Kristen Stewart. Androgyne. Beautiful Boy. Gamine. Epicene. Tomboy. Either/Or. Neither/Nor. Both.

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.

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23 Responses to Kristen Stewart. Androgyne. Beautiful Boy. Gamine. Epicene. Tomboy. Either/Or. Neither/Nor. Both.

  1. mutecypher says:

    What a great essay.

    She is a wonderful, fascinating actress. The scene you described in Personal Shopper had such an arc to it: the hostility/annoyance/transgression of putting on the dress, the calm decision to continue and then just try on the looks, the mystery of her finish. I loved the calm way she would talk about her psychic gift. As you said, we can see her thinking, though it is often a mystery what she’s thinking. There’s a sense that she is completely unaware of being observed, which is an amazing thing to consider.

    I really felt her absence when her character left in Clouds of Sils Maria.

    I loved her chemistry with Jesse Eisenberg in American Ultra. I could have just watched the two of them for 100 minutes.

    • sheila says:

      I loved the sort of under her breath way she spoke to potential spirits. Totally unconscious, not wanting to freak them out. Almost muttering. It was such a good choice.

  2. Brooke A L says:

    Sheila, what another beautiful piece. I would read anything you write, but when you write about actors this way… ugh, I just die. You just get something that is even deeper than acting, something that, yes, Dietrich (my favourite favourite) and many others had. I still have to watch Personal Shopper, but she was incredible in Clouds of Sils Maria. I studied film, not acting, so I really don’t have the knowledge or training, but performance is, for me, one of the most fascinating things. Although I get confused sometimes about what I’m seeing onscreen and wish you would start a “1-800 actor emergency” phone service so I could call you!

    • sheila says:

      Brooke – you’re so nice, thank you! 1-800 number, ha. “This is 1-800 Haiku, what’s your emergency?”

      It’s an interesting thing in re: Stewart and Assayas’ collaboration … I hope they make more together. He’s clearly riveted by her. I love it when a director gets obsessed with an actress – and can somehow translate it. David O. Russell did it with Jennifer Lawrence – to less successful effect but he’s clearly just like, “My GOD I love filming this woman.”

      The scene in Personal Shopper where she tries on the dress … one of the weird reasons why it works is because you just know that Assayas was like, “I am intrigued by this, I want to see her in that dress, and I want her in this situation.” Obsession is part of being a director. It can be creepy – sure – but it’s not with him, it wasn’t with von Sternberg and Dietrich – or Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall.

      The scene with KS and the dress is a very very weird scene and it’s almost impossible to compare it to anything else – even though it’s such a familiar situation. But the point of the scene is not for KS to suddenly realize, “I’m beautiful after all” or “Oh jeez why do I dress like a boy when I can look like THIS?” (Ew.) Later, she admits that it made her feel nervous to wear the dress – “it’s not me.”

      It’s all really interesting – would love to hear your thoughts on it!

      • Brooke A L says:

        I finally watched Personal Shopper. She is riveting, to say the least. Have to think more about it, but I saw this quote from her and loved it (and thought of you):

        “I can be nothing other than myself,” she says. “I know actors who say: ‘Oh, this role had nothing to do with me, it’s just the character’. And I think: ‘Yeah, but it is your interpretation of the character.’ Because you can never get away from being you. That’s always going to be there. That’s the persistency of life. An interaction with a good director might bring you closer to aspects of yourself that might have been less apparent before. But it’s still about self. It’s still all about me.”


  3. Diana says:

    Sheila, your write-up on Kristen Stewart’s genius as an actor is what I have been trying to capture so I can share with my friends who seem to think that she is, as they have said many times, just a LOG, wooden with a blank face and no emotions. Thank you for this and I am so happy that I have people like you to validate what I have all along felt was the genius of Kristen Stewart. Looking forward to reading more of your essays.

    • sheila says:

      Diana – I’m so happy I wrote it then! It had been percolating around for a while – and I’ve written in this way about Elvis and Delon and Angelina Jolie and Jensen Ackles – and had always wanted to “take on” Kristen Stewart.

