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‘Fosse/Verdon’ Was at Its Best When It Was Doing What Bob Fosse Couldn’t Do Himself

FX’s expansive portrait of two showbiz greats thrived when it refused to genuflect at the altar of their history and let Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams cook

FX/Ringer illustration

In the fourth episode of the FX series Fosse/Verdon, Bob Fosse—played by Sam Rockwell and an elaborately designed combover—was demanding a punchier ending. “It’s too soft,” he bemoaned to one of his collaborators. “We’re not saying anything. We should be going right for the jugular.”

He was talking about the musical Pippin, the first Broadway run of which he directed in 1972, to great success and acclaim. At least in some sense, Fosse’s creative restlessness paid off: The year after Pippin opened, he would become the first and only person in history to win a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy in a single year. (You couldn’t have found the time to just squeeze a Grammy in there too, Bob?) But Fosse’s manic workaholic drive, and the many vices he tended to all his adult life in order to keep it up, took such an irrevocable toll on his health that it became difficult for him to believe in such things as long lives, serene twilight years, and even happy endings. “It’s bullshit, total bullshit,” he says to his producers, about Pippin’s conclusion, in which the titular character goes off to live peacefully ever after on a farm with his wife. What else does Bob expect him to do? “Set himself on fire. Glory, glory,” Rockwell says as Fosse, taking a long pull on his cigarette. “That’s an ending. That’ll get people talking.”

He lost this particular battle (Pippin ran with its happy ending intact), but in the long run he got his glory, glory finale. Bob Fosse got to die two deaths, both of them spectacular. The actual, biological one happened on September 23, 1987, just before the opening of his revival run of Sweet Charity, when he had a heart attack outside the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Before he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, Fosse had collapsed in the arms of his longtime creative partner and estranged wife Gwen Verdon.

As deaths go, it was almost absurdly cinematic—Fosse probably would have found it sentimental and contrived. It was a good thing, then, that he had gotten to stage an alternate version of his death eight years before, when he directed the provocatively autobiographical, deconstructed musical All That Jazz. Adored and reviled with equal zest (Leonard Maltin: “self-indulgent and largely negative”; Stanley Kubrick: “[the] best film I think I have ever seen”), All That Jazz ends with a hallucinatory 10-minute musical number, during which an eerily grinning, sequin-clad Joe Gideon (Fosse’s alter ego, played by a post-Jaws Roy Scheider) bids adieu to everyone in his life while singing a haunting rework of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”: Bye bye life, bye bye happiness, hello loneliness, I think I’m gonna die! If you’ve never seen it, watch it right now; it’s even more bizarre than you’re imagining. At the climax of all the carousing, there is a cold, sterile smash cut to Gideon being zipped into a body bag. Credits roll. That’s a Fosse ending.

When Fosse/Verdon wrapped its eight-part run Tuesday night, it had the daunting task of living up to this sort of a conclusion. And though it would have been unfair to expect the limited series to end with as bold a punctuation mark as Fosse’s 1979 film, Fosse/Verdon was at some point going to have to contend with All That Jazz—a movie so incisively and unflatteringly autobiographical that it sometimes made you question why Fosse/Verdon even had to be made in the first place. Was there anything left to say about Fosse’s upbringing, talent, vision, womanizing, addiction, drive, and death that he hadn’t already said—or perhaps more accurately staged—himself?

Well, at least he couldn’t have foreseen Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, both of whom gave stellar performances throughout the series that allowed them to stretch previously unseen muscles. (Nor could anyone have foreseen the finale’s surprise cameo, executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Roy Scheider playing Bob Fosse. Why not?) Williams is always masterful with muted, indie-sized subtlety but she’s rarely given the opportunity to play as big and loud as she did here as Verdon, and it was a thrill to watch her fill the screen. (An actress who can carry both a Kelly Reichardt film and a shot-for-shot recreation of “Who’s Got the Pain?” from Damn Yankees? What else is there to say but she’s got the range.) Rockwell, too, was a revelation, imbuing Fosse with a pathos that did not sentimentalize his self-destructive tendencies and a charisma that nevertheless did not excuse his barbarism.

