The Acting Personality: Just How “Authentic” Is Jennifer Lawrence?

The Acting Personality: Just How “Authentic” Is Jennifer Lawrence?

Last Sunday, Jennifer Lawrence, the twenty-two year old actress and star of Silver Linings Playbook, won her first Oscar for best actress. In addition to the credit given her work on the big screen, much attention has been paid to the refreshingly “authentic” way Lawrence handles the press, fame, and herself–in particular, her witty and down-to-earth Oscar speech, in which she poked fun at her fall on the stairs, and her droll backstage comments about winning her award. Yet despite her obvious appeal, is it possible that Lawrence, prized for her acting prowess as well as her refreshing candor, quick wit, and lack of guile “off”-screen, is simply very good at acting real; at not acting like other actors; at not acting the things that other celebrities would and do act through; at not
hiding the things that actors are trained to hide, which is to say,
Lawrence does not cover things up. (Instead of downplaying her spill on
the stairs during the Oscar ceremony, she highlighted it.) As a young
star, Lawrence, who called acting and making movies “stupid” in a recent
Vanity Fair profile, does not pretend in the space(s) in which we have grown accustomed to hearing and seeing pretense. Nor does she act “female” in the way that we have come to expect young female celebrities to act today—hyper-sexual, truistic, ditsy, mollifying.

I have always been interested in the difference between acting and authenticity, trying to determine whether there was ever a difference, and whether there still is. Because moving images are everywhere now, in addition to the acting we see an actor do on a movie screen, there is also the acting an actor does on all the screens that constitute celebrity culture in our post-digital world. Some actors handle the reality and fiction of their celebrity better than others. Some go to great lengths to hide what they can’t handle, and some show it by acting out their struggles publicly. While we love some actors for their TV and movie roles, we dislike them as people, and vice versa. Additionally, there are actors, like John Cusack, who have made careers out of playing and inventing “themselves.” In Cusack’s case, “himself” is the perfect lover.

The thing that makes acting so fascinating and mysterious, is that while it is a talent for some, acting is first and foremost a human tendency rather than a vocational ability. Thus, in today’s surround-sound media culture, the real question is: where does acting happen, and is it ever not happening? If acting is a condition of life, it is hard for any of us to know not only what is real and what is fake, but also the relation between the two.

Our first instinct is to interpret Lawrence’s raw personality as a break from artifice and facade, which it may very well be. But being that the nature of artifice is precisely the mystery of acting, we can never know for sure. We crave feeling the tension between acting and not-acting, honesty and dishonesty, real and fake, spontaneity and pre-mediation because it makes us see the contrivance, and by extension, the authenticity. Most importantly, it makes us believe (belief being the operative word here) that not everything is contrived, in our non-stop media culture.

Lawrence is almost the inversion of another actor I like off-screen, Kristen Stewart, who while not as gregarious or self-possessed as Lawrence, doesn’t quite have a handle on the Actor script either. By today’s standards, as a public figure and sex symbol, Stewart is shy and uncomfortable in her body. She averts her gaze during interviews and when she’s in front of cameras. She mumbles wryly and has a kind of introverted quality that we rarely see in young actresses today. With both Lawrence and Stewart, the seams still show.

In the case of her post-Oscar interview, are Lawrence’s responses to the press too quick-witted and unpredictable to be contrived? Acting is partly about mediating—filtering, calibrating, programming—one’s responses. And conversely, not-acting is about not filtering, premeditating, fashioning. We have become so used to stock answers, camera poses, airbrushed bodies, faces, lives—that when something or someone is even slightly different, we are excited and relieved. We like Lawrence because she does not appear to be faking it in “real life”—only for a living. She seems real as far as our definitions of authenticity are concerned. But sometimes what one doesn’t do is an equally self-conscious project—the flipside of straight artifice. As Paul Schrader put it about Robert Bresson’s “perversion of film technique,” “Pretending not to manipulate is another form of manipulation.”

