Jennifer Lawrence: The Muse and the Backlash
Jennifer Lawrence is on the receiving end of a lot of backlash these days. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been hearing for the past four years. Arguably the biggest actress on the planet right now, she’s a bona fide A-Lister with an Oscar to her name and the ability to command a $20m payday. Lawrence is at a level of public visibility that feels both highly modern and old-school: She’s a defining star of our era, one seemingly free of PR polish but still maintaining a well-controlled persona. By and large, she avoids social media and the expected trappings of stardom in the Twitter age. Last year, she received some of the best reviews of her career, but the film itself wildly divided audiences and struggled at the box office. For every person screaming her name from the rooftops, there seems to be a corresponding opposition, questioning her talent, public appearances, and personal life. To talk about her, as I have done before on this site, feels like the inevitable opening of Pandora’s Box: Everyone has an opinion on Jennifer Lawrence and they aren’t shy about sharing them in the strongest possible terms. She isn’t just an actress or star to many people: She’s a sign of the best and worst Hollywood has to offer, in their eyes.
Let’s take stock of Lawrence’s career: After time as a teen actor, she broke into the mainstream with a critically acclaimed performance in the indie drama Winter’s Bone, which landed her the first of several Oscar nominations at the tender age of 20. She soon landed the much-coveted role of Katniss in the YA adaptation The Hunger Games. That series has grossed $2.9 billion worldwide, but before she got there, she played Mystique in the prequel reboots of the X-Men series. Between 2011 and 2016, 7 of her 18 film credits were from these two franchises. 3 of them were collaborations with David O. Russell, each of which landed her another Oscar nomination (and win for Silver Linings Playbook). The rest is filled with appearances in documentaries, a couple of indie roles that precede her blockbuster turns, two schlocky horror movies, and a long-delayed drama she made with Bradley Cooper.
For such a major star, her filmography was oddly limited. This is also just a symptom of the post-Iron Man age. Many similar big stars like Chris Evans have major credits like Lawrence’s that swallow up years of their career. These are no longer one-off commitments, or even stories that end in neatly packaged trilogies like we came to expect. You seldom sign on for a single movie. This is often a good investment for one’s career - a solid and regular pay-cheque plus an increased presence in the public sphere and the excitement that comes with being part of a beloved franchise. For a 20-year-old actress who’s on the up and has audiences and critics intrigued after a star turn in a celebrated indie, both projects sound like a good idea. You can practically hear the agent telling her about the long-term security and boost they’ll bring.
And they did. Or, at least one of them did. Lawrence is the undeniable star of The Hunger Games series, and her performance is one of the best things about it. As for her turn as Mystique? It’s a less passionate perspective. By the time X-Men: Apocalypse rolls around, Lawrence looks bored stiff. In fairness, so do many of her co-stars - you can practically see the moment where Michael Fassbender stops giving a fuck - but the fatigue of the series feels most obvious with Lawrence. Not only is she wearing the extensive make-up less (wouldn’t you argue for that loophole in your contract?), but she seems utterly unenthused by the material and character. She doesn’t have much to do and it shows. Yet she signed that contract and so she kept appearing in them, even as you got the feeling she was well beyond this kind of stuff by this point in her career.
Lawrence’s most enduring creative relationship has been with director David O. Russell: Three films, three Oscar nominations, one win. Upon winning a Golden Globe for her performance in Joy, she remarked in her speech that she’d like to be buried alongside Russell after her death. In various interviews, she praises their collaborations as some of the most satisfying in her working life. Much has been made about the tempestuous nature of this pairing. Reports of yelling on the set of Joy were much reported, and Russell’s past behaviour as a verbally abusive bully with a sexual misconduct allegation against his transgender niece are well-known in the industry. This is the man so nasty that George Clooney felt the need to take him on. He’s not a nice man, but he’s Lawrence’s most strident ally.
Nobody can argue with three Oscar nominations and one win, but debates still take place over Lawrence’s casting in the Russell films. By and large, she is cast in parts intended for older women. The original choice for Silver Linings Playbook was Anne Hathaway, and that would have made much more sense in scenes where the widow character of Tiffany talks of the many years she had with her husband before he died. Bradley Cooper, her love interest, was also 15 years older than her. American Hustle gave her a smaller but flashier role as a frustrated con artist’s wife, but once again, she was just way too young for the role. Next to her on-screen husband Christian Bale, she looked like a kid playing dress-up. The age difference is never commented on. In Joy, the age issue can at least be explained away by the story taking place over many years, but by that point, the Lawrence-Russell magic was wearing thin. It was tough to understand just why she took these roles with this guy. Yes, the awards were nice, but her miscasting felt like the ultimate elephant in the Hollywood room: The film industry seems to prefer casting 25-year-olds to play 40, while actual 40-year-olds are relegated to granny roles. Lawrence took the opportunities open to her, and the men of Hollywood wanted to see her as someone closer to them in age.
