At a glance, you might recognise Kirsten Dunst first and foremost from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, but she is capable of a whole lot more than just the damsel-in-distress role. Dunst is undoubtedly one of the strongest and most versatile actresses in Hollywood at the moment, starring in plenty of empowering and captivating roles before and after her turn as the iconic Mary Jane. From an early age, Dunst has proven to the world that her stoic and reserved personas are only some of the plethora of talents that she has as an actress— leaving audiences captivated to no end as she proves how remarkable of a star she is.
Whether Dunst edges towards drama or dark comedy, a horror film or a romantic picture, her dedication and powerful intake of her designated role leaves us praising and celebrating the legendary actress, whether it be her blockbuster hits or small indie projects. But, recently, while being honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on August 29th, Dunst revealed in an interview that she has felt ignored by the industry for most of her career, and left in a place where she has never been granted proper recognition for her work.
Dunst has a series of best-loved characters that have been caught in the emotional swirl of adolescence, the pain of puberty and the eagerness to strive their own worth. Her films have generally leaned towards coming-of-age themes, consistently told through the lens of female writers and directors – particularly her close collaborator and best friend, Sofia Coppola. Gradually moving away to work on more mature projects throughout the years, Kirsten has proven within her acting resume that she’s a near-permanent fixture in Hollywood that we need to see on our screens more regularly. Especially when it comes to her best roles.
THE BIG HITS:
The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola
The Virgin Suicides was the first film Dunst collaborated with writer-director Sofia Coppola on, and the first film that made me fall in love with her. Set in an ordinary suburban house, on a lovely-tree lined street in the middle of 1970s America, the dramatic and dreamlike story captures the lives of five sisters kept under strict rules by their religious conservative parents. The film is one of the earliest indications of the talent within Dunst; playing fourteen-year-old Lux Lisbon, Dunst pulls her role off beautifully. It’s as mesmerising looking at her on screen as it is for the neighbourhood boys who stare at her in awe. Dunst has an effortless ability to manufacture the attraction that Lux obtains, disguising herself as a woman who masks the pain of heartbreak behind her beatific gaze. Lux will be remembered as a great character of the high school realm – or, as the fast-forward lover Trip Fontaine stated, “the still point of the turning world.”
Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier
Possibly one of Lars von Trier’s most accessible films, Melancholia is undoubtedly one of the best films of its year. As a planet hurtles toward a collision course with Earth, two sisters (one of them recovering from a heavy bout of depression and a failed marriage) cope with the burden of destiny that weighs on them in very different ways. Dunst is operatic in execution and flawlessly captures her intense character with the exceptional ensemble that the film brings around it. Enrolling as a bride on the verge of a breakdown as the world around her inches closer and closer to the end, the role is, without question, one of the most eliciting career-best performances Kirsten could have in her filmography.
The Beguiled (2017) dir. Sofia Coppola
For their third collaboration, Kirsten and Sofia joined hands to create an alternate take on The Beguiled, an 1966 out-of-print novel by Thomas Cullinan. As in The Virgin Suicides, the duo proves yet again their dedication and consistency within the process of adaptation, displaying a tantalising flirtatious matrix that you can’t shake off. In an all-female Southern boarding school, where the teachers and students seem more than willing to help, sexual tensions and dangerous rivalries start to arise once an injured Union soldier finds himself in their presence, seeking refuge as well as companionship. Dunst takes the role of “delicate beauty” Edwina Dabney, a gentle and studious teacher who takes charge of the girls, with a strong and caring demeanour that is really beautiful to see on screen. The film undeniably marks a great success within Dunst’s acting career, as it not only exemplifies the multiplex stardom that the actress holds, but showcases an extravagant indie film that puts a lot more leverage on Dunst’s profession.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) dir. Michel Gondry
For Michel Gondry’s second feature, the filmmaker teamed up with the magnificent mind of Charlie Kaufman and embarked on a fabulously imaginative and offbeat love story in reverse, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, the film is unpredictably tender and twisted that the extreme undergoing procedures to rid memories of former relationships wouldn’t have been the same if Kirsten wasn’t somehow linked throughout its picture. Approaching the film as a supporting lead, Dunst plays Mary, a Lacuna receptionist who finds herself involved in a love triangle and more as the mind-bending journey dwells on. Bringing her all, Dunst showcases the blissful things she can do with such a small amount of screen time, as well as the assistance she can lend in making a tale even more special. It’s perfect, and “the stupid girl with the stupid crush” is part of what makes Eternal Sunshine so unique.
These collaborations might not be many moviegoers’ favourite mainstream hits, but such honourable mentions are nothing more than a further demonstration on what our favourite American leading lady can do.
