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.