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Performer Of The Year - Readers' Choice Most Outstanding Performer of 2019 - Hailee Steinfeld (TIED)



The article was written by Ellys Cartin. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

Dickinson’s first season is a superb amalgamation of creative vision and ruminative writing, none of which would matter an ounce without Hailee Steinfeld’s casting as the lead Dickinson herself. The role required someone who could be coquettishly chatting with Death (Wiz Khalifa), while lovingly smoothing an inappropriately red gown, one moment, and, in the next, buoyantly scrawling a mustache across her love interest’s upper lip. As Emily Dickinson, Steinfeld navigates a world where her character is enthralled by pumpkins, let down by her heroes, demeaned by her family members, and emotionally rescued by her own fortitude--in a single episode. It’s a role that requires more than hard work or charisma or talent. For Steinfeld, no detail is too small, no emotion is too complex, and no amount of love is too great. She holds nothing back, and the result is a performance that is complete in its perfection. For her unique grasp on this iconic character Steinfeld was chosen as one of the two Spoiler TV Readers’ Choice Performers of the Year for 2019.

In the season premiere Because I Could Not Stop, Emily faces a brutal scolding from her father when he learns she attempted to publish one of her poems. For several minutes she silently endures his rant alone, as the rest of her family has left the table. Steinfeld stews herself in shame and fury, as the extreme closeups on her face add to the impression of discomfort. The tears in her eyes, the tension in her brows, the quiver of her chin, and the bitter set of her lips all combine to show Emily’s suffering. Emily’s father waves a plate at her at one point, deriding that she set it before him with a chip out of it. You see her willing herself to keep her gaze level, fervently aiming to control some part of the conversation, not letting a tear fall until Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) has left the room. Steinfeld rises from her chair immediately, pushing it in with one hand and snatching up the offending plate with the other. She throws the plate into the fire, standing there for a moment to watch the pieces among the flame. Steinfeld reveals to us that Emily might hold her tongue, but she will not always hold back her rage. This scene also permits Steinfeld to reveal the depth of Emily’s connection to poetry. It’s not a form of rebellion or a forbidden fruit; at least, it’s not merely those things, because for her it is key to her identity.

I Have Never Seen Volcanoes explores Emily’s other longings: her desire to travel, her wish for education, and her love for Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). As Sue and Emily pack up the clothing of a recently deceased gentleman, Steinfeld wanders the room, pondering its contents as if they are museum, reverently examining the exhibits. She touches a globe, a distinct yearning in her voice as she playfully jokes that she’s traveling the world. A sketch on the wall reminds her of the scientific lecture her father has forbidden her to see. Steinfeld’s face is largely offscreen, but Emily’s wish to see a real volcano is tinted with frustration. When she turns around, her eyes land on a man’s hat that Sue is holding. She grabs it playfully and completes her look with a man’s walking stick. Steinfeld gives Emily more ease in her bearing in this scene. There is no sense of looking over her shoulder; with Sue, Emily is comfortable to be her true self. She deepens her voice and puts on a show for Sue, strutting back and forth in front of the mirror. Her joy transfers to Sue who joins in, doing an impression of her own. When Emily catches sight of Sue lounging there in an unladylike form, merrily playing along, Steinfeld inserts a brief pause, a second for Emily’s breath to be taken away. She rushes into Emily’s next lines to show that her character is trying to solidify the flurry of feelings in her mind. Emily suggests the two women infiltrate the lecture disguised as gentlemen. Sue protests, but Emily pleads. What’s the worst that could happen? Sue suggests embarrassment, and the bemusement starts with the twitch in Steinfeld’s smile before lighting up her whole face. Sue can’t keep her composure in face of Emily’s eager anticipation. The scene transitions into a montage of Emily and Sue donning their costumes, and the former dances with the purest abandon, taking full advantage of the mobility that men’s garments provide. Steinfeld makes the scene feel natural, giving the audience an enlightening glimpse of Emily’s spirit.

In Wild Nights, there is another exquisite scene that Hunt and Steinfeld share. Experiencing some cramps, Emily races upstairs to confirm the worst. Steinfeld seems to relish the gift of depicting this common female woe, and she blesses it with dramatic flair. She bellows a moan of despair as she sinks the floor, floundering in the many layers she shuffled through moments before, and proceeds to drag her body across the carpet with the heaviness of a mortally weakened person. This is the tableau that Sue finds, one that is alarming to her but hysterically funny and emotionally authentic to us. Hunt, terrified and gentle, is the perfect foil for Steinfeld’s elaborate melodramatics. The theatrical declaration that Steinfeld makes about life being an endless sea of pain is delivered with projection, a performance in itself. Sue, who fears death above all else, tenderly grabs Emily’s cheek with her gloved hand, which alerts Emily that she is taking her reaction a little too far. However, the escalated tone of despair isn’t missing from her confession that her ailment is her period. Sue is more relieved than amused, but she sits down next to Emily to provide what consolation she can. The scene becomes quiet; the stillness becomes intimate. When Emily looks over at Sue, Steinfeld makes sure you know that Emily’s mind is clear, that her words come from truth alone. The first indicator is how long Emily hesitates, just taking in all the details of Sue’s face, before speaking. The second indicator is the sincerity in Emily’s voice when she tells Sue that the latter is Emily’s favorite person. Emily follows the declaration with a confident yet vulnerable kiss, one that Steinfeld delivers with the slightest urgency, conveying Emily’s justified fears that this connection will be cut short. Steinfeld’s ability to portray Emily with that wistful melancholy in balance is the greatest single way that she breathes life into her character.