Crazy/Beautiful (2001) dir. John Stockwell
Perhaps one of Kirsten’s most breakthrough roles, Crazy/Beautiful tells the story of two high school students who fall for each other from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Dunst plays Nicole Oakley, the self-destructive, distorted and troubled daughter of a wealthy Californian congressman, who channels her upscale tendencies towards straight-A student Carlos Nuñez. Without a doubt, the film puts Dunst in the limelight where she can express just how much of a versatile actor she is, and distinguishes her nature of acting as something more than a virtue of “cute girl” roles. It’s objectively a film that not only bases its narrative on influence, attraction and corruption, but belies a deeper project that injects cultural issues, family dynamics and teenage depression – something Dunst approaches with ambition and insight, showcasing her ability as an actress.
Elizabethtown (2005) dir. Cameron Crowe
Regarded by some moviegoers as one of the worst American films ever made, Elizabethtown still doesn’t downplay the whimsical and jolly satire that Kirsten Dunst enrols in her character, Claire Colburn. Elizabethtown focuses on the surface of romance through interpersonal dramas and high-stake emotional conflict between characters and their darkest secrets. Dunst is understandably like a ray of sunshine in this film; there are so many layers to her character that it feels like she’s been developed through an operation of goodness and generosity. And it’s true what she says: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.”
Mona Lisa Smile (2003) dir. Mike Newell
With a film that demonstrates an important topic regarding women’s rights to succeed during the fifties, Dunst displays a truthful and critical role that fits right into how young females thought of the time, and just how little means they had to succeed in a town filled with condescending men. While also competing against various other female characters within the film, Dunst manages to shine the brightest as the outspoken and scathing Wellesley senior, who, with the overly-privileged and intransigent alpha girl outlook, manages to learn a thing or two about female self-empowerment and feminism.
Bachelorette (2012) dir. Leslye Headland
It’s rare that you’d see Kirsten in a film like Bachelorette, but when you do, it feels like you’ve spotted a goldmine. The 2012 film follows three bridesmaids on a frantic search for a replacement on their friend’s wedding dress that they’d previously ruined. Dunst plays the “fucking miserable” Regan, a beautiful and deeply self-loathing thirty-something best friend that leads the friendship group as a mother figure, but stays “incompetent” at best. Constantly eye-rolling and tightening her symmetrical features enough to express her envy and rage, Dunst plays one of most two-faced, yet fiercely organised and sweetest, characters that we’ve ever seen her play in cinema – and it’s so refreshing!
The Cat’s Meow (2001) dir. Peter Bogdanovic
Taking on the role of one of Hollywood’s greatest American film stars, there’s no doubt that today’s exceptional leading lady doesn’t shine through with the same beaming flames of delight as the first and funniest screwball comedian once did. Swinging her body to the rhythm of the Charleston, blonde strands of curls bouncing with her character’s noted “spunk”, Dunst portrays the infamous “goldfinger” splendidly – even embarking on Davis’ lively speeches as the enthusiastic toast-maker at daytime, and the notorious flirt during the night.
The Two Faces of January (2014) dir. Hossein Amini
Sunlit on the Acropolis, The Two Faces of January is based on themes of duplicity and mystery that intertwine their way around two elegant arrivals, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Collette MacFarland (Dunst). Placed in the gorgeous, evocative landscape of Greece, Dunst’s sophistication and glamour turn the heads of the volatile men around her, but catch the eye of the resourceful American Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who immediately takes an interest in her. The character-driven film ultimately shows the craft and versatility Dunst has as an actress, her performance coming off merely intelligent as her love-triangle accelerates the psychological groundwork of the film to have a much more sympathetic, and mesmerising grip on the life-or-death climax and Collette’s dark and tragic fate.
Woodshock (2017) dir. Kate and Laura Mulleavy
Told with a hypnotic exploration of isolation, loss, paranoia, and grief that exists in a dream-world of its own, Woodshock tells the life of a disparate young woman, Theresa, who spirals into a pit of confusion when she falls under the spell of a potent, reality-altering drug. Played by Dunst herself, the film is remarkable in its own gorgeous and ghostly way, an experimental film that takes on the hook of weirdness for the sake of weirdness – but nothing else. With a drug-hazed film that looks interesting, Dunst undeniably shines, putting in hard emotional work for her performance as Theresa. Capturing the feel of the depressed state and reflection, Dunst is remarkable in the shoes of the hallucinating dreamer, and is merely the main reason to give the film your time to watch.
by Keli Williams
Keli Williams is a freelance writer based in Liverpool. She loves all things cinema and Paul Thomas Anderson. Her favourite films include Almost Famous, Suspiria, The Virgin Suicides, and Chungking Express. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd at @beforesnrise
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