she's due

Will This Finally Be Michelle Williams’s Year?

Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

At the Oscars, it has never quite been Michelle Williams’s year. Her best chance for a trophy probably came in 2017, when she was mooted as a potential Best Supporting Actress winner for Manchester By the Sea — until Viola Davis of Fences entered the category. In 2012, Williams was just happy to be nominated for My Week With Marilyn, and in 2011, her Blue Valentine performance was never going to beat Natalie Portman’s in Black Swan. She would have been a deserving winner for Brokeback Mountain in 2006, but that’s easier to say in retrospect. (At the time, she was a former WB star on her first nomination, not the kind of actress the academy traditionally trips over themselves to award.)

All that might be about to change. As the Oscar field begins to take shape over festival season, the pundit consensus is that, at the very least, Williams will receive her fifth career Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. As the credits rolled during the film’s Saturday-night premiere at TIFF, my friend and former colleague Kyle Buchanan turned to me and asked, “You think she could win for this?” I said yes, and in the cold light of day, that impression hasn’t dimmed. Although it’s always foolish to make predictions this early, the pieces may be clicking into place for 2023 to finally, finally be Michelle Williams’s year.

Part of my confidence comes from the spell cast by The Fabelmans itself. It’s the latest in a string of cinematic memoirs from major directors, and while I’ve been at the rapturous festival premieres for almost all of them, I don’t recall any receiving a welcome quite like the one The Fabelmans got on Saturday. For two and a half hours, Uncle Steven had us right where he wanted us. A cameo from Judd Hirsch as an oddball great-uncle inspired a spontaneous round of applause in the middle of the movie. A scene in which the young Spielberg stand-in acquires a Jesus-freak girlfriend was nearly inaudible from all the laughter. And while I consider the practice of timing festival ovations a European custom that’s gauche to try to bring to these shores, the applause at the end of this one was lengthy enough to tempt my seatmate to break out his watch and ended only because the film had started a half hour behind schedule — blame Glass Onion for going long — and it was already after midnight.

The Fabelmans sees Spielberg bringing all of the virtuosic skill he displayed in his gigantic blockbusters to the domestic trials of one Jewish family in early ’60s Arizona: Spielberg’s avatar and aspiring filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle as a teen), his computer-genius father (Paul Dano), and his pianist mother (Williams). Most teenagers imagine their parents as gray, lifeless husks, but perhaps thanks to a half century of hindsight, Spielberg goes in the opposite direction. Both Fabelmans are brimming with energy and ideas — especially mom, Mitzi. She’s part diva and part clown and a big, gushing vulnerable heart who keeps the family ticking. Mitzi is a singular creation: She makes everyone eat with paper plates and plastic forks so her hands aren’t hurt from washing dishes, and she thinks nothing of doing a modern dance on a camping trip in the middle of the woods. She’s a huge character, but the portrait is so well observed that you feel Spielberg’s love for the real woman in every frame.

Each of the adult actors in The Fabelmans operates in the heightened, theatrical mode of ’50s cinema, and with her severe blonde bob and Chuck Jones eyebrows, Mitzi Fabelman makes an indelible impression. Anyone who has seen Williams play a put-upon ceramicist in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up will marvel that this is the same person. Without spoiling the movie’s plot, I will tell you that Mitzi turns out to be a tricky part. Williams is tasked with inhabiting the emotional arc of the film, investing a saintly mother figure with all the complexities and compromises of adult relationships. She’s seen entirely through her son’s eyes, but she’s such a forceful personality that her point of view influences the film as much as Sammy’s does.

In other words, Williams has the type of role that has been in the Oscar sweet spot recently: the co-lead who’s just secondary enough that they can run in the “supporting” category — at which point they often dominate the field. I have no inside information on which category Williams will run in, but the film’s studio, Universal, got Mahershala Ali his Green Book Oscar using this exact strategy, and Universal’s no dummy. As an added benefit, running Williams in the Best Supporting Actress category would allow her to swerve around the other heavily lauded female performance of festival season — Cate Blanchett of Tár, who is already being pegged as the one to watch for Best Actress. (Tár was not at TIFF, so I have nothing to report on that front.)

An Oscar-winning performance is never solely about what’s onscreen, but Williams has plenty of extracurriculars working in her favor. Based on what I’ve heard about The Fabelmans here in Toronto — one older couple at the festival’s Tribute Awards called it a “perfect film” — it seems likely to crack the Best Picture lineup, and Williams is its natural standard-bearer in the acting categories. With four previous nominations, Williams is entering “she’s due” territory. And on the trail, I can’t imagine that Steven bloody Spielberg talking about the care with which Williams revived the spirit of his beloved mother would play badly in a roomful of academy voters.

Again, it would be ridiculous to guarantee anything this early. And I don’t want to give short shrift to the other women in the field. Sarah Polley’s Women Talking earned its own best-of-the-fest raves, and the film’s almost entirely female cast could fill up the five slots in the category on its own. Gabrielle Union will surely have a moment for her hard-edged turn as a homophobic mother in A24’s The Inspection. But if you’re looking for good-luck signs for Williams, consider this: Viola Davis is at TIFF this year with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, and this time, she’s definitely a lead.

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Will This Finally Be Michelle Williams’s Year?