2016 and 2017 presented a fascinating clash for Lawrence. She had two movies that couldn’t have been more different in style and intent. Passengers and mother!: The blockbuster and the indie. The former would cement her A-List box office status, while the latter would return her to her small-scale roots, collaborating with a noted auteur on a mystery story that promised a new side to her persona. To call either of these movies failures would be a lie and it would also be missing the point. After all, Passengers didn’t break any box office records but it did respectably enough, and mother! has some major critical defenders who promise its masterpiece status will be confirmed with the passing of time. Yet both films also proved both challenging and confusing to many Lawrence fans.
Passengers is a super creepy movie that’s heavy with rape culture and a total misunderstanding of consent. It’s also just not a very well-made movie, with a script so lackluster you can’t help but wonder how it got onto the much-lauded Black List. Still, it was a hotly hyped script with two of the biggest stars on the planet leading the way. Reviews were weak and the unsettling central plot device became a much talked about problem that may have dented its box office chances. Opening against Assassin’s Creed and Sing, the movie made $30m in its first six days, a major downgrade from original projections of $50m. It would eventually make $300m worldwide, so it technically made a profit if we go by the old ‘2 1/2 times your budget’ rule, yet the stench of disappointment hung over reporting of the movie.
Lawrence and co-star Chris Pratt were given a task they probably weren’t aware of when they signed on for that film. This was an opportunity for a major studio to see if the A-List model still held some sway. Could two huge stars with proven box office clout behind them bring that magic back with a movie that wasn’t part of a franchise or recognizable property? Was star power still enough? Kind of? People did see the film, even as the reviews discouraged such ideas. It was enough to prove that Lawrence could bring in the crowds, even if they weren’t as excited by a blockbuster that didn’t feature Katniss or Mystique. As a creative endeavour, it didn’t seem to offer much to Lawrence. The role was weak and archaic in its limitations. Even a decade ago, it would have felt dated. That may just be a symptom of modern blockbuster cinema - pre-Wonder Woman, it seemed all but accepted that female roles in such films would be borderline insulting in their pointlessness. Yet this is Jennifer Lawrence! If she couldn’t get a decent role in these films, who could? The recent reviews for Red Sparrow fall similarly along these lines too.
mother! would prove more satisfying, at least to some critics who adored the daring nature of Darren Aronofsky’s visceral allegory. Many others loathed the film - it was the kind of movie that inspired such divisiveness, something the director seemed to encourage. Lawrence is the heart of that film, and the camera is so frequently focused on her face, capturing every micro-emotion as her emotional state splinters beyond repair. Whatever your opinion on the film - as someone who was quite excited for it initially, I found it to be aggressively stupid - at least it was a change from her David O. Russell mould of prestige.
Lawrence goes through the wringer in that film, and much of that was played up in the promotion. Everything centred on how agonizing it was to film the project, how emotionally draining it was to experience, how physically damaging it was at times, and how all of that made the performance better. For anyone who’s ever watched an actor drag themselves through the mud to win an Oscar - hi, Leo! - this was nothing new. Nowadays, it seems as though half the work of acting is in showing people how much you suffered for your craft and how such things should be rewarded as much as possible. What bothered me most about Lawrence telling these stories - including an incident where she says she tore her diaphragm on-set - was how little the implications were looked at. Here was a woman, a very famous one with major Hollywood clout and the ability to do as she wanted in her chosen industry, who truly hurt for a film, and nobody seemed all that bothered by the notion. Indeed, we all seemed numb to the prospect. Acting can be tough, but it shouldn’t be like that.
Lawrence didn’t start dating director Aronofsky until the film wrapped, but given the themes of mother! and certain readings of it, their partnership carried an odd flavour. Hollywood is littered with stories of tortured male artists and the women whose bodies and lives become their canvasses. Gossip reporting of the pairing was draped in that sort of rhetoric. When People Magazine first reported on the relationship, the focus was on how Lawrence ‘has been mesmerized by his talent and brains since she started working with him.’ They claimed that her being with him was ‘good for her’ because they were two serious artists and found common ground because of that.
You take stuff like this with a pinch of salt, but it stood out to me how uneven this seemed even in the early stages of reporting. Lawrence doesn’t need that sort of narrative. She’s an Oscar winner with two successful franchises under her belt. She’s proven herself time and time again. She’s an actress and a proper movie-star. She doesn’t need something to help her be taken seriously because she’s way past that point. If you aren’t taking Jennifer Lawrence seriously, that’s your fault. That these ‘sources’, whoever they may be (and People are one of the most industry-friendly gossip publications, so their sources tend to be strong), wanted to push this kind of story speaks volumes to how we treat women in Hollywood. Darren Aronofsky didn’t legitimize Lawrence’s acting abilities, yet you couldn’t escape the claims that what he did with her in mother! was ‘good for her.’
