Every time the conversations in pop culture return to the question of acting and who is bad at it, I consistently see Kristen Stewart’s name mentioned. When Jezebel posted that almost hilariously nihilistic list of seemingly random actors they had decided were bad for the purposes of clickbait trolling, it surprised nobody that Stewart’s name came up. Indeed, when I wrote my exceedingly long Twitter rebuttal of the thread, defending every listed actor and explaining their strengths, it was my support of Stewart that seemed to upset the most people. Tweeters were quick to respond that I was ridiculous for thinking she was anything other than a sentient block of wood. The Twilight movies were mentioned a lot, of course, but her other work was seldom discussed by this loud opposition. Kristen Stewart is bland they said. She’s sullen, unemotional, stiff, uninteresting to watch, and so on. For a while, I was naïve enough to think that we’d moved on from sparkly vampire bashing, although some of the reactions to Robert Pattinson’s casting as Batman put that hope to rest. Still, there was something especially virulent in the way people lashed out at Stewart on Twitter that left me confused, if not at all surprised. Because here’s the thing: Kristen Stewart is a wonderful actress. She may be one of the best of her generation, and I stand by that claim.
I’m not alone in that assertion either. Stewart has plenty of fans in the critical world and has been celebrated as such since her youth. She’s worked with directors like David Fincher, Barry Levinson, Olivier Assayas, Kelly Reichardt, Ang Lee, and Walter Salles, all of whom have loudly proclaimed their love of her work. She’s the first American woman to win a César Award, and only the second American ever to do so. She’s proven herself to be as adept in dark comedies as she is the bleakest of dramas, be they small budget of high-concept blockbuster. All that and she’s only 29.
What makes Stewart so fascinating to watch, especially when the material is on her level, is that she’s incredibly difficult to nail down as a performer. The Guardian called her ‘maddeningly elusive’, which somewhat encapsulates her fidgety charm that she’s mined for staggering emotional depths over the years. There’s a brittleness to her that is merely a deceitful cover for immense inner strength and a cutting gaze. All in all, this makes her incredibly flexible in terms of what genres and moods she can work well in, meaning she seems as shakily comfortable among the paranormal as she does within kitchen sink realism.
In Olivier Assayas’s fascinating but jarring supernatural drama Personal Shopper, Stewart has to guide this genre mish-mash of a tale through a seriously tricky tone that, in the hands of a less skilled performer, could have easily fallen into the trappings of camp. She plays an American woman working in Paris as a personal shopper while trying to deal with the death of her twin brother, to whom she had a deep psychic connection. It’s an absolute high wire act of a movie, one that’s easy to be maddened by, although I was completely seduced by it. It should be silly, but Stewart holds it together with such ease. She’s playing a woman deeply uneasy with her life and ‘talents’, an American in France who has lost her one human connection to the world. In many ways, it’s the perfect Kristen Stewart role - that blending of the real and unreal - and she knocks it out of the park.
Of course, any conversation about Kristen Stewart playing a moody figure in a supernatural story must inevitably return to the world of Twilight. It’s easy to mock what Stewart and Pattinson did with what are ultimately rather thankless and deliberately thin roles. Bella Swan is less a character than she is a vessel for readers young and old to transport themselves into the feverish passion of first love taken to eternal extremes. In many ways, that’s the core of Stephenie Meyer’s staggering success with her novels. Making that into a film without drowning the narrative in endless voiceover is a challenge and a half for any creative team, but especially for an adolescent actress with no idea that this seemingly minor vampire movie is about to become the biggest thing in pop culture. How do you embody a character that isn’t really a person but a conduit for millions of women to experience an especially intense romantic fantasy?
If you’re Kristen Stewart, you lean in hard on that internal solitude. Bella Swan is petulant and obsessive and driven almost exclusively by her love for Edward on the page, but Stewart manages to make that bland abrasiveness more palatable in performance. She smiles more and even when she seems uncomfortable with the attention of being the new girl, she’s clearly trying to fit in with this crowd who are bending over backwards to accommodate her. Stewart never makes Bella seem rude, which is a relief because she’s often so horrid in the books. Not every moment lands, and not even Stewart can make every ludicrous character beat work, but she’s way better in that series than you remember her being, I promise. It’s not hard to see why so many acclaimed directors looked at her and Pattinson in those films and saw immense potential.
Another thing Stewart doesn’t get credit for is how funny she can be. Her guest hosting of Saturday Night Live is a perfect example of that, but look at JT LeRoy for further proof of how well she can work with the ludicrous, even if it’s not ostensibly billed as comedic. In the film, she plays Savannah Knoop, the public face of the enigmatic author JT LeRoy, falling head first into a world of pretentious artists, Hollywood suck-ups, and a seemingly universal wilful stupidity that stops everyone from seeing the obvious. There’s a lot of Stewart’s token fidgetiness in her performance - understandable given what Knoop was tasked with - but the best moments come when she f*cks around with unsuspecting LeRoy fans who are too polite or starstruck to question this bullsh*t. Or turn to Zathura, Jon Favreau’s underrated family fantasy, where she gets to be the token annoying older sister and has a ball with it. Or look to Adventureland for a gentler approach that also plays into her charismatic vulnerability.
I’m not sure the people so adamant that Stewart is a bad actress have really checked out the fascinating breadth of her filmography. It’s just easy to think of her as the girl in Twilight and not much else. Of course, the problem goes well beyond garden variety misogyny for the sparkly vampire movies. Acting is extremely difficult to talk about, and performance theory is one of the toughest areas of film studies to get a grasp of (yes, even more than psychoanalytic film theory, believe me). Generally speaking, we tend to have quite limited ideas on what ‘good acting’ is, and it’s typically the bombastic demonstrations of physical struggle and ‘transformation’ that gets categorized as awards bait. We like to see the work of acting on full display, and more subtle emotional work that isn’t as reliant on Daniel Day-Lewis style range can be trickier to latch onto. Perhaps that’s one reason thatJezebel list proved so infuriating: It didn’t seek to engage with everything that acting encapsulates, much like people’s reactions to Kristen Stewart.
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