by Stacey Peebles and Jami Powell
Kentucky’s own Jennifer Lawrence accepted the Screen Actors Guild award on Sunday for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s not what people are talking about. They’re also not talking about her Golden Globe win, or her second Oscar nomination. They’re not even talking about the fact that the Oscar nod makes her the youngest person ever to be nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress.
They’re talking about her dress. Oh, and her body.
As she rose to accept the award, she lifted the top tier of her gown, which shifted to briefly expose her legs, and the buzz began. Wardrobe malfunction? Canny PR maneuver? And how did those legs look, anyway?
Lawrence herself didn’t give it a thought, not during the ceremony or afterwards, as the news stories mounted. For a young actress who is still relatively new to the spotlight, she displays a remarkably tough skin. It’s a toughness reflected and amplified by her choice of roles, from a girl trying to keep her family together amidst the drug-depressed violence of the Ozarks (Winter’s Bone) to a fighter protecting her sister and her friends in a surreal dystopia (Hunger Games) to, most recently, a young Philly widow figuring out her next steps in life and love (Silver Linings Playbook). “I don’t know what it is with me and maternal wilderness girls,”she confessed to the Los Angeles Times, “I just love ‘em. Even before Winter’s Bone, the first movie I ever did, The Poker House, I was caring for my younger siblings in a tough, dark situation.”
In that sense, the flash of leg may epitomize Lawrence’s character, both the kinds she tends to play and the kind she is in real life. She’s not the type to let a silly kerfuffle like that stop her for a minute, and she seems capable of handling much more serious obstacles. “I’d have walked on hot coals to get the part,”she told The Guardian about her character Ree in Winter’s Bone. “I thought it was the best female role I’d read—ever. I was so impressed by Ree’s tenacity and that she didn’t take no for an answer. For the audition, I had to fly on the redeye to New York and be as ugly as possible. I didn’t wash my hair for a week; I had no makeup on. I looked beat up in there. I think I had icicles hanging from my eyebrows.”
She auditioned for Silver Linings Playbook via Skype from her parents’ home in Louisville.
And yet despite those efforts to be as realistic as possible in her films, Lawrence is also beautiful—a woman with true visual charisma and presence. She can pull off the cherub-cheeked roughness of youth or the smoky-eyed insolence of independent womanhood. People pay attention to that, too, maybe even more so because of the toughness Lawrence exudes in her roles, and the media have fed that attention. She appeared in a sexy spread in January’s Vanity Fair, complete with leopard-skin pants and a classic sports car. (That particular photo is one that’s almost parodic, but not quite; it doesn’t have the same obvious wink as, say, Tina Fey posing in fishnets with a typewriter for Bust magazine in 2004.)
Before Vanity Fair, Lawrence’s 2010 coming-out swimsuit party in Esquire introduced the world to a very grown-up, freshly endowed Lawrence. And in turn, the Esquire spread helped Lawrence land the mainstream role of bosomy Mystique in 2011’s X-Men prequel. Though young, Lawrence is no naive bumpkin. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, now we have a great actress come along and she’s showing her boobs,’ she commented in the Los Angeles Times. “But that’s exactly what I had to do so I could keep working. Honestly, that photo shoot is what helped me get X-Men.”
Clearly, Lawrence knows how to play the game. But should she really have to, with the stacks of accolades accumulating by the week? She herself doesn’t seem to mind, commenting in January that compared to doctors saving lives and firemen rushing into burning buildings, acting isn’t something to be cocky or worry about. “It’s stupid,” she said to Vanity Fair, setting off another round of news stories.
But should we mind for her? Volumes have been written about to what degree women gain or lose power by turning their body and sexuality into spectacle; Lawrence is clear that in her case, it worked, allowing her the agency to do what’s really important for any acting career, which is to choose good roles for herself. That kind of forward-thinking awareness gives Lawrence the power to be Katniss Everdeen again and not.
Still, what she frames as a necessary distraction is, and should be, troubling. At least Lawrence has the maturity to self-assess and come up with a pretty darn good game plan.“There are actresses who build themselves, and then there are actresses who are built by others,” Lawrence saidin W. “I want to build myself.”
The question is: Can we let her?
In her own words:
Stacey Peebles is Director of Film Studies at Centre College and author of the book Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Cornell UP, 2011).
Jami Powell writes creative nonfiction, studies in Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program, and serves as resident movie snob and evening supervisor for Centre College’s Doherty Library.
This article appears on page 7 of the February 7, 2013 print issue of Ace.
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