Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and the ‘Twilight’ Effect
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart can act.
I don’t feel that this should be a controversial opinion. Nowadays, it’s certainly nowhere near the common consensus regarding two of the most visible young actors of the past decade who aren’t playing superheroes. They’ve both won various awards, worked with celebrated auteurs and found extensive acclaim at home and abroad. For film-makers like Olivier Assayas, David Cronenberg, Kelly Reichardt, the Safdie Brothers, and Ang Lee, the pair are hot commodities who are willing to eschew the trappings of Hollywood stardom in favour of more esoteric projects. One of them became the first American actress to win a Cesar Award. Their talent is not in doubt.
And yet every-time I see a conversation taking place about either of them, it doesn’t take long for someone to insist that neither of them is any good at this acting lark, and the evidence they present is always the same - Twilight. They are, apparently, both so heinously bad in those sparkly vampire movies that it undoes every performance they give preceding and following those four films. Everyone knows the jokes: The wooden actress gags, Pattinson’s constipated expression when he reveals his killer skin, the po-faced seriousness of a concept so ludicrous. The punching bag of pop culture required bats, and Pattinson and Stewart became the primary tools of that.
It’s surprisingly easy to forget how stratospherically popular the Twilight saga was. For a few years, after the release of the first film and the final book in the series, this all-consuming melodrama of teen angst and eternal devotion was the story at the pinnacle of the zeitgeist. The four films made over $3.3bn worldwide, while the books have sold at least 120m copies. The indominable might of the young adult publishing industry has its roots in the series, and the shadow the franchise cast across multiple mediums influenced everything from film to literature to TV and beyond. Twilight reinvented vampires for the burgeoning millennial age: An all-consuming melodramatic passion, combined with near indestructible might, financial security and the promise of literal house-breaking sex. Even if you hated the series - and my feelings on it are very complex - it’s tough to deny that inherent appeal.
It’s doubtful that either Pattinson and Stewart knew what they were signing up for when they decided to be in this weird indie vampire romance full of Muse songs, sepia cinematography and baseball. Pattinson was a scruffy haired posh British boy with an education typical of our cultural stock and had minor name recognition thanks to his turn as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Stewart was a child actor finding her feet in the industry as an adult, having already worked with auteurs like David Fincher. Both actors admit that they were unaware of the series’ immense popularity until fans started turning up on the film set, hunting for autographs and a glimpse of their literary heroes made flesh. While fans had eagerly awaited the reveal of their Bella and Edward, it wasn’t the much-anticipated star search that the Harry Potter films had when casting their main trio. The fan favourites for the loving pair were French actor Gaspard Ulliel and future American Gods star Emily Browning. Pattinson and Stewart had a lot to live up to, but they didn’t seem to know how much until the film premiered.
Twilight made a lot of money, received decent reviews, and made Catherine Hardwicke the most successful female director working for a brief period of time. The film itself seemed nearly inconsequential when compared to the fervour that surrounded it: Screaming fans, cultural over-saturation, and, of course, the backlash. By the time the film had come out, author Stephenie Meyer had released the final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, which seriously divided fans. There was the discomforting paedophilic undertones to Jacob and Renesmee’s ‘relationship’, the Clive Barker-esque childbirth scene, the near jaw-dropping lack of stakes or satisfying climax, and probably most shockingly, a fade-to-black for the long-awaited wedding night. This wasn’t the way a lot of fans wanted their beloved series to end, but now they had the films to focus their attention on.
The Twilight fan-base, most commonly referred to as Twi-hards, was notoriously vocal in their passion for the series. Then again, most fanbases were, and remain so to this day. The Harry Potter fandom’s wars are so infamous that the documentation of them has provided the internet with some of its greatest history. The Lord of the Rings fandom included a big-name fan who ended up creating a borderline cult. Some of us still fear to tread on Tumblr due to the terror of SuperWhoLock fandom. And Bronies? Well, I can’t even begin to get into what went wrong there, not right now. The internet amplifies fan behaviour, good or otherwise, and Twilight was at its biggest when Twitter was on the rise, and receiving some of its most prominent media coverage. The difference between the Twi-hards and any other fandom of the period was that it was almost exclusively female, divided between teen girls and older mothers, and most of them had no fandom experience. They were what Cleolinda Jones called a ‘feral fandom’, in that they were new to the process and had no understanding of the quietly agreed upon etiquette of fan life. They also loved something unapologetically romantic and sparkly and ridiculously good looking, so of course they were mocked. Looking back now, as discussed by Lindsay Ellis, it was clear that they got way more flack than they deserved. Believe me, I know. I was one of the people administering a lot of it.
Pattinson and Stewart had to navigate this weird space. Eventually, they were properly financially compensated for it, but there are some things money can’t buy, like the appropriate personality to deal with this onslaught. Stewart, naturally uncomfortable when being interviewed but still very charming, got most of the crap. She was ‘ungrateful’, a ‘bitch’, a ‘diva’, and so on. Meanwhile, Pattinson coped by being almost too honest. He would openly talk about how weird he thought the source material was, and how it seemed like the sexual fantasy of its author. His view of the fandom and its love was one of borderline bemusement. It wasn’t that he was saying the books and movies were shit, but it was clear that he thought the enthusiasm was severely overblown. He could say all of this and never get a sliver of the criticism that Stewart faced, even as she was far more ardent in her defence of the series.
