An Amazing Era For Rediscovering Our Favorite Actors

By  · Published on September 8th, 2014

IFC Films

The word coming out of TIFF about Kristen Stewart’s performance in Clouds of Sils Maria mirrors the word that came out of earlier festival runs. It boils down to, “Surprise! She’s an actress!,” but Sam said it a bit more eloquently in his review:

“Stewart is magnetic, devoid of the amateurish affectations that have plagued her in the past (the nail and lip biting, the hair twirling). In Clouds she’s sexy, confident and articulate, with oversized rims and enough vulnerability to draw you in.”

For her fans, this has to be both a No Shit, Sherlock moment and a vindication of sorts. Here’s the child star from Panic Room (who David Fincher must have seen something in) proving that her persistence in the industry isn’t a fluke. For the skeptical, it may signal a maturation – the next step in talent evolution for a promising figure who hadn’t yet lived up to any great promise.

It doesn’t really matter which it is because it depends solely on where you’re standing. The prevailing narrative is that she’s finally emerging from a cold winter although she’s been experimenting with different roles at least since Adventureland. Maybe she needed to get out of the shade of Twilight, or maybe the right blend of story and power hadn’t happened with On the Road or Welcome to the Rileys, but regardless of the hypothesis, the main point is that she’s the next actor in line for reconsideration.

In Nathan Rabin’s essay on the gross artificiality that typified and symbolized Matthew McConaughey’s mid-2000s pit of creative despair, he talks about Failure to Launch as a moronic stumbling block that very well could have propelled McConaughey toward his current -aissance.

Like other popular actors, McConaughey was coasting. Some actors recover, some become cartoons and a rare few transcend to heights previously unimaginable. I’d argue that number is about to grow. New judgement-free access to experimentation , a smaller list of mainstream options and a willingness to put in the work all add up to more opportunities for our favorite actors to re-establish themselves.

As for Failure, Rabin dissects the moronic rom-com with grotesque detail, recognizing it as an allegorical stand-in for McConaughey’s career trajectory (and he’s dead on about that), but the greater question is what choice McConaughey had. What else could he have done? Quitting, sure, or sliding slowly into direct-to-video obscurity, fine, but the narrowing of studio focus would have squeezed him out just as he was getting comfortable.

The catch 22 is clear: in order to stay in the studio system, McConaughey would have had to become a superhero or become a stone-cold sci-fi action hero at a time when the studio system didn’t want him for those roles. The second act of his career (whatever it was going to be) was happening no matter what.

Coming off of kissing sparkly vampires and hanging out with the huntsman, Stewart was facing a different problem. She plausibly could have found a new franchise to lead (and that could have been playing Snow White), but it’s unclear what other choices Hollywood would have had for her, and the prestige route certainly comes with its own benefits. She’s currently reaping them right now.

The death of the traditional movie star has been problematic, and it’s felt steroid-charged alongside the explosion of blockbuster betting, but it’s also created a sense of freedom for incredibly famous people to 1) participate in TV and persona-defying projects and 2) to get those (often indie) persona-defying projects greenlit. This has created some fantastically interesting work, and several surprising performances have been at the heart of those films.

So we’re now having a lot of conversations about seeing actors differently. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Zac Efron (for totally different reasons in Neighbors), McConaughey and the latest, Michael Keaton (Birdman). Obviously some were seen more frivolously than others, others were known for “playing themselves,” but each grabbed opportunities to show us that they were something more.

Arguably, this new era started with the Mickey Rourkaissance, but it’s only going to continue and expand, and we can add Stewart to that ever-growing list. With fewer studio opportunities and a growing ability to experiment, we’re going to continue seeing more of our favorite actors in new ways. It’s exciting to imagine who will be next.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.