic and creative partner.
She was the talent not behind but beside the talent. "Fosse/Verdon" means to give Verdon her overdue due as Fosse's creative equal, a humanizing conduit for all the slinky, sexed-up jazz dreams and nightmares Fosse brought to the stage and to the movies.
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"We're not allowing (the) mythology of the solo male artist to survive," series director Steven Levenson said in one interview last month.
The first two episodes were made available for review. So far what strikes me about "Fosse/Verdon" is its unapologetic focus on two showbiz troupers, weaned on burlesque and exploitation as old-before-their-time teenagers, feeding off one another in rehearsal. These scenes, at their best, deal with how their rehearsal life – their dream life – fed or undermined or salvaged their real lives, right until Fosse's death at 60, in 1987. (Verdon died at 75 in 2000.) She was Fosse's third wife; he was her second husband. They married, separated but never divorced. Fosse's myriad addiction issues are glanced upon in the first two episodes, presumably with more to come.
Episode 1 begins with Fosse and Verdon under pressure, just the way they like it, making the film version of "Sweet Charity." Verdon made the show a smash on Broadway; she was relegated to helpmate and behind-the-camera invisibility for the movie, which showcased Shirley MacLaine instead.
From this vignette built around the construction of a particular signature Fosse number, "Big Spender," "Fosse/Verdon" moves on to the rocky but fruitful making of his second feature, the film version of "Cabaret." A more conventionally designed limited series would begin at the beginning, not mid-creation of projects that came along years later. Here, though, we don't arrive at the fateful Fosse/Verdon meeting and work-infused courtship until Episode 2, when they were working on the 1955 Broadway hit "Damn Yankees."
The series is an offspring of true Broadway babies. Nicole Fosse, daughter of Bob and Gwen, serves as co-executive producer. Key members of the "Hamilton" team, including director and executive producer Thomas Kail and executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, joined forces to make the FX series. The key writer, Levenson, won a Tony for "Dear Evan Hansen." "Fosse/Verdon" is based on Sam Wasson's terrific 2013 biography "Fosse"; Wasson worked on the project as well.
A lot of famous people, or at least famous to Broadway fans, turn up on screen in "Fosse/Verdon," from producer and director Harold Prince (Evan Handler, with the glasses parked on his forehead) to legends such as Liza Minnelli (Kelli Barrett, doing a respectfully zesty interpretation). Some of the writing's a little clumsy. Episode 2's title "Who's Got the Pain?" refers to the mambo novelty song from "Damn Yankees," and when Rockwell's Fosse expounds on how the number's lyric is a perfect metaphor for his and Verdon's personalities, masking pain and suffering with a bump and a smile, it seems misplaced and a stretch.
Rockwell is solid and persuasive, laboring under a medium-good approximation of Fosse's nagging comb-over. The real Fosse wasn't quite so languid or relaxed; he was more wired and itchy, at least in my memories. (Time will tell how much of Fosse's omnivorous sexuality comes through.) Williams is fantastic, though, and it's shaping up to be her series.
Early reviews of the first two episodes are mixed but everyone's in the bag for Williams, returning to scripted TV for the first time since "Dawson's Creek." Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire: "The indelible work this duo brought to the screen provides a fascinating heart to this series."
Less enthusiastically, Daniel Fienberg reviewed for the Hollywood Reporter: "The early installments of Fosse/Verdon lean way too heavily on familiar genre tropes relating to self-destructive geniuses and the long-suffering women who love them."
Somewhere in the middle, Variety's Daniel D'Addario noted that the early episodes make "the intertwined work of a choreographer and his lead dancer feel credibly real ... in one of the show's earliest moments, (Williams) demonstrates 'breaking the legs' into unexpected angles during a beat-by-beat building of a musical number, one that's done wholly collaboratively."
That's the sort of authenticity, however abridged or selectively deployed, distinguishing "Fosse/Verdon" from a host of less interesting biopics. It may not mean much to the mythical average viewer. We're a considerable distance from the exuberant, juicy, high-flying camp of FX's 2017 "Feud," certainly, where Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford sunk her teeth into the neck of Susan Sarandon's Bette Davis and vice versa.
What I appreciate so far with "Fosse/Verdon" is its frank theatricality. When Rockwell's Fosse slips into a memory of his demanding Chicago childhood dance instructor, it's a sustained shot, with a simple camera move to the right, and a lighting cue, and a new scene. When Fosse leaves his dying second wife, dancer Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), the ironic use of "Heart" from "Damn Yankees" stings in just the right way.
"He takes what's special in a girl and he makes it his own," McCracken says to Verdon in one of the sharpest early scenes. "Well," Verdon replies, in a line that somehow bridges 1955 and 2019. "That's what they all do. Isn't it?"
"Fosse/Verdon" begins April 9 on FX.