A Starlet is Born

Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance, but can she follow it up?

Elizabeth Olsen looks just off camera at the voice serenading her. As the titular character in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, she watches as the leader of her new family — in actuality, a rural cult in upstate New York — strums his guitar and sings a song written for her. The shot stays distant and keeps her face just off-center. With no words, she portrays flattery, confusion, innocence and fear. It’s a tightrope walk for even a seasoned actor. But she nails it. And the audience is hooked.

In an industry always looking for the next new thing, there might be nothing more exciting than witnessing a star-making film performance. And let’s be clear: There are solid, serviceable film debuts, and then there are star turns. We’re talking about the latter — those electric performances that seem to pop off the screen and sit in your consciousness for weeks or years after their viewing. We’re talking about performances so likable that they become the reason you discuss the film. We’re talking about actors who come out of nowhere, without hype, and steal the movie from, in some cases, the movie itself.

On the occasion of Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, which is currently in theaters (and Olsen generating awards buzz), and because there are just more notable and interesting star-is-born moments for women, we’ll focus on modern actresses today.

The most famous of all-star arrivals in recent film history happened in 1990. A leggy actress with a toothy grin and a disarming laugh managed to make Richard Gere’s sourpuss businessman fall in love with her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. But it was more than just Gere who fell. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is the quintessential star turn. And while this was not her screen debut, it was her Hollywood coming-out party. Besides, I’ll give you $5 if you can name two films besides Mystic Pizza that she had been in before Pretty Woman.

The “Julia Path” is the career arc other actresses hope to emulate. But the trick is two-fold. First, you have to find the necessary break-out vehicle.

Does anyone else remember a film called Playing by Heart (1998)? If you saw it, you likely remember it for one reason: the break-out performance of a young but still full-lipped Angelina Jolie. She had a half-dozen screen credits on her resume by then, including the semi-successful Hackers (1995). But it was her role as the club chick wooing Ryan Phillippe that established the star power. The camera loved her, and the nine of us who saw it during its theatrical release took note. This woman was going to be someone (read: pull $20 mill per film and adopt of bunch of third-world children). Jolie’s star turn in Playing by Heart proves that launching-pad films don’t have to be artistically or commercially successful to break out a future star.

Recent Oscar-winner Natalie Portman also followed the Julia Path to her stardom. Her breakout moment, though, can be heatedly argued. Was it her deft turn as a vengeful child in Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994)? Or was it her self-described “old soul” Marty — named for a grandfather she never even knew — in the ensemble comedy Beautiful Girls (1996)? While The Professional showed her chops — no small feat, acting against the likes of Jean Reno and a scenery-chewing Gary Oldman — it was Beautiful Girls that highlighted her effervescent charm. Either way, after that one-two punch, Portman rocketed up the next-big-thing list and gained enough Hollywood street cred to withstand the eventual awfulness that was the Star Wars prequels. With Black Swan and a gold statue to keep her company, she could be back on top.

This brings us to the second half of the Julia Path. After giving a star-making performance, you have to follow it up.

In 2000, Kate Hudson wasn’t known for much more than being Goldie Hawn’s daughter. Then came Almost Famous and the godsend role of Penny Lane, perhaps Cameron Crowe’s best written character to date. Hudson’s performance was a revelation: equal parts confidence, sex appeal, vulnerability and mischief. In a movie about Rock stars on the rise, it was the groupie/muse who stole the spotlight. What happened next?

Dudsville. Four Feathers (2002). Alex and Emma (2003). Raising Helen (2004). When, after establishing your stardom, your two best credits both involve Matthew McConaughey, you know you need a better agent.

It is of limited comfort, I’m sure, but Hudson is far from alone. So many young, talented actresses find that break-out role and then lay an egg on their subsequent projects. From Linda Blair to Jennifer Hudson, Hollywood Boulevard is lined with stars that coulda been.

With this in mind, it’s the moment of truth for several hot, young actresses in film. Each of them has given a sort of break-through performance in their recent work. Are they the next Julia Roberts, or the next Kate Hudson?

Consider Chloe Grace Moretz. She kicked ass in Kick-Ass (2010). It was a jaw-droppingly mature arrival for the young talent. But where does she go from here? Wisely, she chose the polar opposite of Kick-Ass, opting to work with legendary director Martin Scorsese on his family-friendly hit Hugo.

There’s Hailee Steinfeld. She could be in most trouble of following the Hudson road to career ruin. Was she awesome in True Grit (2010), or was it an awesomely written part? Only time will tell, because reportedly her next two projects are Shakespeare adaptations. At least she knows a good writer when she sees one.

Emma Stone is taking the no-rest-for-the-wicked approach. Since her scene-stealing arrival in 2007’s Superbad, she’s climbed up the industry wish-list and transitioned (quickly) from supporting player to leading lady. We think she’s taking a page from the Reese Witherspoon playbook, and that’s not a bad idea. Between The Help and Crazy, Stupid, Love., it’s been a banner year for Stone.

Perhaps the actress Olsen has been studying most this year is Jennifer Lawrence. Like Olsen’s Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, Lawrence’s gritty performance in Winter’s Bone (2010) was a critical festival darling, riding an art-house release into Oscar season. Her Academy Award nomination was exactly the resume boost she needed to beat out the dozen or so other young actresses up for the plum lead role in next year’s event picture, Hunger Games.

It will be interesting to see if Lawrence can deliver, and if those un-cast actresses ever get their shot at stardom.

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