Emmy spotlight: Hats off to Sam Rockwell in ‘Fosse/Verdon,’ who had big shoes to fill as showbiz whiz Bob Fosse

As Gwen Verdon, a four-time Tony winner who never got full credit for her invaluable contributions to her emotionally-stunted husband’s fabulous career, Michelle Williams digs deep and vividly exposes the truth in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon.” While the limited series doesn’t ignore the fact that the supremely talented singer/dancer was no saint herself, it makes it crystal clear that Verdon greatly influenced — and not just benefitted from — her ongoing partnership with Bob Fosse, a choreographer extraordinaire who won a record eight Tonys (plus one for helming “Pippin”) and collected an Oscar for his 1972 big-screen version of the musical “Cabaret.”

But as terrific as Williams is – she deserves an Emmy just for her half-tipsy, nakedly honest rendition of the song “Where am I Going?” from the Broadway musical “Sweet Charity” – her co-star, Sam Rockwell, has a even more difficult job of making viewers care about Fosse. Let’s just say the guy nails the dance moves, especially doing their mambo duet, “Who’s Got the Pain”  from “Damn Yankees.”  But he is a cliche — the troubled male genius. She is an original — a female musical star who stands her ground. But what I most love about Rockwell’s performance is not only does he get Fosse’s seductive personality just right. It’s how open he is to be exposed and humiliated. At one point, his Fosse gets blitzed out of his mind and stumbles into Vernon’s apartment and slips into her bed — when, unfortunately, her current beau is right beside her.

SEE Steven Levenson, Joel Fields Interview: ‘Fosse/Verdon’ producers

But Fosse as the poster boy for an unreliable and self-serving bastards with a voracious appetite for boozing, pill-popping and womanizing was already fully exposed to the public by Fosse himself in his 1979 semi-autobiographical movie “All That Jazz.” It’s an act that is hard to top.

As played by Roy Scheider — who would receive one of the movie’s nine Oscar noms for his lead performance — the balding filmmaker’s chain-smoking alter ego Joe Gideon is a more glamorous and verile version of Fosse himself — complete with more hair. Each day he pops his Dexedrine pills, looks in the bathroom mirror and declares, “It’s showtime, folks!” Off Gideon goes to give ’em the old razzle-dazzle as he juggles projects and female conquests while abusing his body despite having a bad ticker.

SEE A Best Limited Series Emmy nomination for ‘Fosse/Verdon’ would mark a very notable first for FX

Fosse also predicted his own death onscreen by doing an elaborate production number to “Bye Bye Life,” a variation of the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bye Bye Love.” Ben Vereen and Scheider serenade an audience of his acquaintances while his body is expiring from a heart attack while undergoing surgery in a hospital.

The scene is re-created in the series in the most meta of ways as Rockwell as Fosse directs LinManuel Miranda, one of the show’s executive producers, in the guise of Scheider as Gideon. So how does Rockwell and company handle the fact that Fosse himself already produced his own eulogy on screen? By showing what really happened. Basically, he collapsed in his wife’s arms  after suffering a heart attack before dying at George Washington University Hospital in D.C. in 1987  near where the revival of “Sweet Charity” was opening.  He was 60 years old. No razzle-dazzle about that.

For most of his performance, Rockwell relies more on the truth than the over-the-top legend. Yes, alcoholic drug addicts who don’t care about the damage they inflict can be fun but they are also embarrassing to themselves and others. No amount of showbiz acumen can excuse the lying, cheating and grave disappointments suffered by Fosse’s friends, family and co-workers. He used people — especially those who loved him most like his daughter, wife and girlfriends.

Right now, Rockwell is ranked second in Gold Derby’s combined Emmy odds behind Mahershala Ali in HBO’s “True Dectective” among eligible lead actors in the movie/miniseries category

What Rockwell most miraculously pulls off is to bravely show the worst of male entitlement but also somehow earn our sympathies by the fact his Fosse can’t be sustained by all his success and glory that he craves. As in “All That Jazz,” his death was indeed a great loss –not just because of his art, but because Fosse never gave himself a chance to step back and enjoy the show.

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