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Saturday
Apr202019

Fosse/Verdon - EP 2: "Who's Got the Pain?"

Previously Ep 1 - "Life is a Cabaret"

No, no, I know who he is. The one with the hats.

by Nathaniel R

The premiere episode of Fosse/Verdon took place (mostly) in 1971 when Fosse was rehearsing Cabaret but linear storytelling isnt remotely 'on trend' in TV miniseries right now, so we're hopping backward for Episode 2 to 1955 when Gwen Verdon was flush from her breakout Tony-winning turn in "Can-Can" and cast in "Damn Yankees". At a lunch meeting Hal Prince (Evan Handler) tries to sell that Broadway it girl (Michelle Williams) on his choice of choreographer. Gwen isn't sold, wiggling her hand dismissively for Fosse's most famous recurring choreographic accessory, the hat. It's but one of many fine gestural moments from a truly inspired Michelle Williams. Though it's too soon to know, she may well be giving us the performance of her career...

Whatever qualms one might have about the show (Chris had plenty with the premiere) Williams is the show's most transporting element. Wearing the Broadway superstar's voice and mannerisms like a second skin, she dives deep into character psychology. By now praising actors for believably becoming a familiar star is the laziest possible form of praise (see also the past twenty or so years of the Oscars). What's more impressive is how effortless Williams makes that mimicry, knowing its just stylish surface, like a wrist flick or a hip jut. To hear her speaking for Fosse to dancers and confused producers in both episodes, is revelatory. It suggests, not that she was the secret genius behind his fame (a reductive misogyny-corrective take, that we'd argue does both Fosse and Verdon a disservice -- they were both geniuses) but that her genius was, in part, the interpretation and translation of his. And isn't this what all the best dancers are for choreographers and all the most talented actors are for directors? They're not empty tools of the craft or stand-ins for the "author," but true collaborators and transcendent vessels. 

Two episodes in, Fosse/Verdon unfortunately isn't as impressive as Williams. One immediate problem is the instant and frequent reminder (by way of those tap-dancing inserts to Fosse's youth) that All That Jazz (1979) already delivered the definitive (auto) biopic. Sam Rockwell, a fine actor who's proven time and again that he has a dancer's soul and knows how to act with his body (crucial for success in this role), struggles in the shadow of that stone-cold masterpiece. Rockwell moves better than Roy Scheider in All That Jazz but he's so dour and catatonic at times in closeups (does his genius give him a headache?) that it's tough to believe in Fosse's infamous success as a womanizer. Where is the innate charisma and devilish charm that we know Rockwell possesses (from previous roles) and that Scheider exuded so vibrantly in that 1979 picture?

You'll be smiling so wide, and dancing so magnificently. They'll think it's a musical. But you'll know. And I'll know. That's what we do, though isn't it? We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag. We're singing and we're dancing. The audience is yukking it up. They're laughing so hard they don't realize that all that they're laughing at is a person in agony.

The script is, thus far, skimping on the sense of humor that Fosse and Verdon both obviously had and focusing on the heartbreak of infidelity. And heartbreaking it is, sure. But troubled marriages are nowhere near as original and compelling as raison d'etre for a miniseries as the collaboration of two unique artists in their prime.

ERP!

Still, Fosse/Verdon is a treat for lovers of showbiz history with its recreations of famous film and theater sequences. In episode two, it manages to marry the routines to the emotional narrative in smart ways, something that was a bit lacking in the premiere.

The twin jewels of the second episode are Gwen & Bobby's stealth mutual-audition duet on "Whatever Lola Wants" and the first performance of "Who's Got the Pain?" (both classic numbers from Damn Yankees!). The first is a beautifully careful get-to-know-you routine (from both actors, Rockwell looser and more charismatic while dancing). And both dance sequences are working overtime to reveal character and theme while also providing musical theater pleasure. Williams intricate emotional maneuvering around powerful men whether rehearsing or negotiating, is something else again; even when Gwen is nervous or angry or annoyed, she's rifling through all the tools in her arsenal (sex appeal, quick smarts, innate sense of play-acting, and professional ease and confidence in her own gift) in service of complex end goals: keep the part, sell the number, appease the man's ego, and above all else contribute to making great art.

The latter surely thrills Williams as much in 2019 as it did Gwen Verdon in 1955.

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Reader Comments (13)

i can't relly tell if you'e recommending it. Should i invest?

April 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterG.ShaQ

Roy Scheider had a sexiness and carnality that was perfect for a version of Fosse. Sam Rockwell just does not have so there’s a disconnect.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Rech

the "lola" scene was fantastic, even though it isn't remotely "true" to how a dance number is taught or learned. but smarter to have it work dramatically than practically. they're both wonderful in that very difficult scene.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

The Emmy will look great in her New York apartment.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Scheider's Fosse could undress you whilst he spins you round the floor and still have time for drinking.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

The audition scene is the type of small miracle that will keep me invested in this show. It's frustrating at times, but other times it works like magic. Michelle really is giving it her all. I'm still hoping Rockwell will liven up, it's a shame because he can be totally sexy and charming.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

I am half-enjoying this. Williams is tremendous as Verdon, and the production and cast are all good. But...

I don't like the jumbled timeframe, flashback-within-flashback storytelling, and there isn't really enough story here for eight hours.

As stated above, Rockwell is competing with All That Jazz and coming out second. We are constantly told he's a charismatic genius and babe magnet... but he mostly seems sullen and checked-out about everything, except for THE WORK. (I don't blame Rockwell, I blame the script and direction.)

I've been on the verge of giving up after each episode, but when Williams is on screen, I can't look away.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

What an exciting Emmy race for Lead Actress in a Movie/Miniseries this year. We've got:

Michelle Williams
Patricia Arquette
Amy Adams
Emma Stone

and maybe even Alfre Woodard (even though her film is light, the emmys love her). This feels as interesting as any Best Actress race.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Williams aside (she is indeed sublime, though Arquette's winning that Emmy), I'm finding this anemic and oddly uninvolving - and nowhere near on the level of ALL THAT JAZZ.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

There is a difference between mimicry (Tonight Show bit impressions) and acting (creating a whole person in a believable cinematic manner (Streep, Williams, etc.). Can you watch this show on NetFlix or Amazon? TIA.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

The Frame's John Horn had a great interview with Michelle Williams about her portrayal as Verdon; aired last Friday for those interested in podcasts. I think she's winning that Emmy.

April 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I'm with those calling this mostly anemic and def agree that a lot of this is due to Rockwell's performance. He's exhibiting none of Fosse's legendary magnetism, and does indeed seem sort of sullen and uninvolved. My spouse and I bought the season pass and so far it seems like making it all the way through may be a chore - but we always give every miniseries at least 3 episodes before deciding to continue or not. Michelle Williams is doing a great job.

April 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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