Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
When did you first start working? For Kirsten Dunst, the young New Jersey star began her career at the age of three, appearing in various television commercials for Double Trouble, Kix, Pillsbury, Crayola, and the list goes on. Not too long after that she began working with veteran legends such as Woody Allen (1989’s New York Stories) and acting alongside top-tier talent like Tom Hanks (1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities). By the age of 10, she was winning critics over with her award-winning performances in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire and Little Women.
Yet, unlike so many young and talented stars across Hollywood history, Dunst never left the spotlight and has since continued to work with the best of the best while also evolving her game. For over three decades, she has proven essential in nearly every genre she’s ever dabbled in — from comedy to drama, horror to action — and has even conquered the television medium in recent years. Soon enough, she’ll make her proper directorial debut with her highly anticipated adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s canonical novel, The Bell Jar, starring Dakota Fanning.
In the meantime, though, she’s reuniting with pal Sofia Coppola for the director’s remake of The Beguiled, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell. In anticipation of the film’s release, we decided to take a look back at Dunst’s greatest performances — of which there are many — and try to chisel them down to a Top 10. We attempted to capture her resume to the best of our abilities, but with someone as varied as Dunst, it wasn’t the easiest task. So, if you feel we missed out on anything, feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below.
10. Mary Jane Watson
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Definitive Dunst: “So here I am — standing in your doorway. I have always been standing in your doorway. Isn’t it about time somebody saved your life?”
Say what you will about 2007’s cruelly maligned Spider-Man 3, but Sam Raimi knew exactly what he was doing with the franchise, and part of that understanding surfaced in the film’s brilliant casting. Tobey Maguire was always the right choice for Peter Parker, and so was Dunst as his childhood crush, Mary Jane Watson. Sorry Elisha Cuthbert, but in the early aughts, nobody captured the idea of a “girl next door” better than Dunst, who had long won every then-teenager’s heart with performances in Jumanji, Small Soldiers, and The Virgin Suicides. So, it wasn’t too hard to see her the way Parker did, and she wisely capitalized on those feelings with an onscreen personality that embellished all her natural charms. Granted, she’s great in every one of the Marvel adventures, but she’s exceptional in the outstanding Spider-Man 2, exuding all the proper angst and remorse that comes from being lost in love. That final scene is everything. A-B repeat, y’all.
09. Katie McCarthy
All Good Things (2010)
Definitive Dunst: “I’ve never been closer to anyone, and I don’t know you at all.”
Seeing how All Good Things is essentially a retelling of “accused” murderer Robert Durst’s sordid past, the film doesn’t exactly make for the most enticing watch. It’s cold, distant, and morbid, which was more or less the feeling shared among moviegoers who actually caught Andrew Jarecki’s crime drama when it bowed in the winter of 2010. Since then, the film’s had a proper resurgence a good half decade later, thanks to HBO’s documentary series The Jinx. Nevertheless, Dunst delivers one of her sharpest dramatic performances as the working-class wife of Ryan Gosling’s Durst stand-in, David Marks. Watching the two bounce off one another with joy and eventually derision is like revisiting Blue Valentine all over again, only with a little off-screen murder and far creepier makeup jobs. For Dunst, the dramatic role marked a noticeable turn towards more adult fare, an area she’s enjoyed considerably in recent years, most of which you’ll soon read about.
08. Torrance Shipman
Bring It On (2000)
Definitive Dunst: “You’re a great cheerleader, Aaron, it’s just that… maybe you’re not exactly ‘boyfriend material.’ Buh-bye.”
