Despite having turned in several career-defining performances by the time she was eighteen, Kirsten Dunst never seems to get the credit she deserves. Many of her films are somehow ahead of their time, critically panned upon release only to be recognized as bold and innovative years down the line.
In a lot of ways, the industry’s misunderstanding of Kirsten Dunst’s early career is indicative of a larger dismissal of teenage girl characters onscreen, which are only recently being more acknowledged for their emotional complexity. But Dunst is finally getting her due, and it’s better late than never. So let’s celebrate her birthday today with a rundown of some of her all-time great performances.
dir. Cameron Crowe
“Elizabethtown” may not represent the pinnacle of director and writer Cameron Crowe’s career, but Kirsten Dunst’s endearingly quirky performance is nonetheless worth celebrating. She plays Claire, an eccentric flight attendant who helps a failed shoe designer and grieving son (Orlando Bloom) find some much-needed perspective on success, grief, and life itself. And although her role here is infamous for coining the phrase “manic pixie dream girl,” she brings a sweetness and down-to-earth nature that rises above the occasionally grating character archetype.
dir. Sam Raimi
“Spider-Man” is arguably one of the best superhero films ever made, and Kirsten Dunst’s role as Mary Jane Watson plays a significant role in its success. The quintessential girl next door, Dunst has an easy charm and natural likeability that make her stand out. She never feels like just a love interest for the hero, a damsel to be rescued at every turn: her Mary Jane is a flesh and blood character in her own right.
dir. Lars von Trier
“Melancholia” offers Kirsten Dunst an opportunity to tap into something different from what we normally see in her onscreen. In Lars von Trier’s contemplative drama about the end of the world, Dunst’s natural warmth is muted as she plays a depressed bride whose wedding day is interrupted by the startling news that another planet is on a collision course with Earth. She brings an almost disconcerting emotional restraint, a resigned calmness to the film’s established chaos.
“Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1999)
dir. Michael Patrick Jann
In “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” Dunst takes a conscious step from childhood stardom into an adult career with her role as Amber Atkins, a teenage beauty pageant contestant. The underrated satire skewers the bizarre hidden world of pageantry, all while centering Dunst as its working-class, underdog hero. Her earnest Midwestern energy collides with the sneaky, underhanded, and frequently violent happenings among a group of teen girls determined to win at any cost.
“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (2019-present)
“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” serves as one of Kirsten Dunst’s first major forays into the world of television, and it’s already difficult to imagine the small screen without her. Portraying characters who feel lived in and especially well-developed has always been one of her strengths, so the episodic nature of television feels like a perfect fit. Here, she plays a blue-collar Floridian determined to con her way into the upper echelons of a particularly malevolent multi-level marketing pyramid scheme. Her portrayal blends the sympathetic, desperate struggle of a single mother to survive with a surprisingly ruthless saleswoman who has seemingly found her calling.
“Marie Antoinette” (2006)
dir. Sofia Coppola
“Marie Antoinette” was, quite frankly, ahead of its time. In the years since, we’ve seen film after film find success with the sort of hyper-stylized, ultra-modern interpretation of a historical biopic that was established here by director Sofia Coppola first. Kirsten Dunst plays the ill-fated Marie Antoinette as an over-indulged, wild teen partier more in line with 21st-century reality show celebrities than the old-fashioned, bewigged historical figure we’re used to. Her vibrant performance forges a strong connection between modern audiences and the former queen of France.
“Little Women” (1994)
dir. Gillian Armstrong
The 1994 version of “Little Women” is almost universally beloved, but for some reason Kirsten Dunst as Amy almost never gets her rightful share of the acclaim. Yes, as written she’s perhaps the least likable of the March sisters (burning Jo’s manuscript is pretty unforgivable, to be fair). And she isn’t done any favors by the fact that she’s replaced halfway through the film by an adult version of the character while all the others are played by the same actresses throughout. But Dunst brings such a lively energy to Amy, one that doesn’t ignore her occasionally vain, self-centered, and hot-tempered qualities, but highlights her ultimately kind and loving nature.
“Bring It On” (2000)
dir. Payton Reed
Dunst’s performance in “Bring It On” is deceptively simple. On the face of it, how complicated could it be? She’s playing a bubbly blond cheerleader. But throughout her performance as Torrance, she continually finds new shades of nuance in the character, building out a living, breathing person. She’s not just asked to be sunny: she also has to be ambitious, hard-working, morally upright, and a natural leader. And the unexpected humor she brings to the role is just icing on the cake.
“The Virgin Suicides” (1999)
dir. Sofia Coppola
“The Virgin Suicides” represents the first collaboration between Kirstin Dunst and Sofia Coppola, and it is a doozy. Dunst plays Lux Lisbon, one of five emotionally repressed Catholic sisters who are forced to live under ever-tightening restrictions after the youngest among them attempts suicide. It’s a deeply melancholic exploration of the adolescent experience, and Dunst’s performance is breathtaking as a rebellious teen who becomes the mysterious object of fascination for several local boys.
“Interview with the Vampire” (1994)
dir. Neil Jordan
Most actors would probably be satisfied to have one performance in their entire career as nervy and exciting as Kirsten Dunst in “Interview with a Vampire,” and she got hers by age twelve. Dunst is one of the best parts of the film, playing Claudia as a moody child vampire who is a fully-matured woman on the inside but eternally stuck in the body of a little girl. She’s vicious, petulant, spiteful, with a macabre sense of humor; over-the-top but always a joy to watch, somehow carrying a cloud of atmosphere with her wherever she goes. Renesmee from “Twilight” wishes she had half of Claudia’s melodramatic vampire energy.