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Countdown to Oscars

Monday, October 11, 2010
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WHERE DOES JENNIFER LAWRENCE FIT IN THE CROWDED BEST ACTRESS RACE?

Jennifer Lawrence, the 20-year-old actress who gives a standout performance in Debra Granik’s 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Drama) winner “Winter’s Bone” (Roadside Attractions, 6/11, trailer), was one of the first names to register on pundits’ awards radars this year. As the months have ticked by, though, and with the emergence of nearly two dozen viable contenders in the best actress field, Lawrence — who, prior to “Winter’s Bone,” was best known for her work in Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain” (2008), for which she received the Venice Film Festival’s Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actress — has largely faded from the awards discussion.

I think that this may prove to be a grievous mistake on the part of prognosticators. There’s no denying that she’s up against a host of performances by bigger name actresses in higher profile films with much later release dates and bigger awards budgets, just as there’s no way around the fact that she’s up against a very daunting statistic: only one actress her age or younger has ever been nominated in the category (Keisha Castle-Hughes for “Whale Rider” in 2003). But, that being said, there are also a number of reasons to believe that she could still manage to snag one of the category’s five coveted spots.

  1. A Recent Precedent Just two years ago, “Frozen River,” another film about an abandoned woman living in the middle of nowhere who goes to extreme lengths to help her family — which was also written and directed by a woman (Courtney Hunt) and starred a little-known actress (Melissa Leo) — also won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize (Drama) and went on to receive Oscar nods for best original screenplay and — drumroll please — best actress.
  2. Critics “Winter’s Bone” was arguably the critics’ darling of the first half of the year, as demonstrated by its 94% approval rating on RottenTomatoes. If the critics who championed it over the summer show up for it again in the fall — i.e. the NSFC and/or LAFCA and/or NYFCC and/or BFCA naming Lawrence best actress (which I think is a distinct possibility) — then the perception of her prospects will change drastically.
  3. Deglamorization In order to play the part of Ree in “Winter’s Bone,” Lawrence — whom the director initially rejected for the part because she was “too pretty” — had to make herself look plain enough to be convicing as a girl in the Ozarks burdened with the dual responsibilities of looking after her mentally-debilitated mother and younger siblings while also looking for her drug-dealing/bail-jumping father. In the film, for which her teeth were artificially yellowed, she wears virtually no makeup, sports unbrushed hair, never changes out of her unshapely, worn-down clothes and boots, and generally looks rather ragged. (Shooting a gun, chopping a tree, and skinning a dead squirrel don’t help one’s her sex-appeal, either.) Historically, when beautiful women have masked their beauty for the sake of their work — think of Hilary Swank’s cropped hair/taped-down breasts in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), Halle Berry’s makeup-less face in “Monster’s Ball” (2001), Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in “The Hours” (2002); Charlize Theron’s false teeth/plucked eyebrows/weight gain in “Monster” (2003); and many other examples — the Academy has responded.
  4. Hollywood Machinery Lawrence is already well on her way to being “The Next Big Thing.” Represented by a team of publicists who have guided numerous other up-and-coming actresses to Oscar nods and wins, she has, of late, been popping up in all the right places — May’s Esquire (a profile/sexy video/photo-shoot as part of its “Women We Love” coverage); May’s Teen Vogue (a shoutout in the “People Are Talking About” section); June’s Angeleno (a brief interview); August’s Elle (a tribute from Jodie Foster to “The New Face” as one of “The 25 Best Reasons to Keep the Faith”); September’s W (a cover photo/profile of the leader of “a generation of fearless, fiercely talented actresses who are putting the boys to shame”); October’s Esquire UK (a photospread introduced as follows: “In a few weeks you’ll know her as America’s best actress, but for the next few pages you’ll know her as that hot girl in the swimsuit”); October’s Elle (a mention as one of the magazine’s favorite “25 Women Under 25″ in its special 25th anniversary edition), and the list goes on — and she will next be seen in two high-profile films, Foster’s “The Beaver” (featring Mel Gibson’s first post-meltdown role) and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” (her first entree into mainstream cinema).

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.” Credit: Roadside Attractions.

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  • penny

    Jennifer Lawrence may not be nominated because this year is the most competitive Best Actress race in years , and the old favorites ( Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, and Hilary Swank) may prevail with nominations. This will not only hurt Lawrence, but also Lesley Manville and Sally Hawkins.

  • Eric

    I only think that people go for deglamorization because they are used to the actresses who are doing it being beautiful. We aren’t as used to Lawrence yet. People saw Monster and said “THAT’S Charlize?”.

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