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Kirsten Dunst, great American wanter

Looking back at Kirsten Dunst’s career offers an overview of a fading American dream.

Kirsten Dunst attends the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at Barker Hangar on February 27, 2022, in Santa Monica, California.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

This year, Kirsten Dunst received her first Oscar nomination. It’s a dream achieved for an actress who built her whole career on dreams of the most deliciously flinty-eyed kind.

Dunst has been buzzed about as an Oscar contender more or less perpetually since 1994, when at 12 years old she stole Interview With the Vampire away from co-stars Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. But it took until now for Dunst, 39, to actually score a nomination — which she’s admitted has been a longtime ambition of hers. In 2019, she wistfully remarked that “it would be nice” to be recognized by her peers. “What did I do?” Dunst lamented then.

Dunst has been nominated for her turn as Rose in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. While Dunst first built her name playing a series of ebullient blonds as a tween- and teenager, Rose is downtrodden, depressed. She skulks around her husband’s cavernous ranch home in a series of washed-out pink gowns that make her blend into the unforgiving Montana landscape. Her hair seems perpetually damp from the bath, and she’s always searching for another bottle of whiskey with which to medicate herself.

In a way, Rose is a jarring contrast with dimpled, ringletted Amy March, whom Dunst played in 1994’s Little Women, or Bring It On’s perky pompom-toting Torrance, whom Dunst brought to life in 2000. But those characters are linked by the thematic chain that draws together all of Dunst’s most compelling performances.

When she is doing her best work, Kirsten Dunst plays creatures of enormous appetite. “I want some more!” she whispered as the child vampire Claudia in 1994, and she hasn’t stopped craving more since. A Kirsten Dunst character is wanting personified, American wanting: avaricious, materialistic, blond and blue-eyed as Daisy Buchanan, voice full of money.

Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire (1994).
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

All characters want, because that’s the nature of storytelling. But Dunst’s characters tend to want things, specifically. Their dreams are not lofty or idealistic. They yearn after strictly material objects: delicious food. A nice dress. A shiny trophy or tiara. If diamonds are available, those generally would not go amiss either.

It’s Dunst’s ability to find the comic petulance and the bittersweet beauty in such desires that has elevated her work since she was a child. Looking back over her career means looking at a series of finely drawn depictions of how America has grasped after its dreams with greedy hands — and how, as Dunst has grown older and the wants her characters strive after are both simpler and more unattainable, America’s dreams have weathered into tragedy.

“I want some more.”

Kirsten Dunst as Amy March in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994), reluctantly giving up her Christmas orange.
Columbia Pictures

When she was a child, Dunst’s characters were all appetite. In her breakout year of 1994, which saw her play Claudia in Interview With the Vampire and Amy March in Little Women, she craves blood and pickled limes with equal ferocity. When she is denied her wishes, she flies into a rage. Claudia, rebuffed by a doll-seller, murders the salesman and drinks his blood before marching out of his shop with the doll of her choice and a bloodstained smile. When Amy is denied theater tickets, she burns her sister Jo’s manuscript.

Dunst’s child characters were bratty and tempestuous with their whole souls: You loved her Amy not in spite of her selfishness but because of it.

One of the most vivid and telling images in all of Little Women comes when the March sisters are talking themselves into giving a much-anticipated Christmas breakfast away to a neighboring poor family. With elaborate innocence, Amy slips an orange off the table and hides it in her cupped palms, clasped demurely below her chin. But as the family settles on a consensus that the food will have to go, Amy sighs deeply and gives up her orange for a good deed, one finger lingering regretfully after it as she draws her hand away.

These movies were period pieces. But Dunst’s characters were firmly embedded in the end-of-history arrogance of the 1990s, a time of peace and prosperity for middle-class American white girls, when it seemed safe and even wholesome to want forever. The future was bright and fluorescent and extended endlessly, and it held all the oranges and china dolls a girl could ever desire.