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were, from all appearances, creative equals, but the world couldn’t seem to appreciate them at the same time. The series opens toward the beginning of their marriage, when Broadway demigoddess Verdon is by far the bigger star; at a party celebrating the opening of the first movie Fosse directed, Sweet Charity, Gwen tells a story about an admirer mistaking Bob for “Mr. Verdon.” Charity bombs, but Fosse’s 1973 E_OT year comes not long after, and their respective stars begin moving in opposite directions. As usual, the wife’s cultural “expiration date” approaches more quickly than her husband’s. By the time Fosse and Verdon finally secured the rights to Chicago in the mid-’70s, Verdon had to struggle to convince her estranged partner—to say nothing of the rest of the world—that she could conceivably play Roxie Hart, a character who was by then half her age.

The series’ focus on that particular plot line might have felt like a timely feminist revision if Fosse hadn’t already addressed it himself in All That Jazz. There’s a wonderful sequence in the movie when Gideon’s star-dancer-turned-estranged-wife Audrey Paris (played by a fiery Leland Palmer) dances out a complicated mix of feelings in front of her ex, punctuating the words she’s saying with the controlled movements of her body. It’s a little bit of an audition, a little bit of a seduction, a little bit of a condemnation. (He cannot remember the names of one of the women he cheated with but, as she demonstrates while extending into an arabesque, she still can: “Dorothy!”) Though they could be evasive and deceitful with their words, the people in Fosse and Verdon’s orbit communicated most directly with their bodies, and some of the best scenes of the series understood this: that heady first meeting between Bob and Gwen when they’re running through “Lola,” the finale’s tender late-night number when Bob and his daughter Nicole improvise to “Mr. Bojangles,” and, most poignantly, when a mortal, aging Bob dances one last time for his pal Paddy Chayefsky at his funeral. Dance can be a conversation, even when it’s one-sided.

All throughout—and sometimes a bit excessively—the series was ticking down a countdown to Fosse’s 1987 death: 7 YEARS LEFT; 16 MONTHS LEFT; 8 MINUTES LEFT. And although Verdon outlived Fosse by 13 years, Fosse/Verdon still framed her experience on his timeline. In the finale, when we see her singing at a post-Chicago charity gig seven years before Bob’s death, the titles still tell us, “GWEN VERDON/7 YEARS LEFT.” At first, this annoyed me; it seemed that the series did not seem to know what to do with Gwen at the end, how to create a dramatic arc from the last few decades of her life. But in the show’s poignant final minutes, as Verdon holds Fosse and their terrible, glorious life together flashes before our eyes, it’s clear that we’re witnessing the death not of a person but a partnership—the charged and occasionally sparking air between two constantly moving bodies. That, not just Fosse’s demise, is the ending the show had been counting down all along.

Unlike All That Jazz, Fosse/Verdon opted for the “soft” ending, even if it was the one that’s closer to the truth. And I liked it for that: This show was at its best when it was irreverent toward the wills of its subjects, at its most purposeful when it was seeing from an angle that Fosse himself couldn’t. That’s why the best episode was the fifth, “Where Am I Going?,” a stand-alone one act that took place in a moment of pause just after Fosse’s whirlwind year, when Bob, Gwen, and their current partners all found themselves rained in during a claustrophobic beach house weekend. The series was often faithful to the style of quick cuts and subjective time-jumps that Fosse and his editor Alan Heim (who won an Oscar for his work on the film) perfected on his 1979 masterpiece, but this slow-paced bottle episode provided a refreshing respite. It was a rare chance to just hang out with these characters, admire the series’ brilliant performances, and luxuriate in its smoky haze. The show was, for once, doing something Fosse found impossible to do himself: sitting still.