Let us now hail Connie Britton. With a steadiness remarkable for Hollywood, the actress, 55, has given us character after character who explicate facets of North American womanhood. From her Manhattan working girl beginnings on the sitcom Spin City, to her warm-’n-wise West Texas football coach’s wife on Friday Night Lights, to her country music queen clinging ferociously to her crown on Nashville, she transforms herself into an Everywoman we wish we were. Lately, though, Britton has taken a fascinating dive into a narrower niche, playing one-percenters trapped inside self-imposed expectations.
In her latest, the new AppleTV+ series Dear Edward, she’s Dee Dee, an ultra-groomed mother of a university-student daughter, with a husband who calls her his princess and a seemingly limitless budget for designer frocks and champagne luncheons. (“Sorry, ducks,” she singsongs, before chomping into foie gras.) When she lets her guard down, however, we can hear the ghost of a streetwise New Jersey accent – a glimpse into her unglamorous upbringing. After her husband dies in a plane crash, she learns that he wasn’t who he pretended to be, and their fairy tale life was just that.
Dee Dee’s honeyed highlights and glowy skin look right at home next to Britton’s other moneyed characters: Nicole in season one of The White Lotus, the CFO of a search engine company, whose success makes her family’s swanky Hawaiian resort vacation possible, though none of them thank her for it. Debra in Dirty John, a high-end interior designer who can’t accept that she’s being swindled by a con man. Faye Resnick in The People vs O.J. Simpson, the much-divorced socialite and frenemy to Nicole Brown Simpson.
“I’ve been really interested in the trend I’ve noticed over the last seven years or so, even politically, where I see women holding onto cultural norms and ideas that have been passed down to us, that in my opinion don’t empower us,” Britton told me in a recent video interview. “I see these women holding on so tightly to their disempowerment. Why? I think they must feel a sense of safety there.”
The real women she’s observing, and the characters she’s creating in their image, “are taught that it’s a man’s world, and they exist because of whatever man is in their life. They’re brought up to believe that, and that impacts the choices they make.” Part of Britton’s appeal is that she doesn’t judge them – she wants to know what makes them tick.
“The façade that Dee Dee has created for herself – it’s so recognizable,” Britton says. “I watched a lot of Real Housewives of New Jersey preparing for this. She’s a woman from humble beginnings who put herself together in this expensive way, who entrusted her life completely to her husband, and who played by a specific set of cultural rules. And she gained a status that is believed to be superior by our culture. But who is that woman, really? After everything shatters, after she loses all the material things that she assumes are who she is, she’s forced to find out what power and strength she might have underneath.”
Dee Dee is fictional, but Debra in Dirty John and Faye Resnick are real women who bought into the fairy tale again and again, despite ample evidence that there was no there there. They’re a long way from the character that first made me fall in love with Britton: Nikki on Spin City, the wisecracking accountant in the office of the deputy mayor of New York, played by Michael J. Fox. There were several glorious New York women on that show – Faith Prince, Jennifer Esposito, Carla Gugino – but Britton stood out. She towered above Fox and didn’t care. She took up space.
But she was the lone woman on the poster, and she struggled to make it on her own. I think the kind of life she represented – scrappy, independent, uncertain, demanding – scared the hell out of as many women as it inspired. The promises of feminism slammed up against 50 per cent divorce rates and unceasing child care struggles and a patriarchy that said, “Thanks, but I prefer not to make room.” And a whole lot of savvy women fell back to buying enormous quantities of throw pillows for their husbands’ McMansions.
Nicole in The White Lotus is a cautionary tale for those women. She does run her own life, but she’s vilified for it, both by her own family and by women who claim to admire her. (The scene where Nicole eviscerates Alexandra Daddario’s character, a faux-innocent clickbait journalist who just bagged a rich hubbie of her own, is an instant classic.)
“Exactly,” Britton says. “There’s such a double standard. I was brought up to believe I could do whatever I wanted.” Born in Massachusetts to a physicist father, she attended high school in Virginia, where she acted in school plays. She majored in Asian studies at Dartmouth College, and spent a summer studying at Beijing Normal University, where one of her classmates was U.S. senator Kirsten Gillibrand. In 1989, she moved to New York and studied acting with the storied coach Sanford Meisner.
To Britton, “doing whatever she wanted” meant, “I can be a wife and mother, and I can have the career of my dreams,” she continues. “But we don’t have models for that, and the culture is not built for it. So then we turn inwards on ourselves and implode, because we feel we’re failing, we’re doing it wrong. And the people in our lives are like, ‘You are failing, you are doing it wrong, you’re failing me!’ Because you’re supposed to prioritize being an amazing mother and wife. Our culture has a long way to go in terms of truly making space for anything else.”
So Britton’s carving out that space for us. She’s using the good will she earned in West Texas and Nashville to talk to women of every ilk. “It’s a goal for me, to play roles that impact women, to help them see themselves better, and see each other better,” she concludes. “I’m cognizant that I can make an impact. I want the work I’m doing to be something useful that way.”
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