Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is Oscar bait. It’s a biopic about a beloved historical figure, Princess Diana of Wales. Its star, Kristen Stewart, is going through something of a redemption arc, which Oscar voters loved when Matthew McConaughey did it. Stewart, who started acting as a child, is decades into her career and over a decade into proving herself as a serious performer. With her months-long campaign for Spencer, Stewart is not trying to reinvent her image, but trying to earn well-deserved, long-overdue recognition among her peers who still associate the actress with a vampire franchise she starred in when she was a teenager into her early 20s; the same reputation that her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson easily earned. Spencer is also an extremely expressive film. It’s beautifully shot and carefully lit, with landscapes as glamorous as its costumes. The visuals are in stark contrast with the story, which centers on Diana’s internal struggle with her marriage, being in the royal family, and her eating disorder. It looks like the fantasy royal life you imagine, but the reality is quite the opposite. Larraín’s film is not a standard biopic, though – it’s more of a slice of Diana’s complicated, lonely life.
Stewart and Spencer check every box on the Oscar to-do list with big, green, and perfect checkmarks. But Stewart, who kicked off awards season as a favorite for the Best Actress Oscar, has slowly become as unlikely to win an Oscar as Bradley Cooper, or a pre-The Revenant Leonardo Dicaprio. Although Stewart was just nominated in the Best Actress category for Spencer, she is the least likely to win among the other nominees. How did Stewart go from most obvious frontrunner to so left in the dust that it’s surprising she was even nominated? This has to do with several factors, including Hollywood’s obsession with itself, Stewart’s career (and everyone’s relationship to it), as well as the difference between what critics/film fans like compared to Hollywood and Academy voters.
When Spencer premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2021, critics swooned over Stewart’s performance. For years, critics and film fans have been working to give Stewart her due. Before her Twilight career, she was a child actress who worked with David Fincher in Panic Room (2002), and years later had a memorable role in 2007’s Into the Wild. Her post-Twilight career gets more impressive with every role, with her quiet performing style building and maturing. Stewart played Julianne Moore’s daughter in 2014’s Still Alice in a small but rousing performance opposite an Oscar-winning performance from Moore. In Stewart’s unsettling, emotionally raw but refined performance 2016’s Personal Shopper, Stewart established what most critics already knew: she is as good as the rest of them and better than some.
In Spencer, which follows Princess Diana as she decides to end her marriage with Prince Charles while on a Christmas holiday, Stewart disappears into Diana, fluctuating between extreme moods as a result of her isolation within the royal family. Stewart portrays Diana as an extremely sad, trapped woman. She has what anyone would consider an enviable life: she is part of the British royal family so she has everything — more beautiful things and surroundings than most people could ever imagine. But she is almost imprisoned by her status, in a loveless marriage with a man who openly loves another woman, and the only joy she experiences is through her children. Stewart plays these emotions naturally, assimilating from intense pain in scenes with her husband and his family to the intoxicating joy Diana was known for in scenes with her young sons, William and Harry. It’s the kind of performance that makes you forget who the actor is, and that the character has been played by other actresses (and very recently). Most importantly, Stewart does not try to make Diana feel special. The best part of Stewart’s performance is that she allows Princess Diana to be rather ordinary, which establishes a necessary connection with the audience.
Over the past few months as other films came out and the conversation shifted from critic chatter to actual awards show voters, Stewart’s chances for an Oscar grew smaller. Stewart went from shoo-in to, “she’s lucky if she even gets nominated.” The front-runners for best actress among the nominees are now Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) and Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), and Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), with previous winner Nicole Kidman the most likely winner for an average performance at best, if I’m being generous. Compared to Stewart, these actresses have more pull within Hollywood circles and, therefore, Academy voters. All of them have won before, which makes them more favorable to voters, who tend to go with what they’re comfortable with, even as the voting pool expands. Stewart, although decades into her acting career, does not run in the same circles. She’s also not from a Hollywood family, which favors actors more than they’ll ever admit. And up until this point, she has never been taken very seriously as an actress on this scale, rarely given the chance to mingle at awards shows like her peers. Stewart has been in a constant state of proving herself, and she’s gone ignored.
This is a similar problem to that of Jodie Comer, another actress who delivered one of the best performances in 2021 for The Last Duel, who, like Stewart, simply does not have as much pull in Hollywood. In an ideal world, Stewart and Comer would be the undisputed frontrunners for Best Actress, in a race that no one could predict.
Unfortunately, there are still people who consider Stewart unworthy, apparently unable to separate an actor from a job. If I was judged by all the jobs I had in the teens and 20s . . . you know what, I actually don’t even want to imagine that. While there are still some who extend the same fervor toward Robert Pattinson (every time I tweet about him, a few Batman fans who hate him harass me), he quickly broke out of his Twilight association, becoming an indie/arthouse film darling.
Meanwhile, Stewart has been doing the same thing but is still working her ass off to prove she’s just as good. Awards shows are, for the most part, a popularity contest. The hottest person of the moment – rooted in likability but fueled by clever PR campaigns – is more likely to win than the person who actually deserved it for the individual work, creating a cycle of actors (or writers and directors) winning years later for the wrong thing. Gary Oldman won his first Oscar for Darkest Hour, an unremarkable film and performance led more by prosthetics than the actor himself. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio’s win for The Revenant was an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to his extraordinary early acting career. In the Best Actress category, Kate Winslet finally won her first Oscar in a similarly disappointing fashion for The Reader in 2008. The following year, Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side, which hurt her chances for a win for Gravity several years later, were career-based wins, meant to respect the body of work and the person more than the individual performance.
As this cycle continues, Kristin Stewart may get her comeuppance, in a few years or maybe in many. But as it so often goes, it will be for a performance that wasn’t as deserving as Spencer – an apologetic handout for willful ignorance of her previous work. If not Spencer, what will Kristen Stewart have to do to get some respect?