Sandwiched between the phenomenal successes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and this month’s awards’ baiting release of American Hustle, it seems an apt moment to ask ourselves if Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal?
The British cultural academic Richard Dyer wrote a seminal book in 1979 called Stars, in which he theorised the notion that audiences will engage with a film on the basis of our pre-existing perceptions of a celebrated movie star. Dyer’s book was the first proper intellectual exploration of how movie marketing and reviews hinge around the cultural sway of a movie star, focussing on the significance of stardom in American cinema.
Dyer in film academia is the man that brought forward the idea of star theory and provided the tools necessary for analysing how an actor’s constructed identity meshes with the performance given. By this definition, films live and breathe through what movie stars bring to them. Our idolisation of a movie star is what primarily attracts us to the picture, with us wanting to see the story play out through the living embodiment of the actor, making themes, morals, ideas and messages more effectively communicable due to the fact that we can relate better with the stars acting in it. For this very reason we will rush to see Tom Cruise acting in a movie in which he dramatises the harrowing experiences of a Vietnam vet paralysed by war injuries, and pay good money to see Tom Hanks star in a picture in which he plays a homosexual AIDS sufferer on the cusp of death but battling against his former employers for unfair dismissal. Movie stars enable instant communication and appeal of a given film. Without movie stars you have no film industry.
So how does Jennifer Lawrence fit into this? Most will argue that she is the epitome of Dyer’s star theory, but one is not instantly convinced. You see, Lawrence seems an icon of our times, but whether she has the pull of attracting audiences to see her in challenging roles is up for debate. Her break out role was in Winter’s Bone in which her performance as a troubled teenager in rural Ozarks attempting to prevent her family from eviction by trying to locate their missing father garnered much praise and an Oscar nomination. As a result, her ‘star’ power quickly intensified, with Lawrence winning coveted roles in X-Men and as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Earlier this year she won Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance as the kooky young widow Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook. If anything, the last three years both prove and justify Jennifer Lawrence’s range, respect and reliability, warranting all claims of her being a movie star whom elevates the standing of any film she stars in.
But will Jennifer Lawrence’s name really guarantee box-office success? In truth, Silver Linings Playbook made more than $100 million at the American box-office in spite of its odd premise, but it was aided by a stellar ensemble cast that appealed to a mass demographic, a well-respected director at the helm, and the marketing muscle of the Weinstein Company. Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook worked because underneath its awkward veneer it’s basically a feel good film with attractive leads.
On the other hand, Sandra Bullock is a true female movie star. She is someone audiences connect with. Never has an American actress made a succession of rotten movies and still managed to conjure billions in box-office revenues the way Bullock has. In a career consisting of crap like Demolition Man, The Net, Practical Magic and The Proposal (to name a few), Bullock has managed to spend the last twenty years bouncing from one unremarkable picture to the next, all watermarked with her persona of unquestionable beauty and affable quirkiness. Bullock has pretty much given the same performance in every film she’s made, retaining a lucrative and charming formula that has resulted in a career which has endured the usual pitfalls actresses of a certain age befall. Her turn in this autumn’s Gravity was basically Sandra Bullock lost in space, though her performance was technically satisfactory and serviced a truly cinematic event. Gravity has been a huge success because of the innovation on offer, but its saleability is essentially due to the fact that audiences identify and care about Sandra Bullock. Gravity initially played best to a 30+ audience, with word of mouth about its amazing artistry and technicalities filtering down to younger markets. Gravity is an event picture but it’s anchored by Bullock’s reliability as a movie star. Even if all else failed, older audiences that adore Bullock would have been there. As long as Bullock remains the movie star she is, her audience will remain loyal.
Many genuinely believe that Jennifer Lawrence is a once in a generation movie star, with young audiences loving her grounded personality and devil-may-care attitude. She’s adorable and talented, but can she open a movie? The Hunger Games franchise certainly benefits from Lawrence’s inclusion, but it was a publishing phenomenon even before she came on board. The X-Men franchise was massive prior to her taking on the latest incarnation of Mystique, and will be instantly recast if she ever relinquishes the role. American Hustle, much like Silver Linings Playbook, is an ensemble piece in which many constituent parts provide star wattage. The notion that audiences will flock to any old crap Lawrence puts her name to the way Bullock can remains untested, and for that reason her stardom is questionable.
To be honest, movie stars don’t matter as much as they used to. Personalities count for less than brand recognition. Lawrence, timid of things like Twitter and celebrity, wants her performances to define her, but we live in a different era. Her hairstyles and fashion choices gain traction on the blogosphere, but she remains cagey about how much access she gives. Her greatest asset is that she doesn’t take herself seriously, which separates her from the annoyingness of Anne Hathaway and the blandness of say Lily Collins. Lawrence is doing everything better than anyone else in the game, but it still may not be enough because the concept of movie stardom isn’t what it was.
Richard Dyer’s mantra on movie stars is that without them you cannot really have a film industry. Nowadays it costs more money to sell a film than to actually make it. Furthermore, audiences are historically less discerning than they have ever been in the past. As Hollywood focuses on flogging branded concepts without nurturing the next generation of movie stars, it may mark the death of cinema as we know it, and Lawrence may be the last twinkling hope in an industry teetering on the brink of irrelevance.