As the ’90s reached their end, and as Dunst reached adolescence in Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial feature debut The Virgin Suicides, her characters’ desires seemed to curdle. The Virgin Suicides sees Dunst as Lux Lisbon, the leader of a pack of sisters in the ’70s who, one by one, die by suicide.

Like Amy and Claudia, Lux is shamelessly materialistic, a hedonist who frets over her clothes and her lipsticks. When her religious mother forces her to burn her rock ’n’ roll LPs, she clutches them to her breast and weeps. When she’s crowned homecoming queen, she holds her plastic tiara with a dreamy-eyed smile.

Lux’s wants are simple and straightforward: pretty dresses, the admiration of suitable boys, to be driving in a car down the open road with the wind streaming through her long blond hair. But they’re never to be realized. They are understood to be somehow destructive, so that by the end of the movie, it’s as though Lux and the rest of the Lisbon sisters have died from the sheer force of their wanting.

Dunst channels more Americana in the cheerleading classic Bring It On, this time refigured for the glitzy ab-flashing giddiness of the dawning Y2K era. In the lead role of cheer captain Torrance, Dunst comes as close as she ever does to a character with pure and noble aims. All Torrance wants, after all, is to win a national cheerleading title and achieve fame and glory. And she wants to do it fair and square, to boot. When she finds out that her team won its previous titles on the strength of routines stolen from a rival Black squad, she comes clean and puts together new ones.

But Bring It On, with its sneakily sophisticated understanding of cultural appropriation, is the first of Dunst’s movies to place at its center a dawning understanding that for her character to achieve her desires might not be entirely just. Dunst in her teens and early 20s, with her pageant queen dimples and corn-yellow hair, seemed to represent an American ideal that was rapidly losing its relevance: white, wealthy, atavistic, and entitled; the opposite of an underdog if ever there was one.

Bring It On offers a counterpoint to that ideal. Torrance is certainly white and wealthy, it allows. But is it really fair for her to be quite so entitled? That’s the question that subliminally animates the movie, the fear it keeps circling around.

As Dunst entered into the 2000s, a decade characterized by spectacles of wealth so self-consciously tawdry they parodied themselves, that question grew to take up more and more space in Dunst’s movies. By the time she reunited with Coppola for Marie Antoinette in 2006, it had become the irony at the center of the whole film.

Look at this woman, her beauty, her riches, Marie Antoinette seems to say; look at her lusting after her diamonds and headdresses and beautiful cakes. Doesn’t she know what history has in store for her? And also: Aren’t all those things beautiful, and don’t you want them, too?

“I smile, and I smile, and I smile.”

Kirsten Dunst, smiling, as Justine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).
Zentropa

It was around this point in Dunst’s career, as she grew out of child actress precocity in the early 2000s, that her fans began to remark upon a certain duality to her abilities. There was something about the way her blond sunniness seemed to cover something darker, people would say. If Reese Witherspoon undercut her blondness with a steely ambition, Dunst seemed to lay her own all-American charm like a strip of gauze over a well of sadness. And depending on the movie, she could make that contrast seem either extremely funny or extremely tragic — or both.

“With her Pepsodent smile, deep-dish dimples and gleaming blond hair, Kirsten Dunst looks like a walking glass of lemonade. But among contemporary teenage actresses, Dunst has become the sunniest imaginable parodist,” wrote Charles Taylor in his Bring It On review for Salon. “She almost always manages to make it funny when her characters undergo the dawning awareness that life is much more unfair than they ever fantasized.”

“When I met her as a kid, she was this kind of blonde, bubbly, all-American teen-ager, but then had this depth and more to her behind her eyes,” Coppola told the New Yorker last fall. “She has a contrast—she’s not what you expect.”

By the time The Power of the Dog came around, Kyle Buchanan at the New York Times saw Dunst’s career as the story of “one of Hollywood’s most remarkable career reinventions.” It was a complete turnaround: “After years of being called upon to project blond, sunny sweetness, Kirsten Dunst has somehow become one of our foremost chroniclers of finely etched despair.”

