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Nobody Else Is Doing What Emma Stone Is Doing Right Now

Some people are members of “Saturday Night Live’s” Five-Timers Club. Some people have won two Best Actress Oscars. And some people are part of one of the most talked-about series of 2023. But no one is all of those people—unless Emma Stone wins the Academy Award on March 10th. 

There’s no guarantee Stone will emerge triumphant on Oscar night. (She and Lily Gladstone are both heavy favorites to take home the prize.) But if Stone does win for her portrayal of Bella Baxter in “Poor Things,” she would be only the 15th woman to own at least two Best Actress trophies. She wouldn’t be the youngest—Jodie Foster won two before she was 30—but she’d be among them. Regardless, the fact that, at 35, she already has five nominations to her name—including one for Best Picture as a producer on “Poor Things”—is impressive enough.

But on the eve of the Oscars, I’d argue that Stone’s Academy Award track record isn’t actually the most laudatory of her accomplishments. Rather, it’s her cumulative achievements that make her such a creative unicorn. Plenty of actors do comedy and drama with aplomb, but few are doing both at the high level she is, at the same time. Between “Poor Things,” her Showtime series “The Curse” and her occasional appearances on “SNL,” she’s delivered incredible work in different genres and mediums. Right now, no one is doing what she’s doing.

In December, Stone hosted “SNL,” becoming only the sixth woman to be part of the show’s hallowed hall of performers who have hosted at least five times. She is now the youngest member of that group, and her fifth appearance was a suitably solid episode. So often, the quality of a host’s appearance is dependent on what the show’s writers come up with, but Stone has always demonstrated an enthusiasm for taking a flier on whatever weird idea that’s brought to her. (Perhaps her most memorable “SNL” sketch, “The Actress,” involved her playing a dedicated thespian who commits herself fully to the porn film she’s about to be in.) But although many enjoyed “Fully Naked in New York” from the December episode, I preferred “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” in which she’s a male record producer in 1969 explaining to Mama Cass (Chloe Troast) that her new single is gonna be huge—and then, decades later, will be used in a bunch of movies. To illustrate his point, the producer acts out the different cinematic scenarios in amusingly convincing fashion.

Beyond being a clever riff on the endless recycling of classic rock in contemporary films and TV shows, “Make Your Own Kind of Music” fits into a familiar category of “SNL” sketch in which the primary pleasure derives from the host really going for it. And few modern hosts do this with as much flair as Stone—not only is she game, she pulls off the absurdity by taking it absolutely seriously. Too often, you wince when the host tries something weird in a sketch—you know they’re not confident or talented enough, resulting in laughless awkwardness—but with Stone, you know you’re in good hands. 

Were Stone to win Best Actress for “Poor Things,” what would be even more remarkable is that, essentially, it would mean she would have taken home two Oscars for comedic performances. The Academy tends to undervalue comedy, and while the voters can be slightly more forgiving if the role is in a musical comedy (like Stone’s Oscar win for “La La Land”), it still stands as some kind of achievement that Stone is this close to winning yet again for being funny. 

It’s also a testament to what Stone created with Bella. Based on Alasdair Gray’s novel, “Poor Things” follows Bella’s bizarre odyssey of self-discovery. A dead woman reanimated with the brain of her unborn fetus, Bella has a childlike innocence, understanding nothing of the world before being whisked away by the horny creep Duncan (Mark Ruffalo). But the more Bella experiences, the savvier and more independent she becomes, her baby-talk manner of speaking developing alongside her emotional and mental maturity. 

On its surface, “Poor Things” is a Frankenstein-ian coming-of-age horror-comedy, but in its early going, I feared that Stone’s performance would run out of gas—dazzlingly odd, but eventually repetitive until it grew stale. I should have never doubted her. From her earliest work (“Superbad” and “Zombieland”), Stone has been a formidable comedian, adept at slapstick and sarcasm. (And don’t forget her endearingly dorky turn in “The House Bunny.”) When she landed her first starring vehicle with 2010’s “Easy A,” it was clear she possessed a movie star’s presence without losing her everywoman appeal. For someone who learned singing and dancing at a young age, Stone didn’t radiate the brittle, scrubbed perfectionism of some theater kids—instead, she exuded irreverence and giddiness. Few actors seem to love acting as much as she does.

Her Bella is a revelation, crafting a physicality and demeanor that’s wittily off-kilter — and then inventing new ones as Bella becomes increasingly more self-possessed as the film jumps from episode to episode. There are several excellent performances contained within her portrayal of Bella, and among the movie’s pleasures is the anticipation of what each new Bella will be like. “Poor Things” reunites Stone with Yorgos Lanthimos, with whom she’d previously made “The Favourite.” That movie, in which she plays Abigail, a scheming commoner determined to seduce Olivia Colman’s ailing queen, was a bracing mirror image of “La La Land’s” Mia, who was all sunshine and earnestness. Not Abigail, and Stone tapped into the character’s devious spirit, locking horns with anyone who tried to get in her way. (Abigail’s smile was a mask that concealed just how wicked she was.) Mia sang a paean to the fools who dream, but Abigail devoured such fools, and Stone enjoyed every moment of it.

Stone signed on as a producer of “Poor Things,” making her, Margot Robbie and Bradley Cooper the three actors who got Best Picture nominations this year for the films they starred in. It’s a hat she’s been wearing a lot lately, forming Fruit Tree, a production company co-founded with her husband Dave McCary. Over the last couple of months, their logo at the start of a movie has come to be a stamp of approval: What you’re about to see is going to be smart and interesting. At Sundance, they backed Jane Schoenbrun’s “I Saw the TV Glow,” arguably the buzziest film at the festival. Fruit Tree also had a hand in “A Real Pain,” my favorite film from Sundance, which was written and directed by Stone’s “Zombieland” co-star Jesse Eisenberg. (Stone also produced his directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World.”) After the premiere of “A Real Pain,” Eisenberg took a moment to thank Stone, who wasn’t able to attend, for giving him an idea for a crucial plot point he had been struggling with. And this weekend, Fruit Tree is one of the companies behind “Problemista,” Julio Torres’ surreal, whimsical examination of immigrant dreams and the weirdness of the art scene. Good on Stone for throwing her support behind thoughtful, adventurous indie films. 