      I’m baffled by those who think she’s a “log” – although I’ve heard that a lot! She does not EMOTE, even her crying is somewhat interior – she doesn’t sob. She’s just so RELAXED onscreen and relaxation is so hard to come by, especially in acting. It’s even more extraordinary when you consider how she started out – as a teenager in this insane franchise which catapulted her to international celebrity – before she even had a chance to develop herself. Usually people like that vanish – or have a hard time finding their way. But look at what she’s done with it!!

      Same with Pattinson too. He was in TWO great movies this year. Wildly different. Non-mainstream.

      Both of them are really doing it right.

      Thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting!

  4. All if know of Stewart so far (I don’t get out much, alas) is her Joan Jett in The Runaways and that’s enough to confirm all you say here, in terms of both androgyny and being under-appreciated. I’ll have to move her up the list!

    I think the other path to real stardom/iconography is ultra. At least it’s the OTHER path to destabilization. The obvious male example is Wayne, some obvious femme examples would be Marilyn, Liz, Sophia Loren. And at least on the male side I suspect Brando (along with Clift, Dean, etc) benefited from having someone as strong as Wayne set a standard they could play against (Clift having the opportunity to do so directly). If you couldn’t–or wouldn’t–imagine yourself being John Wayne, here was another way to go. A way that got more appealing as the changes of the sixties and onward gathered steam.

    And it’s oh-by-the-way, but I always thought one of Paglia’s more intriguing ideas was the notion that Hayley Mills had prepared the world for the British Invasion and the Rolling Stones in particular. She ran pictures of Hayley and Mick Jagger side by side in one of her old Salon columns and it was….interesting to say the least!

    • sheila says:

      Yes, I loved her in The Runaways!

      I love your thoughts on the “ultra” and I totally agree. There are cultural models and crazy awesome stuff happens when people fight against it, or try to express something different. Like you say, it’s one of the most fascinating elements of Red River. Clift – such a different kind of actor – going toe to toe with Wayne – and that’s his DEBUT?? He’s so good in it too.

      and okay hahaha in re Hayley Mills. Paglia is so nuts. I don’t remember that column – I wonder if it’s still around. Salon has been really bad about archives.

      • sheila says:

        and of course there’s Elvis – who was ultra – and butch – and femme – and every other damn thing. Talk about destabilizing! Another androgyne.

  5. Just looked and you’re right. Salon’s archives are a mess! My memory is it was a response in one of her mailbags and she used a Picture from Tiger Bay. And I remember thinking at the time, well, if nothing else, she had Brian Jones’ haircut pegged five years early!

  6. LISA says:

    what a beautifully written essay … I just love it when people get her .. I mean really get her … You can articulate how and why you understand her choices in acting …
    No one out there like her …

  7. Nicola says:

    I was wondering if you’d seen her short that she’s written and directed.

    Man, she’s a talent. One of my absolute favourites since “Into the Wild” came out. That was when I was like, “Who IS this girl?”

    Here’s the link:

    Watch it with earphones in, I think the sound design was something that was super important to everybody involved.

  8. Sheila
    Beautiful essay! This ‘magic’ quality in acting. I echo other comments, it’s so great when you write about this subject.
    “it’s also not a surprise that all of these actors had a androgynous quality an “other” quality.” So mysterious.
    I haven’t seen a lot of Stewart, only Runaways but she surprised me! I didn’t expect her to do so well, so she was very good!
    In her real life we can see Stewart is experimenting, as some usually do at that age, shaving off your hair, making mistakes but living out, exploring your sexuality and not being the perfect star. It naturally seems into their work and they get more daring. I think Angelina Jolie had that quality and girls who are a little different get to have someone represent! And we love them for it.

    • sheila says:

      Regina – You and C should watch Clouds of Sils Maria! It’s all about acting – and unlike so many films about actors – this one really gets it right. She’s so good in it – and it’s her and Juliette Binoche, toe to toe!