It didn’t help that both were savaged for their performances, which in hindsight was supremely unfair. Neither have much to work with in terms of characterization but do well with what they have. Pattinson is at his best when he’s blatantly fucking with the perfect man trope and Stewart instills enough personality into the every-woman trope to stop Bella from being as insufferable as she is in the books. The actors were media punching bags as a result, which led to the dismissal of any acting work that preceded or followed Twilight. Never-mind that Stewart had the critical acclaim to back up her standing; it wasn’t enough to block the barrage of hate she got. People didn’t hate the actors so much as they hated the films and everything those characters stood for. Twilight was bad so everything and everyone involved must be bad too, right?
Throughout it all, fans put a lot of themselves into the pair. The book is designed in a way that makes it easy for any woman to imagine herself as Bella, partly because she’s so poorly defined as a character beyond her beauty and clumsiness. Love was their reason for being, love was the entire plot, and everything that encapsulated had to be embodied through these two unwitting actors who just wanted to make films and get on with their lives. When the pair started dating in real life, it was a dream come true for some fans. Finally, Bella and Edward were real! The pair had far more chemistry off-screen than on - although that may have something to do with the sheer amount of silly make-up and painted on abs they gave Pattinson. The pair were private in their romance but undeniably together, and in one interview, Stewart candidly gushed about her love for her co-star. For many fans, this felt like the continuation of the series they’d always wanted.
And then Stewart cheated on Pattinson.
The cheating scandal was the gossip story of the year, as Stewart was caught canoodling with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. She quickly released a surprisingly open and emotional statement on the issue, in which she repeatedly apologised to Pattinson. The pair stayed together, at least for a short while, but it did little to quash the misogynistic hate Stewart received. One tabloid labelled her a ‘trampire’ for the indiscretion. She got a lot more hate than Sanders, the married father of two.
Once again, I don’t think people were mad at her so much as they were mad at Bella. The pair had come to mean more than being just another celebrity power couple: They were the human embodiment of impossible love. Bella was the flawless girl who was still just like all of us, and in bagging Edward, the most perfect man, she fulfilled a generation’s fantasies. Neither Pattinson nor Stewart bare any resemblance to their characters in real life, but it didn’t matter, because the visual of their relationship was enough to fuel fans for years. For that to end was unforgivable, and some fans to this day refuse to accept that it’s actually over. But it is, and both have moved on. Neither are Bella and Edward anymore, and frankly, they seem relieved by it.
Both moved on in their love lives too. Pattinson was engaged to musician FKA Twigs for two years, while Stewart dated a number of eligible ladies, to the point where even the most wilfully ignorant tabloid couldn’t keep referring to them as ‘galpals’. Those tinhatter fans who refused to accept the end of Robsten lashed out, particularly at Twigs, who received the most violent threats and racist abuse.
Pattinson started dipping his toes into the more experimental indie world of film during his Twilight tenure. In between parts 1 and 2 of Breaking Dawn, he starred in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which hinted at the acting potential the sparkles had concealed. He played T.E. Lawrence in a Werner Herzog movie; 2014 saw in star in two films that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; He worked with directors as varied as David Michod, Anton Corbijn, James Gray, Brady Corbett, and the Safdie Brothers. It was the latter who directed him in Good Time, the acclaimed drama that premiered in competition at Cannes and landed him the reviews of his career. Cannes seems to have embraced both Pattinson and Stewart (the latter is on the Jury this year, and premiered her short film at the festival in 2017).
Stewart never stops working. In the six years following the climax of Twilight, she has 13 credits listed on her IMDb page. She’s struck up collaborative partnerships with digures like Kelly Reichardt, Ang Lee and Olivier Assayas. The French director cast her in Clouds of Sils Maria, and her performance in that made her a pioneer as she won a Cesar award, becoming the first American actress to do so. Both actors feel more at ease in the European sensibility of acting: It’s glamour but more flexible, and nobody expects you to stay perfectly beautiful in every role. The money isn’t great, but both have been savvy enough to sign onto fashion deals that keep the pay-cheques steady enough to support working for scale. The Twilight movies also made them way more cash than any role that follows it ever could, assuming neither of them are rushing to star in Marvel movies (let’s be honest, you’d be super surprised if either actor signed that contract).
In hindsight, the Twilight bubble was a time and phenomenon we could never hope to repeat in our current pop culture atmosphere. The mere existence of 50 Shades of Grey is its own problem, but it also signifies how we can or can’t move on from our pasts. Why let Twilight end when you can cannibalise it until the bones are sucked dry? For a while, there was even talk that Pattinson would play Christian Gray, but nobody ever believed it. It just seemed like the kind of thing we should talk about because hey, he was Edward Cullen, right? But we’ve moved on, or at least most of us have. The careers of Pattinson and Stewart will always on some level be defined by Twilight, but not exclusively. For a while, they were an international obsession, but now, they just get to be actors. Very good actors.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)