In a career that has earned her four Oscar nominations, a Tony nomination, and collaborations with auteurs such as Kenneth Lonergan, Ang Lee, and Kelly Reichardt, it says a lot that Michelle Williams is delivering what may be the performance of her career as Gwen Verdon on FX's Fosse/Verdon. Switching back and forth between a young Verdon taking Broadway by storm with performances in Damn Yankees! and Sweet Charity and an older, more jaded Verdon struggling to find her place in a changing industry that doesn’t have much use for what isn’t shiny and new, Michelle Williams has single-handedly made Fosse/Verdon one of the must-see shows of the year.
Part of what makes Fosse/Verdon such a milestone in Williams's career is that it feels like the culmination of all of her work thus far in her 30+ year career. Ever since she made the leap from teen TV star on Dawson's Creek to her breakout dramatic role in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, Williams has become known for her choices to star in intimate, and often very dramatic, independent films. Whether it’s a destitute woman trying to find her animal companion in Wendy and Lucy, a young wife and mother trying to save her crumbling marriage in Blue Valentine, or a Massachusetts mother trying to rebuild her life after an unthinkable tragedy in Manchester by the Sea, Williams has proven herself one of the greatest actors of her generation, if not the very best. She has long been an actress in the tradition of Gena Rowlands, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Nicole Kidman — women who have relished delving into complex psychologies and fearless character choices.
On paper, Gwen Verdon doesn’t seem like she has much in common with some of Williams’s most famous creations. A musical theatre actress known for her dancing and comedic chops, Verdon was often seen as a larger-than-life character, the type of woman who could make you keel over laughing and warm your heart at the same time. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone following Williams's career that she's been so dazzling as Verdon. Look no farther than her turn as Marilyn Monroe in 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, a somewhat divisive Golden Globe-winning performance (comedy? musical?) that nevertheless showcased Williams's ability to stand up to scrutiny while playing a larger-than-life icon. In addition to showing off her singing and dancing abilities, Williams brough to Marilyn a beguiling charm that she hadn't needed to deploy in Brokeback Mountain or Blue Valentine.
Next, on Broadway, she delivered a heartbreaking turn as Sally Bowles in the 2014 revival of Cabaret (the connection to Fosse, who won an Oscar for directing the 1972 film version makes this all feel part of a full-circle moment). Cabaret showcased Williams's ability to infuse musical numbers with the kind of emotional intensity that she was already known for. And while there's not much to be said for her role as PT Barnum’s wife in the mega-hit musical film The Greatest Showman, her twirling around
New York City rooftops soundstages with Hugh Jackman further embedded her in the realm of mainstream musical projects.
What makes Williams such an unlikely recent staple in the world of musical theater is that she is an actor first, plain and simple. You can ask any college freshman taking an Intro to Musical Theater course, and they'll tell you that singing and dancing, while incredibly valuable, can only take you so far. To stand out in that world you need to be able to act the show stopping numbers and dance breaks. To understand that it’s not just about entertaining an audience but making them feel your character’s journey, to find something deeper and truthful than maybe what’s on the page. What Williams knows from her previous outing as Monroe and her stint as Sally Bowles is that you can’t compete with something iconic. Trying to emulate or rehash what another performer has already done is dangerous (and often boring) territory for an actor, but Williams is much smarter than that. In Fosse/Verdon, she nails Gwen’s raspy voice and her effervescent charm, but she also goes deeper, locating something behind Verdon’s iconic persona that is much more raw and even harrowing than anyone would have guessed in her heyday. She isn’t concerned with just Gwen the legendary performer, but also Gwen as a mother, a lover, a collaborator, and as a career woman during the '60s. She builds Gwen not just in her big musical numbers or rehearsal sequences, but in smaller moments in between. The way she anxiously slumps over her kitchen counter when her husband shows up unannounced. The way she brushes off her tears when she realizes she’s sleeping with a dying woman’s husband. There’s a moment when Fosse is questioning her about an abusive director she's been working with and asks her why didn’t she quit working with him. When she responds, “And go where?” she drops her flirty showgirl schtick and reveals a matter-of-fact resolve that hints at a hidden, unspeakable trauma buried underneath her megawatt smile.
This is the kind of work that Michelle Williams does best, and we can all be thankful she's decided to apply her skills at probing psychologically complex or damaged women to the world of musical theater. It's been a gift to her show, her audience, and probably Emmy voters as well.
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Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik