In awards season, the word “snub” gets overused in a major way. A snub, in life, is a deliberate dis. The essence of it is that it’s personal. When an actor fails to make the cut of nominees for a movie award, to call that a snub is to make it sound like a conspiracy — an omission with a hint of design, rather than what it is, which is an accident or, really, a preference. It’s an insult to those who did get nominated, as if they were mere placeholders for the hallowed star who got “snubbed.”
But Kristen Stewart’s omission from the list of nominees for outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role in the Screen Actors Guild awards, announced on Jan. 12, did feel like a snub. I’m not just saying that because Stewart (to put my bias out there) happens to be my own choice for best actress in a movie this year. She’d been anointed as a contender for the Academy Awards from the moment “Spencer” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, and in the time since she has often been referred to as the front-runner. Even as “Spencer” provoked divided feelings on the part of many critics and viewers (though some of us adore it), there were few who questioned the veracity, or radiance, of Stewart’s performance.
That doesn’t mean that SAG owed her a nomination. But her absence from the SAG roster was greeted, I would say accurately, as the most startling omission from that group’s slate in a very long time, maybe even decades.
That “Spencer” itself isn’t more widely beloved probably had something to do with it. Yet for anyone with an eye on Stewart’s career, it certainly did seem as if this was “her time” — the moment for the awards-industrial complex to acknowledge her emergence as an actor of singular personality and power. On a gut level, the SAG nominations created the feeling that she was being knocked off her pedestal.
Of course, one reason for that feeling is that people have been trying to knock Kristen Stewart off her pedestal for nearly 15 years. She’s the kind of star people become obsessed with, yet the obsession is double-edged. From the moment she was lofted into the “Twilight” stratosphere, the fan chatter about her has tended to include a lot of serious carping, and she’s had more than her share of haters. We all know the gripes: She’s the same in every role! (She’s not, but I once wrote a column asking, What if she is? So were Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne.) In public appearances, especially in the early days, she spoke haltingly and chewed her lip with an I’m-not-sure-I-want-to-be-here ambivalence that many took to be a sign of snobbish superiority. (In truth, her ambivalence about stardom — the fact that she pursued it but also felt uncomfortable in the media fishbowl — is one of the most fascinating things about her.) And then there was the drama of KPatz, where she became, for a moment, a teen-idol soap-opera villainess.
All that now feels like gossip under the bridge. Yet even as Stewart, after the “Twilight” series ended, pursued a remarkable series of acting choices, ditching the spangled showcase of Hollywood blockbusters to make films like “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Certain Women” and “Personal Shopper,” an attitude about her persisted: that she was somehow a performer who radiated “entitlement.” You almost never hear that complaint lodged against male stars; it’s always hurled at people like Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow. But in the case of Stewart, the carping began when she was so young that it’s been hard for her to shake.
As good as Stewart was in “Twilight” (2008), the movie that made me a Kristen Stewart believer was “Adventureland” (2009), Greg Mottola’s great ’80s nostalgia film — if you’ve never seen it, you must — because it revealed the spark beneath the already gathering storm of her pensively moody mystique. Stewart was just 17 when both those films were shot, but already the star she reminded me of wasn’t another youth phenom. It was Jane Fonda, who in her heyday had a cutting, charismatic reticence I find spiritually akin to Stewart’s. Like Fonda in the late ’60s, Stewart has declared a certain independence from the Hollywood game. You see it in her choice of roles. You see it in the casual courage she has shown in being upfront about her sexual identity. And you see it in the quote she tossed off to W Magazine about the Oscars (“I don’t give a shit”), which some viewed as an act of political self-sabotage.
I saw it differently. I don’t think you get to be an actor in Kristen Stewart’s position without caring, on some level, whether or not you win an Oscar. What Stewart was really saying is that in a movie industry built around an annual media-enforced Oscar obsession, she wasn’t going to pretend this stuff matters all that much. That’s why she risked torpedoing her own chances. In my eyes, it was a healthy thing to do.
Stewart deserved the rave reviews she got for “Spencer,” but in a funny way the Stewart Image Problem may have been compounded by the fact that she was playing Princess Diana — who, viewed from a certain angle, could be seen as the first Kardashian, the ne plus ultra of an overprivileged media princess. The SAG snub made it feel, on some primal level, like Stewart was being punished for being a princess playing a princess.
But that’s why I think her failure to snag a SAG nomination may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Many believe that she’s been knocked off the track to an Oscar nomination — that the five nominees for best actress, when they’re announced on Feb. 8, will mirror the five SAG nominees. And maybe they will. SAG is the hugest Oscar voting bloc, so if Stewart couldn’t get acknowledged there then she’s likely facing an uphill battle.
Here, however, is another possible scenario. The laundry list of Kristen Stewart’s alleged sins of entitlement (moodiness! lip chewing!) is rather long. And this year you can add one more to the list: being anointed as the front-runner for best actress. That’s always something that can come back to bite you.
But in getting snubbed by SAG, Stewart is now the underdog. And in her case, that underdog status might be the very balm she needs. It could lend the best actress race an entirely new momentum. If Stewart had gotten the SAG nomination, she might now be on the fast track to losing the Oscar to a more established performer, or to the intensely buzzed-about, should-have-won-it-last-time Lady Gaga. But that narrative has now been shaken up. Suddenly, Stewart is no longer the “entitled actress princess.” She’s now the one who didn’t get invited to the ball. And that could help tone down the chip-on-the-shoulder resistance to her that has been out there for too long.
None of this would be worth talking about if Stewart gave a performance in “Spencer” that was anything less than extraordinary. But it’s her stunning skill and devotion that makes the movie a journey, that gives it a core of empathy and mystery. Just contrast her performance with that of Emma Corrin in Season 4 of “The Crown” (which ends where “Spencer” begins, with a Christmas weekend at Sandringham). In that fantastic series, Corrin shows us Diana’s innocence, her ebullience, her despair, as well as her media learning curve. Yet it’s part of the design of the series that she never quite steps out of being the ingenue. (Presumably Elizabeth Debicki, in Season 5, will do that.) “Spencer,” by contrast, plumbs Diana’s hidden depths, her emotional architecture, in a way that’s less chatty but more haunting than “The Crown.” Stewart takes us through the ring of fire, through despair and out the other side, and into everything Diana had to do to cover that up. It’s acting as alchemy; Stewart transforms herself and, in doing so, transforms the viewer. If the Oscars pass her by, life will go on, Kristen Stewart will go on and some may talk about how she was robbed. What no one can steal is her purity of talent.