A natural when it comes to playing girls from next door and modest housewives (faithful girlfriends of rednecks in washed-out jeans), Michelle Williams has now grown up and changed her profile. In her latest film she is transformed into the 20th-century icon, Marilyn Monroe
Michelle Williams was never either a bohemian hooligan or a diva serving up gossip for the tabloids, but the death of Heath Ledger, her boyfriend and father of her daughter Matilda Rose, forever linked her name to a Marilyn-like Hollywood tragedy. At the time she distanced herself as much as possible from the noise and speculation, and until recently did not give interviews about her life with Ledger.
Michelle’s career in film began when she was still a child, but only really took off thanks to Kevin Williamson, the scriptwriter for Scream, a 1990s revival of the genre of the slasher, i.e. horror films with bloody massacres taking place among teenagers. Many stars started out in slashers playing small parts as frightened victims. Williams was also notable in Halloween: 20 Years Later. In 1998 she hit the jackpot when she was chosen by Kevin Williamson to play in the serial Dawson’s Creek. Her character is a defiant girl who is sent away from New York by her parents to improve her behaviour under the gaze of her strict and devout grandmother. But it is the young mutineer who ends up re-educating the grandmother:
‘Let’s do a deal: I’ll go to church if you say ‘penis’ out loud. After all, it’s not a swearword, but simply part of the human anatomy!”
By that time Williams herself was in no need of being looked after by anyone. She had moved to LA as a teenager in search of parts to play and was a bookish girl who read lots of poetry. There aren’t many Hollywood stars who can say at interview: ‘Drops of ink dried in the corners of my mouth. There is no greater happiness in the world than mine: I am nourished by poetry.” Williams had a good idea what she wanted and carefully selected her roles to fit the direction she had chosen for herself: her films are not commercial Hollywood cinema or ‘entertainment’, but serious indie projects. Dawson’s Creek made her wellknown, and good roles now fell into her lap of their own accord. Wim Wenders even wrote the script for his road movie Land of Plenty (2004) with her in mind.
But the real turning point in her career came with Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s unconventional Western about the love between two guys in cowboy hats, in 2005. She played the wife of one of the cowboys, and her husband was Heath Ledger; their affair continued off screen. Ledger and Williams also played in Todd Haynes’ biopic I’m Not There, in which six different actors play Bob Dylan (Williams plays a bohemian tear-away in swinging 60s London). They were a beautiful couple and it seemed they would have a long and happy life together, but it was not to be. In January 2008 Heath Ledger died from an overdose, and Michelle and her daughter found themselves at the centre of a scandal. Word had it that Ledger had committed suicide because she had left him. She retained a dignified silence, although she later admitted she had thought at the time that her life was slipping through her fingers. Her career, however, flourished. She had the choice of the very best scripts and could continue to favour intelligent independent cinema – such as Meek’s Cutoff, a film by Kelly Reichardt about how in 1845 three wagons of dust-covered settlers move slowly through the desert on a journey to who knows where. In 2010 loyalty to her chosen course brought Michelle Williams a second Oscar nomination for her role in the lowbudget indie Blue Valentine, a tearjerking story about a once happy marriage in which love is replaced by alienation – and there is nothing anyone can do.
Michelle Williams continues not to talk about her personal life and to keep out of the gossip columns.
“I think it’s much more important which book lies on your bedside table than which man lies in your bed,” is her exhaustive reply to the tabloids.
She has always read only intelligent books and played only in intelligent films, selecting roles to suit her talents as an actress – roles that are serious and not flashy – and stories where the character’s drama is revealed gradually. The role of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn was necessarily a challenge for such an actress. The problem here was not Marilyn’s status as a sexual idol. Michelle Williams is one of those actresses who finds it easy to undress for the camera and can play a nude scene without the least embarrassment. But sunny Marilyn, who did not know how to act properly – even if her presence in a shot made all such ability superfluous – was the complete antithesis of the modestly hardworking Michelle. This made it all the more risky for Michelle. She had to become someone who lives not by reason, but by instinct. And, judging by the prizes and nominations that have been showered on this film, she succeeded.”