Since the cinema began there have been female movie stars, from Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo through to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda, and the audience’s relationship with them has been both complex and complete. As much as mainstream filmmaking, particularly in Hollywood, struggles with gender inequality, the current squad of actresses who draw down on our desire for movie stars have been able at times to play fascinating and diverse roles, especially in the early parts that launched them. SBS On Demand’s Famous Faces selection showcases telling turns from many leading actresses, and here are four essential sessions.
Jennifer Lawrence in 'Winter's Bone'
(2010, Debra Granik)
Six years is a very long time: Jennifer Lawrence is now one of the biggest movie stars in the world, the defiant face of The Hunger Games franchise and the Academy Award-winning muse of David O. Russell, but in 2010 she was a virtual unknown when she delivered a remarkable performance in this independent American feature. Director Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel delivered a gripping, immersive journey into the broken society of America’s rural Ozark Mountains, a dysfunctional clan-based milieu built around the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine.
With her mother left bereft by a mental breakdown and her family’s home at risk of repossession, it falls to 17-year-old Lawrence’s Ree Dolly to find her missing father, an infamous methamphetamine cook, so that his forfeited bail doesn’t leave her family homeless. The netherworld she ventures into, where she has to risk her life at the hand of her own relatives, is brutal but never imposing, and Lawrence reveals the hints of despair and unyielding black humour that tick away inside her teenage matriarch. She delivers a vivid, richly nuanced performance.
Keira Knightley in 'A Dangerous Method'
(2011, David Cronenberg)
Keira Knightley swapped piracy for psychology in her compelling, deeply felt portrayal of Sabina Spielrein, the unsettled daughter of Russian doctors who would go down in history as the first patient to undergo psychoanalysis – “the talking cure”, as it’s referred to here – under the treatment of Zurich psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who was developing the theories advanced by his Viennese mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Arriving under the care of orderlies, her beanpole frame contorted into painful shapes, Knightley’s Sabina has a fierce presence that gradually reveals her intelligence, sexual desire, and compulsions without simplifying the character.
David Cronenberg, a director who knows the schism between the body and the mind all too well, and playwright Christopher Hampton give breadth to the latter’s 2002 play, mixing the long exchanges between the principles with a sense of the nascent 20th century unfolding at its best and worse. The falling out between the two men is the film’s intellectual core, but Knightley is the dramatic centre of the film, and she makes Sabina a complex forerunner of the capacious modern woman. It’s a revelatory turn.
Carey Mulligan in 'An Education'
(2009, Lone Scherfig)
The coming of age tale is virtually a dramatic standard in the movies, but it’s rarely been conveyed with such subtle depth or heartbreaking realisation. Carey Mulligan, in her breakthrough role, plays Jenny Mellor, a 16-year-old middle-class schoolgirl from the suburbs of 1961 London who believes that she is ready to put her teenage life behind her. When she meets the raffish businessman David (Peter Sarsgaard, at his most charmingly duplicitous), both Jenny and her fretful parents are seduced by his confidence and attention.
The Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig proved adept at capturing the period detail of a city and a culture on the cusp of change – The Beatles are little more than a year away – while Mulligan delivers a performance of such great charm that for long into the movie you refuse to believe that Jenny could be so wrongheaded. It’s a tender, involved depiction that crashes into the crushing reality conveyed by the likes of Emma Thompson and Rosamund Pike as older women who’ve made their own choices about how they’ll move through life.
Kristen Stewart in 'Welcome to the Rileys'
(2010, Jake Scott)
The move from child star to adult actor is never easy, and for Kristen Stewart it was exacerbated by her transitional role being the Twilight franchise, an endless succession of vampire melodrama and increasingly sparse romantic dedication. In 2010 she took charge of her career with a pair of impressive, unconventional performances: as 1970s rock & roll gunslinger Joan Jett in The Runaways, and as a wayward young woman who becomes caught up in the debilitating memories of a despairing middle-aged couple, played by James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo, who’ve lost their own daughter in Jake Scott’s independent drama Welcome to the Rileys.
Stewart’s Mallory is a lackadaisical teenage stripper, a survivor on her own ill-considered terms, who is delighted that Gandolfini’s Doug Riley simply wants to pay to live with her. The still grieving father is reminded of his own child, and he becomes an unlikely father figure who both helps and hinders Mallory, especially after Leo’s withdrawn Lois Riley joins them in New Orleans. The part could easily be clichéd, but Stewart makes it deceptively deep and purposeful, revealing her faculty for close-ups that communicate so much of what her character is thinking with just the fleeting expressions on her face.
Explore the entire 'Famous Faces' collection at SBS On Demand
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