As New 'Divergent' Trailer Debuts, Why Shailene Woodley's Stardom Matters

Today sees the release of the second trailer for the Lionsgate release Divergent. Positioned as the would-be “next Hunger Games,” the film is poised to be one of the biggest films in the first 1/4 of 2014. Said trailer debut follows the first trailer for the highly anticipated drama The Fault In Our Stars. That film, based on John Green’s novel about two teenagers who fall in love via a cancer support group, is set to be released by 20th Century Fox on June 6th, 2014, which is just over three months after Divergent drops. Those are just two of three major films starring Shailene Woodley that will debut this year. Imagine that, a major would-be rising star actress actually flush with out-and-out starring vehicles in a variety of genres.

With these two possible blockbusters, along with the upcoming release of the artier all-star ensemble piece White Bird In A Blizzard (which just debuted at Sundance), Woodley is indeed on the verge of genuine stardom. The only question is now whether or not she can become a genuine box office draw, or at least the kind of added value element that boosts an otherwise appealing picture. Why this matters isn’t because Woodley is unique or special, although anyone who has seen The Spectacular Now knows she has the goods. It matters because a would-be “next big female star” is getting a range of honest-to-goodness mainstream starring vehicles usually only afforded to white male actors.

Once white male actors become crowned as the “next big thing,” be it Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, or Ryan Reynolds, the opportunities for starring roles explode and rarely dissipate. No matter many times Colin Farrell proves that he’s a better actor than he is a movie star, he’ll still get meaty starring roles like costly flops like Total TOT +1.81% Recall or Fright Night. Anyone potentially crowned as a next big star gets showered with high profile and major opportunities that can sustain an entire career of starring vehicles or meaty supporting turns. Josh Brolin will still get lead roles in major films no matter how many flops (Jonah Hex, Oldboy, Labor Day) he headlines. And even white male actors who are comparative unknowns can anchor their own would-be blockbuster, as John Carter (Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights), The Legend of Hercules (Kellan Lutz, one of the Cullens in the Twilight Saga), and Pompeii (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones
) prove.

Since they generally don’t make female-centric action pictures, actresses don’t get the conventional action vehicles or even the mediocre genre entries that actors take for granted. What happens when you’re the next big female star? Generally speaking, you get to be the girlfriend in bigger and/or more prestigious movies. Anna Farris’s reward for her face on the poster hit The House Bunny were love interest roles (Observe and Report, Yogi Bear, The Dictator). One starring vehicle miss later, What’s Your Number? in 2011, and it was off to television. Emma Stone’s reward for Easy A was, with the arguable exception of The Help, a series of girlfriend parts in films like The Amazing Spider-Man, Stupid Crazy Love, and The Gangster Squad. Carey Mulligan’s break-out turn in An Education was followed by love interest and/or token female parts in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Drive, and Inside Llewyn Davis.

The reward for a male break-out performance is often a leading role in a major picture. The reward for a female break-out role is often playing break-out male’s girlfriend or the lone female in a male cast. Even Jennifer Lawrence is not immune to this. She powered The Hunger Games into the biggest ongoing franchise around, but token male love interest Liam Hemsworth got to star with Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman in Paranoia while she earns plaudits and awards for playing the love interest and/or romantic rival in David O. Russell’s last two films. The good news is that O. Russell’s next film will apparently be a starring vehicle for Ms. Lawrence. Elizabeth Olsen’s highest-profile role since her breakout turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene involved getting raped onscreen for kicks in Old Boy. The good news is that, quality of roles unknown; she will be a featured player in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and this summer’s Godzilla.

Those who can be counted as genuine female stars (Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, etc.) have to divide their time between leading roles in smaller films and token girlfriend roles in bigger films. It’s a balancing act that male movie stars rarely have to make. This isn’t an evil conspiracy, per-se. Most films are written by white males and thus their stories often are about white males. As such, the only female role in many of these films for females is usually a variation on the Smurfette. The kind of character roles that, for example, earned Jonah Hill both of his Oscar nominations generally don’t exist for women. Matthew McConaughy can reinvent himself because the roles are there, but there exists few female equivalents for the kind of parts McConaughy has thrived on since 2011.

Joel Kinnaman impresses Hollywood with his strong turn in AMC’s The Killing and gets the lead role in next week’s Robocop remake. Mireille Enos impresses Hollywood with her strong turn in AMC’s The Killing and gets to be the suffering wives of Brad Pitt (World War Z) and Josh Brolin (The Gangster Squad). With the arguable exception if Hilary Swank, it is nearly impossible for an actress to maintain a high profile career without succumbing to the token girl roles now and then. Even Keira Knightley, Oscar-nominated actress, took a role in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit which checked off all the boxes (prize to be won, girlfriend, hostage). The usual refrain when discussing the major female role in a studio release is still whether or not the token female gets anything to do in the narrative, the sexy lamp test if it were. This is why Woodley’s recent slate is important.

She is a break-out female star who is actually getting unabashed starring vehicles in major studio releases.
We’ll see if Woodley gets tossed in the girlfriend box down the road from time to time. But for now her breakout supporting turns in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now have paid off with genuine mainstream star vehicles. Divergent, whether it’s any good or not, may in fact be a blockbuster, surely not on par with The Hunger Games or even Twilight, but a genuine action-franchise headlined by a major female actress. And The Fault In Our Stars is already amassing huge buzz five months before its summer debut. The trailer was allegedly viewed on its official page 9 million times in five days. Toss in the probable art house vehicle White Bird In A Blizzard (that may or may not get a semi-wide release) and its clear Shailene Woodley is reaping the kind of rewards that usually only accompanies white-male breakout stardom.

Her next three movies are unquestionable star vehicles, an action franchise entry, a romantic drama released in the heart of summer, and an artier family melodrama/mystery. It is ironic that she was actually cast as Mary Jane Watson (Peter’s replacement girlfriend) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 before the role was cut from the second film. Woodley is in a rare position where she doesn’t need to be the superhero’s girlfriend because better and meatier roles are being offered to her within the studio system. It may be a coincidence and apros of nothing. Or maybe, just maybe, the generation of child actresses who just came of age (Chloe Moretz, Dakota Fanning, Saoirse Ronan, Kristen Stewart, etc.) will still get the kind of quirky and compelling work in films both small and large that they became accustomed to as kids. Shailene Woodley’s current slate gives hope that the current generation of breakout actresses won’t have peaked before they get to drinking age.