If you were to turn back the clock to the heyday of the popular teen series Dawson’s Creek, I imagine listing which of the show’s stars would go on to have the most successful film career would not include Michelle Williams. At least not right away. There was the star, James Van Der Beek, and his girlfriend Katie Holmes. Then, of course, there was the popular best friend, played by Joshua Jackson. All three of these stars would have a career after Dawson’s Creek. But out of all the stars of the series, it is Michelle Williams who has transcended the series to carve out an early career challenging even the greatest of actresses. Williams could have easily taken the route familiar to nearly all young actresses, starring in romantic comedies and then attempting to branch out. Instead, after only a few bit parts in slasher pics and throwaway films, Williams began setting her sights on challenging work. And she has no intention, it seems, of changing her tune.
Born in a rural Montana town in 1980, Michelle Williams first gained notoriety on Dawson’s Creek playing Jen Lindey. She gained enough popularity to grab small parts in feature films, including Halloween: H20 and Species. Williams got work where work was available through the late nineties and into the 2000s, but her break came in 2005 when she was cast alongside her late husband, Heath Ledger, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Williams played Alma, wife of Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy who shares a lifelong romance with another man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. In a film surrounded by such controversy, but one that was arguably the best and most acclaimed film of 2005, it may have been difficult for Williams to be noticed outside the central romance between Ledger and Gyllenhaal. But Williams showed audiences certain heartbreak. Alma knew about her husband’s romance, but as she resisted the temptation to confront Ennis she stood quietly at his side for the sake of their daughter. Williams’ quietly devastating role garnered a significant amount of attention and earned her her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Williams would continue to star in little-seen films, in roles that would challenge her. In 2007 she starred in I’m Not There, the avant-garde meditation on Bob Dylan’s life and evolving career. In 2008, Williams endured personal tragedy as her ex husband, Heath Ledger, died unexpectedly after finishing his Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Rather than disappear, Williams continued to challenge herself and carve out her own niche in Hollywood. Later in 2008, Williams starred in the bare-bones production of Wendy and Lucy, a simple story about a wayward young woman with no home who loses her dog. The story is simple, but the performance from Williams is powerful. Wendy and Lucy was too small to be recognized by Oscar, but Williams did pick up a number of other nominations, including an Independent Spirit nomination.
2010 was another significant year for Williams’ evolution as a serious actress. Early in the year she starred in Martin Scorsese’s mind-bending thriller, Shutter Island, in a haunting role as Leonardo Dicaprio’s late wife. At the end of the year, Williams garnered the biggest praise of her young career, playing Cindy, the beaten-down, blue-collar wife to Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. The film was another controversial picture, skirting the deathblow of an NC-17 rating after some staunch lobbying by director Derek Cianfrante, and Williams’ performance was yet another devastatingly understated tour de force. She would pick up just about every nomination available, including her second Academy Award nomination.
2011 has been no different for Williams in that it’s been wonderfully diverse and challenging. She starred first in Meek’s Cutoff, a minimalist Western that is as small and independent as films can get. This holiday season, Williams plays Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Of course, in typical Williams fashion, her role as Monroe is not a straight biopic, but an examination into a specific place in time in the troubled starlet’s career. I suspect any number of nominations to come Williams’ way once again. Here is an actress who – in a Hollywood where skin, sex appeal, and romantic comedies are the direction the majority of actresses are forced to take – has created a career that will surely go beyond her sex appeal and into a long career the likes of Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton. When her looks begin to fade, Williams’ ability to deliver powerful performances will carry her, and define her as one of the greatest actresses Hollywood has to offer.