is a good actress. Very good, from time to time. In most everything she does, her wry smile can intimate many different things: When it’s bent closer to a skeptical frown, she’s a survivor kicking zombie butt in Zombieland; when it’s turned more upwards, paired with those wide eyes of hers, she’s a naïve go-getter trying to do good for the sake of black women in The Help; and when she makes it a little more crooked, her eyes turning to narrowly shaped almonds, she’s the romantic dressed as cynic in Easy A.
This time around, for her second Academy Award nomination, she’s a hopeful and aspirational ingénue in Los Angeles, struggling to make it big as an actress in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Perhaps appropriately, she’s competing for Best Actress. And she’s certainly a talented individual, often able to imbue her roles with a singular sense of humor. There’s just one problem: She doesn’t deserve the award. Not yet at least.
But the problem isn’t with her per se, it’s with her characters. Over the course of the actress’s career, she’s chosen roles that aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they’ve just never felt like they were necessarily worthy of her potential talent—they felt, to be frank, very safe, regardless of the genre jumping she’s done. It’s a testament to her abilities how malleable she can be within the contexts of a musical, a blockbuster action flick, a gangster movie, a social progress period movie, some comedies and some romances, but her roles have always, in some way or another, bled into one another, at least in terms of what archetype she’s had to borrow from, or what methods she’s had to use to make the character interesting.
Were it not for Emma Stone’s charismatic presence on screen, most of the roles she’s inhabited would be faint memory. She was in two Woody Allen movies, and while she played technically different characters—in one, a scammer masquerading as a clairvoyant; in the other, a precocious college student doting on a preternaturally miserable professor (Joaquin Phoenix)—there was little room in the films for her to play with the possibilities of that difference. Instead, both characters she played in Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man fit neatly within the boxes of a storied line of female archetypes Allen has written: the young woman who falls in love with an older asshole.
Worse, in Allen’s later period, it seems as if it’s harder for actors to do things with his characters that aren’t out of his playbook (except for someone like Cate Blanchett). A shame, because there are traces of Allen’s former knack for pathos regarding his female characters in Stone’s role as Jill Pollard in Irrational Man. Strands of the existential and neurotic anxiety, while more explicitly in Phoenix’s Prof. Abe Lucas, appear in Pollard, reminiscent of characters like Scarlett Johansson’s Nola Rice in Match Point, Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Charlotte Rampling’s Dorrie in Stardust Memories. But lately Allen has proven he’ll always fall short, and with it fell Stone’s ability to use the role as a way to challenge her personal acting boundaries.
The characters she plays in Gangster Squad, Aloha and Crazy, Stupid, Love are, too, rather limited in their scope. There are moments on screen during which you can detect a mild frustration on Stone’s face to really turn a thinly written character into something of her own, and the attempt is sometimes quite admirable. Crazy, Stupid, Love is in the same vein as your Love, Actuallys in that it strings a bunch of marginally related romantic stories together, which makes Stone’s job harder: She has to distinguish her role as Hannah apart from the presences of other cast members like Julianne Moore and Kevin Bacon. As the only woman who dares to reject Ryan Gosling’s lothario Jacob Palmer, she isn’t really able to do so, save for one scene.
Later into their romance, Hannah requests Palmer doff his shirt. She silently contemplates her reaction once he does, and after a few seconds, finally, a burst of frustration: “Fuck! It’s like you’re Photoshopped!” The tension lies in that moment of contemplation, in just an impression of it, barely discernible. How can she make this scene her own? That explosive little exclamation, with some endearing self-deprecation built into it, that’s how.
Still, Stone’s character can only really exist in such specific moments as this, given that Hannah’s got little else to do in the film that allows her to play with delivery and emoting in the same way. Brief spurts of this kind of experimentation exist throughout her filmography, of roles in which Stone can widen her acting palette, can stretch beyond her previous confinements and limits and go wild—wherein she can rage against Michael Keaton in Birdman or, in La La Land, deliver a real performance in a fake audition that will makes one’s heart pine for Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. But these moments of freedom seem rare.
Stone’s best roles, though, are the ones in which she conveys a sense of moral, emotional and intellectual complexity and, by extension, ambiguity. Her breakout roles—as Olive Penderghast, the pseudo-strumpet in Easy A, and as Sally Bowles, the tragically mediocre heroine in the revival of Cabaret on Broadway in 2015—gave her a performative agency no others have afforded her. The emotional breadth of these characters is so wide: They must contextualize their lives beyond their immediate situations.
Both adapted from literary sources—Easy A from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Cabaret from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, then adapted by Hal Prince to Broadway in the 1960s—these films find Stone’s roles largely dependent on a kind of self-mythology. Easy A’s framework is built on a vlog, Olive talking directly to the audience about her situation and everything that’s folded into that: her feelings, her thoughts, how she perceives others’ reactions and how they are collectively filtered or distributed through a digital landscape. Conversely, Sally Bowles clings to the reputation she must create for herself. She’s someone who has to overestimate her talent to feel worthy, which becomes a cycle of telling herself, and others, that she is more brilliant than she knows she is.
These narrative devices—the vlog and the self-built mythos—are integral to both works in that Stone’s characters’ moral choices are not merely reflective of those characters, but of a microcosm of the ideal moral world in which each character should operate. Olive’s pretend sexual agency begins to backfire due to both her town’s somewhat regressive norms (in contrast to the more questionable underbelly of the town’s reality) and to what Olive actually wants out of the situation. Meanwhile, Sally Bowles’ sexual liberation in the Weimar Republic is agreeably liberal until the threat of fascism looms: She must think about the way she exists as a woman in the world and about the consequences of what the political regime will have in the country—but she is unable to do either.
As Olive, Stone has a spring in her step, even though she’s an invisible nobody. As Sally, she revels in an arch sexiness to overcompensate for desperation. And in both roles is a lived-in feeling, an emotional landscape full of possibility—the sense that an Emma Stone role can be one people can experience.
This means, too, that in these roles Stone expresses an internal exploration as distinct as her exploration of each character’s approach to femininity. Easy A’s vlogging is that aforementioned self-mythology as affirmation of her own femininity, emphasized in the face of those around Olive who force her into a Madonna/whore dichotomy. In Cabaret, talent and Sally’s ability to ignore/escape fascism has a gendered aesthetic—her fantasy world is her literally “performing” femininity on the stage of the Kit Kat Club—but, generally, Stone’s relationship to femininity feels as yet unexplored. In La La Land there’s nothing that Chazelle really gives her outside of herself, especially within the context of femininity and the artistic process, especially in comparison to Ryan Gosling’s Seb.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Stone is very talented. She just needs the right role: something written with the kind of depth that will allow her to excavate intricacies in the character, to be able to explore herself as she explores the worlds which birthed the people she plays. She doesn’t need to go blind like Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, or go bloodthirsty like Faye Dunaway in Network, or go mute like Holly Hunter in The Piano (two of whom won Best Actress Oscars)—she needs to win an Academy Award for a role she can transcend with nuance, a role in which all the little tics and exclamations of personality not only texturize the character but give it a full sense of dimensionality. For Stone, this means being more than a good actress who once won an Oscar, but a mesmerizing actress to whom an Oscar was awarded. La La Land didn’t give her that—maybe next time she’ll be luckier.