Moments before we’re due at a press screening for Mother!, my friend turns to me and utters the following.
“Just how old does Jennifer Lawrence’s directors think she is?”
She has a point. Lawrence, who has just recently turned 27, is playing the wife of Javier Bardem, who is 48. She became an Oscar winner when she played Tiffany Webster in Silver Linings Playbook at the age of 21. Tiffany, while never given an exact age, is someone who has a past: she’s a widow of several years by the time her character is introduced, and is hinted to have spent some time in an institution. Her co-star, Bradley Cooper, plays a character who is similarly plagued by mental illness, and was 38 at the time of the film’s release.
Accepting her award, Lawrence, famously fell up the stairs on her way to collecting her Oscar, helped to her feet by Hugh Jackman, and gave a breathless speech of thanks to her team and “to the women this year, and not just the ones in my category.” Dressed in a marshmallow pink ball gown, she’s every inch the perfect ingenue: beautiful, gracious, human, insanely young, and yet, somehow able to dredge up the piss and vinegar to play a character like Tiffany.
It became part of a trend. At 23, she co-starred in American Hustle, playing the frustrated stay-at-home wife of Christian Bale (then 39), who is too busy running around with Amy Adams (also 39) to notice her. In one memorable scene, Lawrence’s character Rosalynd has set the kitchen on fire by putting tinfoil into the “science oven”. “Bring something into this house that's gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire?” she screams, every inch the harridan. “Thank God for me.”
It shouldn’t work, but it does. A 23 year-old dressed in a velour jumpsuit, smoking and yelling about her science oven plays like an SNL skit. The concept reminds me of Amy Schumer’s “Last Fuckable Day” sketch, where the Patricia Arquette, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Tina Fey discuss how they are now old enough to “get offered a romcom with Jack Nicholson where you’re competing with another woman to fuck him.” But seeing it on screen, Jennifer Lawrence is magnetic and (in my opinion, at least) the only compelling part of an otherwise dull movie.
The stereotype about young women in Hollywood is that they are given a few years in the spotlight – playing romantic roles, straight-faces alongside comedic men, and daughters to women who are barely out of their 40s – and are then fumbled with like a hot potato just out of the space oven. She is thrown from studio to studio, is cast in rapidly diminishing roles, and either winds up on TV or with a profitable side business in baby products. When we hear that she is paired up with a man 20 years her senior, we sigh, knowing her dialogue will generally consist of repeated utterings of “ok honey!”, “have a nice day!” and “you work too hard!”
Lawrence, however, bucks this trend in almost every sense of the word. For some reason, she has become one of the few actresses of her generation that can dominate every film she's in. She doesn’t play “older” women, so much as she plays women who have been through shit, are going through shit, and who are generally on top of their shit. She plays opposite older actors – Bradley Cooper, Javier Bardem, Christian Bale – not because of sexism, but because putting her opposite actors of her own generation would feel like an incredible waste of both her talent and of the audience’s time. Who wants to see the greatest actress of her generation opposite Daniel Radcliffe, or Michael Cera, or Zac Efron? (In a way, we sort of have the answer: its Passengers, and no one wanted to see it.) Jennifer Lawrence, at the age of 27, can steal scenes from actors who have been working for 20 years. Can you imagine what she’d do to Zac Efron?
It’s an uncanny role placed alongside a career of uncanny roles, which is a huge part of her success: no one is quite sure what she’s going to do next
That brings us, at last, to the present day: her starring role in the bizarrely violent psychological horror Mother!. In it, Lawrence plays a young woman who has the acute misfortune of being married to a Brilliant Man, played by Bardem. He’s a poet suffering with writer’s block (of course) and funnels his resentment toward her, the appeasing, hardworking young wife whose gentle prodding and endless “baby?” calls are getting on his nerves. When two strangers show up – played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer – things start to get out of hand, and the film descends into what Vanity Fair calls “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as overseen by Hieronymus Bosch.”
The film won’t be for everyone – bring a coat with you, for eye-shielding purposes – but Lawrence’s performance in it is fascinating. She is finally playing the role that most Hollywood actresses are doomed to play – the almost-mute, casually gorgeous, “everything ok, honey?” wife – but with a unsettling, gothic twist. Her youth and beauty is treated like a circus sideshow by the other, older characters: she is stared at, grabbed at, and given condescending lectures on how she doesn’t understand grown-up life. She is the muse, the goddess, “his inspiration!”, and is almost never asked a question – unless, of course, it’s about having kids.
It’s an uncanny role placed alongside a career of uncanny roles, which is a huge part of her success: no one is quite sure what she’s going to do next. Her interviews, which are famous for being candid, actually reveal startlingly little about her. She’ll joke about the time she shit herself at an awards show, but when it comes to discussing her process, or how, exactly, a 21 year-old from Kentucky has enough life experience to play such troubling and complex roles, and she usually dodges. She doesn’t know why she’s so successful. She cannot account for her talent.
The longer you look for an answer – I even ended up Googling “why is Jennifer Lawrence so successful?” – you see that there’s no magic answer: merely a combination of luck, talent and likability. It’s then you realise that it’s not that Jennifer Lawrence has an incredible career, it’s that she has the career that many actresses of her generation deserve, but don’t get. Mila Kunis does not get to set the space oven on fire while wearing a velour jumpsuit. Emma Stone does not get to trek around the wilderness with a bow and arrow. Amanda Seyfried will probably never play a sex addict with manic depression. Is it that they don’t have the chops – or is that there are exactly enough interesting roles for exactly one actress?
There’s a joke Tina Fey once made at the Golden Globes: “Meryl Streep is so brilliant in August: Osage County, proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.” In the same way we use Meryl Streep as a way to convince ourselves that you can have a great career at 60, we use Jennifer Lawrence to persuade ourselves that New Hollywood – the millennials who are starting to rule the roost – will be different to the old guard. Unfortunately, until we start to see more great parts for non-Jennifer Lawrences, her stream of fascinating, layered characters might prove to be the exception, rather than the rule.