Sure, a good batch of reviews doesn’t hurt, but she already had them by the boatload. Paramount made the barmy decision to release the film wide, and audiences expecting the creepy home invasion thriller the enigmatic marketing hinted at were sorely disappointed. The ‘F’ ranking on CinemaScore is almost infamous now, and rejection by general audiences was seen by many as proof that ‘art’ had no place in cinema. Rotten Tomatoes got a bunch of blame too, and there was an immensely elitist undercurrent to many critics’ defence of the film: Some people ‘just didn’t get it’ or ‘didn’t understand it’. This wasn’t the Jennifer Lawrence they expected. Clearly, they all just wanted more of Katniss. Putting aside the ridiculous snobbery of this, it does emphasize the divide that Lawrence, and indeed many other actors, struggle with in their careers. How to balance the seemingly oppositional forces of art and commerce, especially when one clearly needs the other to survive? Lawrence is a star, but after four Oscar nominations and one win, some seemed to need further proof that she could actually act. For that, she needed to be a muse.
Being a muse may be one of the most thankless tasks a woman can perform (and it does seem to mostly be young, white women who perform this role in the mainstream consciousness). It’s a role of endless expectations and objectification. For muses, your worth becomes entirely dependent, in the public’s gaze, on how well you perform the part laid out for you by the ‘true genius’ of the operation. Lawrence had already received some of this narrative with her collaborations with Russell. Profiles loved to play up how she ‘inspired’ him, even as her talk of arguing with him and being seen as a guy in his eyes, rejected traditional notions of the muse. She was an active participant in this, not a passive one. With Aronofsky, and the role in mother!, the muse problem became especially potent.
Alexandra Schwartz’s piece in the New Yorker digs further into the regressive nature of this dynamic, and she talks about the ‘blankness’ of Lawrence’s performance. It’s no slight against her, you see, but an indication of how the muse is never afforded the luxury of an internal life. Truly, Lawrence’s performance is all external, albeit beautifully done at points. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you think this was a deliberate move on Aronofsky’s part to highlight how sexist this is. He claims the artist/muse theme was not deliberate as he wanted to focus on the environmental allegory. Still, it’s a movie where a woman with no personality or ambitions beyond satisfying her older husband is torn to shreds for her selflessness. The mother is the only sane person in the movie who receives no credit for that. She is the Giving Tree with a pulse. Separate the art from the artist all you want, but when you’re reading stories about how Aronofsky is ‘good for her’ and how the widely celebrated Lawrence is dazzled by his talent, the parallels draw themselves.
Aronofsky and Lawrence broke up sometime around the promotional tour for mother!, and since then, you can sense that Lawrence grew sick of being the muse. In a Variety interview, she talks candidly about being sick of listening to her then-boyfriend constantly talk about the movie they made together. Recently, she admitted she had to turn off the Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread about three minutes in because it hit too close to home:
‘Is [Reynolds Woodcock] kind of like a narcissistic sociopath and he’s an artist so every girl falls in love him because he makes her feel bad about herself and that’s the love story? I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. I’ve been down that road, I know what that’s like, I don’t need to watch that movie.’
I wish she’d stuck with the film because it may have offered her some peace from the exhaustion of being a muse, but I totally understand why she wouldn’t want to revisit that world. She clarified that she wasn’t talking about Aronofsky with the comment on narcissistic sociopaths.
That brings us back to the backlash. Depending on who you ask, said backlash has been happening for weeks, months or years. When she won her Oscar, she was pitted against fellow winner Anne Hathaway in order to create a misogynistic narrative of the ‘cool girl’ versus the ‘try-hard’. The next year, when she was nominated against Lupita Nyong’o in Best Supporting Actress, she found herself on the receiving end of the villain angle. Her no-filter approach to interviews went from cute to grating for some, while others claimed they’d just never liked her. Those charming tidbits on the press tour came under a harsher gaze, particularly after she repeated a story involving disrespectful treatment of sacred Hawaiian rocks. People accused her of being ‘fake’, of playing up her pizza and beer shtick, of pandering to men with the act. When Passengers under-performed, people were much quicker to blame Lawrence than Pratt or the script. mother! not playing well to general audiences sparked conversations of her box office clout when the real problem was giving a film like that a wide release. Now, between the tepid reviews for Red Sparrow and her desire to get more politically involved, some consider her actions to be further fuel for the fire.
I wouldn’t say the backlash has hit Lawrence as hard as it did for people like Katherine Heigl or Mo’Nique, but it has been there. You don’t get as famous as she does without experiencing some push-back. Still, she has weathered that storm for the most part and none of it has really stuck to her. She’s smart enough to play the Hollywood rules while maintaining her own distinct sense of self. The industry has swallowed so many women whole for daring to have a sense of humour or refusal to adhere to crushing standards, so there is something to be said for Lawrence being so inimitably Lawrence.
Where she goes in her career after Red Sparrow remains to be seen. She has some fascinating projects lined up - an adaptation of Burial Rites with Luca Guadagnino, a biopic of disgraced biotech Svengali Elizabeth Holmes, a comedy with Amy Schumer - and all eyes remain on her whatever she chooses. As much as she succeeds, Jennifer Lawrence still feels like the strongest example we currently have of how Hollywood fails even its most successful women: You will be miscast and typecast; your clout will be diminished or ignored; the seriousness of your craft will only be validated when a man is involved; and throughout all of it, you’ll simply never be able to satisfy some people.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)