Bring It On is when Hollywood finally realized Dunst could carry a film by herself — and she does. To be fair, the supporting cast in Peyton Reed’s cheerleading comedy is also pretty wonderful, particularly Gabrielle Union and hunk punk Jesse Bradford, but the whole shebang really rests on the shoulders of Dunst, both literally and metaphorically. In addition to being an intense, physical performance — Reed required everyone to attend a four-week cheerleading camp — Dunst is required to carry the teen drama while also bringing the larger-than-life comedy, and damn does she bring it. Much like her onscreen role as cheerleading captain Torrance Shipman, Dunst, who was only 18 at the time, has to rally her co-stars for over 90 minutes, bringing out their best qualities, whether it’s one-liners, visual gags, WB romances, etc. She gives it her all in every scene, and that outstanding commitment is largely why it’s such a re-watchable film. Also: spirit fingers.
07. Nicole Oakley
Definitive Dunst: “I’m seventeen, I’m supposed to get out of control.”
Crazy/Beautiful isn’t a great movie by any means, but it’s a good watch every once in awhile and mostly to revisit the unquestionable chemistry between Dunst and ever-underrated Jay Hernandez. This film was never going to work without a believable pairing, and the two are like DiCaprio and Danes all over again, stumbling in and out of their reckless romance with the charm of a Replacements song. Their love is incredibly sexy and overwhelmingly vivid, which is mostly what director John Stockwell was going for, but Dunst adds a palpable tension to Nicole, the troubled daughter of a congressman who’s obviously still working things out in her head after her mother’s untimely passing. It’s not that anyone should have been surprised by this caliber of a performance from Dunst, seeing how she tackled adult themes with aplomb at the age of 10, but it was quite a left hook given that she was shaking pom-poms 10 months prior.
06. Regan Crawford
Regan: Okay, how much money do you guys have?
Katie: I have five maxed-out credit cards!
Gena: I have a twen… actually I ripped it. I got nothing.
Regan: Well, that sums up your lives.
Did we talk about how comedy is hard? Well, it is. Out of all the genres, comedy might be one of the highest hurdles to jump for any star looking to crossover, namely because it’s a tall ask to get people to laugh. Heading into Leslye Headland’s 2012 anti-romantic comedy, Bachelorette, Dunst was already operating on an intermediate level for the genre, having nailed hilarious performances in 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous and the aforementioned Bring It On. However, save for an admirable turn in 2008’s all-but-forgotten How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Dunst hadn’t really worked with the Apatowian brand of comedy that fuels Bachelorette. However, as Regan Crawford, the ringleader of her friends group, Dunst proves she’s a shoo-in for the style, whipping her bewildering brat pack of girlfriends with a layer of sarcasm that could give Larry David a humble nod or two. Why we haven’t seen this ensemble again is a total mystery.
05. Mary Svevo
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Definitive Dunst: “He could wake up all half-baked and, gooey and, and half-baked … mmm, that sounds sooo good. I’m hungry.”
It says a lot when you can stand out next to Peak Jim Carrey, Peak Kate Winslet, and an all-star supporting cast of Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo. Yet, that’s exactly what Dunst does in Michel Gondry’s forever-impressive dramedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As Mary Svevo, Dunst impressively toes the fine line between being brilliant and naive or spunky and tragic or even overjoyed and depressed. She’s the fourth or fifth most important character in Charlie Kaufman’s game-changing narrative and still manages to steal our heart by the end of the story. Sure, much of this involves her heartbreaking history, one of the many teary revelations laced throughout the film, but such a revelation wouldn’t bruise as much if we didn’t legitimately care for Mary, and those feelings stem from Dunst’s spirited performance. Rarely have stoned soliloquies sounded so adorably hilarious and achingly somber at the same time. Sheesh.
04. Lux Lisbon
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Definitive Dunst: “I can’t breathe in here.”
Dunst had a great year in 1999. As the millennium quickly approached, the then-17-year-old actress committed to a range of films that included an action-adventure in True Heart, a quirky comedy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, a historical farce in Dick, and an anti-coming-of-age period piece in Sofia Coppola’s feature-length debut, The Virgin Suicides. Not surprisingly, it’s the latter most remember, not only because it’s obviously the superior film, but because it’s the type of role that has been most emblematic of Dunst’s attributes. As Lux, one of the five teenage sisters living in the overprotective Lisbon household in ’70s-set Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Dunst gives a quiet and powerful performance that’s gripping and haunting for its intimate solitude. As she’s wont to do, Coppola strings together a portfolio of tranquil portraits that are all enlivened by the film’s cast, especially Dunst, whose features come to define the innocence that’s lost by the gasping conclusion.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Louis: You see that old woman? That will never happen to you. You will never grow old, and you will never die.
