The Cursed Career of Kirsten Dunst
And is this the year it finally stops?
The cult of Kirsten Dunst has become louder and louder over the past few years. Those of us who have long understood her to be the greatest actress of her generation have risen up from the dank pit the movers and shakers of Hollywood would prefer us to stay in. We are yelling from the rooftops, “Where is her Oscar?” and “Have you seen Bachelorette?” and, “If On Becoming A God In Central Florida had been on HBO, you all would have eaten it up!”
Finally, it seems that we are arriving at our moment. Dunst is receiving major Oscar buzz for her upcoming role in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. She was recently the subject of a glossy profile in the New York Times, as well as a cover story for Architectural Digest where she revealed her bathroom door used to belong to Jackie O. It would appear at first glance that the Dunst Hive will finally be vindicated for putting years of support behind Kiki. But if history is any indicator, we will end up sad and disappointed, because there are two things I know to be true about famous white actresses: Glenn Close will never get an Oscar, and Kirsten Dunst is the unluckiest leading lady in Hollywood.
Let’s start from the beginning. Dunst was doomed to a life of misfortune as soon as she stepped into the spotlight at age 12. Child acting as a practice should almost certainly be outlawed, if not because of labor practices then because it is basically a hex on an actor’s career. There is a Faustian alchemy that goes into making a child famous to an adult audience, and few end up shedding their childhood fame for the kind of adult fame they could have gotten had they started acting at 18. Sure some former child stars are most famous for their talent — Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Ryan Gosling, and Michelle Williams come to mind. Maybe Mayim Bialik, if being the most annoying person in the universe counts as a talent. I am not including Leonardo DiCaprio in this crew, because he blew up as a teenage heartthrob and got to trade on sex appeal for over a decade, which Dunst never deigned to do despite being more beautiful than him. She is an artiste.
So she’s off to a rough start, that’s no matter — if anyone could turn the ship around through raw talent and charisma it would be her. Sure enough, her first roles were not the normal Disney fare, but rather modern classics like Interview with the Vampire, Little Women, and Jumanji. Then, throughout the 90s and early 2000s, she avoided the child star curse as we saw her turn in incredible performance after incredible performance. Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, and The Virgin Suicides all came out in the same year; each film exploring young womanhood from a different angle, each performance being exactly what it needed to be (the first two being hilarious, the last so influential that it created Tumblr).
The next year she had her downright sparkling turn in Bring It On, where she shined as Torrance Shipman, the bubbly cheerleading captain who doesn’t win nationals, but does learn how to be a moral leader and also how to woo your friend’s hot brother. Two years after that she beat out luminaries like Kate Bosworth for the role of Mary-Jane Watson in Spider-Man, where she brought a charm and vulnerability rarely seen in today’s superhero movies. The upside-down kiss she shares in the rain with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is one of the only enduring images from the 21st century’s obsession with Marvel IP. (It also apparently almost drowned Tobey Maguire, but I think it was worth it.)
In the midst of all of that, however, she dated Jake Gyllenhaal — and it is here that the curse reared its ugly head once again. Online, one of the most frequently shared sets of images from this era of Dunst is one where she and Gyllenhaal are outdoor dining in London. She appears to be angrily eating salad with her hands while Gyllenhaal looks on, concerned. In one photo, he feeds her soup and she sticks her tongue out to receive it like a cat lapping at milk. The photo no one remembers is the one where they are laughing and hugging, having a grand old time and looking very much in love. Dunst-heads and fans of Y2K pop culture have deemed these images iconic, which I agree with only because they make her look incredibly human and a little ugly — like some of her best performances. But a reclaiming of the photos does not help the fact that they haunt Dunst’s legacy, with someone tweeting them biannually, drolly imploring us to “Never forget the time Kirsten Dunst ate salad.” I’m sure she would love it if we did.
By 2004, we entered the current phase of Dunst that hopefully will be behind us soon, one where she consistently delivers performances that deserve awards recognition and receive almost none. To me, this begins with her supporting performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she plays Mary, the receptionist on whom the final turn of the film rests. That year saw Natalie Portman get nominated in the Supporting Actress category for Closer. Have you seen Closer?
Dunst’s 2010s are peppered with performances that deserved, at the very least, a Golden Globe. Marie Antoinette, Melancholia, and Bachelorette were all snubbed. The closest she’s ever come to an Oscar was in 2011, when she delivered the performance of her life in Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s film about a new bride faced with the literal end of the world. That year, the prize went to Meryl Streep for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which is a disgrace for any number of reasons not limited to the fact that it’s a truly Bad with a capital “B” performance.
In a just world, the Oscar would have been Dunst’s. Instead, we live in a sick, cruel world. One where Von Trier says, “I understand Hitler… I’m a Nazi,” at a press conference following Melancholia premiering at Cannes. Despite winning Best Actress at the French film festival, Dunst’s chances at an Oscar were all but dead on arrival following Von Trier’s remarks. Just as it looked like it might have been broken, the curse returned stronger than ever.
In a radio interview from 2019, Dunst spoke about her lack of awards recognition. You can tell she knows she deserves it when she says, “I mean I do everything I’m supposed to… I know that all you have is your work at the end of the day... I’m intelligent enough to know that and have perspective, but sometimes you’re like, ‘It would be nice to be recognized by your peers.'” Does your heart not break? This poor woman.
Since then Dunst has drifted to television and supporting roles in film, always giving each performance her all. The television adaptation of Fargo garnered her her first adult Golden Globe nomination in 2015, and led to her meeting her now husband Jesse Plemons. Four years later, she received another for On Becoming A God in Central Florida, a show whose second season was nixed due to the pandemic and also the fact that one of Dunst’s ancestors must have upset a witch at some point. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman was allowed to make Nine Perfect Strangers.
But here we are in 2021, with a Dunstaissance allegedly upon us. I’m not sure if I can trust it. Early reviews of The Power of the Dog praise Dunst’s performance, and the oddsmakers over at awards predictions site Gold Derby seem to think that this could be her year for a nomination. I want to believe, I really do, but I’ve heard this story before.
For years I have watched as Dunst proves to us over and over again that she “has the range.” She’ll be funny, raw, and heartbreaking all in the same performance. Each of her characters feels like a real person, whether she is a true bitch (Bachelorette), a peppy and determined teen (Bring It On), or a young queen with the future of France on her shoulders (Elizabethtown, just kidding). Sure, there have been flops along the way — when was the last time you thought about Wimbledon? — but even in the mediocre movies she appears in, you can see her giving it her all. Maybe the real curse of Kirsten Dunst is that she’s a smart person who loves her job. She cares more about acting than being a celebrity, which is at odds with an industry that props up our dullest stars because they are willing to dance on command.
In the Sliding Doors version of Dunst’s life, she is a Jessica Chastain-type figure, or maybe an Amy Adams — either way, she’s a redhead and it looks great. She’s someone who gets awards nominations just for walking out of her house; she schmoozes at luncheons, she advertises expensive facial creams, and she has a side gig playing Thor’s aunt to fund her indie passion projects.
Of course, that is not the case. I don’t think it’s the life she wants. The reason I know that to be true is one of the things that also makes her most believable in all of her roles: she’s never fixed her teeth.