Camille Paglia is not the only one to observe that the great movie stars – of any era – are those with androgynous characteristics. The same could be said for literary characters (people always seem to forget the cross-dressing incident with Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre), for art, for architecture. Not so much yin-yang, but a fluid back-and-forth, an effortless integration, a beckoning that can be very destabilizing. Part of star power is that destabilizing effect. Kristen Stewart is the best example we have today of an actress working in that hard-to-quantify-or-even-talk-about realm. When we talk about charisma, I’d just point to Personal Shopper, one of the best films of 2017, where the majority of the film features Kristen Stewart reading and responding to texts … seriously, that’s most of the movie … and you cannot look away.
While there are some key differences, it’s not an over-statement to say that Stewart shares much with Brando. We’re talking persona now, essence, not necessarily “talent.” Brando’s persona – his essence – was so strong he threatened to take over any project he was in, based purely on his charisma, his IS-ness. He could be as Alpha as they come. He could play swaggering sexpot. However: without his sensitivity, his soft beautiful features (beautiful as opposed to handsome), and his vulnerability which – frankly – put many of his female co-stars to shame … he would not be Brando. It is the sense of an almost feminine openness and softness, mixed with the muscly sexy body, the brawny confidence, that makes Brando Brando.
It’s almost forgotten now but one of the reasons Brando was so explosive – and also so controversial – was that no one had ever seen a leading man like that before, a leading man that vulnerable and emotional. It just wasn’t done. Screaming and crying “Stella” was not particularly … manly. It’s hard to imagine John Wayne (as much as I love him) doing such a thing. Brando punched open a door for other men, creating a larger emotional space in which they could operate. AND, in addition to all of this, Brando is also one of the most riveting people to have ever graced the silver screen. What he had – in terms of personality, beauty, intrigue – was magic. It cannot be imitated, manufactured, manipulated, or created by a PR team. Alain Delon had it. Monica Vitti had it. Cary Grant had it. Marlene Dietrich had it. Talented people, all. But with something ELSE: magic. It’s also not a surprise that all of these actors had an androgynous quality, an “other” quality, something that made you look at them closer to try to figure it out, a mysterious and self-consumed self-obsessed quality that is a powerful draw for an audience.
And to those of you out there who are Supernatural fans, this is the realm in which the green-eyed freckled Jensen Ackles works too, and is one of the main reasons I got hooked into the show, since I could not stop watching him. I’ve written about that extensively. I talk a lot about his “burlesque,” and how he seems to have consciously (or no) incorporated it into the character he plays. The character was not written that way. The character conception initially was that of Han Solo. The sexy masculine wisecracker. Ackles is tall, muscular, Alpha, casually and intuitively tough, a Leader. He is a throwback to John Wayne, which comes very naturally to him. But he’s androgynous too, in a way Wayne was not. The burlesque – the softness – the receiving type of sexuality – but it’s a receiving presented in a performative way which can seem very aggressive … it’s hard to pin this stuff down, and that’s why it’s interesting – is all him.
Kristen Stewart does not have the range of a Brando. It may be closer in truth to call her this generation’s James Dean (although it’s harder to evaluate Dean than Brando, since we have so much less of Dean, just the three roles and some television work). James Dean had a twisted-up neurotic soul and he happened to be gorgeous as an angel. You don’t expect someone who looks like that to carry around that much torment. And Dean didn’t “act” or “perform” the torment. The torment existed, whether or not the camera was rolling, and he was open enough to just BE in front of the camera, having all that going on within him, and letting us see it. James Dean just SAT there, and something happened. He was wonderful in the context of his scene work, too, the nuts and bolts of good acting, but he himself WAS “the thing” that was happening. He’s overwhelming. This is Movie Magic and it is what Kristen Stewart has, too.
You see how I find it is important to contextualize her. When people talk about Kristen Stewart, they talk about her wrong (except for her fans, that is. THEY all understand). They say she doesn’t “do” anything, or she’s “flat” onscreen, she doesn’t “act.” Well, yes. And this is her great gift. People literally go to classes for years to try to stop seeming like they’re acting, to do what she does naturally.
For more context, I would also compare her with Greta Garbo, one of the greatest – if not the greatest – beauties and erotic personae to ever appear in cinema. I realize these are perhaps insane comparisons, but I will stand by them. Greta Garbo acted from a MOOD. She threw herself into a mood – whatever it was – lovesickness, rage, heartbreak – with a swoon of self-belief so strong it’s amazing – watching her – that she even gets away with it. With any other actress, her gestures and intonations and self-drama would look ridiculous. With Garbo, it’s epic. She is one of the greatest of all communicators, in terms of her relationship with the movie camera. Whoever was her scene partner was always second to her relationship with the camera, a profound bond, the most intimate bond there is. In one of her early films, the silent film Joyless Street, there is a captivating scene where she – playing a destitute girl – tries on a fur coat and preens in front of the mirror, reveling in the feel of the fur, reveling in what she looks like in the coat. There’s a scene in Personal Shopper which is almost identical. And Stewart goes into a similar daze of self-reflection, self-contemplation, self-love. These are difficult scenes to play. They are private moments. If someone walked into the room, the characters would stop what they were doing. Stewart has the same swimming-around-in-emotions feeling of Garbo, as well as the ability to draw you towards her … without lifting a finger, without trying, without having to work for your attention. She has it. She knows it.
