As we revealed on Monday, Jennifer Lawrence topped Vulture’s Most Valuable Stars List this year, and although we only started compiling these lists in 2012, the fact that a woman has topped it for the first time this year seems like cause for rejoicing. How often has an actress been perceived as the biggest star in Hollywood? Not that often. Look to a more established metric: The Quigley Publishing Co. has been publishing its Motion Picture Exhibitors’ Poll of the Top 10 Box-Office Draws since the early 1930s. Since 1967, a woman has topped it only three times — Lawrence in its most recent poll, Sandra Bullock in 2009, and Julia Roberts in 1999. That’s a lot of dudes.
Of course, once upon a time, actresses were typically bigger ticket-sellers than men: In the 1930s, Shirley Temple regularly topped the Quigley poll, while Julie Andrews and Doris Day pretty much split the 1960s between themselves. But that was a different Hollywood, one driven for decades by female moviegoers. Today’s movie industry is slowly (sloowly) starting to rediscover the power of the female viewer, and several stars still in their prime could be positioned to take advantage of it, from relative newcomers like Shailene Woodley, Emma Stone, Melissa McCarthy, and a Star Wars–bound Lupita Nyong’o, to relative veterans like Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Zoe Saldana, and Anne Hathaway (not to mention Bullock and Lawrence themselves).
Not all of those actress will be No. 1 someday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them made it to the top spot in the coming years. But for now, Lawrence rules the land, and she has earned it, through sheer talent and some smart choices. The film industry today is increasingly divided into two kinds of movies: blockbusters and awards bait (or, as filmmakers like to call them, “passion projects”). At the age of 24, Lawrence has mastered both. She already has three Oscar nominations and one win under her belt. She’s also the lead of one of the world’s biggest action franchises (The Hunger Games) and a major player in another (X-Men). Meanwhile, her more serious movies make money, too: Last year’s American Hustle was a huge hit, as was Silver Linings Playbook the year before it.
As an actress, Lawrence’s versatility is astounding. Remember that her first Oscar nomination came for the gritty, Ozarks-set indie drama Winter’s Bone, in which she brought to the part of a troubled rural Missouri teen a desperate, survivalist drive as well as a real sense of fear and danger. I still remember the electricity around that performance at the film’s Sundance premiere. She virtually carried the entire movie on her back; you sensed that this was not only an actress of incredible skill, but great intuition. When I interviewed Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik a few weeks ago, she recalled how Lawrence was deeply intimidated by the far more Method style of co-star John Hawkes, and that the actress chose to use that to feed her own performance. She was just 18 years old at the time of filming.
Such instincts have served Lawrence well in the public arena, too. Today’s idea of celebrity is about more than just box office and paychecks. It’s a cluster of earning power, industry respect, tabloid scrutiny, social media buzz — all of which Vulture’s list takes into account — and a host of other intangibles wrapped up in an uneasy whole. Oh, and a person. Let’s not forget that there’s a living, breathing human being somewhere amid all those variables, someone who regularly puts herself in front of a camera to entertain us, and then has to live under the glare of our assumed, imagined familiarity.
Indeed, the relationship the modern superstar has with the public is a strange, often dysfunctional one. She has to navigate a world that desperately wants to adore her, even as it looks for the most minor flaws with which to bring her down, to cut her down to size. (Male stars also experience a variation on this but not nearly to the degree that women do.) But Lawrence has made her awkwardness her secret weapon. “I can go about life free as an idiot, because I have no idea what I’m doing,” she once told the New York Times. “[A] celebrity who sounded more like a human being than a well-coached witness” was how Vanity Fair described a Tonight Show appearance. In fact, the more the world scrutinizes her, the more Jennifer Lawrence seems just to be herself. That was particularly true during the recent ghastly phone-hacking scandal, when, instead of issuing a typical, publicist-approved statement, Lawrence went off — not just on the people that had done this to her, but even those, including her fans and friends, who had looked at the stolen and leaked photos. Suddenly, she had turned the spotlight around on the rest of the world.
Lawrence may claim that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, but I suspect she knows more than she’s letting on. The biggest female stars are often able to project a very natural image of themselves. Read interviews with Julia Roberts during the early 1990s, when she was juggling box-office success, critical acclaim, an aborted wedding to Kiefer Sutherland, and an unlikely marriage to Lyle Lovett, and you’ll find a similar, though somewhat more wholesome, forthrightness. Or look back several decades: Barbra Streisand was probably the biggest female star of the 1970s (she was often the only female in the aforementioned Quigley poll), and she was certainly no shrinking violet, having also made Nixon’s enemies list. Obviously, there’s a world of difference between being outspoken about one’s political beliefs and giving off-the-cuff interviews, but they do share a certain quality of veil-lifting — a sense that here is the real person, warts and provocative opinions and all. (If female stars seem less political today than they were in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s heyday of Streisand and Jane Fonda, well, that’s probably because the whole culture does.)
It’s also true that everybody handles stardom differently, and not everyone can always afford to be so open with the rest of the world. When Sandra Bullock’s marriage to Jesse James broke up a week after her Oscar win, she withdrew from public life for a while, and for very good reasons: She had a custody battle to deal with, and she had been living in the limelight for more than a decade and a half. Jodie Foster spent many years fighting to preserve her privacy after becoming the target of multiple violent lunatics at a young age; she handled her resurgent profile in the 1990s and 2000s with impressive composure, managing to shut the prying eyes of the world even as she expertly played the game. (And not everyone was happy about that: Some were disappointed that Foster didn’t come out publicly about her sexuality during this period, when she could have lent greater visibility to gay rights.)
Still, whether it’s Sandra or Julia or even Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman in the early- to mid-2000s, it is rare for an actress to juggle both stratospheric box-office appeal and critical acclaim as effortlessly as Jennifer Lawrence has. Usually, it’s one or the other, and more often than not, one is achieved at the expense of the other. But Lawrence appears to be in a position right now where she could literally do anything. So, what will she do? Right now, her upcoming films look awfully familiar: More Hunger Games and X-Men movies, as well as another project with her Silver Linings and Hustle director David O. Russell (Joy, about the inventor of the Miracle Mop). There’s also Burial Rites, to be directed by Gary Ross (who helmed the first Hunger Games film). But she’s also taking more charge of her career: She is slated to produce and star in her dream project, an adaptation of Jeanette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle, and she’s also gone on record about wanting to direct her own films.
But it’s also true that The Hunger Games series will end after the next two films. X-Men may last longer, but Lawrence won’t want to play Mystique forever. And, as much as I personally hate to admit it, sooner or later, David O. Russell will probably make a bad movie. Even so, something tells me Lawrence will continue to do just fine. Not just because she’s an incredible actress, but also because her versatility inoculates her against genre fatigue. If superhero movies like X-Men die out, she can just keep doing great, smart comedies like American Hustle; if those die out, she can do more gritty dramas like Winter’s Bone.
In the meantime, can she continue to navigate the perils of the modern superstar, and do so in a way that seems so effortless? Let’s hope so — because the more she does it, the more she reveals the underlying bullshit of the celebrity machine, in effect, saving us from ourselves. Just about everyone has already noted that the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games is that of a young woman asked to play a similarly elaborate celebrity game, juggling the adoration and cruelty of a fickle public whose allegiance can turn on a dime, and often does. But maybe a better comparison would be not to Katniss, but to Keanu Reeves’s Neo in The Matrix. Jennifer Lawrence looks at the tabloids, the cameras, the iPhones, the red carpets, and whispers, “There is no spoon.” And suddenly, the beast shrinks back, its power revealed to be a collective illusion. Long may she reign, for all our sakes.