On Sunday night, newly minted megastar Jennifer Lawrence welcomed a brand-new inductee into the most-adored-actress-ever club: Mila Kunis, who unexpectedly veered off script in an interview with Chris Stark, a shy first-time interviewer from BBC radio. Instead of delivering rote answers to rote softballs with the obligatory strained smile of the Hollywood automaton, Kunis encouraged Stark to ditch the usual questions and discuss her favorite beer (Blue Moon), his favorite pub drink (the Lad Bomb, a shot of Jager in a double-vodka Red Bull), and their ideal afternoon together (hitting the pub after a soccer match, of course). Kunis’s swagger, her playful tone, and her comic timing (insulting Stark’s favorite drink, then ripping through her Oz-related sound bites so they could get back to more witty banter) caused the interview to immediately go viral. Celebrity journalists, bloggers, and Twitterati alike took a break from unpacking their most glowing adjectives over Lawrence to herald Kunis as the brand-new YouTube-christened darling. A writer from the Huffington Post called the actress “genuine and relatable.” Someone from the Mirror proclaimed the interview “amazing” and Kunis “adorable.” This website (admittedly hyperbolically) described the interview as “career defining.”
Kunis has been in the business for nearly twenty years, slowly building up her cool-chick credentials by working with such anti-pretension types as Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, Ted), the Judd Apatow cabal (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Tina Fey (Date Night), as well as embodying the raunchy, fun yin to Natalie Portman’s delicate yang in Black Swan. But this BBC clip truly cemented her as someone who “gets it,” and she suddenly found herself embraced and adored by hordes of new fans. Such enthusiasm and buzz, just for offering up evidence of her own humanity — a seemingly mundane act that’s nonetheless shockingly rare at your typical press junket. Perhaps taking a cue from Lawrence’s effortless, self-deprecating charm on Oscar night, Kunis now joins the vaunted sorority of beautiful actresses who double as the world’s most desired best friend. Mixing one part Mary from There’s Something About Mary with two parts flawless sparkle-princess, this updated formula for America’s sweetheart presents the persona of a devil-may-care broad who, when not flouncing about in Valentino, watches SportsCenter and savors meats-on-sticks, just like Cameron Diaz’s title character. Diaz herself, of course, was brilliant at trotting out her one-of-the-guys street cred — the tomboy talk, the Yankees games, the blue jeans — at least until we started to suspect that she actually prefers Fashion Week to Shark Week. But two previous Jennifers (Garner and Aniston) were once pretty convincing at this game, whether bragging about TV and takeout on the couch with Brad, or making self-effacing jokes at the Golden Globes (“I know I was good in Dude, Where’s My Car? but seriously!” Garner famously quipped to J.J. Abrams, marveling over why he ever picked her for Alias).
Kunis’s behavior — like Lawrence’s, Garner’s (before Affleck), and Aniston’s (before her 172nd Oprah appearance) — is far too confident and natural to be an act. Rest assured, though, it’s about to become one. Because the Best Friends Club has clearly stumbled on the antidote to the self-conscious “I’m a big big star!” behavior of Anne Hathaway and her predecessors, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Katherine Heigl. Indeed, every time Lawrence opened her mouth on Oscar night to spew another lively, just-us-kids punch line, she seemed to cast an increasingly unflattering light on Hathaway’s stilted Aristocats routine, with its prim, Madonna-like pronunciations and outdated ingenue smugness. If Hathaway came off like a wax figure living in some dusty museum of adulation and actress-y pretensions, then Lawrence was the adorable fun-time girl to end all fun-time girls, kicking up her heels and singing in the rain outside (miraculously, without getting any mud on her Dior gown).
Apparently by pushing the envelope on this carefree tomboy schtick, Kunis and Lawrence have unlocked some secret chamber of veneration. Which is unexpected, since actresses have felt restricted to such a small window of acceptable behavior up until now. While actors can display a wide range of behaviors and say anything they want (short of spewing hate speech) without eliciting much scorn, actresses are lambasted for the slightest slipup. Too skinny or too fat? Too fussy or too messy? Too unpolished or too stiff? Women in general can’t do much in this world without garnering a flood of criticism, often from other women. Deliver a few narcissistic pronouncements, be haughty to a foreign journalist in a weak moment, get a little too caught up in the dream you dreamed in time gone by, and yesterday’s innocent princess is today’s evil queen.