Separated from Sue and keeping her poetry more secret than ever, Emily fakes A Brief, But Patient Illness to secure more writing time. In the most moving scene of the season, Steinfeld captures the meaning and feeling of poetry itself when Emily finds a kindred spirit in Ben Newton (Matt Lauria). It’s a masterpiece from beginning to end, starting with the mischievous sparkle in Steinfeld’s eyes when Emily authenticates her illness with a single perfect cough. When Ben wonders why the books Emily’s father bought her are on the highest shelf, the mortification appears just briefly on Steinfeld’s face, the realization that she must confide in this stranger. When Ben not only takes down the book but also begins quoting a poem, Steinfeld holds her breath, as Emily ponders the risk of sharing her passion with someone she just met. She keeps her responses short at first, holding her eagerness in check. But when she defines poetry as she knows it, Steinfeld overwhelms everything else with her warmth, letting Emily’s love for poetry radiate through her entire body. Her voice is just above a whisper, as the words Emily is sharing are a secret she has kept bottled up, but what’s even more notable is how decisively Steinfeld delivers these lines. Sometimes the most powerful performances derive their strength from truth, and Steinfeld herself is a poet in both the traditional and figurative senses of the word.

Emily describes poetry as a feeling, one that doesn’t necessarily require words, and it’s fitting that Steinfeld creates a vivid poem with almost no words in We Lose - Because We Win. When Emily takes her first steps towards the circus ring, trepidation marks her facial expressions and her hesitant steps. She stumbles through the tent, caught in wonder at everyone and everything she is seeing. Awe replaces the fear. As the applause overpowers all other sound, she discards her robe and examines the gorgeous butterflies and patterns on her arms. Steinfeld lifts her arms then as if she is lifting her entire body, on the brink of taking flight. As she turns around and around to face the eager audience, her smile grows until its glow takes over her whole face. When Sue stumbles on the tableau, unable to see it, she asks Emily what has happened. “I went to the circus,” Steinfeld gasps, grief and hope mingling in her tone, as a single tear dives down her cheek. For all the colors and trappings of the circus, the only takeaway for viewers is that tear, so completely does Steinfeld draw you into her character.

Emily often modifies her behavior to conform with what her family expects, and the strain of those forced interactions is always visible. There’s A Certain Slant of Light reveals what it looks like when that requirement is lifted. After a party that Emily took charge of, she goes to check on her inebriated mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson (Jane Krakowski). Steinfeld is tender here, in contrast to the defensive, annoyed demeanor that Emily usually has around her mother. She pauses for a moment when Emily’s mother tells her she’s proud of her daughter. She doesn’t move, doesn’t try to pull away from her mother’s hands; it’s as if she’s cherishing the words that she never expected to hear. Emily guides her mother to bed, with one hand protectively against her mother’s back, and there’s an unmissable lightness to Steinfeld’s steps, indicating the happiness Emily is letting herself feel. She tucks her mother into bed, not even letting her mother’s thought they will be together forever bring her mood low. Steinfeld does issue one heartfelt sigh as Emily lingers for a moment at the bedside, a reminder that Emily does deeply care for her loved ones.

Faith Is AFine Invention brings the season to its climactic confrontation, one that severely impacts Emily’s world in a way there is no coming back from. After failing to bargain with death for Ben’s life, Emily returns to his side, or rather she attempts to. Steinfeld grabs the doorknob, her breathing unsteady, clutching it as though she might wrench it off. She’s just barely stooped over when she lets go of the knob. Sitting down by the door, Steinfeld rests her head on the frame, letting us watch every second that Emily tries to compose herself. She locks her hands together with agonized strength, so that we see her knuckles turn white. Steinfeld presses her intertwined hands against her forehead and then under her chin. The way her eyes search around for some escape, while her body remains rooted to the floor, is haunting.

Steinfeld brings the season to a triumphant conclusion when Emily chooses her destiny. Banned from her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe)’s wedding, with his words that she’ll never be a poet because her poems aren’t in books ringing in her ears, Emily begins to sew her poems together into makeshift volumes. A knock at her door reveals that Mr. Dickinson has returned home from his political capers. Steinfeld encapsulates a lifetime of hurt and hope into Emily’s observation. Mr. Dickinson goes on to apologize for being away and to promise he is going to be there for her in the future ahead of them. Acceptance, forgiveness, and determination costar alongside each other on Steinfeld’s face, but she never takes her hand off the door. She retains control of the conversation. When Emily tells her father I Am APoet, Steinfeld says the words with serene confidence, no hint of argument or reluctance. She repeats the words with a warning in her tone, truthfully declaring to him that this is the course her life will take. Emily asserts that she cannot be stopped, and there is pride in Steinfeld’s eyes. She closes the door with an exhale, a promise that this is just the beginning.

When a performance makes your body so spellbound with cold that no fire can warm you, then you know that it is poetry. Steinfeld’s performance as Emily Dickinson first hits you as unusual, unique; then you realize the word you are looking for is genius. There is nothing and no one to properly compare Steinfeld’s work to; her performance feels so incredibly original that you know in your gut that you are watching something fresh and wonderful. The best way to describe it is that it’s a Different Kind of Love Poem, a tribute not only to the spirit of Dickinson herself but to everything she represents. Creativity and imagination that couldn’t be diminished by any constraints of time or medium. Steinfeld brings thrills to everything that Emily does and experiences, making even death itself a thing of anguished beauty. It’s hard to believe that one artist could pull off a role that encompasses all that this one does, but Steinfeld has established she’s no ordinary artist. Our readers agree, and hence they voted her as one of SpoilerTV’s Readers’ Choice 2019 Performers of the Year. Share your thoughts on her performance in the comments below.

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