By John H. Foote
Count me a Bob Fosse fan.
Watching his electrifying Cabaret (1972) for the first time you could feel something new being born on the screen, a revisionist musical that would shake the genre to its very core. Released the same year as The Godfather (1972), it is often forgotten Cabaret won eight Academy Awards including Best Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Film Editing among them. The only major award the film lost that evening was Best Picture to, yes, The Godfather. Though I believe Francis Ford Coppola deserved the Oscar for Best Director, it is hard to argue against Fosse who turned his musical into a dark, stunning work of art the explores with chilling realism the rise of Nazism. He places his audience in Berlin, as the Nazi party was establishing itself and Hitler was coming to power.
All of Fosse’s films dealt in some way with the foibles of performance and celebrity. Sweet Charity (1969); Cabaret; his superb biography of Lenny Bruce, Lenny (1974); All That Jazz (1979), his semi-autobiographical film; and his final work Star 80 (1983), the tragic story of murdered Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratton and her husband, her killer, Paul Snider.
Five films, he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director for the middle three, oddly against Francis Ford Coppola each time. Three of his five films were nominated for Best Picture, while his influence is in every frame of the Oscar winning Chicago (2002).
Fosse/ Verdon is a made for television mini-series about the legacy of Fosse and his muse, wife, best friend, collaborator, lover, sparring partner Gwen Verdon. Until I read the massive book “Fosse” by Sam Wassom, I knew Fosse only as a gifted film director. However, in the book he is shown to be a brilliant stage director, dancer and choreographer, Verdon his muse and often his partner, seeing what he missed in his musicals.
In the mini-series that leads to some mind games as they play with each other to get what the other wants. She pushes him with flattery into directing Chicago on Broadway but then disagrees with his choices as director, especially turning what she regards as her solo into a duet with Chita Rivera. When Gwen is forced out of the show for a time, Oscar winner Liza Minnelli steps in, quietly Bob says, only to have the New York Times get wind and review the show again, to better reviews, angering Gwen. Two artists married? It is tough because both are so protective of their own careers, but there is no doubt these two brought out the best in each other even as they were fighting.
Fosse surpassed Verdon of course, winning an Oscar for Cabaret, a Tony for Pippin and Emmy for Liza with a Z, all within a year, an extraordinary accomplishment. Of course being a workaholic, heavy smoker and drinker, not to mention abusing drugs would eventually drop Fosse with a heart attack. He recovered, and explored that heart attack and brush with death in the musical fantasy All That Jazz (1979).
The mini-series is a superb study of two gifted artists who were, in their own way, one another’s muse.
Sam Rockwell is outstanding as a Fosse. Ambitious, driven, brutally honest (when it benefited him), a true visionary who was also a womanizing bastard. He loved Gwen Verdon, something their life long friendship makes clear but he cheated on her, relentlessly, just as he did every woman he was with. Rockwell captures his genius, watching a dance number and seeing something we do not, something no one does, how a flick of the wrist changes everything. The sequences involving the making of Cabaret are breathtaking to see, the actress portraying Minnelli perfect, Rockwell as Fosse always thinking, ever watchful, always creating.
As good as Rockwell might be, Michelle Williams is an absolute revelation as Gwen Verdon. Like Renee Zellweger in Judy, it as though Williams has touched part of Verdon’s soul and attached it to herself. Michelle Williams is gone, we are watching Gwen Verson. The arch manner of speaking is there, the beautiful posture as she works out, the recreation of the iconic song and dance numbers, she is astonishing. Her work transcends the material, which is already very good, taking it to heights that are quite remarkable. Williams, already one of the greatest actresses at work in movies, further establishes herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation. Verdon was “an actress”, a show biz person who reminded everyone that she was Gwen Verdon. Though she feigned humility when recognized she was known for her fierce ego, which often was the reason she and Fosse clashed.
Though intensely brilliant, Fosse was deeply insecure, even after winning an Oscar, he second guessed himself looking to Verdon for approval and more often than not, she was correct.
It is a solid biographical work on two gifted artists who were best friends, partners, each a muse for the other, lovers, husband and wife and connected until Fosse’s death. The last face he gazed upon was that of the love of his life, Gwen Verdon. Williams makes us wish for such a woman in our lives for she made Fosse a better artist and in some ways, a better man.
Williams won a well deserved Emmy for her stunning performance and seems likely to win a Golden Globe and SAG Award. A remarkable achievement.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.