I’m trying to figure out what quality it is that Cindy Williams had and why her loss hurts like it does. Maybe it’s something to do with her being too smart for the roles she was forced into — the Hollywood career of a small, pretty girl who could never completely hide how much smarter she was than you. Maybe it was because she was imprinted on me early as an example of a woman who wasn’t defined by her relationship with a man; she was funny and practical and not at all self-conscious about her imperfections. Maybe it was because Cindy Williams was on to you, always a step or two further down the road. The white rabbit. Someone to be pursued and never caught.
Like most of the people in my generation, I first knew her as Shirley on Laverne & Shirley, her and Penny Marshall’s cameos on Happy Days as “sure thing” dates for Richie and The Fonz, and then later on their own show that was a weekly staple for me and my friends in the time before a la carte programming destroyed the concept of a shared popular culture: a time even before cable television. The first time I saw her in another context was as Laurie, the girlfriend of popular kid Steve (Ron Howard) in American Graffiti who tells her he’d maybe like to see other people now that they’re going to college and is completely nonplussed by her quick agreement to his suggestion. The way she smiles at him in the drive-up diner, a french fry in her fingers, if she’s surprised she’s not surprised for long — and though she’s hurt, she has too much dignity to betray it though Williams is a fine enough actor that we note it in how she pauses for a second, looks away to compose herself, picks up another fry to buy her a little time. Oh Steve, you idiot.
Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, and Ron Howard in 1973’s American Graffiti.Photo: Everett Collection
There’s an incredible amount going on inside Laurie, and for all of the ephemeral moments George Lucas captures here — yes, American Graffiti is his best movie — the film belongs to Laurie as she tries all night to regain her footing. I was fond of Williams as Shirley Feeney but I fell in love with her as Laurie. Laurie who inhabited three dimensions: vulnerable but tough; betrayed but cagey; deciding to get into a car with bad boy Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) to get under Steve’s skin but graceful enough to forgive him when Steve figures out he’s lost without her, too. She reprises this role in More American Graffiti six years later. Laurie’s pregnant now and married to Steve. Once they’ve had the baby, Laurie wants to go back to work but Steve forbids it. Though the film straddles four separate timelines, Laurie is the center of it again: her arc standing in for the blue collar, women-in-the-workplace situation comedy inaugurated by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Alice, and of course Laverne & Shirley.
That ineffable quality of Williams’, the knowing smile — sometimes playful, sometimes resigned — the air of tragedy that follows people who know things they don’t have the power to change, made her the prototype for the anachronistic, unconventional object of desire. I loved it best when she gasped in faux-outrage, her voice drawn out in exaggerated and ironic surprise. It’s my favorite way to be teased and I wonder if it didn’t start with her. She cemented herself in my dreamlife as Ann, the wife of the shadowy “The Director” (Robert Duvall) in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. I watched it for the first time as a freshman in college (as part of a seminar that included The Parallax View and The Stunt Man) and it immediately became my favorite film of all-time, the picture that helped me to see movies as poetry. In it, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to piece together a stolen conversation between Ann and her lover (Frederic Forrest) as they stroll through a crowded and noisy Union Square in San Francisco. Her voice is the connective tissue of the film. Editor Walter Murch plays it like an instrument, now warbling it like an electronic bird call, now distorting it with strange metallic cries. It’s her voice that worries over a homeless man alone on a park bench and wonders where all the people who love him are as we watch Harry lying down with a hooker in his desperate loneliness. It’s her voice that sings “Rockin’ Robin” as Harry falls in love with her just by spending so much time listening to her talk. Really, who wouldn’t? Really, who didn’t?
Gene Hackman, Cindy Williams, and Frederic Forrest in 1974’s The Conversation.Photo: Everett Collection
Left with just three-quarters of the script shot when Coppola left to do the Godfather sequel, Murch turned a fragment of a scene in smoke and fog into a nightmare in which Harry tries to tell Ann about an illness he had as a child and how “I’m not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder.” As she so often was, it seemed, in her too-limited film work, she is the moral and emotional center of The Conversation, one of the great American films. She is the ghost that haunts Harry’s conscience, the maiden Harry imagines he must save, the monster inscrutable who reveals too late that everything Harry presumed about her were just things he hoped were true.
In my mind, she’s tied inextricably with Teri Garr, an actor who shares Williams’ obvious intelligence, world-weariness, and disarming irreverence. Garr plays Harry Caul’s neglected girlfriend in The Conversation: the one he can’t keep and Williams is the phantom he can never hope to understand. They are as compelling a dyad, a puzzle impenetrable for a clueless suitor as Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleschette for Rod Taylor in The Birds: possessed of wisdom that profits them nothing, objects upon which desires are projected that have no relationship to the fully-fleshed women they represent. They are more interesting than their pursuers and their pursuers are too dull or solipsistic to know it. They’re smarter, but they don’t have social power. There’s a scene in Broadcast News where the news producer played by Holly Hunter is upbraided for her persistence. “It must be nice to always be the smartest person in the room,” her boss sneers at her. She says “No, it’s awful.” In another reality, Cindy Williams could have had Holly Hunter’s career — they’re the same kind of ferocious, the same variety of dangerous to the status quo, the same quality of broken by the compromises they’ve had to make.
“In another reality, Cindy Williams could have had Holly Hunter’s career — they’re the same kind of ferocious, the same variety of dangerous to the status quo, the same quality of broken by the compromises they’ve had to make.”
In the eighth season of Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams got pregnant, and when the producers of the show refused to work with her, she declined to sign a contract continuing her role. She was summarily written off the show; it was canceled at the end of that year. Rumors at the time painted Williams as “difficult,” the death knell for women in any industry who have the temerity to ask for fair treatment. She was accused of asking for an exorbitant payday, of unreasonable accommodations, of fighting with her co-star. It’s a familiar smear that made it hard for her I think to find significant movie roles ever after. I do love her in 1985’s UFOria, though, as Arlene Stewart, a cashier in a dusty backwater who believes that UFOs are on their way to ferry the chosen few to a better place. She falls in with Waylon Jennings-cosplay vagabond Sheldon (Fred Ward) who’s in town visiting his friend Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) who runs a profitable revival tent grift on the edge of town. She’s the only crackpot in the film who’s not trying to get one over on her fellow man. Her first line in the film as she’s standing at her register, watching Sheldon shoplift from her store, is “you ain’t him.” She’s too smart for Sheldon, she sees right through him. Of course Sheldon falls in love with her instantly – like he’s struck by a thunderbolt but, you know, it’s Cindy Williams and she had that effect on all of us. It’s hard to believe that kind of energy can just dissipate one day. I’ll watch The Conversation tonight as I have so many nights, and listen to her voice carried on electric winds, now fuzzed out and indistinct, now as pure and sweet as a memory of when everything was possible on those thick nights before the rest of your life.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.