September 27, 2023

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Why Netflix’s Don’t Look Up is her first movie in years.

Between getting top billing for Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy Don’t Look Up and the recent news that she’s set to star as Silicon Valley scammer Elizabeth Holmes in McKay’s next film, Bad Blood, it’s safe to say that Jennifer Lawrence is back. The Oscar-winning actress is coming off of a two-year hiatus from the limelight—a hiatus that was very much intentional, according to the actress herself.

“I just think everybody had gotten sick of me,” she said in a Vanity Fair profile last month. “I’d gotten sick of me. … I felt like I reached a point where people were not pleased just by my existence. So that kind of shook me out of thinking that work or your career can bring any kind of peace to your soul.”

Lawrence is referring to the dramatically shifting public opinion of her quirky girl persona over the past few years, compounded by a string of flops that helped encourage her to take a break. Conversation surrounding a gradual turn on Lawrence dates as far back as 2014, when the murmurs of boredom with her “it girl” status began; by 2018, there were numerous think pieces about Lawrence’s fallen star. Headlines like “15 Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence Is Officially Over,” and “Jennifer Lawrence Is a Prisoner of Her Cool Girl Image,” were commonplace. The souring on her figure as someone once praised as authentically funny and refreshingly blunt came as surprisingly as some of her quips, and just as quickly. Yet tracking that downfall—and watching her make a comeback—suggests as much about her critics as it does about the actress herself.

Lawrence’s rise to fame began a decade ago. In 2011, at age 20, she landed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the quiet, stirring Winter’s Bone—a bold introduction to an industry that would quickly embrace her several more times within a three-year span. She starred in the Hunger Games quadrilogy, an instant-hit based on the hugely popular YA novels; she co-starred in the X-Men reboots alongside established names like Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy; in 2013, she won Best Actress for her work in Silver Linings Playbook. Another Oscar nomination followed immediately, thanks to American Hustle, and two years later, she was nominated for (the much less critically successful) Joy. What made Lawrence stand out wasn’t just her acting chops, though. It was that she was far from your run-of-the-mill celebrity—Lawrence was a relatable, quirky, cool girl in a sea of highly poised, unapproachable celebrities. As her box office receipts and cachet rose, Lawrence also built out her public persona. Her regular late-night show recollections about drunken celebrity interactions and repeated professions of her love for pizza eventually became just as synonymous with her career as her increasingly impressive résumé—arguably even more so, and with a greater speed. (Any survivor of early 2010’s Tumblr, for instance, remembers well the chokehold that Jennifer Lawrence GIFs had on the platform.) In a society that regularly body shames people and presents a homogenous image of beauty standards, J. Law—while traditionally blond and beautiful—openly talked about topics in Hollywood that were seen as “taboo” but that, in the real world, are anything but. She loves pizza, just like us, and it was especially refreshing to hear that in the 2010s, when there was a more serious, uptight attitude associated with being a “movie star.” Lawrence knew she was making this turn, and in a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, she said, “I’m so aware of all the b.s. that surrounds Hollywood, and how everyone gets on this high horse and thinks that they’re curing cancer and it makes me so uncomfortable every time I see it. So, I go in the exact opposite direction and end up saying something like ‘I’m pregnant!’ when I’m in two franchises.”

Where the greater public truly became infatuated with Lawrence was in the same setting that would also launch its turn against her: the award show red carpet. At the 2013 Oscars, during a red carpet interview, Ryan Seacrest asked Lawrence what her day preparing for the event was like, to which she responded, “Today was stressful and I had no time to eat. I am starving. Is there food here?” Viewers and media outlets alike praised her for her red carpet demeanor, calling her “so down to earth” and “more endearing than ever.” Later that night, she won the Oscar for Best Actress, and as she went to claim her golden statue and give her speech, she fell walking up the stage stairs. While some viewers cringed, many online commentators felt like the fall was a rare reminder of Hollywood’s humanity—stars, they’re just like us! While anyone would be mortified faceplanting at the Oscars in front of an audience of Hollywood royalty and the entire world—let alone a 22-year-old relatively new to the industry­­—Lawrence took it in stride: Post-win, she flipped off the cameras in good-natured fun and admitted with a laugh to reporters, “Sorry, I did a shot before.” What could have been an extremely embarrassing moment worked in Lawrence’s favor, because she had the grace to lean into the humor of it. As such, the moment became instantly iconic and meme’d to eternity, and it helped solidify Lawrence’s portrayal in the media: Vanity Fair called the trip “adorable,” the Atlantic announced it “won hearts,” and Marie Claire proclaimed it only made them love the actress more.

While Lawrence was already a star prior to the 2013 Oscars thanks to her work in The Hunger Games, her win launched her into a different level of fame, where suddenly, everyone wanted to hear what she had to say or be her best friend. She constantly made headlines for her willingness to get “ultra-candid,” whether it was for her joke on The Late Show With David Letterman about how she couldn’t stop shitting her pants or her sharing that the best part about filming in the water for Catching Fire was getting to pee anytime she wanted. She photobombed Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2013 Met Gala, which Us Weekly deemed “hilarious,” and then Taylor Swift at the 2014 Golden Globes. Whether she was fangirling over Jack Nicholson at the Oscars or gushing to Kim Kardashian about her love for the reality show star on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Lawrence embodied a charming dorkiness that came off as a genuine excitement about just getting to be there, wherever “there” was.

