Michelle Williams has, in an act of profound sympathy and of ecstatic transformation, given another astounding performance in a career full of them. And it’s in the unlikeliest of venues.
One might expect the audiobook for Britney Spears’ memoir “The Woman in Me” to have been narrated by its author — herself no stranger to performing. But, in the book’s introduction, Spears goes on mic to explain that the book’s subject matter is too emotional for her to read aloud. And so, it falls to the five-time Oscar nominee to give voice to the contours of Spears’ life.
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It’s a canny choice, and a surprising one. The first time in a while that many people had heard Britney Spears’ voice — not her world-beatingly unique singing voice, the one to which we’ve grown accustomed from endless radio replays, but her plain, everyday speaking voice — was startling and raw. Her 2021 testimony in a California court, pleading with the judge to end her ongoing conservatorship was nervy and adamant; emotion pulsed through it in a manner that felt close to bursting. It was that emotional power that made her case, every bit as much as her words. And Spears’ introduction to the book plays similarly, with a hot-blooded sense of wanting to blurt her truth out, all at once. Williams, a step removed from the story, animates Spears’ sense of injustice and the highs and lows of her life with a cooler touch.
This touch, this delicate remove from the harsh times through which Spears has lived, enables Williams seamlessly to inhabit, and then to bridge, the eras of Spears’ life. She doesn’t put on an accent, exactly, but she summons an affect 10 degrees folksier than her own, as Spears recollects childhood; a moment in which Spears recalls meeting a crush on the set of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” declaring, “My little heart just went to the floor!” allows Williams to convey, at once, the ease with which a child can be lovestruck, and a rueful adult’s retrospective sense of just how dramatic kids can be. (There’s a similar moment of painfully earnest naivete, later, when she describes her joy at living, with her husband and children, in a house with a slide leading to the pool that left my own little heart on the floor.)
Williams is funny here too, in the observant and off-kilter way that Spears — who reminds us that she was a two-time “Saturday Night Live” host — is funny. A clip of Williams imitating Spears’ recollection of Justin Timberlake, desperately trying to impress rapper Ginuwine with affected street cred, has gone viral — repeating cringe-inducing ‘00s slang with an air of white-boy confidence. And mirth enters her voice when she describes how pampered younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears’ life resembled the pop song “7 Rings,” an observation that might otherwise read as chilly. Throughout, Williams finds the character: A slight indulgence enters the actress’ voice as she recalls the peak of Spears’ music career, when she felt, as the text has it, “like a woman and a child all in one.” Williams lends the phrasing, and the sweet memories around it, a child’s innocence and a grown-up’s experience. And when Spears interrupts her recollection of a long letter Timberlake wrote her after their breakup to say, “It makes me want to cry to think about it,” it seems like a thought that is coursing across Williams’ mind, or a feeling that is coursing through her heart, in that very moment.
Spears’ great gift in her performing career was her ability to, through endless hours of practice, find her way toward an inspiring precision. That her preternatural skill for absolutely nailing dance moves overlay a real woman’s emotional life — replete with unresolved childhood traumas and grown-up challenges — that no one in her life could help her through was the tragedy she lived through. Williams finds her way toward both sides of Spears, illustrating the joy she felt in the rehearsal studio with emphatic energy, and the confusion and loneliness she felt with a wistfulness that somehow never feels put on. She brings her character from childhood to adulthood without losing sight of certain constants: the feeling of loneliness, the need for protection, the joy of performing.
But then, Williams is, perhaps, built for this. (The only other actress of her class that might have done a similarly elegant job may be Natalie Portman, who knows how to play both heartache and perfectionism, but who literally features in the text as a friend of Spears’, too.) Williams’ persona exists alongside the text of “The Woman in Me,” overlaying it like a colored filter, providing Spears’ story new shading, new angles. Perhaps Williams’ greatest onscreen performance was as a mother consumed by the loss of her children in “Manchester by the Sea”; as Williams speaks aloud Spears’ sense of profound isolation after losing custody of her sons, we hear this barely-getting-through-life grief once again. And lately, Williams has specialized in playing women whose artistic ambition collides with the realities of life, leaving them thwarted and frustratingly blocked. Inhabiting the story of a woman set free by song, then trapped within a labyrinth of contracts and obligations, we hear the jilted dancer of “Fosse/Verdon,” the endlessly imposed-upon sculptor of “Showing Up,” the mother struggling to find her artistry in “The Fabelmans.” We hear, perhaps, a bit of the Marilyn Monroe no director believed could be a real actress, from “My Week With Marilyn.”
And it’s the Marilyn role, too, as a woman who lived as the target of the world’s contemptuous gaze, that points out another painful similarity. That film played upon a sense that Williams has been through a wringer that looks not unlike the one Spears endured, albeit with a different outcome. She was a teen star who had to claw her way toward artistic respectability, and, in her personal life, the target of intense and cruel scrutiny after the 2008 death of Heath Ledger, who had been her romantic partner and was the father of her young child. The feeding frenzy over Ledger’s death began the very same month that Spears was placed under a 72-hour lockdown against her will, sparking a series of events that would lead to her conservatorship. Williams emerged from her time as the biggest story in the world; Spears, it seems, is beginning to.
But the magnitude of Spears’ fame has a certain alienating effect: It’s hard, reading “The Woman in Me,” to grapple with the notion that it’s Spears herself telling the story, just because — well, as the saying goes, “It’s Britney, bitch.” She’s been spoken for by other people for so long that our default is to understand her through an interlocutor, through someone else’s interpretation. That, ironically enough, is where Williams’ performance gains its power and its meaning. Sitting at enough of a remove from the story to find within it small moments to emphasize and a greater arc to play out, Williams speaks as Spears, but not for her. She breathes life into a story that the person who lived through it finds too emotional to speak aloud. Williams’ performance as Spears helps make the case for this much-maligned pop singer as an artist. And it is, itself, great art.
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