Michelle Williams: A Sly Genius

Meryl Streep notwithstanding (who remains untouchable by virtue of her more than thirty year’s worth of varied and impeccable work), Michelle Williams (whose thirty years on earth are less than the amount of time that Streep has been on screen) might be the greatest living American actress. She’s certainly on my shortlist for the greatest of any age and nationality working today. Who knew such a performer would be birthed from Dawson’s Creek? Both her performances and the projects into which she chooses to insert them have been commendably diverse and strong thus far. She is equally affecting in supporting roles and leading ones, in independent films and studio ones. This is an artist who feels no need to announce to the world how amazing she is. She is neither magazine-cover famous or Beverly Hills-mansion rich, but this wise-beyond-her-years talent cares little for such superficiality. She has already carved a rewarding place for herself in the industry, a place which allows her work to speak for itself above all else, and one in which she fits snugly. Her off-screen persona is pure, humble, intelligent, and deeply thoughtful. She lends her gifts to minuscule, shoe-string-budget pictures because she seems to truly believe in them. And before you accuse her of lacking a sense of humor or starring in only dour and depressing dramas, let me assure you that Williams is much too pliant to be accused of anything (her filmography includes Dick (1999), of all things). She’ll soon display another example of risk-taking: the iconic role of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn (2011). This part will likely allow her to stretch her craft and have some fun as well.

Devious and unnerving in the underrated Shutter Island (2010), Williams plays every note perfectly with constrained screen time. Alert and furtively comedic in the masterwork Synecdoche, New York (2008), she proves that she can enrich an ensemble without overpowering it. She arrived on many peoples’ radars in her Oscar-nominated turn in the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005), illustrating her uncanny ability to sink so deeply into her roles that one cannot find a trace of acting. As this performance and many others indicate, no one can emote so intensely without yielding to affectation like Williams can. In a variety of tonally disparate and uniquely challenging projects, Williams seems to transform her entire screen presence from film to film with apparently effortless will. With this still young actress, you get choices that do not look to be choices. The greatest masters of craft are those who appear to have no craft at all. Williams’s acting is rooted in the behavioral and the organic, not the self-conscious and the pretentious. Her style is doggedly internalized, wearing the skins, rather than the descriptions, of the characters she portrays. In every moment, she is alive and reactive to her environment and her fellow players. With the discovery of new information or the slightest word choice of another character, her face changes enough to incite perception but not enough to ring false or eradicate subtlety. Every scene is a clinic in acting; that is, it would be a clinic if she didn’t convince you so strongly that it is not a scene but an actual slice of life.

One project unworthy of her ability is the not so incendiary Incendiary (2008). It’s a real mess of a film, but she commits to it fiercely and gives it much more than it’s worth. Donning an entirely believable British accent and a physical acuity to match, Williams carries the near lifeless picture on her more than adept shoulders. Her body language, facial mannerisms, and vocal intonations startlingly transform after the film’s initial third, as the character shifts from confidently sexy to fragile, numb, and grief-stricken. It’s a shame that her credible conversion of nationality and her expression of authentic heartbreak are wasted in a scattershot offering. A title more in line with her sensibilities is Wendy and Lucy (2008). It’s a very small and modest piece, one that takes its time (although it doesn’t have much of it) and finds its resonance in the details rather than the big picture. Due entirely to William’s flawless performance, it also contains a surprising emotional punch. Her physical appearance and body language are once again drastically altered here; her face does more than words ever could. It’s a fully lived and fully felt piece of work, and it affords Williams ample room to create a character with behavior as opposed to exposition (this one is about what is not said).

If this were not enough, best of all (well, exempting Kaufman’s directorial debut) is the inspired Blue Valentine (2010), a modern masterpiece in this viewer’s eyes. Williams received something of a surprise second Academy Award nomination, although unfortunately, she never had a fair shot at winning. Just the same, it’s a performance too good for words and one that cannot be extricated from Ryan Gosling’s equally powerful work. I have a separate post on the film, so I won’t repeat myself. It just needs to be seen rather than described. Few actors could do what these two do in this picture with such unforced intensity and grace. Blue Valentine is perfectly aligned with Williams’s gifts, and she gives it all it’s worth.

Move over, everyone else. Michelle Williams is poised to take the acting world by storm for the duration of her hopefully long-lived and prolific career. Her present place at thirty years old is one that few can get to in twice as much time. It’s a launching-off point that indicates untold promise, one that inflames immeasurable excitement. She has done it all, and she has done it with stealth. And she seems content to keep it that way.


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