Is Jennifer Lawrence Katniss-ing Us?

Photo: Getty and Lionsgate

It would be easy to call this the year of Jennifer Lawrence if last year hadn’t already earned that distinction. Perhaps it’s just easier to say we’re in the age of Jennifer Lawrence — a multi-year period in which the young actress holds the entertainment journalism industrial complex in the palm of her hand. Loving Jennifer Lawrence is a four-quadrant thing right now, but what’s striking is how much of this month’s smash hit The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is devoted to warning viewers about trusting anything the media serves up as “genuine.” When Lionsgate won the bidding war for rights to “the next Twilight” back in 2009, they had no idea how much the plot of Catching Fire would be a case of art reflecting life.

Lawrence is currently experiencing an America’s Sweetheart status that seems to predate these cynical, media-savvy times. (Though Julia Roberts, a former holder of the title who is knowledgeable of what expectations it holds, took pains last week to distance Lawrence from the “America’s Sweetheart” curse, saying simply that the young actress was “too cool” for it.) With every stop on the Catching Fire press tour, she has wormed her way even deeper into the nation’s collective heart. Did you see her fumbling with and subsequently spilling breath mints in Madrid, resulting in a double-take that would make Buster Keaton envious? Or zetzing Jon Stewart because he hadn’t done any research for their interview? Surely you heard her discuss soiling herself with David Letterman? There’s a straightforwardness about her that seems lacking in almost every other star of her generation, or those adjacent. Can she really be this good? Are we witnessing genuine J.Law or is it just an act? And if so, does it even matter?

The onslaught of GIFs and listicles celebrating how much Lawrence is crushing the junket trail certainly springs from a real place on the part of fans, but the pervasiveness with which everyone has agreed to ask “isn’t she great?” is striking. She may indeed be a free spirit and an independent thinker, but her swift climb to the A-list is based on something very specific: She’s an extremely talented actor, not just a pretty face. And all actors are trained fakers when you get down to it. A modern megastar doesn’t stop working after a director calls cut, and it can become dicey when your personal brand is authenticity. However, if you can convince people that your on-the-carpet persona is, in fact, the real you — and if that “you” is anointed by a thousand eager Tumblr users ready to generate memes from each of your off-the-cuff remarks — that is real cultural capital that needs to be protected, and likely orchestrated.

Cynicism worthy of the best Jennifer Lawrence eye roll? Maybe so. Still, it’s interesting how perfectly the role of Katniss, and the way she slays the mighty infotainment beast, seems to fit Lawrence.

“You never get off this train,” warns Woody Harrelson’s veteran Hunger Games tribute Haymitch to Lawrence’s Katniss in Catching Fire. Even though he says this line as they are literally traveling on a train, he’s talking about something else. Katniss is waking up to the fact that becoming a public hero does not win her anything like a quiet, normal existence. Once her name was called (well, technically, her sister’s) her fate was sealed, and though she didn’t die in the arena, she is still condemned to a lifetime lived in the public eye — exemplified early on in the movie by the long-limbed arachnoid cameras that shoot Katniss “falling” into the arms of Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, as well as the phoney prompts from Stanley Tucci’s preposterous emcee Caesar Flickerman, cinema’s most nihilistic barker since Gig Young’s “yowza yowza yowza!”shouting character in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Katniss’s innate survival skills and natural intelligence equip her with the stuff needed to navigate a grueling press junket. As a victor of the Hunger Games, Katniss has seen things and knows the face of desperate horror. If staying safe (and keeping her family secure) means putting on a show, she’ll give the people what they want. TV-ready graphics of Katniss and Peeta’s gleaming, healthy, upward profiles would fit nicely alongside images from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, and their manufactured love story narrative is reminiscent of Hollywood studio bosses forcing marriages on closeted stars.

Katniss is nimble enough to twist the indignity of Flickerman’s spotlight to her advantage and gain wealthy sympathizers. It’s those sponsors who kept her alive in the first film. Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence clearly hates the junket life because she’s smart, but she works it to her advantage because she isn’t stupid.

Take, for example, this interview from the usually on point Steve “Frosty” Weintraub of collider.com. He gives Lawrence and Hutcherson the cold oatmeal question “why is this franchise so popular?” and you can see Lawrence using all her powers to refrain from rolling her eyes. (She also dumps the question in Hutcherson’s lap — it’s pretty funny, you should watch her do it.) A true media rebel would have said, “Aw, hell no, come up with a real question, you’re better than that!” But she didn’t. Because you never get off this train.

In effect, Lawrence is giving the people what they want — by reminding us that what we want is bogus. And all it takes to do that is to be someone who colors just a tiny bit out of the lines. Her talking points are “no talking points.” She’ll interrupt a ludicrous red-carpet double-team from both MTV and VH-1 by talking about how much she wants to eat French fries. She’ll answer a question about “the process” by which she gets dressed by shrugging and saying she got dressed. Ultimately, she soldiers on, despite the knowledge that a backlash is waiting somewhere off in the distance, just out of sight: “I feel like I’m becoming way too much,” she said recently. “Everybody is very fickle. They like me now, but I’m going to get really annoying really fast. Just watch.”

Katniss and J.Law are a wonderful alignment of artist and repertoire. When she learns that she’ll once again be called back into the arena for the Quarter Quell, it looks as if Katniss is going to hightail it and run. Ultimately, despite her anger and frustration, she’s back in the training facility with her bow and arrow. Lawrence gives off the vibe of a woman annoyed by the endless repetition of a press tour, but she exploits it to perpetuate her status as a movie star that is nonetheless “real.” Will continued scrutiny ever show that this lack of act is, indeed, just an act? Is Lawrence Katniss-ing us? And if so, how much longer until people get tired of the show? There are two more Hunger Games movies to go.

Is Jennifer Lawrence Katniss-ing Us?