By most reckonings, 2012 was the best year of Jennifer Lawrence’s career. She starred in The Hunger Games, a movie that had an outstanding box office run and propelled her to stardom. Only a few months later, she starred in Silver Linings Playbook in a role that would eventually win her an Oscar. She’s been one of the biggest movie stars in the world ever since.
Lawrence’s relationship to her stardom has always been complicated. During an interview with Vanity Fair to promote current release Red Sparrow, the star was hooked up to a polygraph — as if doing extended interviews with journalists you don’t know weren’t stressful enough. Asked why she was nervous, her response was revealing: “Because I feel like everyone hates me.”
Lawrence seems at least partially aware of the nature of fame, the way it leads to attention, and then eventually to a certain level of disdain. In her roles, Lawrence has, either naturally or by choice, sought out characters who have to deal with some aspect of fame themselves.
The most obvious of these is Katniss Everdeen, the role that launched Lawrence to superstardom. Katniss, a quiet, stubborn girl from an Appalachian village that is geographically close to Lawrence’s home in Kentucky, is thrust into stardom and forced to deal with being used by people who don’t really care who she is or what she wants. Katniss becomes a celebrity, more important to people because of what she represents than because of who she is.
Katniss’s rise to fame and power followed Lawrence’s own, and like Lawrence, Katniss eventually realizes there are responsibilities and consequences when everyone thinks they know you. Katniss’s ultimate disgust with the world stems in part from this depersonalization. She is a faceless body to be molded and changed, and once she’s jettisoned into notoriety, most of her choices are not her own to make.
In one particularly telling scene, after Katniss has become a full-blown symbol of a rebellion she’s not even sure she believes in, she goes to a hospital filled with wounded soldiers who have been fighting for her. Lawrence’s face reveals Katniss’s anxiety. There’s a weight that comes with her ability to inspire. These people have fought, and many have died, in her name. She can’t be what they need her to be. She’s a person, and they need an icon.
Lawrence’s Mystique, the shapeshifting X-Men character she’s played since 2011’s X-Men: First Class, is also a symbol. In X-Men: Apocalypse, she’s the most famous mutant on the planet, and she wears that fame as a burden. The entire mutant world is looking to her, and in her somewhat limited screen time, Lawrence suggests Mystique’s indifference to that role. Like Katniss, she’s pretty uninterested in what other people expect from her.
Outside of Lawrence’s franchise work, many of her other projects have also fixated on some aspect of what it means to be a superstar. In Joy, Lawrence’s most recent project with David O. Russell, she plays a successful businesswoman who rises to prominence and struggles with the expectations that are foisted on her as a result. Despite its many faults, Joy works best as an interrogation of Lawrence’s screen persona. Lawrence’s Joy only attains her success because of her ability to sell her product — and her image — on camera. Like many successful actors, Joy is selling a persona she knows housewives will find attractive.
Lawrence’s most recent films have also been her strangest. In Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Lawrence’s nameless character is an allegory for Mother Earth, and also exists as the muse of Javier Bardem’s poet. At every turn, Aronofsky suggests that she exists to be used and disposed of. As she does frequently, Lawrences plays a character who exists as a symbol, and must struggle to assert her own humanity.
Her character’s lack of agency and control is represented in the house that she works so hard to transform into a home. It’s a space she is constantly working on, and one that seems to be directly tied to her own well-being. During one particularly stressful scene, when some of her husband’s guests refuse to get off her sink, that sink collapses, and Lawrence’s character loses her cool for the first time. Her house, the only space that is hers, has been broken, taken away from her and changed by forces she can’t stop. These outside forces feel entitled to their space in her home, entitled to be intimately involved in her life.
In Red Sparrow, the metaphor disappears. Lawrence plays Dominika, a ballerina turned spy who is forced to use her body for the Russian government. She seduces men to earn their trust so they will eventually compromise themselves. Lawrence, who has openly stated that she took this project to reclaim her own body after nude photos of her were leaked in 2014, plays a character whose body is completely outside her own control.
As Dominika, Lawrence is intentionally impossible to read. She’s hidden behind layers of deception and a face that betrays nothing. Whatever feelings or thoughts she may have, she’s buried them. Her motives are unintelligible, both to the audience and to the film’s other characters. Although Dominika is not an international celebrity, she’s hidden herself away, ensuring that those who want to use her don’t have access to every part of who she is.
Dominika hides the way many celebrities must. Being famous means there’s a world of people who want access to every detail of your life, from who you’re dating to what you’re thinking. There’s an inherent desire to know these people, to make them a part of our lives in a way that they simply aren’t. Lawrence knows better than most what it means to be constantly intruded on, and to have her intruders suggest that they deserve their place inside of her life. Her work seems to reflect her desire to keep some parts of herself buried. It may be the only way that she, or any other megastar, can survive.