There were three films involving relations between older women and younger women this year. One is Carol, which has been welcomed into the awards race with open arms. Another is Freeheld, with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, which has been mostly ignored for Oscar consideration. The third and most platonic is Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which has mostly been ignored by awards pundits, but has been given a new lease on life by film critics in recent weeks who are giving Stewart more consistent praise and awards for her performance than any other supporting actress this year.
Clouds of Sils Maria premiered at Cannes in May, 2014. Over the next 11 months it played favorably at over 60 film festivals around the world and opened across Europe. Last February, Kristen Stewart surprised everyone by becoming the first American actress ever to win the César in the “French Oscars'” 40-year history. Next, after being nominated by over a dozen American critics groups, she won the New York Film Critics, then the Boston Film Critics, and today the National Society of Film Critics — arguably the most prestigious of the bunch — for her supporting turn as the savvy, indispensable personal assistant who helps urge her actress boss to come to terms with some difficult truths. Probably as a result of the film’s lengthy worldwide roll-out, it’s been an oddity this awards season to discover such a surge for a contender — only to see her struggle to gain traction within the awards chatter circles. Perhaps it’s because the industry, often to its own embarrassment, usually has very little to do with the critics.
With no SAG nomination and no Globe nomination, precedent tells us that the chances for Stewart’s Oscar recognition are slim to none. One or the other acknowledgement would certainly have helped. Hurting the film even more is that it’s probably not being seen by incurious voters — either because the distributor chose not to send out screeners, or they don’t feel the urgent need to see the film, which opened in America in April in limited release, was never allowed to expand past 180 theaters, and therefore earned very little money.
The question is, with this much critical acclaim — with so much power garnered already at the box office with the Twilight franchise, not to mention Snow White and the Huntsman — why is Kristen Stewart not getting the same kind of respect in awards season that, say, Jennifer Lawrence does, or other big stars when they do films of this caliber? Here are some of the numbers from films featuring Stewart, beginning with early in her career:
Panic Room: $96 million
Jumper: $80 million
Twilight: $192 million
Twilight: New Moon: $296 million
Breaking Dawn: $281 million
The Huntsman: $155 million
Breaking Dawn 2: $292 million
That last hefty sum was as recent as 2012. In the three years since the Twilight saga ended, Stewart has focused mainly on small character-driven dramas like On the Road, Camp X-Ray, and Still Alice.
You build power in two ways in Hollywood. One is with box office clout (check) and the other is with prestige from critical acclaim and the film awards race. Stewart clearly has aced both challenges, though it seems she’s being blocked from the third step — for a few understandable reasons, and other reasons less easy to fathom.
Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t have much buzz other than Stewart, and it barely has that. Picked up for US distribution by IFC, this isn’t a film that anyone had planned to campaign for. Stewart herself has done few interviews and the perception may be that she isn’t really chasing a nomination the way some others are. She isn’t doing the awards dance as she would be required to if she had received a boost from a SAG or a Globe nomination.
The way the Oscar race works is that you must chase them, propelled by your publicist. Sometimes the chase pays off — sometimes it doesn’t. There have been plenty of good contenders in the supporting categories this year who have aggressively chased and not gotten any closer for any of their efforts than Stewart has done with little effort at all. Clouds of Sils Maria, though exquisite, isn’t widely popular enough overall to make sure it’s included in the conversation. Even someone as high profile a Paul Dano has had to work for the potential for a Love & Mercy nomination, the film’s only potential nomination, which is heartbreaking because all the leads are so deserving in that film. That’s just for starters.
The award race is a prom of sorts. Buzz and popularity are sometimes determined by nothing substantial. It’s left to history to sort to it all out.
When you look at the SAG contenders you see:
Rooney Mara, Carol (lead role)
Alicia Vikander, Danish Girl (lead role)
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
And among those who haven’t made it in? The incredible Jessica Chastain in The Martian, Jane Fonda in Youth, Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy, Joan Allen in Room — to name but a few. McAdams benefits from being in the Best Picture frontrunner but her role is simply not showy enough to have earned a nod otherwise.
The notable difference between Stewart and all the others has to do with how many awards she’s now won and why that kind of clout should not go ignored. She’s a big star whose films have made billions of dollars worldwide — isn’t it just a little strange that no one is taking her seriously as a nominee?
She’s wonderful in Clouds of Sils Maria — the whole film is worthy of more awards attention, from its leading role to its screenplay to its cinematography. But don’t take my word for it, here is what critics had to say:
Manohla Dargis, New York Times
For some young performers, blockbusters are where talent and ambition go to die. For others, like Kristen Stewart, the star of that international juggernaut called the “Twilight Saga,” big movies can be a good place to hide out while they’re raking it in. In the superb French film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Ms. Stewart plays an ordinary American abroad, a new-age, pop-savvy Daisy Miller who, with expressive intelligence that few blockbusters allow, makes a passionate argument for the kinds of movies the actress herself is best known for. Ms. Stewart has rightly won a lot of attention for her performance (the French film industry rewarded her with its highest honor, a César), but it would be a mistake to think of this as some sort of career rescue mission.
