On August 29th, Kirsten Dunst was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, something that feels long overdue. The actress has had an incredible career spanning decades including roles that can only be classified as iconic. This made it all the more irritating when Reuters characterized the actor as “best known for her role as Spider-Man’s girlfriend” in a since-deleted tweet that set off a claxon through Film Twitter.
The tweet is clearly ridiculous. Not only is it rather sexist, but if you’re familiar with even a bit about Dunst’s filmography, its statement simply cannot be true. As film fans and Dunst stans alike leaped to her defense, I was left to ponder her career and why it feels as though mainstream audiences haven’t lauded her as much as they should. Dunst herself wondered this recently, pointing out that many of her past films were released to relative pans, only to be reclaimed by critics years later.
To some degree, this is how film trends tend to function, especially now with the explosion of online and social media film discourse. However, it does seem like a strangely high percentage of Dunst’s catalog exists in the critical re-evaluation zone while much of her newer material has slid under the radar.
Dunst’s latest work is the Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida. She plays a former beauty queen in the Orlando area in the early 1990s who is forced to take over her husband’s position in a pyramid scheme. Executive produced by Dunst, the show weaves together comedy and tepid tragedy as it widely laments the predatory potential of the American Dream.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida makes use of one of Dunst’s greatest attributes: her prickly side. She is able to get a great amount of humor out of her character’s unwillingness to yield. While never losing the precarity of her situation and the insecurity that comes with it, Dunst plays the role of Krystal Stubbs with unknowable intensity, flashy bravado, and understandable exhaustion, all while clad from head to toe in acid-washed denim.
Another underground Dunst role, one that capitalizes on her ability to portray endurance rivaling only the Terminator’s, can be found in 2012’s Bachelorette. As Regan, a maid of honor from Hell, Dunst deals with a wedding dress disaster and her incapacitated high school friends (Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher). The character is high-strung and jealous. She’s loyal to her friends, yet above all, she puts herself first always.
Dunst’s work here is spectacular. She turns what could be a type-A stereotype into a character with a labyrinthine internal life, a real sadness, and a unique take on the “I’ll do it my damn self” attitude. Regan is a bitter person who resents the people around her for daring to reach life milestones before her. She refuses to fail, and Dunst plays that trait with palpable urgency.
In earlier years, Dunst showcased her seismic range, bouncing from genre-defining teen comedies Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and Bring it On (2000) to such dramas as her collaborations with close friend Sofia Coppola, including Marie Antoinette (2006), and Lars Von Trier’s 2011 masterwork Melancholia (for which she won a Best Actress award at Cannes). Many of her more humorous roles lean angry, which gives her extra complexity and pitch-perfect comic timing.
Interspersed among those titles in her filmography, of course, are Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films — the source of the dense Reuters tweet. Her character, Mary Jane Watson, is often given the short end of the stick in the franchise, generally underwritten and lacking much agency. Dunst performs what is asked of her, but she isn’t necessarily able to force an internal life onto a character seemingly written without one.
In contrast to Mary Jane, Dunst conveys a complex interiority with her stunning early performance as Lux Lisbon in Coppola’s 1999 feature directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. Largely about the mental mysteries of teenage girls, the film has Dunst delivering a career-making performance at only 17 years of age, pushing her past her the promise of her child-actor phase.
Lux is enthralling and heartsick in a way that is always present but never didactic. Dunst grips the camera and doesn’t let go even after the tragic finale, making us chase her throughout Coppola’s masterpiece. In a film invested in the lives of young women, a demographic which tends to be annoyingly written off as trivial, Dunst is a perfect choice. She’s an actor who takes an inch and gives a mile.
Dunst has a spark about her where you look at her and wonder what she could possibly be thinking. This makes her appeal very different from that of other actors. Many performances work because you can read a character’s emotions across their eyes or because you see their lip quiver at the moment right when they break down. Dunst is tougher to decipher and often impossible to know with certainty. She’s a tractor beam for audiences’ eyelines — you can’t look away because every moment is important.
This is not an example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon or the female character who has no internal life and only exists to help a male character’s arc (a la Mary Jane in Spider-Man). Dunst’s characters make you want to break down the door, to find the key that will unlock her mind — not because the internality isn’t there but because it is and you want to see it.
Dunst is at her best — perhaps the best? — when she dances this line between unknowable and instinctive. So, it’s difficult to see her given characters that are ideologically black and white — or worse, just empty vessels. The excavation that can be required from a Dunst role is maybe a tough sell for casual filmgoers, but it leaves so much to be discovered with attention and time.
Maybe this is why so many of her magnificent performances take place in rediscovered works, patiently laying the groundwork for everyone to realize that she is one of the most captivating and capable actors of her generation.