After dabbling in television, voice work and minor roles in prestigious films like 1997’s Wag the Dog, Kirsten Dunst segued into teen stardom. But even when she was given leading roles, the choices illustrate the idea of a “one for the studio, one of the actor” mentality. Dunst’s roles from 1998 to 2002 illustrate her need to conform to studio standards of femininity, balanced with her own personal desire to stretch her wings as a performer. The work personified Dunst as the girl next door (to her detriment in the lead-up to a big role), while giving audiences an underestimated actress eager to challenge the patriarchal views of how women could be presented in movies.
Dunst’s best roles are found within the period pieces she starred in throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, starting with the 1998 comedic drama All I Wanna Do. Sarah Kernochan’s story follows a group of girls in the 1960s as they attempt to prevent their school from going co-ed. The cast, featuring Dunst as Verena von Stefan, includes an ensemble of 90s teen actresses, including Heather Matarazzo and Gaby Hoffman, and it’s not the film’s protagonist (Verena) that galvanizes the girls to action. Like several of the females Dunst played in other period dramas, Verena and her group — the DAR aka Daughters of the American Ravioli — desire to live beyond men’s rules, as well as beyond the bounds of propriety. “No more little white gloves” is their rallying cry.
Kernochan nimbly navigates the group’s desire for boys, sexually and in an attempt to reach gender parity, but asks the question of whether it’s worth giving up power and independence to male domination, and whether that’s something that always follows the arrival of men? Verena is spunky, able to be herself around her girlfriends, but she can’t help falling for a visiting boy who, in many ways, is just like her. Verena concedes that relationships of all stripes are important, and there’s no judgement in her willingness to both be a leader and have a man on her arm. Dunst’s filmography is filled with daring characters, written and directed by women, that have been let down by the male-dominated system.
Evidence of Dunst’s ability to balance frisky feminist fare with dumbed-down “girl” parts is her other 1998 movie, Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. This zany story, featuring toys that go rogue after munitions chips are placed in them, is a cautionary tale about the limits of technology aimed at children, one that’s as dated as the Spice Girls song that serves a crucial plotpoint. Dunst goes from the florid and fleshed out Verena to the blah Christy Fimple, a girl too beautiful for a last name that rhymes with “pimple.” Dunst is the literal girl next door whose only purpose is to be the eye-catching prize for Gregory Smith’s troubled Alan Abernathy.
It wouldn’t be until a decade later that Dunst became the poster child for the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” but the trope has its roots in Small Soldiers. Christy’s character is a “bad girl,” in the sense that she dates guys who ride motorcycles and stay out late. Her smile and general prettiness are enough to cause Alan to commit petty theft to impress her and her little brother. Outside of one moment where Dunst is allowed to lose it on some Barbie doll knockoffs — appropriately voiced by 90s icons Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci — it’s a waste of Dunst’s talent. It’s no surprise she’d later work in a sobering TV adaptation of the YA novel The Devil’s Arithmetic before turning in one of her top performances.
Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is a dark tale of female oppression, as told through the eyes of a group of young boys unable to fathom the sheer constriction of being female. The eventual adaptation of the novel wasn’t just a proving ground for Dunst’s transition into being a serious teen performer, as it introduced one of Hollywood’s leading female filmmakers, Sofia Coppola.
For Lux Lisbon, Dunst combines Christy Fimple’s bad girl aspirations with the rebellious spirit of Verena von Stefan. Lux is the object of affection for nearly everyone in her high school, but she’s unattainable by choice. Surrounding men idealize her, and while she allows one to get close — Josh Hartnett’s Trip Fontaine — it proves that the fears established in All I Wanna Do are well-founded. Coppola’s film, and Dunst’s performance, showcase a world where being female leaves Lux at the whim of numerous competing desires, whether it’s that of parents, high school boys or society at large. These themes would pop up again in Dunst’s later pairings with Coppola: 2006’s Marie Antoinette and 2017’s The Beguiled.
It’s unfortunate that Dunst’s work in The Virgin Suicides wasn’t recognized by the Academy. Possibly inspired by the freedom that comes from playing fully realized young women, Dunst subsequently starred in two of the most subversive comedies of her career.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) is in the vein of All I Wanna Do, a black comedy/mockumentary about beauty queens living in Mount Rose, Minnesota. As white trash contestant Amber Atkins, Dunst sends up small-town classism in a woefully bleak story. Scripted by Lona Williams, Drop Dead Gorgeous’ vision is similar to The Virgin Suicides. Whereas Coppola says it is only through death or isolation that women can find true freedom and acceptance, Williams cynically posits that female happiness only comes at the expense of others. The girls’ struggles see them desperate to utilize the beauty pageant as a means of leaving their crappy town. Amber Atkins is a nice girl with big-city dreams, and even though many of her opportunities come from pure chance, her character still profits from them. Amber moves up the ranks of beauty queendom through a process of elimination, whether it be a falling Klieg light that knocks someone out or an exploding swan that kills the initial Mount Rose American Teen Princess.
Between The Virgin Suicides, Drop Dead Gorgeous and 1999’s Dick, Dunst found her ability to be funny, charming and poignant in films not just written or directed by women, but productions that put ladies at the forefront of their stories. Co-written by Sheryl Longin and Andrew Fleming, Dick is a reimagining of the Watergate scandal, with Dunst’s Betsy Jobs as one half of the notorious whistleblower known as “Deep Throat.” Like her previous period films, Dunst is fun and flippant, dimwitted but never stupid. Betsy and best friend Arlene’s (Michelle Williams) inanity doesn’t symbolize a lack of intelligence, but rather the fact that they’re “stupid teenage girls.” The women are judged by domineering men who think they can run roughshod over the pair.
