Cindy Williams shined as a three-dimensional actress who was never defined by her relationships with men

I’m trying to understand what quality Cindy Williams had and why her loss hurts the way 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 quite hide how much smarter she was than you. Maybe it was because she was imprinted on me early on 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 right next to you, always a step or two down. The white rabbit. Someone to be chased and never caught.

As most people in my generation knew me first as Shirley Laverne & Shirleycameos by herself and Penny Marshall happy days as they “definitely” dated Richie and The Fonz, and then on their own show which was a weekly staple for me and my friends back in the days before a la carte programming destroyed the concept of a shared popular culture: a time even before cable TV. 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 that maybe he’d like to see other people now that they’re off to college and is completely put off by her quick agreement to his proposal. The way she smiles at him in the restaurant, a pancake on her fingers, if she’s surprised she’s not surprised for long — and even though she’s hurt, she has too much dignity to betray it even though Williams is a pretty good actor. we Note how she stops for a second, looks away to compose herself, picks up another pan to buy her some time. Oh Steve, you idiot.

AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, 1973
Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams and Ron Howard in 1973 American graffiti.
Photo: Everett Collection

There’s an incredible amount going on inside Laurie, and for all the fleeting moments George Lucas captures here — yes, American graffiti is his best film — the film belongs to Laurie as she struggles through the night to find her feet again. I liked Williams as Shirley Feeney, but fell in love with her as Laurie. Laurie who inhabited three dimensions: vulnerable but tough. betrayed but caged; she decides to get in a car with bad boy Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) to get under Steve’s skin, but cute enough to forgive him when Steve realizes he’s lost without her. He reprises this role More American graffiti six years later. Lori is pregnant now and married to Steve. Once they have the baby, Lori wants to go back to work, but Steve forbids it. Although the film crosses four different timelines, Laurie is again its centerpiece: her arc stands for the blue-collar, female-in-the-workplace situation comedy launched by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Aliceand of course Laverne & Shirley.

This ineffable quality of Williams, the knowing smile — sometimes playful, sometimes resigned — the air of tragedy that follows people who know things they have no power to change, made her the prototype for the anachronistic, unconventional object of desire. I liked it best when she gasped in fake rage, her voice drawn with exaggerated and ironic surprise. It’s my favorite way to be teased and I wonder if it didn’t start with her. Anchored in my dream life as Ann, the wife of the shadowy ‘The Director’ (Robert Duvall) in Francis Ford Coppola’s The conversation. I first watched it as a freshman in college (as part of a seminar that included The Parallax view but The Stunt Man) and instantly became my favorite movie of all time, the image that helped me see movies as poetry. In it, surveillance expert Harry Cole (Gene Hackman) is hired to piece together a stolen conversation between Ann and her lover (Frederick Forrest) as they walk through a crowded and noisy Union Square in San Francisco. Her voice is the connective tissue of the film. Editor-in-chief Walter Murch plays it like an instrument, now swinging it like an electronic bird call, now distorting it with strange metallic screeches. It’s her voice worrying about a homeless man alone on a park bench wondering where all the people who love him are as we see Harry lying with a bag in his desperate loneliness. It’s her voice singing “Rockin’ Robin” as Harry falls in love with her just by spending so much time listening to her speak. Really, who wouldn’t? Really, who? he did not do it?

THE CONVERSATION, Gene Hackman, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, 1974.
Gene Hackman, Cindy Williams and Frederick Forrest in 1974 The conversation.
Photo: Everett Collection

He was left with only three-quarters of the script when Coppola left to do godfather Murch then turned 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’m afraid of murder.” As was so often the case, she seemed, in her very limited film work, to be the moral and emotional center of The conversation, one of the great American films. She is the ghost that haunts Harry’s consciousness, the girl that Harry imagines he must save, the unfathomable monster that reveals all too late that everything Harry assumed about her were just things he hoped were true.

In my mind, she’s inextricably tied to Teri Garr, an actor who shares Williams’ obvious intelligence, world-weariness, and disarming irreverence. Garr plays Harry Caul’s neglected girlfriend The conversation: the one he can’t hold and Williams is the ghost he can never hope to understand. They are as fascinating a duo, as impenetrable a puzzle to a clueless suitor as Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleschette are to Rod Taylor in The birds: possessed of wisdom that avails them nothing, objects upon which desires are projected that have nothing to do with the fleshy women they represent. They are more interesting than their pursuers, and their pursuers are too dull or solipsistic to know it. They are smarter, but have no social power. There is a scene inside Broadcast news where the news producer played by Holly Hunter is applauded for her tenacity. “It must be nice to always be the smartest person in the room,” her boss quips. He says “No, it’s awful.” In another reality, Cindy Williams could have had Holly Hunter’s career – she’s just as fierce, the same variety of dangerous to the status quo, the same quality of being broken by the compromises they’ve had to make.

“In another reality, Cindy Williams could have had the career of Holly Hunter – she’s just as fierce, the same variety of dangerous to the status quo, the same quality of being broken by the compromises they’ve had to make.”

In its eighth season Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams became pregnant and when the show’s producers refused to work with her, she refused to sign a contract to continue her role. Summarily deleted from the show. canceled at the end of that year. Rumors at the time characterized Williams as “difficult,” the death knell of women in any industry who have the audacity to demand fair treatment. She was accused of demanding exorbitant wages, unreasonable accommodations, fighting with her co-star. It’s a known blemish that has made it difficult, I think, for her to find major film roles since then. I love her in 1985 UFOriaHowever, as Arlene Stewart, a cashier in a dusty backwater who believes UFOs are on their way to transport the chosen few to a better place. He comes into contact with Waylon Jennings cosplay vagabond Sheldon (Fred Ward) who is in town visiting his friend Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) who has a profitable revival scene on the edge of town. She’s the only firecracker in the film who doesn’t try to outdo her fellow man. Her first line in the film as she stands at her register, watching Sheldon steal from her store, is “you’re not him”. She is too smart for Sheldon, she sees right through him. Of course Sheldon falls for her immediately – like he was struck by lightning, but, you know, she’s Cindy Williams and she had that effect on all of us. It’s hard to believe that this kind of energy can just dissipate one day. i will watch The conversation tonight, as I have so many nights, and hear her voice carried on the electric winds, now hazy and indistinct, now as pure and sweet as a memory of when all was possible in those thick nights before the rest of your life.

Walter Chaw is the senior film critic for His book on the films of Walter Hill, with an introduction by James Elroy, is now available.