YEAR OF JLAW

How Jennifer Lawrence Became Our Greatest Celebrity (Even Though Her Movies Sucked This Year)

She’s a movie star who released crappy movies in 2015. (Joy is pretty ‘meh.’) So how did she become our most important—and biggest—celebrity? Ah, let us explain.

12.31.15 5:01 AM ET

Did Jennifer Lawrence make a good movie in 2015? Does it even matter?

The Oscar-winning 25-year-old’s years-long charm offensive—what with her love of Big Macs and farting and hatred of New Year’s Eve and Twitter—blasted through this past year with the gleeful gusto of David O. Russell at a wig shop. She became, if possible, more famous and beloved than she’s ever been.

Her name rarely left headlines. Her megawatt smile, often found grinning next to new BFF, fellow It Girl Amy Schumer, plastered magazine covers and lit up entertainment news programs on a daily basis.

And her voice, most importantly, never stopped piercing through the din of sanitized, neutered, PR-approved celebrity bull that we’ve resigned ourselves to expect from the rich and famous. She made us laugh, routinely made us feel remarkably close to her, and, once or twice, raised hell and made a difference.

Still, it’s been a strange year in the “celebrity” of Jennifer Lawrence.

Vulture named her the Most Valuable Star of 2015, based on a metric that factored things like box-office haul and critical success with likability ratings and tabloid worth. She was Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainer of the Year. She covered Vogue and Vanity Fair. Unscientifically, she’s also the winner of Celebrity Most People Kevin Talks to Say They Really Like.

She also released three of the worst-reviewed movies of her career: Serena, the final Hunger Games film, and the award-season misfire Joy.

What does it take, then, for an actress who released pretty crappy movies to still be hailed as the biggest, most valuable, most important entertainer of the year?

A little scandal. A lot of survival. That aforementioned charm. And a very specific streak of glamorous badassery.

***

At the end of 2015, Jennifer Lawrence is finding herself in what has become a bit of an annual December tradition: about to become an Oscar nominee.

She’s probably using the down time from her talk show campaigning to do some stretching, preparing to travel up and down all those red carpets while granting delightful interviews, ready to rock her Dior gown while regaling us with stories of pizza.

By the time she turned 23, Lawrence had been nominated for three Oscars. It’s an accomplishment that merits high expectations. It presumes greatness.

It’s why she’ll likely be a Best Actress nominee again this year for Joy, despite the fact that the biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano is a tonally uneven, scattershot mess that finds Lawrence more miscast than she’s ever been.

That’s the funny thing about Jennifer Lawrence, though. She’s almost always miscast in her roles.

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She was far too young for the lead role in Silver Linings Playbook, but imbued it with so much beyond-her-years ferocity that it was forgivable. Her role in American Hustle was better suited for a character actress in the vein of Jennifer Tilly or Joan Cusack. But Lawrence plowed through with such messy gutsiness that she nearly took the Oscar from 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o.

The controversy over her against-type casting in the Hunger Games franchise is legend by this point. But with the series concluding this past year—albeit in one of its weaker installments—it’s hard to imagine anyone giving Katniss Everdeen more steely grace.

It’s almost counterintuitive to think Lawrence ill-fitted for her part in Joy, in which a scrappy “Strong Woman” bulldozes doubts and conventions, shaking up a villainous industry with a little bit of trailblazing, a few well-placed middle fingers to the patriarchy, and some fierce telling-it-like-it-is.

In real life, it’s the very thing that Jennifer Lawrence has won us over by doing.

In fact, it’s the reason that being Jennifer Lawrence, celebrity, has now eclipsed the importance or worth of Jennifer Lawrence, the actress.

When you become as famous as Lawrence, you don’t cause scandals and controversies so much as they find you.

Such was the case with The Fappening, a disgusting breach of privacy that hacked celebrities’ personal collections and leaked nude and otherwise incriminating photos of them.

Lawrence was one of the victims. Her comments at the tail end of last year in response to the ordeal have shadowed her into 2015, and were essential in setting up the celebrity power she wields.

She launched a scorching tirade against the hackers and those who criticized her victimhood. Appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair very purposefully nude, she drew a line in the sand. “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime,” she said. “It’s a sexual violation. It’s disgusting.”

For all the times we’ve giggled at her cuteness and praised her wit, this was an instance that her free-wheeling nature and willingness to speak her mind had power outside of herself and her celebrity. She articulated what so desperately needed to be said in a culture so quick to slut-shame sexual autonomy and devalue privacy.

“Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she said. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.”

Lawrence could’ve laughed off the photos on one of those endearing late-night segments she so excels at, erasing them from the public’s mind. She could’ve vowed never to acknowledge them, waiting for them to go the way of all modern scandals and eventually disappear. Instead she found “value” in her celebrity. She seized the moment to make a change.

The conversation was a warm-up for what would come to define Lawrence’s 2015. It was the year that she spoke out.

Never were her words as loud—or as heard—as when she penned an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter in response to revelations in the Sony hack that she earned less than her American Hustle co-stars.

“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony,” she wrote. “I got mad at myself.”

She talked about her fear of seeming difficult or spoiled, and of just being uncomfortable negotiating over money. She recounted her struggles to find “adorable” ways to express her opinion in order to still seem likable.

She posited that she may not be the only woman paid less than a man to have felt that way, and blasted the idea that an actress negotiating her salary is considered a “spoiled brat.” Would a man be called that for doing the same?

The debate over the gender gap had perhaps already reached the deafening pitch required to bring it the attention it deserved in 2015.

But there’s no denying the power and, at the risk of sounding trite, bravery of Lawrence penning this piece. Of the most famous celebrity in the world opening herself up to the criticism it would accrue. Of America’s Sweetheart shrugging her shoulders at the possibility of being called a “spoiled brat.” Of tarnishing her brand, in the age of the #brand.

Months later, Lawrence’s comments are still generating headlines and still making people (like Chris Rock) mad.

And so the case just keeps getting more peculiar. This is America’s Favorite Entertainer, its Biggest Movie Star, and in a year when she released bad movies and pissed people off.

It’s important to remember, of course, that not everything Lawrence did this year was so weighty. To further prove how “Valuable” she is, Vulture curated 100 delightful things that she’s done, putting value in celebrities using the phrase “armpit vagina” and puking at Madonna’s house.

She even spent her 25th birthday with Kris Jenner, for Pete’s sake.

The list is a funhouse mirror to Lawrence’s more political comments. They both make the same point: Jennifer Lawrence is beloved because she says the things that other celebrities simply don’t say.

But she’s a bit of a contradiction in that way.

Lawrence is guarded and controlled about her personal life, yet we have this impression that she’s Hollywood’s most candid celebrity.

A few dozen jokes about peeing your pants, not to mention carefully placed revelations about kissing Liam Hemsworth and taking a bong hit before the Oscars, could make that impression. Most of us couldn’t help but take her comments to Diane Sawyer about her recent breakup to Nicholas Hoult—“Who am I without this man?”—as Biblical, self-empowering scripture of an Oprah-enlightening level.

But did Lawrence actually reveal anything?

We’re in a celebrity climate where access and transparency is key to accruing fans. Vacation pics and date night details are far more exciting when provided by the celeb themselves on Instagram or in “exclusives” with People magazine than from paparazzi shots or TMZ scoops.

But Lawrence is an anomaly. She’s our celebrity BFF, but we really barely know her.

She has no filter, but she is not mean. She’s an open book, but only as long as that book does not damage her reputation. She’s a movie star, and she’s making mediocre movies.

It’s that latter bit, believe or not, that proves her biggest value.

In a wonderful essay on Lawrence’s celebrity and what it means to be a big, huge Movie Star, BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen compares Lawrence—particularly at the occasion of the meh-ness of Joy—to Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“All three were flung into the upper echelons of fame before the age of 25, heralded as blockbuster stars who could act,” Petersen writes. “But it took bad films to see just how good Roberts and DiCaprio were, and it’s taken a movie as mediocre as Joy to understand the same of Lawrence—and how infrequently a star of her wattage comes along.”

The kind of celebrity Lawrence has accrued in 2015—and the way she has accrued it—is wholly unique. I can’t think of another entertainer who has carved out such a dominant space in the culture sphere in the same way.

“With a lot of talk comes change,” Lawrence wrote in that Lenny Letter essay, perhaps being more meta than she even knew.

Jennifer Lawrence is good at talking.

Talking about things like Spanx and booze and fast food in self-deprecating and humanizing ways helped build her brand and catapult her celebrity. Capitalizing on that celebrity by talking about things like empowerment and equality—daring to say things that the “Powers That Be” might disapprove of—that might change the world.

Well, at least Hollywood…but that’s our world, isn’t it? And Jennifer Lawrence is ruling it.