Can Biopics See Beyond Male Genius?

The new FX series Fosse/Verdon considers one of the most spectacular partnerships in Broadway history.

"Fosse/Verdon" tries to position Gwen Verdon (Michelle WIlliams) as the counterforce to Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell). (FX)

Toward the end of the first episode of Fosse/Verdon, the dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) has finally flown to Munich at the beseeching of her husband, the choreographer and director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell). Fosse is directing the film adaptation of Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli as a nightclub entertainer in Weimar Berlin, but things are going awry: The shoot is behind schedule, the costumes are all wrong, and Fosse is locked in a battle of wills with the movie’s producer, Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), over their divergent ideas about what Cabaret should be. But then Verdon arrives. She dresses Minnelli in a backless black brassiere from her own closet; she melts crayons to apply black wax to dancers’ arachnid eyelashes and calms them by whispering character backstories in ASMR-tingly tones. Verdon also translates Fosse’s dark, corrupted vision for Cabaret into words Feuer can understand. “Boy, I wish you’d been here from the start,” Feuer replies, patting her on the arm. “He needs you.”

The kind of work that Verdon does on Cabaret, alas, is not the kind of work movie studios give credits for. Fosse’s labor is creative; Verdon’s, in this instance, is emotional. He is, Fosse/Verdon points out, almost useless without her, a fact that Rockwell’s Fosse is only too aware of, even if it never occurs to him to respect her for it. She’s the unpaid, unrecognized ballast to his overinflated genius balloon. In the series, when Fosse subsequently accepts the Academy Award for Cabaret in 1973, Verdon watches the ceremony at home with their daughter, Nicole.

Seeing a television show stick a pin in the “great man” bubble is gratifying, and FX’s Fosse/Verdon, which debuts Tuesday, is sharp enough to measure the mythology of so many Male Genius stories. Produced by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda with the Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson, the eight-part series is simultaneously in thrall to Fosse as a legend of musical theater and critical about his excesses. It’s a tricky high-wire to walk, and Fosse/Verdon tries to manage it by positioning Verdon as Fosse’s counterforce, the backwards-and-in-high-heels feminine yin to his fiery masculine yang. In reality, though, her character is less equal and more reactive: Fosse erupts, Verdon soothes. He creates, she nurtures. He cheats, she endures. Both are plagued by perpetual sounds they hear inside their heads—the staccato of tap shoes for Fosse, and the wailing of an abandoned baby for Verdon. Balance is necessary for great art, the show emphasizes. This approach is a graceful one, storytelling-wise, but what it neglects to underline, at least in the first five episodes, is that Verdon was an artist, too.

There’s a difference, after all, between collaborator and muse. One implies partnership, the other passivity. In Fosse/Verdon, when Fosse is choreographing scenes, he tends to shape dancers like inanimate balls of clay, tilting a leg or splaying a knee, repositioning bodies that are too rote or too pleasing. His aesthetic isn’t one of bright, smiling vigor or neat Busby Berkeley synchronicity. He wants movement to reflect effort, pain, reality. “I wanna see the sweat. I wanna see the spot where they missed their foundation,” Rockwell’s Fosse yells in the first episode, when he’s directing the movie adaptation of Sweet Charity. Such is his commitment to verisimilitude that for Cabaret, he hires Munich sex workers to play patrons at the Kit Kat Club.

Not everyone understands what he’s doing. But Verdon instinctively does. The most striking scene in the series so far is a flashback to 1955, when Fosse and Verdon first meet prior to rehearsals for Damn Yankees. Verdon, irritated at having to endure what she believes is an audition with an upstart choreographer, arrives with a pasted-on smile and an air of nonchalance. (“I didn’t see your show,” she tells Fosse, who replies, “I didn’t see yours, either.”) Lola, the character Verdon is playing, is a seductress, and Verdon is initially disconcerted by Fosse’s interpretation of Lola as a past-her-prime burlesque queen. But as soon as they start dancing, she gets it. She improvises an errant leg itch that deglamorizes the character even more. Fosse is enthralled. The scene has a crackling, meeting-of-the-minds zip that suggests an unleashing of creative energy for them both.

