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Kristen Stewart Is the Out A-Lister We've Been Waiting For

Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart is a box-office megastar as well as a thoughtful indie actress. Now she's unabashedly out of the closet. But it remains to be seen if her big-screen A-list status will hold.

By all counts, Kristen Stewart is a bona fide star, an A-list actress with the box-office receipts to prove it. And now she's unapologetically out of the closet. The Twilight star and critical darling had been trepidatiously out about her relationships with women, beginning with a 2015 Nylon cover story in which her response to questions about her sexuality was "Google me, I'm not hiding." And she was right. To Google Stewart then and now is to discover dozens of paparazzi pictures of her holding hands or sharing an intimate moment with girlfriends she's had since then.

But it wasn't until her Saturday Night Live hosting gig in early February that she ripped off the coming-out Band-Aid, during her opening monologue in which she roasted Donald Trump's obsession with her ex-boyfriend Robert Pattinson. She noted that if Trump didn't like her back in 2012 when she dated her Twilight costar, he really wouldn't like her now because, "I'm, like, so gay, dude."

Die-hard fans and new converts alike celebrated the 26-year-old actress's super-queer hosting job that also included her starring in a deeply sapphic Totino's Super Bowl commercial opposite Vanessa Bayer. While kissing scenes between female characters on TV shows have become more commonplace over the years, with such scenes on Grey's Anatomy, The Good Wife,Supergirl, and others, Stewart's declaration of queerness, followed by a full-on makeout session with Bayer, was something altogether groundbreaking. Now Stewart is likely the reluctant test case for whether wider audiences will accept her as a romantic lead and if she'll hang on to her A-list status after flinging her closet door off of its hinges.

Since Stewart began acting as a child she's enjoyed a mix of massive box-office success and foreign and indie film critical acclaim. Her first big success was as Jodie Foster's daughter in the David Fincher thriller Panic Room. Subsequently, she appeared in well-received indies like Adventureland, Into the Wild, The Runaways, and On the Road, while also starring as the ultimate ingenue love interest Bella Swan in the $1.17 billion-grossing Twilight series (there were five films in all). Since 2012's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2, the last in the series, Stewart's appeared in only one popcorn flick, 2015's hilarious stoner/secret government agent action movie American Ultra.

While her work of late has not necessarily been blockbuster material, she's carved out a name for herself at the Cannes Film Festival with exceptional notices for Olivier Assayas's 2014 character study Clouds of Sils Maria (with Juliette Binoche), for which she won the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, and Woody Allen's Cafe Society (2016). She also received critical acclaim for her role in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, a hit at Sundance in 2016. Her latest collaboration with Assayas, Personal Shopper, was released in theaters in the United States last weekend with some mixed reviews for the film but with consistent praise for Stewart's intense, ethereal ennui.

Considering that big box office often appears to correlate with large fandoms, as is the case with superhero franchises, Star Wars, and the Hunger Games and Twilight series, it remains to be seen if audiences will accept a queer leading lady in a romantic role with a man. Franchises like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series have featured autononomous female characters, but their strength is often tempered and digestible to audiences through their relationship to the male love interest. Consider that, despite four movies in which Katniss Everdeen kicked ass and saved her world, she was fated to end up married to Peeta and raising children in a traditional picture of domesticity. Since scopophilia, the act of looking at and identifying with the characters on the screen, is a part of suturing audience members into the story, will the straight audiences who fanned out over Bella and Edward (Pattinson's Twilight character) both on and off the screen see themselves in her now that she's openly queer?

Prior to Stewart, there's never been an out A-List movie star to test the queer glass ceiling. Angelina Jolie came out as bisexual as her star was rising in the late '90s, but she hasn't talked about bisexuality in public like actresses Amber Heard and Evan Rachel Wood, who are outspoken advocates for bisexual visibility. Jodie Foster hasn't carried a film since before she came out in 2013, and the critically acclaimed Sarah Paulson and Kate McKinnon are known primarily as TV stars.

The only out actress to come close to hitting the big-screen benchmark was Anne Heche, who entered into a very public relationship with Ellen DeGeneres at the height of her film career. Before she and DeGeneres (who came out publicly in life and on her sitcom in 1997) became a couple, Heche had been a respected soap actress who eventually landed plum roles in the indie Walking and Talking and HBO's If These Walls Could Talk (both from 1996).

In '97 Heche starred in three films with some of the biggest male box-office stars of the time: Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp, Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones, and Wag the Dog with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. That year, Heche also appeared with DeGeneres in a famous interview with Oprah Winfrey in which they openly discussed the details of their meeting and falling in love. At the time, she was slated for two major upcoming roles to be released in 1998, one in Return to Paradise with Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix and in the stranded-on-a-desert-island-style pas de deux Six Days, Seven Nights with Harrison Ford, in which their characters argued and sniped at each other until they eventually fell in love.

By the time Six Says, Seven Nights was released, Heche and DeGeneres were a premier Hollywood couple, although that didn't mean the public was ready for them. DeGeneres's show was canceled the season after her coming-out episode due to low ratings, and the media endlessly pondered whether the public would buy Heche as a love interest for Ford. According to one columnist for The Independent, who wrote the offensive piece "Out of the Closet, Into the Fire," Ford had been dogged with questions about playing opposite a lesbian prior to the film's release, and according to a poll at the time, 68 percent of the moviegoing public said that casting Heche opposite Ford had adversely affected their decision to see the film.

If that weren't enough of an excoriation of her coming-out, an executive at Disney, the company that produced the film, said, "The only way Six Days, Seven Nights works is if you buy into the premise that the couple are falling in love. But that's almost impossible to do because you have a female lead better known for her sexual preferences than for her screen persona," according to The Independent.

Two years later, Heche and DeGeneres broke up and Heche suffered a breakdown that resulted in her telling her story in Call Me Crazy: A Memoir. But her film career had begun to wane prior to the breakup and her subsequent personal break. She has since enjoyed a storied career in television in respected shows including Men in Trees and Hung. But she's no A-lister; she never reached the likes of Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence, or even Stewart.

Of course, Heche began her rise to fame 20 years ago before there was a proliferation of queer characters on television and before marriage equality became the law of the land. There's hope that audiences and studios have progressed past fixating on the personal life of a film's star.

Last week the Internet exploded with pictures of Stewart with close-cropped blond hair for her role in the upcoming Underwater, a disaster flick in which Stewart plays a mechanical engineer at an underwater scientific lab who is forced to escape with her crew when an earthquake hits. Her character enters into a romantic relationship with another crew member, according to Deadline (although it's not clear which gender that other character will be).

Underwater, which begins shooting this month, could prove to be the movie that changes everything for out A-listers moving forward, if the box office receipts are big. Stewart has proved she's got the acting chops for indie, foreign, and popcorn flicks; now we just have to show up.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist