Warner Bros./Getty Images
Dawson's Creek. From left to right: Michelle "Two Oscar Nominations" Williams (Jennifer Lindley), James "Good Thing He Has A Sense Of Humor" Van Der Beek (Dawson Leery), Katie "Well, You Know" Holmes (Joey Potter) and Joshua "Fringe" Jackson (Pacey).
The cast of
The cast of Dawson's Creek. From left to right: Michelle "Two Oscar Nominations" Williams (Jennifer Lindley), James "Good Thing He Has A Sense Of Humor" Van Der Beek (Dawson Leery), Katie "Well, You Know" Holmes (Joey Potter) and Joshua "Fringe" Jackson (Pacey). Warner Bros./Getty Images
The rise of Michelle Williams, indie actress, may be my favorite cultural development in quite some time, for a variety of reasons.
Her latest film, Meek's Cutoff, is an unconventional and very beautiful drama that a lot of people aren't going to like, and her last one, Blue Valentine, was one of my favorite films of last year. (If, that is, you can apply the word "favorite" to something that feels like being punched in the throat.) Just since 2008, she's appeared in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and Wendy And Lucy, the earlier film from Meek's director Kelly Reichardt that cemented her reputation as a serious young actress. (You can hear her on today's Fresh Air talking about all manner of things.)
But of course, the first time I saw Michelle Williams, she was sashaying out of a taxi in the 1998 premiere of the teen drama Dawson's Creek, where she stayed for six seasons as Jen Lindley, whose travails over time included a scandalous New York past, neglectful parents, an unanticipated plunge into single parenthood and, most unfortunately (for her), deflowering Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek). Not even ultimately dying of an unspecified heart thingamabob (of the type from which people in melodramas not infrequently die) was less enviable.
By the time the show ended in 2003, it had actually become pretty clear that Williams was probably too good for it. But I certainly never heard anybody say, as it wound down, "I see two Oscar nominations in this young woman's future in the next eight years." But she got them, for last year's Blue Valentine and for her supporting role in 2005's Brokeback Mountain, the first film where her dramatic chops got very much respect outside the WB.
What are we to do with the fact that a certain allegedly bottom-feeding audience watched, for six seasons, a young woman who would later become one of the most well-regarded actresses of her generation, and the entire time, they were taunted — nay, mocked — over their terrible taste?
The entire cast of that show makes for an interesting taxonomy of modern celebrity: Josh Jackson is now a straight-up TV star on Fox's Fringe, Katie Holmes has gone the "more famous for fame than for acting" route, and Van Der Beek himself has taken his cereal-box head down the route of good-natured self-deprecation. But it's Williams who has gone to the "award frontrunner of the future" place.
If we assume she's a pretty good actress, and if we look at this logically, we have to assume that one of the following things is true.
1. Whatever kind of a show Dawson's Creek was, Michelle Williams probably offered some pretty good acting on it. If we accept this, then we have to put down the myth that says, "Lowbrow shows are a joke, and any attempt to discuss their quality, or their good and bad aspects, is a joke as well." After all, if indeed she was giving good performances, then a sharp critic who was actually paying attention might have had a chance at identifying her as someone to watch. If this is true, then it makes perfect sense to say "You know, Outsourced is a pretty silly show, but here's a good performance." Or "This was definitely the best-written scene in the history of Two And A Half Men."
2. Michelle Williams gives good performances now, but did not offer any on Dawson's Creek. If we accept this, then we have to put down the myth that says, "Once a lowbrow, always a lowbrow." For more on this particular point, see also: The Permeable Membrane Between High And Low, which mentions Williams in passing at the end.
3. Michelle Williams gives good performances in the movies she now makes, but she couldn't give them on Dawson's Creek because she was dealing with inadequate support (writing, directing, other actors, etc.). If we accept this, then we have to put down the myth that says, "Actors [or directors, or writers, or whoever] are solo performers who can reasonably be given credit for the quality of what we classify as their work." If this is true, that even a good actor can do nothing with a bad script, poor direction, or a poor actor to share a scene with, then everything is far more interdependent than our evaluating and ranking of actors — and directors, and writers, and probably everybody else — generally allows.
My personal suspicion is that it's no one thing from this list; it's a little bit of all of it. Williams undoubtedly played some scenes even back then, even when she was leaning against in which, if a person didn't know where they were from, she'd probably look like a terrific actress. And she's probably gotten better at what she does in the last 13 years or so, which is, after all, a logical development in anyone's life. And I'm willing to bet that not being forced to do stories where people drown and then come back as ghosts is helpful.
It's not that she's the only example of this phenomenon, not at all. There are countless examples throughout history of people who have moved back and forth between more "pop" pursuits and more highly respected undertakings. And it's not that most people hold these myths in any particularly high regard, at least consciously. But it's always nice when a very sharp reminder comes up that you neeeeever know, when it's 1998 and you're watching a young actress play a scene where she's carried drunk out of a party by a heroic dweeb and winds up puking in a bush, how many awards she may one day receive.