2017 Film Essays

My Summer of Dunst: Volume 1

Women have a shelf life in Hollywood. This isn’t a revelation. As Goldie Hawn’s character in The First Wives Club says, “there are only three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney and Driving Ms. Daisy.” Actresses try their hardest to stay eternally youthful, but how do they handle transitioning from one category to the next? The best example is found with actress Kirsten Dunst, whose career has transitioned several times with various levels of success, and with an eye towards changing her persona, both as a performer and a woman in the industry.

How Dunst’s movies present her, and how the audience is meant to perceive her, does a lot towards showing the uphill battle women face as they age in media. This initial article, and subsequent volumes in the series, chart the actress’ career through a variety of her features, with an eye towards illustrating her changing persona in light of the media response to aging femininity.

Dunst’s first appearance on film was at the age of 7 in 1989’s New York Stories. Five years passed before Dunst burst into the collective consciousness with a trio of titles that continue to hold a beloved place in many a millennial’s heart: Interview with the Vampire, Little Women and Jumanji. Outside of their 90s release, all three play to different facets of young film fans, from the literary book worm, to those seeking a heartwarming family film, or kids interested in action and adventure. The fact that all three have plans to be remade for today’s audiences show their continuing appeal, but they’re also products of their time whether in terms of tone (Interview with the Vampire) or effects (Jumanji). As a showcase for their leading lady, each presents Dunst in a specific way that would carry over into her subsequent features.

In Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, Dunst’s portrayal of Claudia reclaims the “little girl with the curls” figure in favor of a cold and calculating sociopath. Audiences are introduced to Claudia as a Dickensian street waif whose mother has died from the plague. (Despite Dunst dropping the word “monsieur,” there’s nothing French in her performance, a similar sentiment she’d hear 12 years later with her performance in Marie Antoinette.) Claudia is dirty, with lank hair, lacking anything spectacular other than her youth.

Her “resurrection” at the hands of Brad Pitt’s vampire, Louis, is the first indication this is a young woman with sexuality. She’s given a rosy blush, and her hair is a mess of ringlets, not unlike Mary Pickford. But where Pickford played the scrappy, young waif who makes good, Claudia manipulates others with her innocence in order to achieve her aims and kill; a woman who sees her as a “lost child” becomes a snack, a doll Claudia wants becomes hers at the expense of the shop owner. By being reborn a vampire, Claudia possesses an omnipotent sense of independence and confidence. She takes the little girl persona and shapes it into a source of dominance. Dunst’s career would see her play many independent women whose goals are often at the expense of others’ happiness, or her own; later roles in various romantic comedies play on this push and pull between desire and sacrifice.

As a child star, Dunst’s characters never play on sexuality. Outside of a chaste kiss with Louis, there’s never a hint that the two will become anything more than surrogate father and daughter. As she got older, Dunst’s characters would emphasize a fun friskiness that’s sexy, but remain tempered and tame. In several films, Dunst’s characters are often unaware or uninterested in their sexuality, in spite of the character’s obvious beauty. Like many young actresses in the 90s, the liminal threshold between child and sex object is blurred.

As Claudia ages, her unreciprocated love for Louis takes center stage. Interview with the Vampire remains thoroughly chaste in Claudia’s relationship with Louis, emphasizing the girl’s impotence at her inability to change and become a sexual object. She cuts her hair only to watch in horror as it grows back. Her only means of obtaining sexuality is by murdering a woman and hiding her nude corpse amongst her dolls, an ironic jab at Claudia’s living toy existence. It is this moment that situates the balancing act that kickstarted Dunst’s early career.

Interview with the Vampire is an outlier in Dunst’s early filmography, as many of her roles lack the nuance and depth of Claudia. As Amy March in the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Dunst continues to hearken back to child stars of the classic era. Whereas she emulates Mary Pickford in Interview with the Vampire, Little Women sees her playing a role embodied by titans Elizabeth Taylor (in 1949’s interpretation) and Joan Bennett (in 1933), though Dunst’s Amy is the only one where actor and character are the same age. As with the original novel, Dunst’s Amy is impulsive and obnoxious. Her naivety about the world is in stark contrast to Claudia’s scheming and manipulation.

Any sexuality Amy possesses comes through in her romanticized view of the world. Her love for neighbor Laurie (Christian Bale) is steeped in the literary tradition. The two share a carriage ride as Amy opines about dying before receiving her first kiss, which Laurie promises to deliver “before you die.” Their relationship only manifests once Amy transitions into adulthood, played by Samantha Mathis in the film’s latter half. Unlike Interview with the Vampire, Dunst’s sexuality is removed and presented as a stopgap before being handed over to an older, more experienced actress.

Jumanji could be labeled Dunst’s first foray into action films. Joe Johnston’s adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book sees Dunst as Judy, a pathological liar who’s moved to a new house with her younger brother after their parents die. The two uncover the mysterious game of the title, and are forced to band together with a man-child past player (played by Robin Williams). The relentless action that propels the narrative pushes the actors, with the exception of Williams, to the side. No one would say this is Dunst’s film, and it marks one of several films where Dunst resides within the frame and nothing more. Judy is funny and feisty in the film’s initial scenes, but after the plot takes effect, she is little more than a piece of the game. The finale itself doesn’t even give her character proper catharsis, as Williams’ character, now all grown-up, saves her parents in a bit of time travel trickery. When the audience sees Judy and her brother, she is a smiling, happy child who, presumably, never has to lie again. It’s a boring “girl” character that Dunst would play at several points throughout her career.

Unlike former child stars Natalie Wood or Margaret O’Brien, Kirsten Dunst’s adolescent career is a state of becoming. Her sexuality would become more of a focal point in future films, but it was often something bizarre and unspoken of in several characters, and her tendency to disappear opposite bigger, more colorful stars would continue. She’d come into her own more as an adolescent, when the films more clearly illustrated facets of her personality, or the personality audiences wanted her to have.

Next Time: Dunst as an adolescence, focusing on her films from the late-90s up until 2002’s Spider-Man.

Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film) is a freelance writer from Sacramento with a Masters in English. In her free time, she runs a classic film website and podcast where she’s had an opportunity to work with TCM. Kristen has been published at Flavorwire, Film School Rejects, The Playlist and Awards Circuit.

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