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2023: The Year The World Finally Recognized The Brilliance Of Lily Gladstone

Considered a rising star for years, Lily Gladstone is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her work in Martin Scorsese’s crime epic “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Raised on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, the 37-year-old actress was heavily involved in her high school theater department, even named “Most Likely to Win An Oscar” by her peers. She graduated from the University of Montana before working with the Montana Repertory Theater on various statewide productions of The Miracle Worker and To Kill A Mockingbird. She eventually found her way onto the local film scene, working behind the scenes as well as on camera.

She got Hollywood’s attention with Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” in 2016, an audition offered to her with the help of fellow University of Montana grad Rene Haynes. In it, she played Jamie, a ranch hand and dog owner whose isolation leads her to bond with a law class instructor, played by Kirsten Stewart. As Ebert’s own Brian Tallerico pointed out in his review, it’s what Gladstone doesn’t say that makes her performance so special.

After her breakout in “Certain Women” and the Independent Spirit and Gotham nominations that followed, the Blackfoot actress played supporting roles on television and in independent films but in nothing that brought continued success. In interviews, she talks openly about moments when she was rethinking her career due to a lack of momentum. As Gladstone told The Hollywood Reporter in May 2023, at one point she was in the process of signing up for a data analytics course to help track murder hornets to protect the native bee population for the Department of Agriculture. That’s when she received an email invitation to Zoom with Martin Scorsese.

Obviously, that call went well, as Gladstone is now the first Native American woman to be nominated in the Oscars’ Best Actress category for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Despite setbacks, 2023 was a banner year for Lily Gladstone. For many, “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be their first introduction to Gladstone’s work. However, as with many breakout stars, her filmography is proof of her dedication and hard work. In one year, three of Gladstone’s films have premiered in some capacity. She guest-starred in the final seasons of two of television’s most celebrated shows, “Billions” and “Reservation Dogs.” No matter the size and scope of the role, the quality of her performance never wavered.

On paper, Lily Gladstone’s opening and closing scenes in “Killers of the Flower Moon” appear very similar. Wrapped in tribal blankets, she sits in front of a white man who she knows is trying to take advantage of her. In the first scene, it’s her legal guardian. In the second, it’s her husband, who’s been convicted of killing her family and her people and who she suspects has been poisoning her diabetes medication.

In both moments, she’s calm, reserved, and clearly smarter than each man gives her credit for. While Gladstone radiates quiet confidence in the first scene, placating the man in front of her, an air of defeat drags behind her as she confronts Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest in her final moments. Through hooded eyes she tiredly answers her husband’s questions, biding her time until she can ask her own: “Have you told all the truths?” she asks. As he deflects, saying he would never allow his uncle’s greed to hurt their children or herself, she asks him what was in the insulin he administered to her. Through the simple question of “What did you give me?” she’s letting him know that he’s to blame. As her line of questioning continues, Gladstone’s voice stays even—almost as if she is talking to a child—and her eyes never leave DiCaprio’s.

Gladstone never gives Mollie a moment of catharsis. She doesn’t deliver her lines through gritted teeth as tears stream down her cheeks. While we see Ernest meet his downfall and acknowledge his involvement in the death of her family, it’s unsatisfying because of Gladstone’s genius reaction. She gets up and leaves.

Gladstone herself told Stephen Colbert that Mollie and Ernest’s love story “serves as a greater analogy for the bigger betrayal of colonization of Indigenous people—of the amount of trust on tribal parts in these trusts and treaty relationships… that haven’t been honored.” Mollie’s appearance and demeanor may seem unchanged between the two scenes, her ability to get up and walk away without a confrontation—even one that the audience may desperately need—reflects the atrocities felt by the original people of this country.

Gladstone brings that same cultural awareness to her upcoming performance in Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance,” which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Apple TV this year.

She plays Jax, a queer parolee who at the start of the film is leading the charge in looking for her missing sister while raising Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), her teenage niece. When her past crimes lead the state to determine her unfit and then place Roki with her white grandparents, she and Roki run away to attend one last powwow.

Gladstone does the impossible with the role of Jax. She must maintain the character’s likability even as she is teaching her niece how to steal and cheat the system. She needs to convince the audience that her home is a more suitable environment to raise an Indigenous child as opposed to a home with people outside her community. It’s a tricky needle to thread, yet with every look, Gladstone wins the audience over onto her side.

“Fancy Dance” is one of two projects this past year where Gladstone works with young actors. The second is her return to Sterlin Harjo’s brilliant “Reservation Dogs,” which offered a surreal and comedic look into the lives of four teenagers growing up on an Indian reservation. Harjo brings her back in the show’s final episode, “Dig,” to deliver a brief but powerful monologue.

When Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) comes seeking her incarcerated aunt after the death of her mentor and tribal leader, Gladstone’s Hokti uses hot chips, energy drinks, and other vending machine snacks to console her. She explains that their community is built on the experiences and teachings of those who came before and it’s because of that communal connection that no one is truly forgotten from it.

In the five-minute scene, Gladstone must hit very specific beats, from showing the character’s grief to playing the wise mystic conversing with both Willie Jack and an ancestor spirit at the same time. Here, her sense of humor is allowed to show—something we don’t see in many of her other characters—while still keeping the serenity and reverence for her culture that we’ve known her to have.

Her comedy chops shine through in her smaller role on “Billions.” In the few scenes she has in the seventh and final season of the Showtime drama, she always cracks a joke and a smile. As the wife of Paul Giamatti’s father, her presence is felt even when she is not on screen in episode 6, “ The Man in the Olive Drab T-Shirt.” Her husband is furious that she wants to raise their young daughter in Christianity, making him lawyer up in the process.

Gladstone brings a sincerity onto her sets and into her roles. We see it in her interviews, as she is always willing to talk about her craft or the importance of representation. This ability translates well in “The Unknown Country,” an 80-minute road poem that Gladstone also developed with director Morrisa Maltz. Her character Tana embarks on a literal healing journey from South Dakota to Texas, stopping to hear the stories of forgotten souls along the way.

Like “Certain Women,” the film is a showcase of Gladstone’s ability to communicate without speaking. When her character stops overnight at a reservation to attend a wedding and visit the Oglala Lakota side of her family—whom she hasn’t seen in years— her body becomes stiffer as her discomfort shines through. As her cousin and her husband talk about raising their daughter and trying to make ends meet by working at Burger King, the camera always cuts back to Gladstone. Her face is a mixture of regret and uneasiness as the question of whether or not she belongs there crosses her mind.

In the third act, she blossoms, telling jokes at a festival picnic table with actor Raymond Lee. It’s a lightness that we don’t necessarily see in some of her roles more heavily rooted in Native American trauma. That reverence is still there, but her part in “The Unknown Country” rounds out the full spectrum of what she can do.

She can play these intense roles that document painful histories or shed light on modern inconvenient truths. She can step seamlessly into a supporting part for just a line or an entire monologue—both can floor you. When you watch Gladstone you feel the joy, the anguish, the love—every emotion she wishes to convey. If the last year has proven anything, it is that Hollywood’s newest household name has put in the work. She was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for “The Unknown Country.” She became the first Indigenous American to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Leading Actress. After a close race, she’s projected to win the Oscar. Like the bees she almost stopped her career for, Lily Gladstone is finally producing honey.

“Killers of The Flower Moon” is now available on Apple TV while “The Unknown Country” is on Mubi. “Reservation Dogs” is available to stream on Hulu and “Billions” can be found on Paramount Plus. “Fancy Dance” will be released by Apple later this year.

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