Hollywood's Michelle Williams Problem

Hollywood's Michelle Williams Problem
To stray or not to stray? Michelle Williams plays a tempted wife in "Take This Waltz"
(© 2012 - Magnolia Pictures)

If there is a top American movie actress one wishes well, it is Michelle Williams. Unfailingly appealing, she has the image of a kind and generous spirit – and in the unlikely event that she has been pulling the wool over our eyes, one senses that the image is close to the person. It is hard to think of one of her contemporaries who makes us care for her characters as much as Williams makes us care for hers.

She specializes in confused and vulnerable women trying to hold their own in alienating environments – hence her manipulative, hopelessly insecure Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn” – or in damaging or dwindling relationships. The Marilyn movie was clearly predicated as a light drama and Williams was required to show the star’s giddy, lovable side, but she was more compelling when showing her in thrall to the noonday demons or twisting her young admirer (Eddie Redmayne) around her little finger. 

While acting everyone else off screen in “Dawson’s Creek,” Williams played, early in her film career, two students perplexed at being betrayed by their best friends: Anna Friel in the British “Me Without You” and Christina Ricci in “Prozac Nation.” She was then cherishable as the earnest, questing missionaries’ daughter who accompanies her paranoid Vietnam-vet uncle on a healing trip across post-9/11 American in Wim Wenders’s underrated “Land of Plenty.”

She has been a traveler, too, in a pair of sublime Kelly Reichardt films: an itinerant, barely part of society, driving north with her dog to look for work in “Wendy and Lucy”; a bonneted pioneer wife on the Oregon Trail who, alone among her group of seven in “Meek’s Cutoff,” stands up to their racist wagonmaster when he attempts to kill the Cayuse Indian guiding them to salvation in the desert. Asked to be blunt, steely, and resolved, Williams showed she could transcend victimhood. She was at home in Reichardt’s almost wordless world; she is an actor who can make thought and stealthy movement vivid.

Her wives are seldom happy: she was heartbreaking winning the first of her three Oscar nomination as Alma, shattered by the sexual volte face of her husband (Heath Ledger, Williams’s late husband and the father of her daughter) in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” She was a little lost as the actress briefly married to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stage director who casts her as a hausfrau in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.”

Martin Scorsese recognized Williams’s capacity for dreamy derangement when he cast her, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, as the mentally ill Dolores in “Shutter Island.” In “Blue Valentine,” she was judged by some critics to be cold and unfeeling for playing the hardworking young mother who finally rejects the alcoholic but devoted husband (Ryan Gosling) who sweetly courted her. Hopefully, she took the criticism as a compliment; her Cindy is a practical, realistic woman who realizes the relationship has run its course.

In her new movie, Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” which opened Friday (and is also on video on demand), Williams plays another woman whose marriage is jeopardized by her changing feelings. Although Margot loves her husband, an undemanding, teddy-bearish creator of chicken recipes (Seth Rogen), she is sexually drawn to an artist (Luke Kirby) she meets on a business trip and, discovering they are neighbors, is inevitably pulled into his force field. The movie is too talky, the sex scenes are awkward, and Polley’s visualizations of rapture are overwrought, but once again Williams is convincing as a woman forced to make a choice – and one doomed to repeat her mistakes. The recurring image of the film is of Margot holding a partner who has turned his back on her.

These are all fine performances. They are primarily in indie films, though, and I am not yet convinced Hollywood knows what to do with Williams. She has yet to play a bitch – it may go against her nature – or to be earthily sexual (her Marilyn being withholding). If she never plays a femme fatale, that will be all right, though I’m not sure playing Glinda the Good Witch in the 2013 prequel “Oz: The Great and Powerful” will stretch her. She can manifest ambiguity as well as goodness and possibly needs to muddy the waters.

A suggestion: what about a sequel to “Shame” in which Williams and Carey Mulligan discover they were twins separated at birth and proceed to drive each other mad?