Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Five Reasons Why Everyone Needs to Leave Jennifer Lawrence Alone

What a difference roughly 365 days, one Academy Award and a third round of Oscar buzz make. Last year around this time, the very idea of Jennifer Lawrence being the target of online boos seemed virtually unthinkable to me. If only for a moment, the girl was Hollywood and America's new sweetheart, totally deserving of her bright future as a rare movie combo: a box-office draw and a Best Actress Oscar winner, for Silver Linings Playbook. While I would have preferred to see Rachel Weisz take the prize for her work in The Deep Blue Sea, since she wasn't even nominated, I, too, was firmly in Lawrence's corner.

I'm still there, and I'd probably be part of an overwhelming online majority that's singing her praises for her work in American Hustle, urging her onward and upward, faster than the speed of light, had her supporting turn in Hustle, like her brief but striking supporting performance in 2011's Like Crazy, found a quiet spot under the radar and stayed there. (Fat chance, with an Oscar winner for a David O. Russell film making a follow-up appearance in a David O. Russell film). But here 23-year-old Lawrence sits, a two-time Golden Globe winner (as of Sunday night), and now a serious threat to take Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars on March 2, once again on top for going, her many new critics say, over the top.

In a classic case of "Too much too soon, and we're mad as hell about it," the knives are out. It's a reversal of the perennial-underdog effect that has so many of those same detractors inexplicably anointing Lawrence's fellow Hustle-r Amy Adams the best in that show, when I suspect that if the 39-year-old four-time Oscar nominee (in less than a decade) were 10 years or more younger, they'd surely be shouting "Enough is enough!" in her direction, too.

Every critic is entitled to his/her opinion, but from what I've read, a lot of the criticism being leveled at Lawrence reeks of reverse-ageism. Meryl Streep didn't win her first Oscar until her 30th year, so who does Jennifer Lawrence think she is, being a soon-to-be three-time Oscar nominee (it'll be official when they're announced on Thursday) and possible two-time winner at the unripe young age of 23? How dare she?!

Well, put down those online picket signs and listen to one dissenter, a voice of reason (I hope) -- five of them -- explaining why Lawrence is right where she deserves to be.

1. She wasn't too young to play Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle. I actually think the age argument was more applicable to Lawrence's Silver Linings Playbook character, a young widow named Tiffany Maxwell who had lived a lot more than Rosalyn. At first I, too, applied it to her in Hustle, but I've since reconsidered: In what universe is it so out of the realm of possibility, or likeliness, for a woman in her early 20s to have a 5ish-year-old son and a husband who is pushing 40? Carey Mulligan was 25 when she played the mother of a son of a similar age in Drive, and I don't recall reading any complaints about that. Of course, had Mulligan won the Best Actress Oscar for An Education in 2010, had she had any Oscar heat for either Drive or Shame in 2011/2012, had she become as big a star as Lawrence, she might have been a similar target.

Surely Scarlett Johannson would have been had she been more than almost-famous when she was a 19-year-old flirting with then-53-year-old Bill Murray in 2003's Lost in Translation. Speaking of even-younger women with older men, did you know that Genie Francis was a mere 19 when Laura married Luke on General Hospital in 1981? It was Laura's second marriage on the show, and Anthony Geary, the actor who still plays Luke, was 15 years older than Francis, but fans, clearly not hung up on the ages of the actors or the characters, made it one of the most-watched television events ever. So why is it so unfathomable that a 23-year-old might be in the same position as Rosalyn? Because Lawrence was surrounded by four 40ish costars?

Anyone who watches Trisha faithfully knows that some women give birth to multiple children, sometimes saying "I do" to multiple husbands, too, before hitting age 20. As for a 23-year-old being married to a middle-aged hustler played by 39-year-old Christian Bale, well, May-September love is all around. This is art reflecting what happens regularly in life, and since the film carries a disclaimer saying, "Some of this actually happened," we're allowed to think of Rosalyn as an original character, not the woman of a certain age upon whom she was based. That means its not fair to compare Lawrence's performance to a magnifying glass pressed up to the life of Cynthia Marie Weinberg.

I won't claim to know how the minds of straight men work, and I might be basing this notion on Ryan Gosling's recent filmography, but I suspect that a 30ish or 40ish guy would be more likely to play baby daddy to another man's kid if the mother is younger and therefore, more helpless (in theory, if not in fact, since neither Michelle Williams nor Carey Mulligan nor Jennifer Lawrence, for that matter, exude an ounce of helplessness). Aging the Rosalyn character and the actress playing her would have changed the dynamic within the film's romantic quadrangle, and while I do wonder what a supposedly more age-appropriate actress like Blue Jasmine's Sally Hawkins would have done with the material, she or any of her talented peers would have made it a different film but not necessarily a better (or worse) one.

