Michelle Williams Goes From Marilyn to Gwen

My Week With Marilyn, the 2011 movie about her time in England, returns to Netflix today. Michelle Williams, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Marilyn, is currently starring choreographer Gwen Verdon in the HBO series, Fosse/Verdon. Born in Culver City, California in 1925, she married journalist James Henaghan in 1942, but left him after the birth of their son Jimmy. (Henaghan later interviewed Marilyn on several occasions, and wrote a tribute to her for Parade magazine in 1971, which you can read here.)

Verdon later worked as an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, coaching stars like Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Marilyn (seen above with Jane Russell on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and rehearsing for There’s No Business Like Show Business.) In 1953, Verdon starred in the Broadway production of Can-Can, winning her first Tony award. (Marilyn would later be offered the lead in Fox’s big-screen adaptation, but the role was ultimately played by Shirley MacLaine.)

“From the people that I’ve spoken to, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was that [Gwen Verdon] was like the sunshine in the room,” Michelle Williams said during a panel interview with the Television Critics Association (as reported here.) “The way that I’ve come to think of her is someone who is always trying their hardest and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. But as much as she possibly could, she was constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.”

“I remember also this thing that Marilyn Monroe said about her,” Williams added. “Marilyn said, ‘If Gwen Verdon can’t teach you how to dance, you’re rhythm bankrupt with two left feet.'”

In June 1955, Marilyn saw Gwen performing in her latest hit musical, Damn Yankees, at the 46th Street Theatre. Gwen returned to Hollywood in 1958 to film the movie version. She married choreographer Bob Fosse in 1960, and returned to Broadway in Sweet Charity (1966.) Although she and Fosse separated in 1971, they never divorced and continued working together on Chicago (1975), and the 1979 movie, All That Jazz. She also appeared in films like The Cotton Club (1984) Cocoon (1985) Alice (1990), and Marvin’s Room (1996.)

In 1999, Gwen was the artistic consultant on Fosse, a Broadway musical tribute to her former partner, who had died in 1987. Gwen Verdon passed away in her sleep at the home of their daughter Nicole Fosse in Woodstock, Vermont in October 18, 2000. That night at 8 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in her honour.

When Jack Cole Made Magic With Marilyn

Marilyn rehearses ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ with Jack Cole for ‘Let’s Make Love’ (1960)

Dance critic Debra Levine, who is writing a biography of choreographer Jack Cole, has talked about his work with Marilyn on ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ to Vincent Dowd for BBC News.

“‘With Marilyn he was working with a great star who wasn’t really a dancer. Yet he makes her move superbly. He knew that Marilyn totally understood her own sexuality and sensuality. He took that and surrounded her with men … Marilyn was so feminine in that number and he let her float on top of that, with just tiny shrugs of the shoulder or a little turn of the neck. It’s one of the great movie dances.’

Levine refers to Cole’s work with Monroe as micro-choreography. ‘There are studio stills from Twentieth Century-Fox which show Jack directing the whole sequence, even though in theory it’s a Howard Hawks film.’

‘It’s fascinating too that there are shots of Marilyn rehearsing with Gwen Verdon, who for years was Jack’s assistant and who in some ways was his muse. Marilyn and Gwen Verdon practised the hell out of it.'”

Marilyn works with Cole and his assistant Gwen Verdon on ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)