Elizabeth Olsen is a powerhouse of an actress. At a relatively young age, she’s already proven herself to be able to submerge herself in roles in multiple genres such as psychological drama, horror, thriller, coming-of-age, action, and both the light and the dark romances. She hasn’t turned in a bad performance, and continues to test her range as an actress. She has created a filmography of differentiating roles that are all, on paper, either strong or complex characters that she’s able to ground and help make feel real. She definitely knows how to pick a role. The usage and execution of the role depend on the director, wherein lies the problem.
As much as I wanted and intended this piece to be a love letter to Olsen and her performances, I realized about halfway through her filmography that directors aren’t really utilizing her to her fullest extent. She’s clearly giving her best in all of her performances, but the films she’s in aren’t reciprocating it.
Take a look at the premise for Naomi Foner’s Very Good Girls; a female-centric coming-of-age drama. You can see why Olsen would be interested in it, and she did give a very good performance in it, but that film was a complete misfire with its teen melodrama and its male-dependent female characters. She’s a lead in that. However, switching over to a Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, it’s noticeable that she’s only playing a supporting role but she extends the role beyond what could be expected. She plays a nurse and a mother protecting her child during a monster attack. In a film filled with soldier and scientist characters, she served as what would most likely be the audience’s perspective to an important angle to the catastrophe. She splendidly portrayed a fragile but confident supporting character, and it’s one of her better roles. She’s on record for having expressed pride in the performance.
With a strong first lead performance in a film like Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’d think filmmakers and casting directors would be lining up to give her more roles like that, and not as a side character who’s only used as a romantic interest to a pretty boring lead character (I really don’t like Red Lights). We need more Elizabeth Olsen in good films, in better roles, because this one of our generation’s finest actresses just waiting to be unveiled.
One of the better films she’s in is John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, in which she plays Edie Kerouac-Parker, author and ex-wife of Jack Kerouac. It’s a sublime, interesting and personal biographical film, but despite that, it’s not very high on my list of her performances because she’s barely in it, so I have a second proposal. Give Elizabeth Olsen more lead roles.
Though not a lead role, her portrayal of the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of my favorite roles of hers. Not only because she’s a strong character, but also because her character isn’t just a “badass woman.” She’s suffered loss, she feels fear, but ultimately puts that aside to be a hero. (European accent aside,) I want more of that Elizabeth Olsen, and since we’re seeing the rise of female power in mainstream film series and franchises, I feel like it’s more possible now. Look, Furiosa was the hero of the most recent Mad Max film, Sarah Connor is returning to a lead role in the new Terminator film, we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters movie, and let’s not forget the multitude of female-led YA novels coming out, there’s clearly a variety of lead roles she can jump into, and her filmography thus far has proven that she can nail any genre. Hell, drop her in the Alien series. That series alone has different facets of tone and styles that she can fit perfectly into (plus, can’t you totally see her shout “Get away from her, you bitch!” at an Alien).
The lead roles aren’t exclusive to mainsteam film series either. Phenomenal actresses such as Jessica Chastain, Kristen Stewart, and Marion Cotillard are showcasing their excellent lead performances in their smaller films, and they’ve garnered recognition as the best actresses working today. I feel that if Olsen had carried with her trajectory right after Martha Marcy May Marlene, she would’ve been one of those names.
“I am a teacher and a leader. You just never let me be that. But now, I am… I know who I am.”
That’s a quote from Elizabeth Olsen’s character from Martha Marcy May Marlene, which in my eyes is still her best performance. The quote speaks for itself.