The Career Games
12.20.13 10:45 AM ET
How Jennifer Lawrence Took Over Hollywood. (It’s Not Just Because of Her Charm.)
Jennifer Lawrence told a story Wednesday night about butt plugs. The internet swooned. Oh do we love Jennifer Lawrence and her butt plugs. And her accidentally pooping herself. And her fart-smelling house. And her pretty much everything.
No star has ever had it so figured out. What is it, though, that she’s figured out?
How does the Hunger Games and American Hustle star manage to be absolutely everywhere, but still escape the Anne Hathaway horror show of “dear god, no, not her again”? How can she wax poetically about soiling herself at parties and not get branded as sleazy trash, a la Ke$ha? How is it that she’s so unattainably perfect, and yet a nation of Jealous Judys doesn’t hate her guts?
There’s a reason that actors are reluctant to sign on for film franchises, no matter the guaranteed financial windfall doing so would bring to their careers. Heading a major blockbuster franchise leaves an actor susceptible to a harsh spotlight and harsher judgment (Kristen Stewart, Twilight). They run the risk of never separating themselves from the legacy of the character they play (Harry Potter, er, I mean Daniel Radcliffe). Expectations for every single movie you open, no matter how big-budget or indie, become absolutely impossible to meet (sound familiar, Johnny Depp?).
Even though she stars in one of the most popular film franchises in release right now, Jennifer Lawrence has remained immune to all of those career diseases. It’s not because she’s some Hollywood unicorn galloping down the red carpet from one adorable and charming talk show appearance to the next like a rare industry beast that somehow hit the career lottery: blockbuster, indies, loving fans, and just generally having it all. It’s not even because of the insane spell she’s cast over society, where the exposure of each successive wart somehow gets us all to coo instead of recoil.
Simply put, it’s her movies. No star has ever charted out a film resumé so shrewdly. Girl knows how to choose a movie role. Behold the Tao of J. Law.
Let’s look at the big movies—big as in notable, not necessarily cash cow—movies in pre-Katniss Lawrence’s career. She broke out majorly with Winter’s Bone, a gritty indie that won her an Oscar nod at the ripe age of 20. A good amount of industry buzz got her cast in the emotional romantic indie Like Crazy (more legit cred!) and also as Mystique in X-Men: First Class (movie star in the making!). The industry buzz broke into a roar when she was cast in The Hunger Games.
Famously, Lawrence took three days to accept the Hunger Games role. “It’s really rare that saying yes to something will completely change you life,” she says. “I’ve always had this imaginary future where I would be a soccer mom that drove a mini-van and my kids would be normal.”
Hinting at the charm offensive she’d soon launch promoting the film, she said it was her mom who convinced her to take the role: "I'd only really done indie films before that, and she said, 'Every time people ask you why you don't do studio movies, you always say that it's because you don't care about the size of the movie, you care about the story and the character. But you're a hypocrite, because now you have a story and a character that you love, but you're not saying yes to it because of the size of it.’"
She’s kept following that advice. By the time she auditioned for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the film that would win her a Best Actress Oscar, Anne Hathaway had already been attached, and everyone from Rachel McAdams to Rooney Mara to Kirsten Dunst were said to have made plays for the part. Lawrence nailed a Skype audition and ran away with the role. Even more than The Hunger Games, it’s Silver Linings Playbook that dictated how her career would go.
Actors are constantly talking about their desire to diversify themselves and play different characters. Yet despite having an Oscar nod and a major franchise under her belt, Lawrence had yet to prove that she could do that. Ree in Winter’s Bone and Katniss in The Hunger Games were both survivors, characters Lawrence played with a steely, quiet intensity. Silver Linings Playbook allowed her to explode, playing a woman unhinged, histrionic, and emotionally volatile. Her performance proved that, more than anything else, we should expect the unexpected from Jennifer Lawrence. She flicked off the press photographers after winning Best Actress.
Compare that career trajectory to Kristen Stewart’s. Like Lawrence, she had won raves for quiet performances in indie films before winning the role of Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise. Her performance, as whipped as it’s been by critics and Twi-haters, was precisely what it needed to be for those films: a convincingly moody wet blanket and the world’s most boring and begrudging romantic. One would imagine, even hope, that she’d break up four sprawling films of such damp characterization with a little spunk and a dash feistiness. But Adventureland? Welcome to the Rileys? The Runaways? Not so. If anything, the idea of Kristen Stewart, expert wet blanket, only got even damper.
She’s shaken it up a bit with On the Road—a performance that at least got people talking excitedly about Stewart again, even if it was just because of her nudity—and Snow White and the Huntsman—a dreary, but at least successful blockbuster. But whereas Lawrence is seizing a zeitgeist moment fixated on unpredictability both in her movie choices and public displays of excessive personality, Stewart’s remained a bit of a boring drip.
Could you imagine, for example, Stewart (or any franchise star of her notoriety) take (or even be considered) for the role of Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle? In any other age, the crackling firework show of a woman, thick Long Island accent and all, would’ve been played by Jennifer Tilly or Joan Cusack or a “character actress.” Certainly the part would not have been played by the darling leading lady of the industry as she’s about to open the second installment of her big blockbuster series. And certainly that actress would not have pulled it off.
That Lawrence would even agree to the role, let alone commit so fully to it, is an example of her genius. We’re not just talking about her incessantly this Hollywood season because she’s in two huge films, or because she’s such a hoot to watch in interviews. It’s because she’s so damned good in American Hustle. When she’s not on screen, you’re angry about it. She could very well win her second Oscar in two years for the performance.
Has anyone managed to follow their blockbuster debut—a career move so often dismissed as slight and pandering—up with an Oscar win? And then, quite possibly, do it again after its sequel? Is Kristen Stewart dangerously close to combusting in that undisclosed corner where she lurks, explosive death by excessive brooding?
The smartest thing Lawrence has done is repel the Potter curse, in which no matter what project Daniel Radcliffe takes on—The Woman in Black and especially Kill Your Darlings were excellent films!—he’s still “Harry Potter like you’ve never seen him before” instead of, you know, actor Daniel Radcliffe doing what actors do: act in new films. The difference between the two franchise stars is that Lawrence has interrupted Katniss with wildly different characters in major films between each Hunger Games installment (and will continue to do so in the next year), while Radcliffe, by and large, was known to film audiences only as Harry Potter for the better part of 10 years.
Lawrence has already managed to ensure that she’s not known only for Katniss. More importantly, she’s already so deftly transcended any labels associated with her work that she may not even be known as the girl who won the Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. She’s built a resume so diverse already that she can only be known as Jennifer Lawrence, which given our apparent glee in all that being Jennifer Lawrence means, is something we can all be happy about.