But just as nationwide fame is within reach, there are signs that Williamson, who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, has become carried away with her own success and has alienated some of the very show business figures who were catapulting her to stardom. Last year, director Mike Nichols and other prominent New Yorkers defected from her Manhattan charity and set up a rival organization. She has had major blow-ups with producer Howard Rosenman and photographer-producer Michael Childers, among those most responsible for pulling in big names like Bette Midler, David Hockney, Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston to her star-studded fund-raising events.
And last month, the staff of her Los Angeles AIDS charity revolted after she fired the most recent in a series of executive directors.
Feared in some quarters for her explosive temper, Williamson acknowledges that she often comes across as "the bitch for God."
Nevertheless, she remains revered by legions of followers, many of whom regularly flock to the Harmony Gold auditorium on Sunset Boulevard or the Unitarian Community Church in Santa Monica, paying $7 each to have her lead them in prayer and meditation and to soak up the "spiritual psychotherapy" she dispenses on such topics as relationships and careers.
Speaking without notes and in her Texas accent, Williamson laces her talks with allusions to movies--"Grand Canyon" is a current favorite--a sprinkling of philosophy, and references to her own troubled and directionless past. Her fast-paced delivery is so fluent and her hold over the audience so complete that many describe her as charismatic and spellbinding.
"She's one of the most brilliant extemporaneous speakers," said Gary Dontzig, supervising producer for "Murphy Brown," and the owner of about 25 of Williamson's taped lectures. "She gets up there, takes a topic, just runs with it and makes complete sense."
"Every time I'm here I feel better," said Randy Mogg, a 40-year-old sculptor, after listening to a Williamson lecture. "Her message is very positive."
Williamson is such a powerful communicator, said movie producer Lynda Obst, Williamson's roommate at Pomona College, that "I tell her she could be working off the telephone book."
Instead, this self-described "Jewish unwed mother" has become the foremost interpreter of "A Course in Miracles," the 1,200-page tome she first noticed on a friend's coffee table about 15 years ago, not long after it was published. "Students" of the course, which has sold 750,000 copies, are told that it was dictated by Jesus Christ himself over a seven-year period to an emotionally tortured psychologist named Helen Schucman.
The course offers a variation on so-called New Thought, the American metaphysical movement that dates back to the 1880s, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara. Resting on the belief "that the only reality is God, and that negative things like poverty, sickness and fear are unreal," as Melton put it, the course advocates "surrendering" to God's plan and approaching life in a loving, non-judgmental way. The change in perception is said to produce miracles.
To the skeptical, much of what Williamson has to say sounds like platitudes gleaned from women's magazines and daytime television--Dr. Joyce Brothers with a spiritual overlay. But it is an appealing message for an industry racked by the AIDS epidemic and, not surprisingly, a large proportion of Williamson's West Coast audience is gay. Many feel excluded from more established religions, with their emphasis on sin and their intolerance for homosexuality.
Though not a follower, Obst believes Williamson came along at just the right moment. "There was a wonderful confluence of what Marianne had to say and what this community needed to hear," the producer said.
Some of Williamson's listeners also attend her weekly support group for people with the HIV virus, where she counsels them that "your soul is not sick."
The lectures are also available on cassettes, offered under such titles as "Fear of Abandonment" and "Fear of Intimacy." "So many people have been affected by those tapes," said Steve Sager, an agent and real estate developer who helped Williamson set up the tape business and acquire her Hollywood connections. "It's the thing in the morning that gets them going."
After her lectures, Williamson fields questions from the audience, working the auditorium or church like Phil Donahue, advising them on their troubled love affairs and job-related anxieties and often bringing down the house with her self-revealing rejoinders.
One woman tells her she once made a list of all the qualities she desired in a mate and eventually married just such a person.
Williamson herself once made a list like that, she confides to her audience. "The only trouble was, I forgot to say, "Please God, he should not be a heroin addict."