On the most basic level, Lawrence perverts some of the key tenets of being a contemporary celebrity—by celebrity I mean fame in the all-encompassing sense—by going off script, poking holes in some of the veils and mores of stardom. However, while any industry breach is always refreshing, given our profoundly reflexive and self-conscious time, disclosure and confession can be equally perpetuating—yet another way of masking and maintaining the mask. The writer David Shields notes (in lines he appropriated from the poet Ben Lerner): “What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts?” Actual and acting are analogous, for what is actual when acting is not just a condition, but a daily requirement, of being human? Fame is high-risk and fundamentally incompatible with artlessness. An actor’s job is to calibrate the fiction and master the presentation of a public persona, and usually the longer one acts, the more one acts. An actor, said Bresson, who used non-actors (“models”) in his films, “can’t go back. Can’t be natural. They just can’t.” According to Bresson, only automatism allowed for truth, and models did not act, they were “automatic.” Yet despite what Bresson chose to call it, the difference lies partly in the reformulation: humans acting rather than actors acting.

People, both famous and un-famous, change for all kinds of reasons. We never know exactly how or why. But we do know that almost everyone is irreversibly altered (usually for the worse) by power and fame, especially when it comes fast. Fame today is simply too profound and invasive a phenomenon. So why do some actors handle certain aspects of stardom better than others? Why do some actors maintain distance between public and private, while others blur the line completely? Is fame different for different people? And is that difference something you can control? Some celebrities insist that fame becomes invasive and destructive only when one participates in a certain kind of paparazzi-inducing lifestyle: the kind in which the camera rules and where everything is arbitrated by the camera. Conversely, it also backfires when a star rejects their fame completely, à la Michael Jackson (post-sexual abuse scandal), Greta Garbo, and Marlon Brando (famous people who were also famous for not wanting to be famous. Interestingly, I can’t think of a contemporary example). Most stars never start off like Lawrence, let alone stay like her. When it comes to most celebrities, being naïve and real is something you either pretend to be, or pretend not to be. Now, more than ever, with our contemporary experience of aesthetics, fame, and subjectivity in such radical flux, who’s really who, and what’s really what, continues to be the great mystery when it comes to all of us.

So will it last? Will Lawrence stay this way? Down-to-earth, open, self-deprecating, unaffected? Attention comes with an expiration date, so, in a sense, “are you afraid you have peaked?” is the right question to ask a young Oscar winner. It is celebrity, not just celebrities, that we revere. “The top” is a dangerous place to hit, both creatively and culturally, and one should think about what it means to hit it, especially when one does it so quickly and at such a young age. Where stardom is concerned, particularly female stars, shelf life is an old parable. So while it might be a buzz kill to bring a star down to earth with a question about peaking, it is more than fair to ask one, as well as ourselves, not just what success and fame might bring, but what it might take away.

Masha Tupitsyn is the author of LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology
Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her new book, Love Dog, is a multi-media collection forthcoming with Penny-Ante Editions in April 2013. Her fiction and criticism has appeared in numerous anthologies, as well as The White Review, BOMBlog, The New Inquiry, Fence, Bookforum, Berfrois, The Rumpus, Sex Magazine, Boing Boing, Keyframe, Animal Shelter, The Fanzine, Make/Shift, and San Francisco’s KQED’s The Writer’s Block, among other venues. She has written video essays on film and culture for Ryeberg Curated Video: http://www.ryeberg.com/curated-videos/lost-highway/. Her blog is: http://mashatupitsyn.tumblr.com/.

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress

Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.

This year’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role will be the first for whoever wins it. Each nominee plays a character who faces extraordinary circumstances, and in some cases I wonder if it’s the role that people are praising more than the performance.

Naomi Watts is nominated as a tsunami victim in The Impossible, but basically all she does is look traumatized for the entirety of the film. Her face plastered with disaster movie make-up, Watts essentially gets credit for playing a victim, and we project pathos and profundity onto her wounded appearance.

There’s a similar issue with Emmanuelle Riva’s role as a dying woman in Amour. I  don’t understand why Riva has been getting most of the acclaim, when it’s her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant who has the more difficult job as her husband, trying to make sense of her decline and manage their tragedy. Once again, the pathos of a character catches our attention more than the actual performance.

Compared to Watts and Riva, I actually prefer eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a young girl fending for herself amidst unspeakable poverty, she is a compelling presence. However, presence is not quite the same as performance. For the most part, Wallis’s standout work is made in the editing room, as short glimpses of her are interspersed among the film’s extravagant imagery. But there is one remarkable scene where her character has to stand up to her abusive, unpredictable father, and Wallis gives as good as she gets. Wallis is a diamond in the rough, and she has a ways to go to truly deserve an Oscar.

