Near the tippy-top of the list of incredibly overused and fatiguing screen tropes is “great artists are self-destructive, super-selfish chaos-monsters.”
It’s not true. You don’t have to be a train wreck to make great art. You seriously don’t. There are talented, visionary folks who file their tax returns on time, whose children are not dead inside, and who don’t overdose in an effort to contact their muse. No, really: There are.
Bob Fosse was not one of them. The legendary dancer and choreographer was a pathological philanderer, a raging egomaniac, a needy pain in the ass, and seriously out to lunch on drugs. And in FX’s eight-part biopic, Fosse/Verdon, he spells it out. “That’s what we do… we take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag and we’re singing and dancing and… they don’t realize what they’re laughing at is a person in agony. A person who’s peeled off his own skin.” Raise your hand if you do, in fact, realize that clowns are sometimes crying on the inside.
Sam Rockwell is excellent as the passionate, manipulative, adulation-seeking Fosse. As Gwen Verdon, Michelle Williams is very nearly perfect; she nails Verdon’s look, her vocal affectations, her way of moving; her conflictedness and loyalty, her frustration and codependency. It’s a stellar performance. The production is sleek, with a lot of well-rendered semi-dissociative or depersonalized moments, particularly from Fosse’s viewpoint: He sees choreography that isn’t actually happening, hears tap shoes when he’s asked a question, imagines limelight and costumes when he’s not on stage. These fantasies or imaginings or daydreams or visions or hallucinations—whatever they’re meant to be—are a rife way of underscoring the nature of the creative mind, especially the mind of someone a little bit unstable, someone who doesn’t entirely feel alive or real unless the footlights are up. The almost casual nature of these incidents is half their power: There’s an ineluctable sense of being out of body, if psychosis is being out of your mind. There is a distinct feeling, when we’re in Fosse’s point of view, that he knows he’s not participating in his own life, and maybe even only alive when there’s an audience. (By contrast, Williams’ Gwen Verdon is much more grounded, but it seems to contribute to her neurotic concern with her own relevance.) Self-destructive artist tropes can become tiresome easily but in a biographical show like this there’s a useful reminder that they exist because there’s something to them. Both Fosse and Verdon come across as brilliant cautionary tales about over-reliance on external validation.
There are also montages in which repeated activities—lighting cigarettes, drinking, banging another girl from the chorus line—start to become “choreographed,” a rote, one-more-performance kind of thing that suggests the boundaries between stage and real life are, to say the least, porous. Williams’ Verdon has her own “inner cinema,” but those scenes play like straightforward flashbacks, indicating a traumatic backstory that drives her own need for the approval of the crowd.
There are two ways Fosse/Verdon falls short for me. The series has many admirable elements, but in the end it doesn’t get into a groove—the tone and style are really ambivalent. The bigger issue, and I’m not sure how much it could’ve been avoided, is that the “destructive artist and long-suffering helpmeet/muse” trope gets really freaking old. I kept expecting the show to rise out of that into something spectacular and unique, but I don’t think it does. Verdon’s anxiety about remaining relevant—pinching her cheeks for color before walking into the room, the slight whine in her voice when she’s not getting the reaction she’d hoped for? They’re a little exhausting. Fosse’s womanizing and apologizing and pill-popping and annoying his friends with phony self-deprecation and irritating his co-workers and groping his dancers? Equally exhausting. If it’s how it was in their actual lives, then yeah, that’s how it was in their actual lives. But after a while it’s not all that rewarding to watch. It’s famous actors dressed up as other famous actors, and they might have amazing costumes and perfect blocking but they’re treading fundamentally worn-down ground.
If you are, like me, a bit of a musical theater geek, watching them recreate, say, the filming of Cabaret is a mixed bag—there’s some great choreography and stylish editing, but that’s a pretty damned iconic performance by Liza Minnelli and the recreation is… not the same. And “behind my Jazz Hands, I am weeping” isn’t something you need eight episodes to get across. Fosse and Verdon were legends, and it’s interesting that they retained their collaboration long after Verdon got fed up with Fosse’s philandering; the layers of simmering guilt and resentment must have done strange things to their creative chemistry. It would have been nice to dive deeper on that.
Fosse/Verdon premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.