How Good is Jennifer Lawrence?

By John H. Foote

She has what the late, great film critic Pauline Kael once called “bite you on the nose talent”, which she used when describing seeing Sean Penn for the first time in a major role. For me, it was more like seeing Meryl Streep for the first time in The Deer Hunter (1978) and then again in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) where you just knew you were seeing someone who was going to alter the course of the art form with her genius. There have been others to come along who we hoped, thought, might have that sort of talent, Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank, even further back Winona Ryder, but none of them proved to have the consistency or staying power of Streep.

Jennifer Lawrence has something very different, and though of course we have no idea of her staying power, there can be no question of her gifts as an actor. She slips effortlessly into character, finds the truth of her character with even greater ease, and conveys that beautifully to the audience. A natural is what they would call her in the old days, while today we just say she is special.

Lawrence gives me hope for the actresses of tomorrow, she gives me hope for the future of acting. She possesses the raw talent of someone like Streep, along with that razor sharp intellect that Ms. Streep possesses, but also the daring of a young Jane Fonda, and intensity of Jessica Lange. There is a confidence to her acting that is interesting to watch, and when she is rolling in character, she is breathtaking to behold because there is not a false note in her work, she inhabits the character with such ease, with such beauty, and with such respect for her craft.

Watching her a few years ago in Winter’s Bone (2010) she seemed to have sprung from the very hills in which they were shooting the film, giving the film a documentary like edge with her gritty and very real performance There was something in her eyes, a betrayal if you will, a girl who knew she deserved better, should have had better, but knew she had been cheated along the way, robbed of her childhood. There was a knowing to those eyes, a burning need to survive, to do right for her family, to move close to the depths of hell to get the answers she needs to allow her to keep her home. She believes the children she cares for deserve better than she had, and works hard to make that happen, though she is a child herself. The performance was incredibly confident with being pretentious, and accurate in a way few such performances are. Behind those eyes, there was a sadness that told us she knew there was a better world out there, but this one, this world of poverty and drugs was the one in which she existed, and she saw no way out.

Nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, suddenly the film world knew who Jennifer Lawrence was.

Her performance as Katniss in The Hunger Games (2012) was radically different than what she had done in Winter’s Bone (2010), just as her small part in The Beaver (2011) was different from anything else she had done. Her strength at this point seems to be that she is different with each role, never the same. As Katniss there was a strength there that stood alongside the genuine fear she felt at having to play the vicious game she was playing.

Watch her eyes in the moments before the game actually begins, the knowing, they tell you everything you need to know about her, just as her words to her friend, “trust me” tell us she knows much more than the government believes she does at the films end. She radiates an intellect beyond her years in the film, yet also gives a great physical performance, not an easy task. Now the face of a franchise, and the role model for millions of little girls (I live with one) she is the sort of young woman I am fine with my daughter looking up too. Brave, confident, honest and trustworthy, Jennifer Lawrence brought all of those qualities to her work in the film, and made it clear with her performance and her character the importance of family. When her younger and terrified little sister is first chosen to be in the hunger games, without hesitation Katniss steps in and volunteers to take her place, knowing her sister has no chance, and that she at least stands a chance given her hunting skills. She moves through the forests like Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) with absolute confidence, aware of her surroundings and respectful of them.

And now Silver Linings Playbook, for which she could very well win the Academy Award for Best Actress.

When I saw the film for the first time at TIFF last September, I was stunned once again with Jennifer Lawrence, who dominates the film as Tiffany. She’s damaged, and we know it at once, which is why we forgive her habit of jumping into bed with any man who asks her out after the death of her young husband. When she encounters Pat (Bradley Cooper) for the first time, there is an immediate connection, and they dislike one another, though each concedes they understand the damage each is suffering through. Tiffany is stronger than Pat, and works to bring him along, works to help him see his life is not over but merely beginning. Once again she gives a fierce and realistic performance of a young woman in great emotional pain, struggling trying to get out of it, to move on. She knows what people say about her, think about her, but she no longer cares. She convinces Pat to take part in a dance competition with her and something very special begins to happen with each of them, they begin to heal. Again, Jennifer Lawrence is incredibly confident in the film, even in her scenes with the Robert de Niro and Jackie Weaver, two formidable actors. With Cooper, sparks strike, not at first, but slowly, over e fair amount of time.

On Oscar night she will very likely win her first Oscar, and I suspect over the course of her career, she will win a few more. She is simply, and not simply at all, a massive talent who has no idea how great she is.

In the next few years, I suspect we will find out.

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John Foote

John Foote