Dick puts one of the most serious modern Presidential scandals in the hands of women, showing the scandal itself as dumb, and how it all came about through male posturing. No one comes out unscathed except for Betsy and Arlene; even the “heroes,” Woodward and Bernstein (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch), are peacocking showboaters who refuse to admit Deep Throat’s true identity because “it’s too embarrassing” for them. Betsy and Arlene save America, if only for a moment, and find plenty of time to write a paper on turquoise jewelry!
For how prominent Dunst was in the 90s, it wasn’t until the beginning of the millennium that she would undeniably be considered a star, courtesy of the film Bring It On. In previous teen movies, cheerleaders were booty-shaking sex objects, on the sidelines, for the delight of male protagonists. Yet, Bring It On illustrates the rigorous nature of cheerleading, and the harsh judgments involved. Dunst’s Torrance Shipman is tasked with getting her squad another national title, only to find out they’ve been stealing cheers from an inner-city school. Bring It On’s racial politics are fascinating, and it’s worth pointing out that up to this point, Dunst’s filmography is incredibly white.
The characters in Dunst’s comedies are never oblivious to their sexuality and circumstances, but the films don’t focus on those elements. In Bring It On, Torrance is given a reciprocal romance, one not mired in love/hate like All I Wanna Do, or “troubled” like Small Soldiers. Dunst is sexy, energetic and determined in equal measure, the object of desire that desires someone back. The film’s massive success isn’t due to the script or a desire to see girls in short skirts. Dunst’s Torrance is an everywoman, not too beautiful to be unattainable for guys and yet relatable to young girls, and who questions her confidence not unlike the numerous teens flocking to see it. Bring It On marked the era of Kirsten Dunst: Box Office Starlet.
So, why was her follow-up such a disaster? 2001’s Get Over It, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a latecomer to the teen Bard adaptations that started with 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Dunst returns as the pre-Manic Pixie Dream Girl similar to Small Soldiers’ Christy. Dunst’s Kelly (the name is just as bland) does little more than compel the film’s protagonist, Berke (Ben Foster), to learn Shakespeare in order to get his girlfriend back. Surprise, surprise — Berke realizes that Kelly is his true love and decides to date her. Get Over It highlights Dunst’s lovely singing voice, but after the success of Bring It On, it’s a serious comedown. Dunst never comes off as being anything more than woefully miscast.
With a spate of comedies done and her last dismally inferior, it’s no surprise that Dunst segued into drama. After playing the all-American girl next door, it’s evident the actress wanted to show she could tarnish that image. 2001’s Crazy/Beautiful is a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance starring Dunst as a privileged and anguished rich girl, Nicole, who falls in love with a poor boy named Carlos (Jay Hernandez). Rocking a razored bob, little makeup and grungy clothes, Dunst demonstrates her capabilities as an actress removed of her looks. As a character, Nicole is irresistible until her demons arrive, a performance that could have inspired other drunken teen characters like Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now. Crazy/Beautiful is also the first major Dunst performance featuring the actress in a sex scene. Whereas her previous sexual object characters never went that far, Nicole practices what she preaches. (It’s been said that director John Stockwell initially wanted Dunst to film a nude scene, but the actress refused; further proof of Hollywood’s ownership of female bodies.) And much like Bring It On, Dunst’s interracial relationship with Hernandez’s Carlos is met with sweetness and sensitivity while opening the landscape to other cultures.
Some stars try to play high-schoolers well past their point of expiration, yet by 2001, Dunst seems ready to graduate and makes the smart choice to dip her toes in the waters of adult roles. Up to this point, the biggest “name” director Dunst had worked with was Sofia Coppola. In 2001, she worked with Peter Bogdanovich in The Cat’s Meow, another reimagining, in the vein of Dick, that looks at the unsolved death of silent film director Thomas Ince. Dunst played real-life silent film star and William Randolph Hearst’s long-time mistress, Marion Davies. Dunst admitted knowing nothing about the character, leaving her at a distance from classic film fans (not the first time Dunst would be maligned by fans of a source material). However, her role as Davies builds on all the historical films Dunst did previously. WIth a budget and a serious script, Dunst shines as a woman hampered by male control, spied on by her lover and ultimately placed in the middle of a murder plot. The Cat’s Meow is a culmination of nearly every female-driven film and period comedy that Dunst had starred in.
But the Dunst performance often noticed in 2001, for good and ill, was her first turn as Peter Parker’s red-headed love interest, Mary Jane Watson, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The early 2000s saw the comic book adaptation explode on-screen, and with internet fanboy culture growing, Dunst’s Mary Jane is possibly one of the first stars to be dumped on by audiences for failing to adhere to their preconceived notions. Criticisms of whether Dunst was the best actress for the part still rage today.
Dunst is hampered by a script that posits her Mary Jane in a like-minded manner to her characters in Small Soldiers and Get Over It. Her Mary Jane comes from a broken home, has little ambition and she’s a damsel in distress. Her only thoughts are for which man she’ll end up with. It’s impossible not to be disturbed while Mary Jane is nearly assaulted by goons, but thank God she gets to have an upside-down kiss with Spidey as an apology. Dunst did the best she could with what she had, and her leading lady status allowed her to play riskier characters whose existence would be justified by her star power. Within the overall context of Dunst’s filmography to this point, Mary-Jane is generic, but the role opened the door for the actress to make the tough transition from adolescent to leading lady.
NEXT TIME: Kirsten Dunst as a bonafide star, charting her career from 2003 to Spider-Man 3!
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.