There might be some pathos to Jessica Chastain’s character, a female CIA agent caught in the dangerous world of Zero Dark Thirty. But Chastain doesn’t rely on our sympathy, and in fact she works against it when her character takes part in the movie’s notorious torture scenes. Chastain brings a no-nonsense professionalism to the role, and what’s really impressive about it is the force of her restraint. As she listens to interrogations and sifts through endless leads in her search for Osama bin Laden, you can see her mind processing all this information. And it’s that thoughtfulness that brings extra power to the moments when she does take bold action.

But ultimately it’s Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook who deserves to win, though part of it is due to the role, which is probably the most complex of the five roles to play. Tiffany is an emotionally disturbed widow fighting a sex addiction, looking to have a real relationship with a guy who has plenty of his own problems. That’s a lot of character issues for an actress to handle, but Lawrence grounds it all with an intelligence that’s disarmingly frank. In this early scene, she sets the terms. There’s so much hyper-awareness in her look and her voice, as if her character is too smart for her own wreck of a life. She thoroughly knows her problems but she doesn’t know what to do about them, and that makes her vulnerable.

But through all of Tiffany’s mood swings, Lawrence never plays them for pity. Even her destructive rages are informed by a piercing perceptiveness. And in this monologue which feels practically written to win an Oscar, Tiffany shares the tragedy of her husband’s death, but Lawrence doesn’t play up the melodrama. She simply treats it as a series of facts. All the emotion she needs to convey are in split-second blinks and eye twitches that betray her deadpan delivery.

Now that’s a pathos that doesn’t come easy, one that emerges through a performance that’s as smart as it is expressive, and is truly exceptional.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TRAILER MIX: House at the End of the Street

TRAILER MIX: House at the End of the Street

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The trailer for House at the End of the Street goes all Memento on its viewers from the start, beginning at what appears to be the film's climactic chase scene, then winding back, in snippets, to a nasty origin story. Thanks to intermittent rewinds, we can gather that the clip unfolds in eight separate sections, each one stepping a tad further into the past. Though presumably saying little about the film that's represented, this is a rather novel approach to trailer construction, and it's safe to assume that the one-take conceit of similar spookfest Silent House had a certain influence. The trailer demands that you pay attention to its imagery, which is more than can be said of most previews.

When we first see Jennifer Lawrence (whose other film is bound to make this one an instant hit), she's fretting up a storm and climbing into a parked car, where a bottle of chloroform foreshadows her heroine's retaliation. Then we venture back, with the aid of a reversing clock, to see her witness the emergence of a creepy girl, and back again to see her mother (Elisabeth Shue) checking in on her whereabouts. So, that's three sections down, at which point it's clear that her boyfriend (Max Thieriot) is linked to the movie's hauntings. “I want you to leave her alone,” he says of Lawrence's screamer, speaking, we gather, to the ghastly little girl.

It's a bad sign that House at the End of the Street opted to dub its antagonist “Carrie Ann,” a blatant echoing of Carol Anne from Poltergeist. Modern horror ought to do all it can to seem unique, and this doesn't seem the sort of project that will thrive on winking nostalgia. Yet another step backwards in time takes us to a pool party, where Shue and Lawrence's neighborhood newbies are exposed to the local lore, about how Carrie Ann murdered her family in the house we've seen earlier. “That house is the reason we can afford to rent this house,” Shue's concerned mom explains, exposing the family as both relatably un-rich and punishably opportunistic.

It's not every day you get a trailer that delivers its content in reverse, and given the dearth of ingenuity that plagues this micro-medium, any deviation is generally quite welcome. But no one should be fooled by a couple of nifty tricks: beneath the surface, House at the End of the Street still looks as generic as the next girl-on-the-run ghost story.

Finally, the trailer retraces the initial dastardly deed, wherein young Carrie Ann clearly massacred her parents, only to be trapped in her house to haunt it ever more. The always-ominous dripping faucet ushers in the fateful scene, and the (sadly) obligatory parting line has Shue's character assuring her daughter that the home “is going to be really good.” The title then appears, only to disperse into an acronym that makes a handy hashtag (#HATES), revealing a glaring sales priority that trumps strength of form.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.