It bears mentioning that Stewart keeps up with Binoche every step of the way, giving a low-key but subtly vibrant performance that’s alert to each curve on this movie’s twisting mountain roads. Because of the “Twilight” movies and the actress’s own minimalist acting style, we like to rag on Stewart in this country. She won a Cesar, France’s Oscar, for her performance in this film, the first US actress to do so? Surely that’s a joke?
It’s not. Stewart can do very good work within her narrow range of affect, and “Clouds” offers proof that her range is expanding. The movie also allows the actress to comment on the “Twilight” ruckus and the absurdity of fame in ways that are delicious to us and presumably to her as well. The film’s title (and the play’s) comes from a meteorological phenomenon particular to this Alpine valley, one in which clouds stream like a serpent through the passes. (Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures it with haunting evanescence.) Someone describes the effect as “the true nature of the landscape revealing itself,” and one can imagine Stewart and the rest of the cast regarding this film’s fiction in much the same way, as an overlay that shows us the contours of life and career we’re usually too blind to see.
Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:
At age 24, Kristen Stewart became – at least by some standards of measurement – the highest-paid actress in Hollywood history. Stewart earned a reported salary of $50 million for her role as virginal vampire bride Bella Swan in the two-part “Twilight”finale, plus a 7.5 percent stake in the films’ gross receipts, which quite likely added the same amount again. One should never bother expending compassion on rich and famous celebrities, but the combination of adoration and derision that greeted Stewart’s astonishing ascent was almost as unprecedented as the event itself – and almost as exaggerated.
If you want to argue that it’s ridiculous for a movie actor to make that kind of money, and that the “Twilight” series was nothing more than lightweight libidinal fantasy for teenage girls, of course that’s all true. But the reaction to Stewart and “Twilight” was often tinged with a kind of sexism and snobbery we simply don’t encounter when it comes to libidinal fantasy for teenage boys, such as the Marvel Comics franchises that have become Hollywood’s bread and butter. I would certainly agree that the “Twilight” movies were chaotic and internally contradictory texts that wrestled with a chaotic swell of desire and ridiculously obvious symbolism – but again, how does that make them different from most big-budget Hollywood spectacles? For a very large subset of the haters, the real problem was the girl-cooties.
Here’s the part that nobody expected, neither Stewart’s most loyal fans nor her most ruthless detractors: She has relaunched her career as an indie-film actor, and it’s almost exactly the same career she would have had if “Twilight” had never happened. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that career never stopped, and that Stewart has instead treated the “Twilight” films as a detour or an aberration. With the solitary and partial exception of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” every non-vampire movie she has made since at least 2008 has been a role better suited to the star of “Adventureland,” her Sundance-hit rom-com with Jesse Eisenberg, than the star of “Twilight.”
Viewed this way, Stewart’s little-seen performances as a runaway turned hooker in “Welcome to the Rileys,” as Neal Cassady’s fictionalized girlfriend in Walter Salles’ “On the Road” or as a troubled Gitmo guard in “Camp X-Ray” are the central thread of her career, not odd tangents or exceptions. Looking ahead, that thread looks to continue into the indefinite future: Stewart has already completed “Equals,” a sci-fi romance for indie director Drake Doremus, and “American Ultra,” a mid-budget action spoof that reunites her with Eisenberg, and is scheduled to appear in new films by Woody Allen and ultra-indie auteur Kelly Reichardt. She’s also been cast in Ang Lee’s film of the Iraq War novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” but while that’s clearly a big movie, it’s big in the prestigious, award-season sense, not the popcorn sense. Of course I can’t tell you whether those pictures will be good, bad or indifferent — but none of them will carry a “Twilight”-scale paycheck or hold much appeal for “Twilight” fans.
Of course it’s not quite that simple, since everything Stewart does from now to the day her obituary is published will be haunted by the ghost of Bella Swan. Her new role as personal assistant to a famous European actress (played by French screen legend Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” is loaded with meta-references to Stewart’s own trajectory as a target of gossip mags and paparazzi, and can be read as a commentary on celebrity and its discontents. If she had continued on the “Adventureland” path without ever playing Bella, Stewart might well have wound up in an Assayas film. But presumably not this one, in which Valentine, her gawky, earnest and ambitious character (clad throughout in glasses, jeans and a T-shirt) manages public appearances and media exposure for her boss, and earnestly debates the craft of a hot young actress best known for her role in a ludicrous science-fiction franchise.
Guy Lodge (then, Hitfix, now Variety):
Delivering the film’s most touching, textured performance, Stewart plays her gradual self-assertion beautifully, her signature underplaying building in light and shade, her sullen body language opening up as her co-star’s turns appropriately tight and uncertain. There’s a rueful twinkle, too, to her delivery as Valentine muses on the relentless pettiness of contemporary celebrity journalism. La Binoche isn’t the only actress whose own career is under the magnifying glass here.
As an awards blogger — god, is that really what I am? I guess so — I have to concede that I feel Kristen Stewart is the longest of long shots for a nomination. But as someone who is part of a growing community of voices who champion women having equal power in Hollywood, I have to wonder why there isn’t more of an embrace for such a talented, successful young actress as Kristen Stewart.