The Subtle Perfection of Michelle Williams

So I just finished watching the final episode of FX’s Fosse/Verdon, a biopic mini-series depicting the personal and professional lives of acclaimed director Bob Fosse and his wife and creative partner, legendary Broadway star Gwen Verdon. First of all, if you haven’t seen this show, I do recommend it. It features two crazy-good performances from its always reliable stars: Sam Rockwell, and the subject for this post, Michelle Williams. It’s an eight-part series that traverses the tumultuous relationship between two people who depend on each other artistically but have a hard time staying together romantically. It’s very well done, and it’s worth it just for the central performances alone. Expect them come Emmy-time. 

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about how good the show is, I want to talk about its highlight, its pièce de résistance: Michelle Williams. 

I’ve been a huge admirer of Michelle Williams for a long time now, ever since I saw her in Brokeback Mountain, I knew that she had something very special. The more I began to recognise good acting, I more I appreciated what she managed to pull off every single time I saw her. I haven’t seen a performance of hers that isn’t good, even if the films that she’s in aren’t actually that great themselves. She always manages to bring something to every role that’s meticulous in its craft. It’s sort of a running joke in film communities that she continues to play women in bad marriages, which is true, but they’re all different from one another. Her Alma in Brokeback Mountain is miles apart from her Randi in Manchester by the Sea, but they’re both brilliant performances. 

From becoming a child actress, to her breakout turn in Dawson’s Creek to Fosse/Verdon itself, Michelle Williams has always done a great job of picking her roles wisely. This isn’t to say that every movie she appears in is going to be a goldmine, but her roles are chosen with either the specifications in mind, or what it’s going to do for where she’s at in her life at that moment. She always manages to find the really interesting roles and make them leap off the page, and sometimes she becomes the only reason why I want to see a movie. Case point: I Feel Pretty has been on my watchlist since the trailer dropped and that’s literally only because Williams is in it. Like quite literally the only reason. She’s the main reason why I was excited for The Greatest Showman, and she was the only thing that kept me from disliking All The Money in the World. She doesn’t go for the fame or the box office projections, she seems to pick the roles that excite her, the interesting ones that she can dig her teeth into and provide something nuanced by using her craft and her immense range of talent. She may play a lot of wives, but they’re so idiosyncratic that it doesn’t become repetitive, as it might when other actors are typecast. There are still quite a few gaps in her career that I’ve yet to fill, but I’ve seen a good amount and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her put a foot wrong. And if you’re going to mention Venom, Michelle already basically admitted she did that for the pay check and girl I don’t blame her for getting those coins to support her indie movies. 

The smaller movies are where she shines the most, though I think that’s largely because of the writing. You can’t exactly tell me that Venom and The Greatest Showman provided her with the best outlet to show off her acting toolbox. But when you give her Take This Waltz, Wendy and Lucy, and Blue Valentine, you get something that’s truly special. Hell, in Wendy and Lucy, she carries the movie from its inception to its gut-wrenching finale. She does a lot of acting by herself, something that a lot of actors cite as being one of the hardest things to do for a role. In my experience, I would agree. When you have nobody or very little to play off, you have to work a lot harder to make the scene believable. While she’s had her fair share of great acting partners (Ryan Gosling, Sam Rockwell, Heath Ledger, Julianne Moore and many others), it is Michelle Williams’ dedication to bring out the most from her character that astounds me. She will always elevate the material, and she will always stand out. 

Her work in Manchester by the Sea proves this beyond anything else. She has little scenes here and there, but nothing that’s transcendent as the film is never really focusing on her. She’s there to support Lee’s (Casey Affleck) story and give him the character moments. But Kenneth Lonergan is a smart writer and gives Randi (Michelle Williams) a beautifully written scene near the end of the film that just takes all the bottled up emotions that Lee has been carrying around for most of the film and lets them out for him. And who better than the astonishingly expressive Michelle Williams to hit this point home, to give us the emotions that we’ve wanted Lee to feel for a long time. It’s her biggest moment in the film, and she shines in every single second of it. No wonder she was an early favourite to win the Academy Award, and she fully deserved the nomination for her work. Mild Spoilers for Manchester by the Sea in the clip below!

But the one I think she should’ve won for: Blue Valentine. Easily one of my favourite romance movies, Blue Valentine tells the story of a married couple (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) and their attempts to stay together despite an obviously crumbling relationship. It goes back and shows their early days and meeting, and progresses to show their demise. Both central players are incredible, but Michelle Williams provides a special quality that I’ve never been able to describe. A lot of the script and the scenes are heavily improvised, and it’s fairly obvious to an audience member, but that’s what makes it so special. Williams take her true empathy and understanding of the character and improvises. It really helps that Ryan Gosling is also adept at this and makes for one hell of a scene partner, but Williams shines in the small moments. The smiles, the glances, the muttered lines of dialogue. It’s just a brilliant performance, and it’s a big reason why I keep going back to the movie. Like a lot of her movies, Blue Valentine has a soul-crushing ending. Now, whenever I go into a Michelle Williams indie movie, I expect to be crying by the end. (Disclaimer: I would have like her and Natalie Portman to have shared the award, I remembered how much I loved Portman in Black Swan so they can have a tie. I hope this doesn’t completely invalidate my point). 

(I’m writing this in editing) I feel like such a fool because I COMPLETELY forgot to even mention her flawless evocation of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. This also proves one of my earlier points, as the film could have been so much better, but her performance was completely magnetic and again probably should have won her the Oscar. Monroe was so iconic, such a specific part to play, and Williams brought her A-game to it and gave nothing short of a perfect performance.

I mentioned earlier about watching movies specifically to see Michelle do what she does so well, but I really fell into a trap with The Station Agent, a movie I really hated, and a movie that she was in maybe two scenes and her character really wasn’t too relevant to the plot. Not that this is what happened, but it’s a good trick on a filmmaker’s point of view to do this with Michelle Williams, but I will absolutely go and see it. 

Fosse/Verdon is just another example of why Michelle Williams is one of the best working actresses today (and why I dream-cast her in every project I’ve ever written). She uses the ensemble around her to strengthen her performance, but she’s also very generous with what she gives them. I would love to experience her process because I think it’s really intriguing how she manages to make every character worlds apart, even when the material is similar. Gwen Verdon was a great role for her, and kudos to whomever was responsible for casting her for the part. Verdon has talent in spades, and a compelling nature as an actress that makes full use of Williams’ screen presence. She lights up every scene she’s in. This isn’t to discredit Sam Rockwell’s also-award-worthy turn as Bob Fosse. And while Rockwell may get the meatier role, Williams manages to be the thing I’m thinking about when the credits roll. 

I know it’s a stacked year in her category at the Emmy’s, what with Amy Adams and Patricia Arquette already embroiled in a close battle to the win, but Williams should at the very least be in contention. I haven’t seen Escape at Dannemora yet, but I have seen Sharp Objects and an Adams/Williams tie would literally be a dream come true. I may have to rewatch Sharp Objects to decide for sure, but right now Williams is at the top of my list. 

She’s one of very few actresses where everything she’s poised to star in automatically goes on my watchlist, and I’ll follow her career wherever it goes. 

What’s your favourite Michelle Williams performance? Let me know in a comment or, as always, on Twitter @Jamie_Carrick_

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