Last week, The Hollywood Reporter, among other publications, revealed that actress Michelle Williams had split from her husband, musician Phil Elverum, after less than a year of marriage. Sources reported that the split was amicable and happened at the beginning of the year, mere months after Williams revealed to Vanity Fair that she had quietly wed the Mount Eerie singer. This wasn’t the only celebrity break-up that happened last week. Indeed, Friday afternoon seemed to have been the agreed upon moment for everyone to get the split announcements out of the way, including Anna Camp and Skyler Astin from Pitch Perfect, and musician Adele and her husband Simon Konecki. But there was something about the Williams news that hit the hardest for me, and it wasn’t just because I was a big fan of the actress and her work. In terms of Hollywood figures who are extremely easy to root for, Michelle Williams has to be one of the most prominent.
For better or worse, there are celebrities whose lives and public personas will forever be shrouded in tragedy, or at the very least an air of sadness that inspires pity, regardless of how hard said person pushes against it. Jennifer Aniston is an immensely successful and beloved actress with decades of work to her name and a bevvy of gorgeous boyfriends under her belt, but she will probably edge into retirement with the ‘sad Jen never got over Brad and Angelina’ narrative around her neck like a noose. No matter how much Joaquin Phoenix tries to avoid it, every interview he does will bring up or elude to the death of his brother and the pain it must have brought him. For Michelle Williams, she will always be Heath Ledger’s widow. Never mind that the pair didn’t marry and that they had been apart for a while when the actor tragically died of an overdose; the narrative was always going to happen. How could it not?
Williams was the avatar for our public grief: The former child star, beloved to a generation thanks to Dawson’s Creek, who became a critical darling through the indie circuit and one half of a gorgeous power couple, only to see the father of her child become our era’s gone too soon idol. She wasn’t a star who seemed to crave the spotlight, and her project choices suggested she was actively avoiding it, but narratives of mourning require a public face, and that fell to her far more than anyone else in Ledger’s family. For a while, she was the paparazzi’s target du jour, the face everyone wanted photographs of, preferably with tears running down her face. She told the Guardian in 2009 that her career choices were in part influenced by her desire to shun the ‘crazy business’ of press scrutiny and what it brought upon herself and her daughter, saying, ‘I don’t want any more paparazzi outside my door. I want it to get better as my daughter grows up, not worse. If it makes a difference, if doing smaller movies means less of that stuff, then I’ll adjust my life so that we can still have a life in the city and not totally disappear.’ She even admitted that she was encouraged to sit out of the junket and media cycle when a publicist told her that there was no real correlation between such publicity and financial success.
That’s not to say that she managed to entirely avoid the press, or that the media hunger for that Sad Mourning Michelle narrative went away. Every move of her career or personal life was positioned in contrast to the loss of Ledger. She was never wholly pitied, necessarily, but the mood of melancholy surrounded every narrative. She made small movies with repressed emotions that broke your heart then avoided talking publicly about them, so that made us sad. She dated good looking and eligible men, both within and outside of the entertainment business, and it made us plead with the world that she be allowed to be happy.
I struggle to think of another major celebrity of this generation for whom their romantic life has been covered with such overwhelming hope and encouragement. There was director Spike Jonze, who she dated for a year before breaking up in September 2009, then a rumoured fling with another director, Cary Fukunaga followed soon thereafter. Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother seemed like a keeper and they even did some adorable public walks together, but apparently the long distance relationship wasn’t for them. For while, there was gossip that she was dating author Jonathan Safran Foer. Fans argued a little over who was truly worthy of her, the overall mood was one of real positivity, although it was tough to escape the looming shadow of that grief.
Williams never shut herself off entirely from the press. She chose her moments wisely and was just candid enough to give prying eyes what they want without revealing everything. In a 2011 profile for Vogue, written while she was promoting My Week with Marilyn, Williams talks about how her and her daughter’s lives ‘kind of repaired itself’ in the years following Ledger’s death. ‘Look, it’s not a perfectly operating system—there are holes and dips and electrical storms—but the basics are intact.’ The following year, she gave a very emotional interview to GQ, admitting that the immediate aftermath of Ledger’s death ‘was making me crazy. I felt like I was going crazy. It was too much—trying to deal with what had happened and trying to deal with what was at our doorstep. I just felt trapped.’ It’s an unfair situation for Williams to have to deal with as part of her work routine. Grieving is a struggle at the best of times, but when it’s the most devastating moment of your life that you’re forced to deal with in public, the battle between privacy and candidness becomes all the more tangled. No wonder we always root for Michelle: Why would we put anyone through this nonsense and not be on their side?
Over the past couple of years, Williams has been more consciously visible as a star. She took three roles that put her in the eyeline of mainstream audiences in a way she hadn’t done since Dawson’s Creek: There was the token woman role in Venom, a comic book movie most people thought would be dead on arrival but ended up becoming one of the highest grossing movies of 2018; Williams also starred in The Greatest Showman, the little musical that could; and she stretched her comedic muscles in I Feel Pretty, garnering the lion’s share of favourable reviews. Most of these films made serious bank in a way that a typical Michelle Williams movie does not, and Williams herself was candid about how that affected her choosing such projects in the first place.
The 2018 Vanity Fair interview felt like the long-awaited climax to Williams’ public life and a brief moment of triumph for her and her supporters. Here, she broke down a lot of misconceptions about her life and career, spoke honestly about the embarrassment of the sexist pay gap issue that surrounded All the Money in the World, kindly but firmly admitted the altruism behind role choices like Venom, and revealed to the world her marriage.
There’s a moment in the interview where she is referred to as ‘the Thomas Pynchon of the film world—almost immaculately private’, but I’m not sure that description fits. Pynchon is private to the degree where you can’t find photographs of him less than several decades old. Being an actress doesn’t afford that level of press exclusion, sure, but Williams has also always been smart enough to talk to the press when necessary. The Vanity Fair interview is a stellar example of that. The piece notes how she decides to talk about her experiences with pay disparity after earlier agreements for the interview to be done in ‘the usual profile style’, implying a softer approach. She’s open about how embarrassing it is to be undercut by your colleague and to have such decisions be made without your knowledge. Without ever dismissing Venom - even when everyone else was - she positions her choice of that project as a multi-layered decision taken as much out of pragmatism as artistic merit.
She could easily have chosen not to talk about her new marriage, and the piece does not her initial refusal to discuss her private life, but then she changes her mind and that’s how the news comes out about Phil Elverum. There’s no leak to TMZ, no gossipy friends running off to the tabloids, no photographs of the big day taken with a telescopic lens: This is Michelle Williams totally in control, and for those of us who root for her, it was like a gift. Reading her talk emotionally about how she ‘never gave up on love’ elicited genuine tears from me, something I can’t say happens a lot when I read a celebrity profile.
I’ve often wondered if Williams is aware of the intense emotional responses absolute strangers have to her. I imagine she can’t not know about it, and the pressure of that must be exhausting. It doesn’t take much for that fan positivity to turn toxic and she’s faced enough of it over the years, especially from those who blame her in some way for Ledger’s passing (looking at you, Terry Gilliam). There’s a risk of being infantilized by this sort of narrative, as kind as its intentions are, and I, as a Williams fan, am keenly aware of how many of those dimensions end up turning a grown woman and mother into some helpless pixie fantasy of overcoming pain. And yet I root for her more than almost any other celebrity I admire or am a fan of. There is a dignity and intellect to her that seems to drive her public life through and away from the tragedy that everyone else is eager to linger on. Williams ends the Vanity Fair article by declaring ‘I’m free’. And she is. It’s all we’ve wanted for her.
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