Last week, Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil pointed out that Michelle Williams has become the top pick among Experts to win the Best Limited Series/TV Movie Actress Emmy for her stunning performance as Gwen Verdon on FX’s “Fosse/Verdon.” At the time, 10 of 19 Experts predicting had Williams at No. 1, but the number has now grown to 12 out of 20. And that figure, along with her overall odds, may keep on rising as more and more people catch up and realize just how much Williams slayed on a show nominally called “Fosse/Verdon,” but slowly morphed into The Verdon/Williams Show.
The “Fosse/Verdon” producers, a team that includes Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Joel Fields and Lin-Manuel Miranda, have repeatedly discussed how their desire to give Verdon her due was the spark for the series. A four-time Tony winner and a pioneering dancer, Verdon is a Broadway legend, but her name is rarely uttered these days. She was the famous one when she and Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) met in the ’50s, but his accomplishments and notoriety eventually surpassed hers as he went from Tony-winning choreographer to Oscar-winning director (he is, of course, the only person to win an Oscar, Tony and an Emmy in one calendar year). Verdon was not only his life partner (they never divorced after separating due to his affairs), but his creative partner as well, an influential force and lifeline behind many of his classic works.
“Fosse/Verdon” doesn’t waste any time diving into this, showing Verdon coming to the rescue on the set of “Cabaret” (1972) in the premiere. But where it gradually starts to pivot is midway in the series. To be clear, both Rockwell and Williams are uniformly excellent throughout the show, which gives equal time to Fosse’s and Verdon’s separate and forever intertwined lives. But Verdon’s story, perhaps because we know so little of it and so little of it has been retold, just becomes far more interesting — and Williams’ portrayal more complex and heartbreaking — as Verdon faces what has doomed many female performers: aging.
Williams turns in a layered performance while the sassy, dynamic Verdon, who seemingly was always “on,” struggles to keep it up and keep up with appearances as her career opportunities start to diminish. Queue up the fourth episode, in which she tells Fosse that her new play, “Children! Children!”, is closing after “catastrophic” reviews with a blunt coolness while applying makeup, only to break down after he leaves her dressing room. From there, it’s like watching someone trying to keep a loose thread from unraveling a whole sweater.
The true showcase for Verdon/Williams, though, comes in the penultimate episode, “Nowadays,” which is centered around Fosse and Verdon’s 1975 production of “Chicago.” Williams gets ample time to show off her song-and-dance chops when she performs “Nowadays” and “Razzle Dazzle,” but her most impressive feat is of another aural variety. Throughout the hour, Verdon’s voice is deteriorating, prompting Fosse to make “Nowadays” a duet and Verdon to subsequently rip him for resenting her for “carrying you the whole damn time, and you have never forgiven me for it.” After accidentally swallowing confetti, she’s forced to have vocal cord surgery, and Liza Minnelli replaces her in “Chicago.” When Fosse calls to tell her that the Minnelli-starring “Chicago” got better reviews, a seething Verdon chides him — fresh out of surgery. Williams carefully modulates the changes in Verdon’s voice during the episode, but here, she chews him out with a raspy, croaky baritone that never goes above a whisper yet feels way more threatening than anything out of a megaphone.
The actress discussed her vocal techniques with Vulture; she worked with a dialect coach to master Verdon’s distinctive accent and inflections, but she came up with the disintegrating voice by herself — this is the kind of stuff the Emmys love.
I immediately moved Williams up after this episode and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many others did too following this and the finale, in which Williams was devastating in the final minutes as Fosse died in Verdon’s arms. Verdon/Williams peaked at the end of “Fosse/Verdon’s” run. What’s more, the same sense that the “Fosse/Verdon” team felt about Verdon being underappreciated applies to Williams as well. While Verdon was recognized by her peers in her time, she’s unfortunately not really a household name now. And despite four Oscar nominations and turning in consistent performances for two decades, Williams has been a perennial bridesmaid at industry awards, her biggest prize being a Golden Globe for “My Week with Marilyn” (2011). If you were on Twitter during the last few weeks of the show or if you just search now for people catching up, you’d have seen all the praise for Williams’ performance and cries for her to win everything under the sun. Sure, they’re mostly fans, aka not Emmy voters, but this kind of chatter obviously does not hurt.
Williams is in second place in our overall odds, trailing Patricia Arquette (“Escape at Dannemora”), who swept the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild Awards earlier this year. But she has yet to face off against Williams. Amy Adams (“Sharp Objects”), who tied with Arquette at Critics’ Choice, is in third, followed by Joey King (“The Act”), Emma Stone (“Maniac”) and Connie Britton (“Dirty John”).
Be sure to make your Emmy predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominations are announced on July 16. And join in the fun debate over the 2019 Emmy taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our television forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.