Jennifer Lawrence swept into Hollywood like a hurricane, a comparison referring both to the relative suddenness of her celebrity as well as the young woman’s penchant for tripping and falling into things, people, really whatever’s close by. It’s rare for actors to rocket from obscurity to household-name status with the speed that Lawrence has, even actors as personable, lovely, and preternaturally talented as she. After a few years in barely-existent roles on TV (with the exception of an extended stint as the typical sitcom teenage daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show”), Lawrence trudged through exactly two little-seen indies (“Garden Party” and “The Poker House“) before landing in a miscalculated prestige picture that nonetheless afforded her the opportunity to do some fine work. For her fourth appearance in a feature film, Lawrence stumbled into an Oscar nomination, and from there it was game, set, match.
Lawrence sometimes acts like the successful product of a genetic experiment designed to create the optimally fame-friendly celebrity. Raised in a brood of brothers, she’s an inveterate ball-buster and a reliably entertaining, self-effacing interview subject. She maintains her ebullient everywoman persona with widely-publicized humanizing gaffes — getting caught blazing it with some pals in Hawaii after her Oscar win, accidentally cursing during press appearances, and pratfalls so frequent you’d think gravity has something against her. Lawrence has installed herself so centrally in the pop-cultural landscape that it’s difficult to imagine a time when she didn’t capture headlines on a weekly basis. But that’s how stars work; they appear from nothingness, burn bright, and then disappear all at once.
In anticipation of Lawrence’s turn in the series finale “The Hunger Games— Mockingjay — Part 2,” we’ve compiled the five most essential non-‘Hunger Games’ performances in Lawrence’s densely-concentrated filmography. From humble beginnings to total A-list ubiquity, Lawrence’s takeover has been swift and merciless.
“The Burning Plain” (2008)
There’s plenty of fault to be found in the directorial debut of Guillermo Arriaga, better known as the screenwriter of Alejandro Gónzalez Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams”, and “Babel”. Like the rest of the entries in his body of work, the plot strings together ludicrous coincidences in order to make a blurry point about fate or destiny or god knows what. The script languishes in its own joyless scare-quoted “artsiness”, mistaking misery for profundity more intently with every passing scene. All of this notwithstanding, Lawrence manages to drag herself to safety from the flaming wreckage of this crop-duster crash. Relatively early in the film, Lawrence passes her character’s baton to Charlize Theron following a time-jump, but in her allotted screen time, she still leaves an indelible impression. Conveying experience beyond her years — not just sexual maturity, but true-blue worldliness — Lawrence cycles through hurt, jealousy, sorrow, and finally arrives at numbness in time for Theron to take over. She’s the most essential mechanism in Arriaga’s grand machine of plot contrivances, setting tragedy in motion with one foolish act, and Lawrence shoulders this responsibility with an aplomb that presages her steelier, later roles. It’s the mark of a great thespian to be able to deliver commendable work even when saddled with a weak script or blowhard director, and Lawrence was a standout from the jump.
“Winter’s Bone” (2010)
This was where Jennifer Lawrence became Jennifer Lawrence, ascending from a promising newcomer to a serious actorly force to be reckoned with. Lawrence’s performance in Debra Granik’s blackened Ozark-set drama was the thing that attracted the attention of the casting directors that’d later insert her wellspring of inner strength into the “X-Men” and “Hunger Games” franchises. As young de facto matriarch Ree Dolly, Lawrence operates at the height of her abilities and shows just how powerful her acting can be. Playing right in her wheelhouse as a young woman upon whom adult responsibility is suddenly thrust, Lawrence runs the full gamut of emotions. The audience bears witness to her hopes, frustrations, and courage in the face of fear, as well as her poise in times of tribulation. What’s more, Lawrence has an acute understanding of how her character fits into the detailed, insular ecosystem of meth country. Silent codes and unspoken pacts govern the rigidly stratified subculture that Ree must plumb in search of her father — or what’s left of him — and she moves with a careful mix of caution and force. In a role that smartly equates femininity with hardiness, honor, and self-sufficiency, Lawrence blew the gates to Hollywood and strolled right on in, stopping only to trip on her face and pick herself up.
“Like Crazy” (2011)
Lawrence’s performance in “Winter’s Bone” bowled over audiences and studio executives at the tail end of 2010, which meant that she still had a couple low-profile projects in the can to be trotted out before her grand debut into superstardom. One of those was the high-concept Mel Gibson vehicle “The Beaver,” shot in 2009 and quietly hustled through cinemas in 2011. The other pre-fame project was “Like Crazy,” an indie-minded trans-Atlantic romance between a sensitive American (Anton Yelchin) and his idealized British paramour (Felicity Jones). In a role that’d be unthinkably minor for the J-Law of 2015, Lawrence steps in as the Other Woman, an emotional stopover for Yelchin’s character to halfheartedly romance while he and Jones are on the outs. Lawrence makes the most of the morsels she’s allotted, supporting Yelchin’s inner conflict by never becoming the villain the audience might hope she is. She’s a reasonable choice as a romantic opposite (and future films would prove her to be eminently capable of filling that role) for Yelchin, and doesn’t make the central choice of the film easy for him. During a highlight scene, she and Yelchin hit the town for a night of drinks and dancing, and in flashes, the audience sees precisely what he sees in her. She’s smiling, weightless, effervescent.
“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
Lawrence’s full-scale invasion of the film industry played out on two fronts: with her “Hunger Games”and “X-Men” roles, she thundered into multiplexes and demonstrated her sky-high potential as a bankable quantity. In her collaborations with David O. Russell, she staked her claim to the territory between the arthouse and the neighborhood theater. The work was mid-to-high-brow, not quite as indie as “Winter’s Bone” but with Russell bringing a crucial sense of prestige to the proceedings following his smash with “The Fighter.” Lawrence and Russell are still the best thing to have ever happened to one another, with Russell reveling in the chance to give a volatile actress some real meaty roles to dig her incisors into, and Lawrence devouring them whole. Lawrence would earn her first Oscar for the live-wire energy she brought to young widow Tiffany, still grappling with mental instability after the death of her husband and the depressive spiral that followed in his wake. Her spontaneity and charisma as an actress was never put to better use than in a scene that finds Tiffany and her romantic opposite Pat (Bradley Cooper) at a diner sitting down for a candid chat about life and death. Pat pushes the wrong button and Tiffany whips herself into a frenzy, simultaneously embodying and parodying the archetype of the girl interrupted. Leagues removed from Ree Dolly’s quiet intensity, Lawrence turned Tiffany into a captivating powder keg.
“American Hustle” (2013)
Though Lawrence got the smallest amount of screen time of the film’s central quartet, she made just as large a splash as her co-stars Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper. If “American Hustle” is a slightly diluted rework of “Goodfellas,” and in many ways it is, that makes Lawrence the Lorraine Bracco figure, the wife who insinuates herself into a glamorous world of crime and reveals a toothy desperation when the chip count begins to fall. In a metaphor not so much mixed as it is finely pureed, Bale’s con man describes her as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She brings a brassy showiness to the character, weaseling her way through manipulation and rationalization, all to ensure that she and her son will emerge scot-free if her husband’s many cons start to sour. She granted the film its single greatest line-read when voicing her distrust for the newly-invented microwave she refers to as a “science oven” and undoubtedly ramped up ticket sales with her period-appropriate va-va-voom white gown. With “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”, Lawrence did more than solidify her spot in the pantheon of indispensable actresses working today; she established herself as a key component to a formula that hasn’t failed yet, and with December’s “Joy,” she’ll angle to recapture that same magic.