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Cinema

How Michelle Williams Found the Music of Mitzi Fabelman

December 8, 2022

NEW YORK — In both Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming “Showing Up,” Michelle Williams plays women where life — societal hurdles and daily nuisances — gets in the way of self-expression.

Mitzi Fabelman, the early-1960s matriarch based on Spielberg’s own mother, has given up her career as a talented concert pianist to raise a family. It’s a sacrifice that haunts her. It’s also a gift that radiates from her.

“I think of her as the piano that she loved so much,” Williams says. “That range was inside of her. That musicality. That emotional dexterity. That was her art. That music flowed through her, and it affected how deeply she could feel. She was the tornado that she drove into.”

As an actor, Williams has, herself, steered straight into some indelibly tempestuous characters: the romantic of “Blue Valentine,” Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn,” the anguished ex-wife of “Manchester by the Sea.” But if there was ever a role that showed the extent of Williams’ remarkable range – her every-note-on-the-piano “emotional dexterity” – it’s Mitzi.

This image released by Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment shows Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in a scene from “The Fabelmans.” (Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP)

The fictionalized but autobiographical film, currently playing in theaters, centers on Spielberg’s coming of age as a filmmaker. But Mitzi is the film’s aching soul. At turns despondent, playful and ebullient, Mitzi’s moods swing with a quicksilver melancholy, caught between undying devotion to her children and a stifling of her dreams. In many ways, she gives them to her son. It’s Mitzi who gifts young Sammy/Spielberg his first movie camera. “Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she tells him at his first trip to the cinema.

How life filters into work is deeply embedded in Williams’ emotional life as an actor, one drawn from wellsprings of personal memory and illuminated by the kind of metamorphosis Mitzi was denied. How the two relate was on her mind as she spoke in a recent interview by Zoom from her home in Brooklyn. Occasionally, Williams’ newborn, her third child and second with her husband, the theater director Thomas Kail, stirred in the next room. Balancing a baby and a big new movie can be head-spinning. At the recent Gotham Awards where she received a tribute award, Williams stood stunned at the podium: “What is happening? I shouldn’t even be out of the house. I just had a baby.”

But it may be just the start. Williams’ performance in “The Fabelmans” – luminous, enthrallingly theatrical, delicately heartbreaking — is widely expected to land Williams her fifth Academy Award nomination. It’s an honor the 42-year-old is yet to win, a shutout that looks increasingly like some mistake.

But what pushes an actor like Williams — one of such interior intensity that she hasn’t watched her work in more than a decade — is closer to her character in “Showing Up.” In it, Williams plays a sculptor of modest human figures, with little hope of attracting a wide audience. The role is almost antithetical to Mitzi; Williams’ character, Lizzy, is solitary and less expressive. Her handmade artwork, crafted in between endless interruptions, is about the opposite of something as big and glitzy as a Spielberg production. But she’s compelled, regardless.

“I think it’s that way for everybody,” says Williams. “You never know if what you’re doing is going to be of any interest to anybody but yourself.”

Is it true for Williams, too?

“Ab-so-lutely,” she answers.

MINING SPIELBERG’S MEMORIES

Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, died at the age of 97 in 2017. His father, Arnold Spielberg, passed away in 2020 at 103. Making “The Fabelmans,” which Tony Kushner and Spielberg wrote through the pandemic, became a way to memorialize the two most influential figures of his life.

In preparation, Spielberg — who had Williams cast in his mind a decade earlier after seeing “Blue Valentine” — gave her copious amounts of home movies and photographs of his mother to comb through. Williams’ impressions thoroughly informed her interpretation of Mitzi.

“The resonant information that this woman transmitted through a photograph was enough for me to work with, to embody her,” she says. “That’s how strong her spirit was. You could catch it in a frozen image taken 60 years ago.”

But there was also something that Spielberg, who grew up with three sisters, told Williams about his mom that struck her. He said: “We were more like playmates.”

“They got into mischief together. They got into fun,” Williams says. “And I’ll tell you this: None of her children seem to resent her for it. I think they thought they had a pretty great childhood. They had fun together. How often do we let ourselves really play with our children? What do our children want to do with us? Play! She was Peter Pan.”

It’s an aspect of Mitzi that may not be terribly far from Williams, herself. It’s how she hopes she raised her first daughter, from her relationship with Heath Ledger.

“I love, in that small window of time, to invest as much magic as possible. I do think that childhood is a place where we can generate creative work from for the rest of our lives,” says Williams. “I’ve always felt very protective of my daughter’s childhood. Now as I embark on two more childhoods, I can see that because I know what it meant for me.

“I grew up in Montana. I grew up riding horses bareback. I grew up adventuring. I grew up unsupervised. I grew up wandering through natural environments. That wilderness is maybe the best part of me,” says Williams. “The desire to feel free and exploratory and like a natural being, like a human animal, is something that I seek out over and over again in my life.”

MITZI’S CHOICE

The pivotal event of “The Fabelmans” comes when Mitzi reluctantly leaves her husband (played by Paul Dano) for his best friend (Seth Rogen). It’s a defining moment for Sammy, wrapped up in his own dawning realization of the power of cinema to capture, shape and distort reality. For Mitzi, it’s a desperate stab at self-preservation.

“I thought she already suffered a near-death experience. When she gave up her dream of being a concert pianist, she experienced what it’s like for part of you to die,” says Williams. “So when she’s faced with another near-death experience — Do I stay in this marriage or do I allow myself to go where my heart is leading? — she knows that she can’t die again. There will be nothing left of her.”

For Kushner, whose plays fuse domestic life with political currents, Mitzi is a mid-century woman only fitfully experiencing more modern freedoms. He and Williams spoke about the uncertainty and pain of her choice.

“What is this thing in her that allows her to make this decision? Is it her artistry? Is it bravery? Is it how big her emotions are? What allowed this woman to stake a claim on her life like this?” says Williams. “I don’t know but I do think it’s what’s allowed her children to do the same thing, to stake a claim on their own lives. That, I think, is one of the greatest gifts that you give to your kids, showing them how they can be a full person.”

LETTING GO

Williams’ favorite thing to hear on the set was Spielberg behind the monitor saying, “I have an idea.” In one especially vivid scene during a campout, Mitzi dances in the headlights of a parked car, swaying to a melody seemingly just out of reach. Spielberg had many impromptu ideas shooting that scene. Williams, coming off Gwen Verdon in the miniseries “Fosse/Verdon,” channeled a dancer’s composure to give Spielberg as many options as possible. “Mitzi wasn’t a dancer per se, but she carried herself like one,” she says.

Such moments making “The Fabelmans,” Williams says, were so intoxicating that she wanted to “eat the air” on set. When Williams was 12, she decided she wanted to be an actress after seeing not just a play on stage but “the whole beehive behind.” “I wanted to be inside of a family,” she says. After finding that on “The Fabelmans,” letting go of Mitzi wasn’t easy.

“It’s hard to let them go. It’s sad to let them go. You’ve spent so much time, to exclusion of other things and people in your life, with them,” Williams says. “I can allow it to be a slow process of letting go of them. And I can try to cling to the couple or maybe many things that they have taught me. You can’t help but be affected by their spirit as it’s been residing with you. She certainly was a huge loss for me. I hit the floor when this movie was over. I cried in a way that caught me by surprise.”

But there are parts of Mitzi living, still, with Williams.

“Coming up on the holidays, isn’t a camera the perfect gift for every child this year?” she says, smiling. “That’s what my kids are getting.”

 

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