That despair emerges into focus most clearly first in 2011’s Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, for which Dunst won Cannes’s Best Actress award. She plays Justine, the bride at a lavish wedding on a vast country estate, surrounded by wealth and luxury, marrying a charming and handsome husband. It’s exactly the sort of fairy tale wedding that Amy March would have dreamed of. In early scenes, Dunst is at her most exquisitely blond, her gleaming white smile radiating out above her pristine white gown, hair fully platinum.

But Justine’s been overwhelmed, suddenly, by a severe depression. She wanders out of her own reception to take a bath while people wait for her to cut the cake. She has sex with a stranger on the golf course.

That gleaming white smile slowly dims. People keep asking Justine if she wants what she is getting — all the beautiful things, the manicured grounds, the charming husband — and she keeps responding that yes, yes, of course she does. All of a sudden, though, it all seems pointless.

What we know, and Justine seems to intuit, is that it is all pointless. The film’s prologue showed us that the world is going to end, that it is going to be hit by a planet called, significantly, Melancholia, very soon. And so all of the accoutrements of Justine’s wedding, all of the beautiful material things that Justine and all the rest of Dunst’s characters have been taught to want, are now meaningless.

In her 30s, Dunst followed what has now become the mid-career movie actress playbook of transitioning to prestige TV, and she brought the now-meaningless dreams of her characters with her. When she joined the cast of Fargo for its second season in 2015, she played Peggy, a sweet ditz of a woman who first appeared chirping cheerfully about her goals for self-actualization while covering up an accidental manslaughter. She finished it by hoping for a prison cell in California, where she would be able to see the bay. The audience always knew Peggy’s dreams never mattered, even when Peggy didn’t.

In 2019, Dunst starred in Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, where she played Krystal, a beauty queen who used to have big dreams. By the time the show begins, though, Krystal’s only goal is never to be poor again. After an unexpected tragedy, she finds herself standing alone in her garage, surrounded by boxes upon boxes of paper towels and cleaning products: the wares of a pyramid scheme, and now her only remaining assets.

It’s all stuff, all the kinds of flimsy nonsense that someone like Lux Lisbon could have coveted. But Krystal knows that it’s junk. It’s also all she has left, and to survive, she’s going to have to sell it to all her friends. The dream of freedom through consumerism is still there, but it’s now fully threadbare.

The Power of the Dog, though, shows us a version of Kirsten Dunst who has still retained the ability to want, and to want powerfully, from a place of extreme weakness. Rose’s desires have been eroded by life until they are as weathered as the bleak mountains that surround her. She cringes away from her husband’s sadistic brother, Phil; folds into herself as though she is afraid of her own presence.

But her desires are still there. They can even retain a certain potency.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021), clutching her buckskin gloves to her chin as Jesse Plemons looks on.
Netflix

Toward the end of The Power of the Dog, Rose sees the staff of the ranch where she lives send away a group of American Indians who have shown up asking to buy cowhides. She knows the ranch has plenty of hides and no use for them, but Phil, for no apparent reason, has left orders that they not be sold. He wants to burn them instead.

In a fit of rebellion, Rose runs out after the Indians and tells them to take the hides, and as a gesture of thanks, they give her a pair of fringed and embroidered buckskin gloves. Rose cradles the gloves in her hands.

“They’re so soft,” she says, and then she begins to cry, the tears of someone who has forgotten what it is like to crave beautiful things.

Later, Rose lies in bed, weak from too much liquor, her gloved hands crossed at her neck. Her husband picks up one hand, and she plucks it possessively back. For a moment she looks exactly like Amy March, jealously guarding her Christmas orange under her chin.

The longing, the yearning for beautiful material things, is still there, just as it ever was. But Rose knows, like Krystal before her, that the world is unlikely ever to indulge her desires. The dreams of the ’90s are never to be fully realized.

Except, maybe, for one. At long last, Kirsten Dunst finally has the Oscar nod she’s been owed since 1994. Do dreams come true after all?