2. She wasn't necessarily playing a real housewife of Long Island. There's been too much talk about how Lawrence's Long Island accent was an epic fail, but was that even what she or the film was going for? As far as I could tell, the movie never specified where Rosalyn was from or where the Rosenfelds even lived. In describing the character's origins, reviewers have alternated between Long Island and New Jersey, as if the tri-state area were just one tri-state blob of interchangeable accents. Lawrence herself has suggested that the character was inspired by the New Jersey stars of reality TV, and as someone whose best friend hails from the Garden State, I've been exposed to enough Jersey girls outside of reality TV to know that if that's what she was going for, she kind of nailed it.

3. She dug as deep as the movie needed her to go. Yesterday I read a well-written case against Jennifer Lawrence on my favorite movie blog, The Film Experience, in which Matthew Eng accused Lawrence's Hustle as lacking "interiority." I love the word, but I disagree with the sentiment. Different characters warrant different levels of interiorization. If American Hustle were a LOL Hollywood comedy, this wouldn't even be an issue. No one was complaining about Melissa McCarthy's unsubtle, 100 percent-surface performance in Bridesmaids, and she was the only cast member of that film to score an Oscar nomination, despite the far heavier emotional lifting done by Kristen Wig and Rose Byrne. But then Bridesmaids ended up becoming an Oscar nominee almost by accident. It clearly wasn't designed to be one.

Rosalyn was supposed to be shamelessly shallow, someone with minimal interior life. (There are people like that, you know.) So to carp about interiority seems kind of pointless. But since we're talking depth (which I presume would be a synonym for "interiority"), it was there for anyone who was paying attention to the performance and not just the star. (I do, however, agree with Matthew's assessment that Rosalyn didn't seem much like a mother, but I am more inclined to blame that on Russell, who skimped on mother-son moments.) That tear that suddenly streamed down Lawrence's face during Rosalyn's bathroom confrontation with Sydney (Amy Adams) was key to who Rosalyn really was: a little girl playing dressing up, a lamb tangling with the big bad wolves -- and winning.


4. What's the "real" Jennifer Lawrence got to do with it? I've read the argument that Lawrence's public persona and intense media coverage interfered with her believability in the role, or perhaps made it look too easy. And who's fault is that? Perhaps living abroad in Cape Town, not having stepped foot in the United States since a year before Lawrence earned her first Oscar nomination for 2010's Winter's Bone, I have the advantage of not being privy to 24/7 U.S. celebrity coverage. So the only thing I know about Jennifer Lawrence is what I've seen her do at awards shows and in Winter's Bone, Like Crazy, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. I'm inclined to believe that there are others out there just like me, many of them even living in the U.S.A., though they've all likely seen the Hunger Games films.

If the "real" Lawrence on display on the red carpet and during acceptance speeches interferes with critics' assessment of her work, that's on them. What should she do? Be meek and quiet as a church mouse in real life, so that she can play the salty life of the party and get credit for acting?

5. Lupita Nyong'o was not robbed. As much as I appreciated what the previously presumed Best Supporting Actress frontrunner did in 12 Years a Slave, I was not as blown away by her performance as everybody else was. I can't help but think a large part of the goodwill toward the performance is goodwill toward the character, who at one point is whipped topless by a fellow slave, and admiration of Nyong'o's stunning red-carpet transformations. (Unlike Lawrence and Rosalyn, Nyong'o looks nothing like Patsey). She was to 12 Years a Slave what Kerry Washington was to Django Unchained, a long-suffering, female moral center.

While enduring 12 Years (and yes, watching it felt more like a chore than entertainment), I was just as impressed by Sarah Paulson and Adepero Oduye, but I didn't expect either one of those supporting ladies to generate any Oscar buzz. Paulson was playing a racist plantation bitch, and Charlize Theron's 2003 Best Actress win aside (and even she had to endure a brutal rape in Monster), the Academy is more likely to gravitate to a bad, bad man, even one who plays a sadistically racist plantation owner, like soon-to-be first-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. Meanwhile, Oduye was playing someone less sympathetic than Nyong'o, someone we haven't really seen in a slavery production since Kizzy spat in a white woman's water in Roots nearly 40 years ago: a woman in chains who wasn't a victimized martyr but a sharp-tongued spitfire. If she'd been born a century later, she probably would have been crapping in baked goods and feeding it to bigoted white women.

Can we at least give Lawrence credit for knowing better than to try to take on a role like that?
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