Even so, there’s something very specific, and very dramatic, about this everygirl/diva study in contrasts — as embodied by Oscar night’s Lawrence/Hathaway carnival ride of attraction/revulsion. The vocal negative reaction to Hathaway and her ilk feels like more than the sadly predictable backlash against intelligence or a reflection of our cultural disgust with girls; it suggests a sea change in the way we encounter celebrity. We may have reached the outer limits of our patience with the kind of self-involvement that rises from a life in the spotlight. There are just too many ways to be famous, or at least to draw an audience — from blogging to posting clips on YouTube to tweeting something pithy during the Super Bowl — for most of us to want to see a star treating the world’s attention as something that they’d been destined to bask in since birth. By sharing their Instagram feeds or favoriting our tweets, famous actresses seem accessible, a part of our sphere; so to have one step back and act like they are untouchable, or in some way part of a rarefied world, is an insult that is not to be tolerated. Mila Kunis and Jennifer Lawrence haven’t simply scored a “win” by behaving like normal, everyday people, eliciting comments like “She is the greatest!” and “I want to eat burgers with her!” They’re doing what we expect every star to do, in this post-celebrity age. We expect stars to keep their egos in check.
What’s a little strange about this shift, though, is that it doesn’t seem to apply to actresses like Lena Dunham, whose aw-shucks remarks are consistently ripped to pieces by commenters who don’t seem to believe that Dunham deserves the press she’s getting, despite the fact that, unlike most actresses, she actually writes her own material and as such probably has plenty of interesting opinions beyond her love of a particular brand of beer. Alas, when Dunham professes her enthusiasm for short shorts and warns the public that she’ll be showing off her legs “until I’m 100,” the comments sections soon turn nasty. “I was sick of her and her empty vibe from the start,” one wrote on this website. “She looks like a sausage trying to escape from its casing,” said another. By parading her perfectly nice, girl-next-door face and regular-mortal body on the small screen, Dunham has waged an admirable fight against the reigning mindset that women on television should always be gifted with supermodel good looks. And Dunham rarely comes off as anything but earnest and funny and self-deprecating, the same party tricks demonstrated by Kunis and Lawrence. So why all the hate? Apparently it’s not enough for a woman to be smart and likable and humble. Audiences presumably don’t crave Dunham as their best friend because they already have a best friend just like Dunham. They want an upgrade. The key is to act just like average humans, but not to look remotely like them.
Life in the spotlight is almost treated as a sort of a crime these days, particularly for women. As a celebrity, you have to bend over backward to convince us that you’re worthy of that place on the pedestal. In the old days, you could say something bizarre or pick out something wild or ugly to wear to the Oscars without consulting a team of service professionals led by Rachel Zoe. It took a major publicity snafu to sway public opinion: an aggressively off-putting Vanity Fair cover story, an untimely skirmish with the paparazzi, an unfortunate jig on Oprah’s butter-yellow couch. These days, not only are there more artifacts and pieces of evidence than could ever be examined by a jury of one’s peers, but the latest offending or uplifting opinion piece or tweet or YouTube snippet travels across the globe at the speed of light. If any single aspect of your personality or public image — your attitude, your fashion sense, your taste in men, your sense of humor — fails to impress, watch out. You must be gorgeous but humble, smart but self-mocking, talented but awestruck by others with talent, young but wise beyond your years, perfect but anxious to admit your flaws to the world. And you’d better do it every second of every day. Because thanks, in part, to the bizarre speed with which we collectively process and metabolize these little moments, mildly enjoyable human interactions are quickly blown up into triumphant victory marches, and vaguely irritating tics are translated as deeply offensive crimes against humanity within seconds. We are all so suggestible, so malleable, so moody when we run as a pack — in the media, in the Twitterverse, at home on our couches — gasping and pointing and jeering all the way, that every molehill can’t help but look mountainous. One bad outfit, one slip of the tongue, and you’re in trouble.
Eventually, of course, commenters and tweeps and the celebrity press will lament that Lawrence and Kunis have gotten too big for their britches, or that Dunham has “gone mainstream” by toning up, and Hathaway will be painted as some kind of downtrodden underdog, causing the masses to rise up in her defense and forget her trespasses against them. Fame giveth, and fame taketh away — now faster than ever. We demand beauty and smarts and talent with not even a trace of pride or vanity. We demand the impossible.
Good luck out there, ladies. You’re going to need it.