Claudia: And it means something else, too, doesn’t it? I shall never ever grow up.
Dunst’s breakthrough performance as Claudia, the eternally young vampire who hangs with Brad Pitt’s mild-mannered Louise and Tom Cruise’s venomous Lestat, is the stuff of Hollywood lore. At an age when most kids are busy playing dodgeball or begging their parents for Happy Meals, Dunst was chewing on themes of sexuality and mortality. Looking back, it’s insane anyone allowed a 10-year-old on to the set of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, but thank god Dunst’s parents were game, because it’s Dunst who makes this film. After all, hardly anybody remembers what happens to Lestat or Louise, but they can always recall the little girl, the one who’s doomed to an infinite life of late-night bloodshed and grizzly promiscuity before she suffers an ungodly fate. Don’t forget, though: Claudia isn’t just any girl; she’s an adult trapped in a girl’s body. That Dunst was able to covey this conflict at such a young age is unbelievable.
02. Peggy Blumquist
Fargo: Season Two (2015)
Definitive Dunst: “You wouldn’t understand. You’re a man. It’s a lie, okay — that you can do it all — be a wife and a mother and this self-made career woman, like there’s 37 hours in a day. And then, when you can’t, they say it’s you. “You’re faulty,” like — like — like you’re inferior somehow.”
Noah Hawley needed something special to make his second season of Fargo spark. After an unlikely jaw-dropping first season, the critically acclaimed showrunner was seemingly in a bind, where he’d have to either hope for lighting to strike twice or do something radically different. He did a little bit of both, rejiggering the Midwestern crime thriller for the ’70s and flooding the scenery with a bevy of vintage aesthetics. Fortunately for him, he also had Dunst, who has since become a visual bookmark for the whole season as the tough-as-nails beautician Peggy Blumquist. To his credit, Hawley wisely wrapped much of the season around Dunst, slathering her role with one surprising layer after the next, which pretty much kept everyone at the edge of their couch all season. Dunst earns every quirk, though, delivering the kind of transformative, larger-than-life performance that made the original Coen brothers’ film so iconic. Sorry, Gaga. She deserved that Globe.
Definitive Dunst: “You know what I think of your plan. I think that it’s a piece of shit.”
Like any film by Lars von Trier, Melancholia is a complicated affair. The second installment of the Danish filmmaker’s Depression Trilogy captures the end of the world and the ensuing chaos that comes from such an event. But, Trier isn’t Roland Emmerich, so he’s less concerned with the global catastrophe and more interested in the human psyche. In fact, the end-of-the-world bit is really just a visual metaphor for the characters at hand and plays a quiet backseat driver to the mental downward spiral riding up front. At the wheel of it all is Dunst’s Justine, a bride-to-be suffering from severe depression. She’s unhinged, she’s remorseless, she’s self-destructive, but the cataclysmic event starts to shift her perspective, particularly toward her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her transformation serves as the crux of the film.
Needless to say, Justine was an unorthodox role for Dunst. In addition to working with a challenging director in von Trier — not to mention, highly controversial — Dunst also grappled with her most complicated character to date. But there’s reason to believe the actress saw something very personal in this role, given how she, too, had struggled with depression in the years leading up to filming. Upon its release, she expressed how the experience was therapeutic for her, and those feelings are all across the screen as she floats moves from one scene to the next with a grace that can best be described as curious. It’s almost as if she had personally acknowledged the role was some kind of metamorphosis for herself, shifting away from her traditional milieu towards something far more enigmatic. Since then, she’s been operating on a whole other level.