What follows, though, feels much more like standard biopic fare. In part, that’s because of the source material. Fosse/Verdon is adapted from Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography of Fosse, a book that delved into the predilections and demons of one of Broadway’s defining stylists. Verdon is, at best, an ancillary character, and so the series simply has less to draw on when it comes to her life and work. Originally, Fosse/Verdon was conceived as a series about a single subject, but after the reverberations in Hollywood following allegations against Harvey Weinstein and hundreds of other powerful men in 2017, the show was reconceived around Fosse and Verdon’s partnership. The idea, Levenson told The New York Times, was to probe the dynamics of creative alliances, and to question why men tend to be remembered and women sidelined.

Question asked and answered: Fosse’s personality in the show is so overpowering that it tends to engulf everything around it. Scenes play out as if viewers are seeing them from inside the director’s head, experiencing the swings between his hyper-ego and his crashing insecurity. In one scene, after a box-office failure, we see him dart nimbly out of a chair, across the room, and out an open window, as if he’s imagining the choreography of his own suicide. In another, Fosse arrives at a studio to edit Cabaret, and interprets his walk down a hallway as a dance sequence, complete with women in candy-colored dresses revolving around him, and a jaunty moment of hat play. Minutes later, after a disappointment, Fosse leaves, but instead of walking out, he’s dragged by editing equipment that wraps around his feet like an anchor.

These moments are ingenious, and they bring a vibrant theatricality to the series. Other interludes communicate Fosse’s various addictions: pills (uppers and downers rattle as reliably as percussion in his hand), unfiltered cigarettes, and women. Even as Fosse/Verdon considers why Fosse might have been so obsessively priapic—his early sexual history, for what it’s worth, is remarkably similar to Don Draper’s—it never expects you to sympathize with him. In one scene, Fosse tries to force himself upon a dancer who’s rehearsing Pippin with him, only to cut her from a number after she knees him in the crotch. When Verdon confronts him after discovering that he’s having an affair with a German translator, he tells her that all he wants is to “be able to see Hannah and then come home and not bullshit you.” “Maybe I should find a lover too, then,” she replies. “That’s not your style,” he says, primly.

Rockwell, counterintuitively, tends to downplay Fosse, making the character feel more like an observer than anything else. Everything he says and does is conducted at a relatively even tempo, which somehow makes the contrast between highs and lows feel more disturbing. Even when Fosse is in a psychiatric institution and heavily medicated, he sees the world as a backdrop, watching the other patients raise their heads in synchronized grace. What’s most striking about Fosse/Verdon is how it captures Fosse’s motivations—how fiercely he wanted to take the edge off Broadway’s megawatt, sanitized cheeriness. In his hands, a mambo for Damn Yankees becomes a testament to the physical ordeal of performing. “That’s what we do, isn’t it?” Fosse asks Verdon. “We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag, and we’re singing, and we’re dancing, and the audience, they’re yukking it up, they’re laughing so hard they don’t realize that all they’re laughing at is a person in agony, a person who’s peeled off his own skin.”

Williams inhabits her role as Verdon, reconstituting herself so thoroughly as a middle-aged, disappointed stage actress that she’s hard to recognize. Her voice is pitch-perfect, mannered and illusive, and her physicality as a dancer conveys Verdon’s understated magnetism. But it’s hard not to feel like she’s underserved by the material, which presents her as a partner first and a performer second. With Fosse, the show is clear that there’s no boundary between the artist and the man: The scenes in which his memories and daydreams bleed into the reality the audience perceives make that much clear. The show offers flashes inside Verdon’s head—images of her and Fosse together, and glimpses of a lost friend—but they lack the defining aesthetic of Fosse himself, the caustic, sleazy, bewitching glamour that Fosse/Verdon has shaped itself around. Verdon helped shape Fosse’s career, the series makes clear. What’s less easy to see is how she might have shaped her own.