      I love your comment about “not being the perfect star.” I so agree with this. As I know you know – pursuing an acting career can make people pathologically eager to please – and that comes off in interviews sometimes. Kristen Stewart has never done that – and she got a lot of shit for her wincing and grimacing on various red carpets – but that kind of stardom was not a good fit for her.

      and totally agree in re: Angelina Jolie. another great persona actor. She’s more “femme” although she’s got that toughness too, almost like she’s freakin Bruce Willis. There’s a reason she’s been a great action movie star!

  9. We know that androgyny is intriguing on film, going all the way back to Valentino. And I would put it to you that the same is true in dance– Nijinsky springs to mind. Can the same be said about stage actors? I suspect yes, and will lull myself to sleep tonight composing a list.
    As for Stewart, it seems to me that the reason I was taken by surprise with her ability was that the Vampire stuff which made me aware of her didn’t come close to establishing how good she actually was. Now that we are seeing her stretch she is coming into better focus.

    • sheila says:

      Nijinsky!! Yes! Rudolf Nureyev too – who was all masculine power but with a sensual openness that destabilized normal gender roles. (Apparently. I wasn’t there.)

      Stage actors! Hm! Of course I’m sure this is true. I mean, if you think about it – what makes successful male actors effective is their ability to express vulnerability (stereotypically feminine – we need to talk about stereotypes when we talk about this stuff) – that was one of the main take-aways I got from Andy Karl in the current Bway production of Groundhog Day. He blew me away: totally unabashedly and easily straight – but with a soft heart that he’s not afraid to show. I’m not sure I would call that androgyny though.

      I’ll have to think more about it.

      I mean, Shakespeare clearly played with all of these ideas – and it gets even more dizzying when you consider that female roles were played by men (or boys) in his day. so you have a man playing a woman playing a man in As You Like It – at a certain point, you have to throw up your hands and say, “It’s all the same damn drive no matter the gender!”

      I had a lot of sympathy for KStew in Twilight because – at least considering the kind of career she has now – being a part of a franchise like that is just NOT HER – not her style, not what interests her. She always seemed visibly uncomfortable in interviews (although she often seems visibly uncomfortable – maybe b/c she’s shy). But she was just a teenager then – obligated to see it through – and – to her great credit – she did not overplay anything. (I am not sure she is capable of that.)

      She was “green” and you could tell (her fiddling with her hair back then drove me crazy) but she had a natural presence of gravitas that kind of tapped into what those books tapped into – the OHMYGODTHISISSOSERIOUS tone.

      I love too that KStew has not dissed the Twilight movies. Zac Efron, post High School Musical, made a couple of derogatory comments about that whole experience and its fan base – which I thought was not a smart move at the time (especially since I love him and want him to do well). Kristen Stewart never pulled that. She told Patti Smith in their great interview in Interview magazine that she was proud of those movies and I thought, “Good for you.”

      Because her fans will follow her anywhere.

      But yes: now we’re really seeing what she can do AND the types of projects she’s interested in. She’s not even 30 yet, so it’s all very exciting.

  10. gina in alabama says:

    Kristen Stewart was photographed for W magazine a couple of years ago, inspired by Priscilla Presley (and maybe some Elvis inspiration there too). I cant get a picture to work here but just search for Kristen Stewart Priscilla Presley images, she’s unforgettable.

  11. sheila says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again:

    If you want to feel Love like you have never felt before, write a complimentary piece on Kristen Stewart and Tweet it out.

    She has fans like no other I’ve ever seen, and I write about things – like Elvis – like Supernatural – with passionate fan bases.

    These fans cannot hold a candle to the K Stew fans.

    She generates an extremely unique response – also indicative of her special star power.

    I don’t say any of this to “dis” the fans – anyone who is familiar with my writing should know that that’s not my bag. Fandom – at its healthiest – is an act of appreciation and gratitude.

    That’s what these people have. They are “keepers of the flame.”

    It’s really quite beautiful.

  12. mutecypher says:

    Just saw Kristen in a Chanel ad on Monday Night Football. Go girl!

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