With Spider-Man, Kirsten Dunst’s foray into franchise territory cemented her status as an A-list star and America’s all-American leading lady. She earned tentative carte blanche with her roles. Twenty-one years old and able to write her own ticket, Dunst’s “one for them, one for me” technique became vital as she juggled comic book trolls with her own personal career choices. Unfortunately, the rise of internet fandom, coupled with Spider-Man’s massive box office success, threatened to leave Dunst’s girl next door persona at critical mass.
After the massive undertaking that was Spider-Man, and the fanboy drubbing Dunst took in its wake, she sought to rectify that with three features in 2003. Her major release was in the female-focused drama Mona Lisa Smile, about a group of young women growing up in a 1950s women-only college under the watchful eye of a progressive mentor played by Julia Roberts. Whereas Dunst personified the bright and bubbly blonde, Mona Lisa Smile saw her embrace a villainous side. Ditching blonde locks in favor of a brunette color, her Betty Warren is an entitled rich girl trying to embody the perfect 1950s housewife. Betty marked a departure from Dunst as “the girl” to Dunst as “the wife.” Mona Lisa Smile represented a return to the female-focused films of All I Wanna Do and The Virgin Suicides, albeit without the benefit of a female screenwriter or director.
Unlike her previous “girl” roles in Get Over It and Small Soldiers, Mona Lisa Smile’s script criticized the limitations of women in the domestic sphere, not just in the 1950s but in 2003. It was also the first film that could be considered a critique on the persona Dunst brought to prominence. Betty Warren is desperate to be desired by her husband and beloved by her friends, but ends up pushing them away in her quest for appearances. Dunst made her bones as the idealized girl, but Mona Lisa Smile marks an acknowledgement that her time in the role was fading and that it was burdensome to carry.
Several of Dunst’s films made during and after her Spider-Man performances are palate cleansers, allowing her to shed her Mary-Jane image. The strongest contender is her performance as Mary in Michel Gondry’s fractured romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Mary could fall into Dunst’s previous “girl” roles, but Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay writes her as a lovesick young woman lusting after a married man. The film turns Dunst’s idealization around and projects it onto her boss, scientist Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Kaufman and Gondry’s world is one where no one is unattainably good-looking and everyone is flawed. Mary is the film’s golden girl, but the happy persona seen time and again in Dunst’s work is, like Mona Lisa Smile, a front to hide the fact that her memory has been altered and her life has been filled with sorrow and unrequited love.
Dunst’s first return to the Spider-Man universe, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, sees Mary-Jane attempt to bring a more down-to-Earth appearance and personality to the fore. Gone is Dunst’s dark red hair and makeup in favor of a strawberry blonde mane with a natural beauty. Alongside the cosmetic changes is Dunst’s performance, which is quieter and subtler in spite of the fact that Mary-Jane is still defined by the men in her life. Considered the best Spider-Man movie, this is the weakest, though far from the worst, use of Dunst’s talent.
Spider-Man’s love triangle romance in the second installment is the broadest example of Dunst’s “the girl” persona that segued her towards her her first romance film as an adult. Dunst had starred in films with romantic subplots, but 2004’s Wimbledon features Dunst as a romantic leading lady. As tennis superstar Lizzie Bradbury, Dunst combines the tenacity and athleticism of Bring It On’s Torrance Shipman with the feminist dominance of Verena Von Steffan in All I Wanna Do. Lizzie is a champion and competitor, as well as in control of herself sexually. Like the aforementioned Bring It On, Lizzie’s drive to win leaves her torn between love and success. And, like Spider-Man, Lizzie isn’t the protagonist — it’s Paul Bettany’s Peter Colt. Wimbledon gave Dunst the opportunity to transition into a new genre that fleshed out her characters regardless of narrative weaknesses. She takes that bubbliness and enthusiasm and transfers it towards playing a fully-formed person. No longer the idealization of male fantasy, Wimbledon gives her a character whose success or failure is the narrative crux.
After seven years of playing the teenage dream, Dunst’s all-American girl collapsed in on itself with 2005’s Elizabethtown. After working with Sofia Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Sam Raimi it’s easy to understand why Dunst leapt at the chance to work with Cameron Crowe. His 2000 musical drama Almost Famous secured actress Kate Hudson a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Elizabethtown is the story of a troubled young man named Drew (Orlando Bloom) and his attempt to reconcile with his now-deceased father, aided by a friendly flight attendant (Dunst).
Where Almost Famous’ Penny Lane has a history that bleeds beyond the film’s frame and runtime, Dunst’s Claire Colburn could only exist in a film where a man’s attempt at suicide is a Rube Goldberg device crafted from an exercise bike. Elizabethtown’s impact, and Claire’s character specifically, ended up influencing popular culture with writer Nathan Rabin using her as the first example of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Under his definition, Dunst’s Claire galvanizes Bloom’s staunch, bored character to make something of himself. She doesn’t have any outside interest or plot points that don’t immediately play to Drew’s own becoming. Claire doesn’t have an arc; she’s a steady, straight line. It’s with Elizabethtown that Dunst’s near decade of playing every boy’s dream was shown as the shell for male influence to perpetually fill. Whereas films like The Virgin Suicides and Dick stretched the all-American girl to new heights, Elizabethtown shows it was no longer cute or charming. None of this is Dunst’s fault, much like the criticisms lobbed at her during her tenure in Spider-Man, but it forced her to change her career path.
Returning to Sofia Coppola’s candy-coated world placed Dunst in the role commonly considered her best, though it wasn’t immediately received that way. 2006’s Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s take on the doomed Queen, blending frilly French wardrobe with a predominately American cast and pop music. (Dunst returns to playing, though not sounding, French, not seen since Interview with the Vampire.) A disastrous Cannes screening saw the film panned by critics, although time has been kinder. If Elizabethtown stuck a fork in the girl next door, Marie Antoinette showed the persona, and Dunst’s time within it, as a lonely, isolated existence. The epitome of opulence and elegance, Dunst’s Antoinette is persecuted at every turn — for not having a child, but for being too spunky, for being a bad queen. Between Elizabethtown, Marie Antoinette and Spider-Man 3, Dunst’s life and art begin to imitate each other.
Considered the worst of the franchise, Spider-Man 3 gives Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson the worst, and most mean-spirited, kiss-off. Mary Jane has gone from the perfect dream girl (whose life was anything but) in the first film to a tired young woman who isn’t happy because of her love for a man who can’t be with her. In Spider-Man 3, Mary Jane received criticism for not being worthy of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Her relationship with Peter sees her position usurped by a younger, prettier and blonder incarnation of herself, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Spider-Man 3 marks the arrival of fanboy culture’s effect on women. One scene even has Peter reading damning reviews of Mary Jane on-stage, only to declare that critics don’t know everything. It’s impossible to separate the script’s treatment of Mary Jane with the rampant internet culture that maligned Dunst in the role from day one (and continues to do so). The film also signifys the end of Dunst’s “girl next door” period. She cultivated a personality around male fantasizing, but it’s those fantasies — and her inability to conform to them — that destroyed everything. At just 25, Dunst entered the next phase of her career, working on projects that were narratively interesting and critically praised, but that cast aside all the tropes she once represented.
Next Time: Kirsten Dunst enters the dark side (2008 to 2013).
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.