Why Michelle Williams Might be the Most Successful Actress in Hollywood
There are plenty of superlatives to dole out in Hollywood. Meryl Streepis the most decorated actress of our time, with 20 total Academy Award nominations. Emma Stonewas 2017’s highest-paid actress of 2017, earning a whopping $26 million. Selena Gomezis the most-followed person on Instagram.
But other qualifiers are harder to measure. Like the most talented or the hardest-working or the funniest. But the best at making something out of nothing? Well that honor goes unequivocally to one Michelle Williams.
Let’s talk about Michelle for a second. Her story is well-known by now but it’s worth repeating if for nothing other than its sheer ability to inspire. She started as a child actress, doing parts in shows like Step by Step and Home Improvement. Her breakthrough role came in 1998 with Dawson’s Creek, but she cemented herself as a true movie star when she played opposite Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
It was also then that the most fascinating and tragic part of her life began. That’s because try as she might to distance herself from the heartbreaking passing of the young Ledger, it’s a connection that the public will always make. In the years since his overdose Williams has lead a rather quiet existence, choosing to build a life with her daughter, Matilda, in Brooklyn, away from the glaring lights of Hollywood.
Very little is known about her personal life beyond that fact, which (probably by design) allows her work to do all the talking. And talk it does.
You see, while Williams may not bring home the big flashy paychecks or open huge blockbusters, she has low-key become an insanely successful actress. And what’s even more impressive is that her many accomplishments come with the all-too-familiar-in-this-industry fact that the roles she’s given are often, well, crappy.
Williams is practically a mainstay during award season at this point. She’s been nominated for four different Academy Awards (for Brokeback, Blue Valentine, My Week With Marilyn and Manchester by the Sea). She won a Golden Globe for Marilyn and has four other nominations. She also won a Spirit Award for that role and has a host of SAG nominations on her resumé. In recent memory she has barely acted in a year-end movie that didn’t go on to be an award season darling. Some would call it the golden touch, but there is, of course, more to the story.
Because more often than not, Michelle Williams is playing someone’s wife. Or someone’s mother. Or a wife and a mother. While her male costars get to be complicated, multi-faceted characters with ugly flaws and redeeming narrative arcs, she’s the wife. And the mother.
Take Manchester by the Sea for example. Last year’s breakout hit was critically acclaimed across the board for its dark humor and cathartically tragic story. Casey Affleck was given the part of a lifetime, playing the gruff janitor trying to recover emotionally from life-altering guilt he feels after accidentally burning his house down and killing all three of his children, all the while getting the chance to start over by inheriting custody of his nephew after his brother dies of a heart attack. You love him, you hate him, you cry with him.
Michelle Williams was there too, except she got approximately 1/10 of the screen time and pretty much existed to try and make Affleck’s character feel better even though she lost all three of her children, too. Many people believed that she was the best part about the movie, taking her tiny role and running with it, especially during that particularly gutting monologue. (You know the one). She was rewarded for her efforts with an Oscar nomination and a front-row seat at the ceremony with which to witness the most embarrassing Best Picture flub in history up close.
This season Williams can be seen in two big films back to back. First she stars in All the Money in the World, the real-life tale of the Getty family kidnapping and the subject of all that Kevin Spacey speculation. She’s billed as a leading role in the flick, and she plays…wait for it…Getty’s mother, which means most of her tasks consist of talking to the kidnappers and angrily dealing with the Getty family lawyer. She made lemonade out of those lemons, though, and was rewarded fruitfully for it (with a Globe nom).
She also stars in The Greatest Showman, otherwise known as Zac Efron’s triumphant return to onscreen musical theater. Not to spoil the plot of the circus story or anything, but Williams takes on the role of P.T. Barnum’s (a.k.a. Hugh Jackman’s) wife. To be completely fair, the movie isn’t really supposed to be about Barnum’s personal life—it focuses on his invention of the circus as we know it today and his relationship with his employees. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Williams’ entire role is basically just her reminding Hugh Jackman how great his family is (because he’s so obsessed with wealth and status that he keeps forgetting).
But in what we’re now going to officially refer to as “Williamsing,” she took that crappy part and worked a miracle, and now she is part of yet another Golden Globe-nominated movie. We would keep a tally of how many times she’s been able to do this, but that would make us too upset.
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So what’s the lesson here? Well, it’s a reminder that Hollywood needs to do better when it writes roles for women, remembering that audiences are interested in their stories and their complications and their flaws. But it’s also simply more proof that Michelle Williams can do pretty much anything. There’s now sure-fire way to measure success in the movie business (at least in non-financial terms), but consistently turning mediocre parts into award season material is hard to argue.