A word or two on “range”. Actors are over-praised today for having “range.” People seem to think that if an actor has a different appearance in every movie, then that means they’re super talented. But anyone can put on a prosthetic nose. But NOT everyone can just BE in front of the camera. “Range” is over-rated. Especially by many of today’s credulous film critics and (dismayingly) many aspiring actors. I remember getting into an argument with some actor in a class I took once. He compared Spencer Tracy negatively to Dustin Hoffman. “Spencer Tracy is always the same,” complained the dumbbell. I have a talent for making new friends so I lectured him on why he was wrong. Ever since Robert DeNiro gained all that weight for Raging Bull, radical ACTUAL transformation is what has won Oscars, is what gets the most awe-struck commentary. (And I love DeNiro. But I don’t want the OTHER kind of acting to be dismissed as “just playing themselves,” “they’re always the same”. It’s incorrect.) Old-fashioned star power … well, you can’t put a price on it. No coincidence that those who “have it” are still some of the biggest box-office draws. Kristen Stewart is one of the most naturally charismatic actresses working today. She is difficult to talk about, difficult to pin down. She doesn’t “do” fireworks. She’s not a tantrum-throwing showy actress. She’s the opposite. She is a pure example of BEING, not acting.
I was so pleased when my mentor from the Actors Studio, Sam Schacht, a man who studied with Lee Strasberg, who KNOWS from “Method”, listed her as one of his favorites when I interviewed him, a girl who struck him as “authentic.” The very nature of authenticity means it cannot be faked. You can’t TRY to be authentic because then … you wouldn’t be authentic. It’s like the copy of a copy of a painting. Well-trained eyes can tell the difference.
You cannot take your eyes off of Kristen Stewart. Even when she is just buried in her phone.
In Personal Shopper, she is depressive, intense, thoughtful. It’s interior work. This is not an expressive character. She dresses like she’s a teenage boy, in ratty sweaters, sneakers, wool caps pulled down, a blunt-edged ponytail sticking out of the back of her head. But in one extraordinary sequence, filmed almost in one take, she tries on a dress hanging in the closet of the high-profile woman she assists. She is not supposed to be doing this. It’s hard to even conceive of this character WANTING to put on a see-through black dress with an S&M type harness underneath. As Marlene Dietrich croons “Das Hobellied” in the background, Kristen Stewart strips down, and … languorously, slowly … puts on the harness, pulling at the straps to give her more breathing room. The straps though bind her down. Her bare breasts emerge between the straps. She stares at herself, completely unselfconscious in her near-nudity. She thinks again, takes off the harness, and slips on a black see-through bra. On with the harness again. The straps constrict her. She looks like she’s being served up as some male fantasy. And maybe she’s trying that on for size. Being a male fantasy is not always a bad thing, you know. Sometimes it’s awesome. I would also suggest that women love to look at beauty too. And so she’s a female fantasy too. But she doesn’t strut. Or pose. Or “act sexy.” She stares at herself. She slips on leopard-print shoes with dizzyingly high heels. She walks around the apartment.
Marlene Dietrich – one of the most famous androgynes who ever lived, accompanies this strange slim boyish girl in her transformation.
The sequence ends with her lying in the bed – wearing the dress – and masturbating. Is she thinking about anyone? The Unknown texter? Or herself, and the memory of her reflection in the mirror? Or both?
It’s one of the sequences of the year. And why? Nothing happens. It’s like any other “play dress-up” scene, a version of the well-known “fashion montage” in countless other films. Assayas knows what he’s playing with, knows we will come to such a sequence with preconceived notions and expectations. He doesn’t oblige us, though. Neither does Stewart. What goes on in that sequence is something else entirely. She is beautiful boy, pre-teen tomboy, glamorous woman, simultaneously. With deference to Camille Paglia, she is an extreme example of a sexual persona. And it is hers alone. The fact that she’s uncommonly beautiful … almost intimidatingly so … adds to the overall effect. And, like Marilyn Monroe, Kristen Stewart can – at will – depending on the project – dim her beauty. She can appear extremely ordinary. She could walk through Times Square undetected, I have no doubt.
Watch her extraordinary performance as the over-tired lawyer visiting a small town to teach classes in Kelly Reichardt’s film Certain Women. Hunched over her coffee late at night, with a long drive ahead of her, she is plain, dowdy, with circles under her eyes, almost tubercular in her exhaustion.
But she doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She does not “strut” in her plain-ness, she does not want to be congratulated for opting out of the Beauty racket. Stewart is completely beyond those prosaic and careerist types of concerns. This is what Sam Schacht was talking about when he mentioned her authenticity.
Stewart is not vain, but she is CLEARLY aware of the effect she can have … she is not some “idiot savant”.
She knows what she’s doing.
Lots of actors know what they’re doing, though, and don’t create the captivating effect she does. She works ONLY with subtext. It’s part of her genius.
The camera is designed to pick up thoughts. She does not have to work to show that she’s thinking. She does not “act like” she’s thinking. She just THINKS, and the camera catches it. (Many actors – even good ones – “act like” they’re people. They don’t know how to BE.) What she has is total trust that the camera will catch what she’s doing. She knows she doesn’t have to act. She knows that the name of the game is not ACTing. It’s BEing.
The thought of anyone else doing the dress-up sequence in Personal Shopper makes me wince with discomfort. They’d be very busy showing us how this slim and competent and depressed boy-girl feels about what she sees in the mirror.
Kristen Stewart doesn’t “busy herself” with acting.
She stands in the harness. She looks at her breasts. She adjusts the straps. She looks in the mirror. She looks and looks and looks.
And we can’t stop looking either. At her.