We all know Jennifer Lawrence as the Girl on Fire, or Katniss Everdeen, from the recently wrapped Hunger Games series. Throughout the saga – well, until Mockingjay Part 2 – Lawrence’s acting was every bit as breathtaking as her award- and nomination-garlanded performances in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013).
Somehow Lawrence repeatedly managed to fit in show-stopping turns in Russell’s films between Hunger Games duties, so these two different strands form the backbone of her high profile career over the last half decade. Yet there was still room for more. While we await the arrival of Russell’s Joy on the 1st January, let’s take a look at some of Lawrence’s lesser-known performances.
Though Russell is well known for helping actors to awards glory (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both won Oscars for Best Supporting roles in The Fighter), Lawrence’s first nomination was for her breakout performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. More grim than glitzy, Lawrence played Ree, a 17 year-old caring for young siblings in an impoverished rural community in the middle of the US. Lawrence embodied Ree’s steely determination and tough love towards her siblings; though caring about them deeply, she’s uncompromising in expressing the necessity of teaching them the survival skills needed in this unforgiving environment where almost no one can be trusted.
Some of the dynamics explored in Winter’s Bone re-emerged in the bigger budget Hunger Games films and Susanne Bier’s Serena (2014), so it’s not hard to see why Lawrence was cast in these later roles. However, as a gritty thriller Winter’s Bone has an authenticity which beats the best Hunger Games moments by far.
Following Winter’s Bone, Lawrence turned her attention to a foray into horror (House at the End of the Street) and a pair of independent projects, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver and Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy, both of which saw her act alongside Anton Yelchin.
When considered retrospectively, Like Crazy (2011) showcases Lawrence playing almost against type as Sam, someone who’s miles from the aloof “cool girl” she at least starts off as in The Beaver, and who lacks the sass of Mystique in the X-Men prequels. Sam’s insecurities cause her to come across as somewhat of a doormat as she persistently pursues a fruitless relationship with the emotionally unavailable Jacob (Yelchin), who’s pining for his transatlantic ex Anna (Felicity Jones). Lawrence is able to provoke sympathy for a character who essentially gets in the way of the main romance, conveying so much emotion that the term “plot device” is banished from the mind. There’s a painful inevitability to the trajectory of Jacob and Sam’s relationship, played out through Lawrence’s resentful glances and suppressed acknowledgement as he refuses to let go of Anna.
Lawrence’s most consistent strengths as an actress are in conveying deep sadness and psychological distress, often predominantly implicitly and silently rather than verbally. As well as Like Crazy, her roles in The Hunger Games and Serena complement these skills. Lawrence’s career has become oddly but not perfectly split between the restrained emotion of The Hunger Games, in which Katniss spends the majority of the saga suppressing rather than expressing her feelings, and the often bombastic and passionate displays of her David O. Russell characters. The infamous ‘Live and Let Die’ performance from American Hustle epitomises the latter:
The superior writing of Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook gives us Tiffany, a better developed character who enabled Lawrence to combine her skill for expressing subdued pain with well-calibrated sudden outbursts, and Pat, the raw materials for Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s best collaboration (so far). While the romance of their follow up, Serena, shot immediately after Silver Linings Playbook though not released until 2014, includes a sentimentalised and clearly doomed love affair, Pat and Tiffany were really something to root for. Silver Linings Playbook is a sensitive look at multiple damaged people, yet thanks to the parley that drives the final act’s plot and the sassy straight-talking Lawrence, frank and merciless in her delivery of Tiffany’s many sarcastic and barbed comments, it’s also a whole lot of fun.
Much more fun than the histrionic Serena, which outdoes Russell for melodramatic ridiculousness. Despite this, Lawrence is ideally cast as the apparently serene titular character, a spiritual descendant of Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene (the potential namesake of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games protagonist). Like Far From the Madding Crowd, Serena includes a view of gender dynamics that’s ahead of its depression-era setting, yet it’s Lawrence’s ability to suggest the time bomb of a tempest within Serena that provides the most interesting element of the story, and makes the film worth sticking out.
Here’s hoping that Joy will be closer to the powerful and emotionally honest storytelling of Silver Linings Playbook than the gimmicky though infectious fun of American Hustle, and that it’ll provide Lawrence more opportunity than the over-subdued direction of Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 afforded her.