Michelle Williams ruined my plans.
I listened to a great podcast with Busy Philipps the other day, and knowing she’s always Michelle Williams’ date to awards shows, I really wanted to write about some of the ways Busy described her on the podcast (which were also in her book, This Will Only Hurt A Little. It’s abundantly clear that those two women have enormous love and respect for each other – maybe they’re even the loves of each other’s lives, which is an incredible gift friendship gives sometimes.
But my plans were ruined, because instead of writing about all the things Busy said about why her best friend is so incredible, Michelle showed us herself, in a piece of television I did not expect to be so effective, or affecting.
She wins, accepts, and then seamlessly turns a thoughtful, heartfelt expression of why the award matters to her into a thoughtful, heartfelt expression of why her freedom to choose matters - how it directly led to her being where she is today.
The speech actually has more impact on its own than it did in the context of the show. Go ahead and watch it again – it’s worth your time.
"When it is time to vote, please do so in your own self-interest. It’s what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them."— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) January 6, 2020
"We are the largest voting body in this country. Let’s make it look more like us.”
–Michelle Williams#GoldenGlobes pic.twitter.com/9M9fN1rjrF
I didn’t precisely clock it last night, but she memorized this speech word for word. There’s no hesitation, not a single pause as she thinks of what she wants to say. Which means she planned this, wrote it out and practiced it, knowing that if she got a moment to express herself, she was going to use it this way.
It’s incredibly powerful. The show cuts from woman to woman in the audience, all rapt with attention. Because Michelle Williams has that gift of being able to say something she feels passionately about without letting the passion overtake her voice and tone and body language. The vast majority of the rest of us, myself most definitely included, are still really working on that.
I’m ashamed to say I never realized before that Michelle Williams is incredibly intelligent. Not that I ever thought she wasn’t – the kind of thoughtful, nuanced work she’s always done means intelligence and perceptiveness is a prerequisite – but it’s not a word we usually use to describe performers, which isn’t fair.
With (no) apologies to Ricky Gervais, I’ll be straight up - I’m a fan of the newer trend in awards speeches, where people who are lucky enough to have received multiple awards deliberately use that platform and reach to express something important to them. After all, how many times can you really thank your agent? You talk to them every week, they know you appreciate them (and as Don Draper would say, ‘That’s what the money is for!’). When speeches like this are done well, they’re much more satisfying to watch than hearing a list of names we don’t recognize, and I don’t think it’s an accident that as they’ve gotten more popular, we’ve all started complaining less about the endless tedium of awards speeches.
But a lot of artists, in order not to offend anyone, stick to ‘I’ statements, or sometimes ‘we’ statements specifically about the entertainment industry. Michelle could easily have done that, and gotten her message across, but what happened instead was a little bit of the reason television is my favourite medium.
She starts in first person (which makes sense, as it’s her award and her life she’s talking about – and speaks to the benefit of ‘choosing when to have my children’. That’s plural – and, of course, along with shots of her newly-announced fiancé (and Fosse/Verdon co-creator) Thomas Kail – reminding us that she’s pregnant right now. That this issue is relevant to her right as she’s speaking.
Then she talks about her right to choose, and while initially it might seem she could be solely talking about birth control (which, as we all know, is threatened with restrictive legislation constantly), she proceeds quickly to ‘As women, and as girls, things can happen to our bodies that are not our choice’. It’s happening. She’s saying the thing, and everyone holds their breath.
Now we cut to her beloved Busy Philipps, who’s publicly spoken and written about her experiences both of being raped and of having an abortion, and she’s crying, of course. I kept thinking of how incredibly seen she must have felt right then, in the best way possible. That her best friend is talking about the difficult things she’s experienced, being a voice to a massive audience about things that are often kept restrictively private. I feel weird about conflating my thoughts on Michelle’s words with my thoughts on the show’s production, but they both elevate each other. The medium is the message, right?
By the time Michelle is stating firmly that she was able to employ ‘a woman’s right to choose’, with a declarative nod, the audience is cheering and hooting her on. And then when she reaches the end, asking women everywhere to vote “in your own self-interest. It’s what men have been doing for years”, her quiet voice isn’t fooling anyone. This is a sermon, and the intended recipients in the room are here for it. When’s the last time you heard televised cheers that were almost entirely women?
It was thoughtful, it was skillful, and it was incredibly deft. By the end of her speech, and her declaration of love to ‘Tommy and Matilda’, we’re left with no doubt about why all of them – Tommy, Matilda, and Busy – love her so much.
Every acceptance speech can’t be like this – it would be exhausting emotionally, and yes, probably outside the boundaries of ‘entertainment’. But, spoken this smoothly and masterfully, it was a high water mark of the night, and a reminder of why we love to watch actors so much. At their best, they can use their understanding of how human beings operate to show us incredible things about ourselves.
I know there’s a more cynical take here, that a speech like this changes the narrative away from any questions about Michelle’s new relationship (or her former one, and Kail’s too). But the net result is positive enough that I don’t feel manipulated.
Essentially, watching this, we’re all Busy Philipps – amazed and proud to know someone this quietly strong.