All of these moments might come off as a bit much in retrospect, and you don’t become the face of a blockbuster franchise at 20 and the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at 25 without being subjected to some pretty heavy media scrutiny. The very media outlets that help create a star jump at the first chance to tear them down. While the 2013 Oscars tripping moment was widely treasured, when Lawrence fell again at the Oscars just a year later—this time on a cone placed on the red carpet—it seemed much more contrived, prompting public skepticism of just how much of this “quirky girl” persona was real and how much was a marketing ploy. Even other actors were starting to voice their frustrations with her. In the days following, for example, Jared Leto said to Access Hollywood about the fall, “You know, I’m starting to wonder if it is a bit of an act.” (This brings a bigger question for another time­­, however—should we really be listening to anything Leto has to say anyway?)

Meanwhile, the media seized on Lawrence’s “I’m so weird, I love to eat junk food” shtick for their own gain: Inspired by the volume at which social media users reblogged and retweeted the actress’s comedic one-liners, interviewers regularly tried to recreate Lawrence’s off-the-cuff moments with other young starlets with very different sensibilities. One of the more cringe-inducing examples involved Divergent actress Shailene Woodley at the 2014 MTV Awards: The interviewer, Jamie Lee, asked Woodley if she was hungry, to which she responded, “Not at all.” Lee further pushed: “Really? I’m so hungry!” To which Woodley quipped, “Well, you should probably eat,” before walking away. This became a meme, but not for the reasons Jamie Lee likely wanted.

There’s also the matter of other comments that Lawrence made during the height of her popularity aging much more poorly than those about loving reality TV and chips. In 2014, a Vulture reporter wrote that she overheard Lawrence at the Cannes Film Festival exclaim, “I broke out my rape scream for you!” after shrieking in excitement upon seeing filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (which caused a brief internet uproar but was never publicly addressed by Lawrence.) In 2015, she took a jab at Lindsay Lohan’s substance abuse issues on The Late Night Show With Stephen Colbert; Lawrence joked, “I get, like, Lindsay Lohan–grade exhaustion, but without any drugs or alcohol”—an especially rough comment coming from another young actress living in the spotlight. And then there was the time when, in 2016, she went on the The Graham Norton Show and told an almost immediately scrutinized anecdote about filming 2013’s Catching Fire in Hawaii: “There were sacred rocks,” she said. “I don’t know. They were ancestors. Who knows? But you’re not supposed to sit on them because you’re not supposed to expose your genitalia to them. I, however, was in a wetsuit for this whole shoot, and oh my God, they were so good for butt-itching.”

Lawrence’s box office potential began to shrink just as her public persona began to grate. After her high-profile, back-to-back Oscar nominations (for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) and big win, it seemed like anything she starred in was bound to be a hit. But after a string of commercial failures—2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Mother!, 2018’s Red Sparrow, and 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix—her hot streak didn’t look so hot. Even 2015’s Joy, which won her a third Oscar nomination, failed to move the needle in any other way, turning a meager profit before fading from memory as quickly as it arrived. “It sure seems like Lawrence is on her way to becoming the trendy new Celeb We Love to Hate, before she’s allowed to ‘earn’ our love back like a phoenix rising out of the hot take machine,” Rick Mele wrote in a 2018 Title Magazine piece pointedly titled, “When Did Everyone Turn on Jennifer Lawrence?

Dark Phoenix was Lawrence’s last starring role until Don’t Look Up, two-and-a-half years later; her work had started drying up even before then, as did her public appearances. The reception of her persona and her films were inextricably linked, Lawrence said. “I was not pumping out the quality that I should have,” she said in her November Vanity Fair profile, looking back on that period when her career began to stall. “The attention on me was so high and extreme that, in a bizarre way, the set had become a great escape. …  Eventually I had to ask myself, Am I saying yes because I want to go to work the next day? Or am I doing this because I want to make this movie?

“It had just gotten to a point where I couldn’t do anything right,” she continued. “If I walked a red carpet, it was, ‘Why didn’t she run?’ ” But for a young, popular talent like Lawrence to self-reflect and step away and take time to work on herself in private is a big decision, one that’s more complicated than just reacting to everyone finding her annoying. While she was arguably overexposed after infinite press tours, numerous releases each year, and all those Tumblr GIF sets of her cackling mug, much of what inspired Lawrence to take a break can be traced to the media’s treatment of her. Hollywood critics and social media observers are undoubtedly hypercritical of women and other marginalized people in the spotlight, often unduly and with little reason beyond the fact of their identities. What Lawrence often experienced was a classic double-edged sword of trying to meet the media’s expectations, only to be judged for doing so.

Eight years after Lawrence won her Oscar, it doesn’t surprise us when People publishes a headline reading, “Jennifer Lawrence Inhaled Her Faux Nose Ring ‘Many Times’ While Shooting Don’t Look Up.” (She spit it out in front of Leonardo DiCaprio while on set, for good measure.) This is a classic Lawrence-ian silly anecdote, after all. Now, though, after Lawrence steps back into the Hollywood scene, the tides of public opinion on Lawrence might be shifting yet again. Now that the media isn’t able to constantly obsess over her every word or move—by her own design—Lawrence is better able to promote her meaningful, laudable efforts. She speaks out on gender pay inequality and workplace harassment, which we praise her for, and we also can now comfortably champion her undoubtedly inspiring success as a young female actress in an unforgiving industry. As Don’t Look Up nears its Netflix release on Friday, some voices are even speaking out against the media’s prior portrait of Lawrence as annoying or cringy.

The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, for instance, tweeted earlier this month that “[t]he way the public piled onto someone so young was so over the top, and once again, a confident woman has had her spirit deflated by society.” Jamil continued, “She was overexposed by the same media who then used that overexposure to try to destroy her.” But Lawrence’s return suggests that she hasn’t been destroyed, not completely; even if her latest late-night interviews are far more muted than they have been in the past, they reflect a more mature (and very pregnant!) actress, not an unconfident one. With more roles on the horizon and a sense of vulnerability reshaping her public image, we might just be watching Lawrence’s phoenix rise out of the ashes.