Jennifer Lawrence reminds us she's here with a mother! of a performance
Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Ree in 2010 excellent Winter’s Bone came about like a sudden cold front. It caught the very breath in your throat and brought chills across your body. It was an arresting, understated performance in its confidence and earned Lawrence an Oscar nom. Like the classic actresses of old, Lawrence was a dynamo whose prescence didn’t command our attention so much as demanded it.
Yet since Winter’s Bone, there has been a pervasive feeling that Lawrence had yet to capitalize on the immense promise she showed as an actress. Some will debate she’s delivered time and again, bur it’s difficult to argue that in the strict sense of the courage she showed in that breakout picture. Her power in the years since has been at the box office (a measurement of success to causal moviegoers, agents, and studios – but not to lovers of cinema) and as a sex symbol, both of which overstate and simplify what makes her such a wonderful actress. The feeling of ‘When will Jennifer Lawrence arrive again?’ began to fade with each passing picture.
It makes sense, of course, that she went in that direction. Her greatest trait, the ability to demand our gaze, is built as much on her look as her talent. Great character actors often thrive for what I like to call ‘having a great face’. The late Harry Dean Stanton, for example, had a great face as does a Steve Buscemi. Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Tilda Swinton have great faces. These are performers who aren’t considered traditionally, ridiculously good-looking in the Hollywood sense, but there is something undeniably photogenic about how they appear on film, blown up on screen.
Some younger actors with this ‘great face’ use it to take very serious roles, like Rami Malek or Alicia Vikander. Others use it to move into commercial projects, like Sophie Turner or Taron Edgerton. There is no right or wrong path to take. A successful career can really only be measured in longevity, whether it is via commercial or artist successes or a mix of both.
Except, the norm is with a beautiful actress (as it is with a handsome leading male) is to devolve into formulaic roles that shoehorn them, capitalizing on their looks while playing within a safe range of character. Because sadly we tend to objectify film stars - women in particular - focusing on roles purely based on that alone (look no further than the marketing for Passengers). Never test oneself further than a smoldering hot eyebrow raise. Few escape this trap. Placing this value on beauty undermines just why we are so obsessed with the power of an interesting or beautiful face in cinema. Actresses who combine attraction with talent are impossible to look away from.
Lawrence has danced close to the morass of being just a beautiful face for years. Fresh off her turn in Winter’s Bone, she snuck in a couple of low-key roles (which she probably accepted before her big break and thus, had little choice) in Like Crazy and The Beaver, before snatching up her follow-up role: as Mystique in X-Men: First Class. Dipped in a vat of blue paint that did her figure every compliment, the role was not one particularly challenging. It’s like coming to bat after hitting a triple then settling for an easy walk. It took no effort for Lawrence to play a simple, one-note comic book character as it would be to stand there and watch four balls fly passed her outside the strike zone.
Then she jumped into The Hunger Games series, which would make her an international star. As is the case with nearly all young adult content, the film was tamely melodramatic and straightforward. Capitalizing on the science fiction, dystopian craze, Lawrence once again was able to carry the film so deftly because it lacked any challenge for her skills. She was a home run hitter taking batting practice. (it must be said that throughout her career, the one constant is Lawrence’s insistence on taking roles that are about empowering women – even with the blockbusters. Her prominence in the X-Men sequels is evidence that the filmmakers were taking her star power into account).
For those worried this was leading down a particular path, she ‘bounced back’ with turns in a pair of awards-season picture by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Lost in the enthusiasm for the picture was the reality that Lawrence had very little to do. She played very little on the subtle side and was instead given free reign to act out and play big, which she did at every opportunity. The performance wasn’t bad, per se, just simply simple.
Which is why Lawrence’s work in mother! is the kind of performance to restore one’s faith that she can be this generation’s Helen Mirren or Ellen Burstyn. An actress ballsy enough to work challenging material and carry films with their incredible presence. In mother!, Lawrence is daring and nuanced. She plays the character with a tender touch that deftly is wound tighter and tighter, like a rose being wrapped around a tree branch painfully slow. Nearly half the movie’s run time is a close up of Lawrence, so we can’t miss the looks of pain, surprise, and anxiety that carry the picture. To have the command with a camera, and the audience, that close to you, is startling. It’s an unsettling film and a hypnotic performance.
After so many years of playing around in commercial films and prestige films that did little to challenge her immense capabilities, mother! has given us what we’ve waited for since Winter’s Bone. Give me bravura Lawrence any day of the week.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.