All of that would be enough to sing Stone’s praises, but how can you overlook “The Curse,” which to my mind is an even more stunning work than “Poor Things.” When the series was first announced—Stone teaming up with Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie—it seemed like an odd project for her to take on. Now that I’ve seen it, “The Curse” is unimaginable without her. This may be my favorite thing she’s ever done.

A satire of HGTV, reality television, white privilege, marriage and the kind of people whose do-gooderism is more insufferable than it is actually helpful, “The Curse” stars Stone as Whitney, who alongside her ineffectual, somewhat robotic husband Asher (Fielder) is hosting “Fliplanthropy.” As that title (sorta) suggests, “Fliplanthropy” is a new HGTV series in which Whitney sells prospective homeowners in the impoverished community of Española, New Mexico on the expensive, eco-friendly houses that she’s designed. The outside of them is covered with mirrored glass, and the inside (she claims) doesn’t require air conditioning. (“It’s like a thermos!” she explains, which reassures no one.) Fancying herself an artist and an activist, Whitney is all about responsible stewardship and preserving the traditions of the Native peoples who first occupied this land—ideals she advocates for in such a cheery, pious way that you instantly wonder what she’s hiding. 

Created by Fielder and Safdie, with Stone and her husband serving as executive producers, “The Curse” is a killer synthesis of the two men’s sensibilities: The show is as discomforting as you’d expect from the people responsible for “The Rehearsal” and “Uncut Gems.” Safdie plays Dougie, a somewhat skeezy veteran director of reality television who’s Asher’s old friend, each of these actors playing variations on characters you’ve seen from them before. But as good as Fielder is as a timid, awkward husband with a scary angry streak, it’s Stone who rules the show. You’ve seen glimpses of this Stone in previous performances. And yet, it’s different—more proof that she isn’t about to stop surprising us with what she can do.

Fielder’s projects have often focused on the inauthenticity of daily life—especially when it comes to simple human interactions—and “The Curse,” which details the challenges of making “Fliplanthropy” and the dark unraveling of Whitney and Asher’s relationship, is no different. No one’s actions or dialogue can be taken at face value—you never shake the suspicion that people are constantly deceiving one another, or at least have ulterior motives—and so we watch, transfixed, as the phoniness of the couple’s HGTV show carries over into every other crevice of their lives.

“The Curse” is a reminder that, among her other talents, Stone is a wiz at plugging herself into other people’s visions. If it’s a Hollywood comedy, like “Easy A,” she’s effortlessly effervescent. If it’s “La La Land,” she embodies the movie’s throwback élan—she vibrates with “Let’s put on a show!” good vibes. For Lanthimos, she finds a kinkier, weirder register. And the Stone you see on “SNL” is another one entirely, silly but assured. What unites these different guises is her commitment to these worlds—and, also, a deep understanding and appreciation of how they work. She’s never above the material, but she also never strains or seems gripped by self-consciousness. Put her in any situation, and she knows what to do.

Which is another way of saying that Stone proves to be a wonder at the sort of cringe comedy that “The Curse” typifies. The show, which concluded last month after 10 harrowingly funny episodes, is more than just cringe comedy—frequently, it closely resembles a psychological thriller with trace elements of David Lynch-like pecularity scattered throughout—and therefore requires an incredibly nimble performance. Stone’s Whitney is a complicated nightmare of a human being, cheerful and unctuous, as well as terribly self-absorbed, brandishing her liberal guilt as proof of her self-awareness. We all know a Whitney—we hate that Whitney, but this one we come to love because of how expertly Stone layers the character and then dissects her. At times, I was even sucker enough to feel sorry for this monster. 

Like with “Poor Things,” “The Curse” could run the risk of being a one-joke premise, but Stone keeps stretching and expanding the joke, finding new ways to make us howl at Whitney’s delusion and awfulness. (What remains riveting throughout is Whitney’s certainty that she’s not a terrible person, despite all the evidence suggesting she personifies the haves’ casual exploitation of the have-nots.) Whether trying to convince a local Native artist (Nizhonniya Luxi Austin) that, really, they’re best friends or slowly dismantling Asher’s fragile confidence, Stone weaponizes the bubbly personality she emanates on talk shows and in romantic comedies, merging it with the snideness and cold calculation of her “Favourite” character. It’s eerie to watch Stone’s natural warmth be turned on so diabolically for someone who is so fake. Was Stone’s bubbliness always an act? Is she really the rotten person we see in “The Curse”? It’s another attribute of the performance that we always sense a difference between Stone and Whitney, and yet, occasionally, we’re unsure. I’ve never laughed more at Stone on screen, and never been so unnerved by her simultaneously.

I won’t reveal anything about “The Curse’s” ingeniously enigmatic finale, but I will say it drives home the point that Stone is truly up for anything—she grounds that baffling final episode with her utterly realistic portrayal. To have done “The Curse” this year would have been commendable enough. Pair it with “Poor Things” and “Saturday Night Live” and it becomes something else, the three projects complementing each other in arresting ways. 

No matter who wins between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone at the Oscars—both are eminently deserving—there’s no question that Stone has had a hell of a year between her acting, producing and hosting. Her characters keep catching us off guard. We should have learned by now not to underestimate them, or her.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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