2017 Film Essays

My Summer of Dunst: Series Conclusion

In her career, Kirsten Dunst has laughed, cried and cheered. She’s been the good girl, the bad girl and just “the girl.” But after spotlighting her career with this series, what does it say about Dunst in the greater landscape of Hollywood? After watching her movies, it’s evident that she perfectly encapsulates the Hollywood machine when it comes to actresses. Let’s say goodbye to the Summer of Dunst and see what’s left.

The Hollywood life cycle of an actress seems as well-known as the romantic journey. Hollywood meets girl. Hollywood turns girl into every boy’s wet dream. Hollywood decides to begin seeing younger, hotter girls and throws the old one aside. Dunst’s start as a child star gave her the best advantage, both from a money and audience standpoint. Any young millenial probably has fond memories of Dunst’s role in Jumanji or Interview with a Vampire. Beginning her career so early gave her an extended shelf life and a legion of built-in fans who would want to grow alongside her. The roles weren’t emotionally complex or deep, but they built a fanbase.

Dunst is one of those stars who fortuitously grew up alongside her fans, and her career has often catered to their changing… mentality. Works like Small Soldiers, Get Over It, and even her career highlight Bring It On, were all created to please the growing sex drive of adolescent boys. Dunst gyrating in a bikini or flashing a dimpled smile was enough to sell the movies and her relationship with the rather nerdy male protagonists. Small Soldiers and Get Over It, in particular, put the audience perspective on their male characters, played by the unassuming Gregory Smith and Ben Foster, respectively, as surrogates for the male audience, telling them “One day, you can also have a Kirsten Dunst.”

But Dunst was always an active participant in her career, capably navigating the “one for the studio, one for me” principle. It explains why, during her period of adolescent sexualization, she was laying the groundwork for becoming a feminist character actress. As Dunst wasted her time with big-budget pap like Small Soldiers, she was working on fun period throwbacks like All I Wanna DoDick and the black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous. These films, though not critical or commercial successes, presented Dunst as part of a powerful ensemble of women. Her characters were funny and had the tendency to be ditzes, but they were never not in command of their own stories.

Dunst’s continuing fascination with telling female stories would culminate with the addition of a female behind the camera. As she worked her way up to her biggest career success in Bring It On, Dunst combined that with her greatest critical success in the first of three collaborations with director Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides took Dunst’s career up to that point and allowed her to snub her nose at it, playing a character who refuses to be an object of lust. It’s ironic that this was coupled with her role as Torrance Shipman in Bring It On, but the two act as the perfect combination of how Dunst managed her career. The popular cheerleading comedy allowed her to play an athletic character leading a blockbuster for the masses, as she simultaneously showcased herself as a serious dramatic actress to critics.

But the career high of Bring It On ended up being Dunst’s undoing. It opened the door for her biggest chance at fame, as well as allowing her to become the figure of scorn and criticism. Taking on the role of Mary Jane Watson in three Spider-Man films made Dunst a household name, as well as the figure of judgement, both positive and negative. You couldn’t see any of the Spider-Man films and not have an opinion of Dunst as an actress. Her performance became secondary, with the harshest critiques bemoaning her breast size and lack of presumed attractiveness. The third feature even appeared to take aim at its leading lady, reminding her of how disposable she was. Dunst’s own vocal dislike of the character and the films did little to endear her to fans, and though the movies made her ubiquitous, they also forced her to find a way to appease men.

The roles Dunst took after the Spider-Man fallout acted as a means of restoring goodwill, but also proved she had reached an apotheosis as America’s dreamgirl. Wimbledon and Elizabethtown presented her as the ultimate male fantasy, but the films’ artificiality stood out and was even perceived as annoying. Even Dunst’s best acting performance in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette had critics turning against her. Part of this was residual backlash from the monstrosity that was Spider-Man 3, but it also showed the chink in the Dunst persona. She was no longer the same young thing. At not even 30, Hollywood decided she was no longer sexy but cliche. It is in Marie Antoinette especially that gives Dunst the edge. The character, like her, is aware of her role on the public stage and comes to the painful realization that she’s at the mercy of the crowd. Nothing she does will appease everyone, and it is up to her to make herself happy first.

Dunst successfully eschewed her image as a sex object, both out of necessity and at the whim of Hollywood misogyny, and it allowed her a freedom in her work. Turns in All Good Things, Melancholia and Bachelorette let her demonstrate that she could act and pick projects she was interested in. These roles, though critically reviled at the time, are now considered subversive and unique from a woman once touted as America’s sweetheart. Dunst didn’t maintain her “IDGAF” attitude for long, but it forced audiences to put aside her sex object status and respect her talent, maybe for the first time in her career.

Kirsten Dunst has now found a happy medium with her career. She’s capably balancing audience interest with prestige fare, and has reteamed with Sofia Coppola to great success. A young woman who started out as a teen lust machine has segued into a confident, talented woman who embraced her potential and isn’t interested in conforming to the Hollywood machine. Kirsten Dunst deserves an apology, and a second look, from all of us.

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.