If you ever wondered why so many Hollywood actresses spend so much time having so much plastic surgery before they're, oh, say 35, look no further than the way some film reviewers reacted to Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance in “The Hunger Games.” As Slate’s L. V. Anderson has noted, a surprising number of critics have bodysnarked Lawrence for having a body that is, well, too ample for the role of the film's heroine Katniss Everdeen.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis thought Lawrence didn’t look hungry enough for the part, saying “now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy suggested that Lawrence was miscast, saying her “lingering baby fat shows here.” And Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells referred to Lawrence as a “fairly tall, big-boned lady” who’s “too big” for Josh Hutcherson, Katniss’ love interest.
So what we to make of this reaction? Is it sexism? Or is it something more complicated? After all, showbiz always has been all about appearances. In fairness, the obsession with slimness isn’t limited simply to actresses.
“Park and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt made no secret of the fact that he flunked his audition to play Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg in “Moneyball” because he was too fat. He said after losing 30 pounds he finally got the part. And if I had a dollar for every critic and blogger who made malicious fun of Russell’s Crowe hefty appearance in “State of Play,” I’d have almost as much money as “The Hunger Games” made in its opening weekend.
In other words, the critics certainly aren’t the only ones with a neurotic preoccupation with appearances. It starts with the people who make the movies, who have a thousand reasons to focus on appearances, some of them perfectly reasonable, some of them ridiculously frivolous. At least when it came to “Moneyball,” veracity was an issue. The “Moneyball” filmmakers clearly believed that having an obviously fat first baseman would hurt the film’s authenticity, since real major league first basemen (OK, with the exception of Prince Fielder) don’t look fat. Hatteberg certainly didn’t, so realism was an issue, since Pratt was playing a real-life character.
But Lawrence is playing a fictional character from a book. Does she really have to look exactly the way we perceived her character in the text? Surely by now critics must be accustomed to seeing actors and actresses who often look strikingly different than the characters from a book or a person from real life.
Kate Winslet doesn’t look remotely like the Mildred Pierce character, as described by James M. Cain in his novel “Mildred Pierce,” or for that matter, like Hanna Schmitz in “The Reader.” It’s Winslet’s acting chops that make the portrayals come to life, not her physical resemblance to the characters. Ditto for Meryl Streep's fabulous take on Julia Child in "Julie and Julia."
It’s especially disappointing to see Dargis of all people focusing on Lawrence’s figure, since she has written so eloquently and hilariously — see her withering review of the Farrelly Brothers’ “Hall Pass” — about the casual sexism in modern-day Hollywood films. If Dargis, or any of the other critics, thought Lawrence was miscast in the film, fair enough.
But it would have been simple enough to put the blame on director Gary Ross, the filmmaker who made the call. Lawrence looks like a believable woman, not some curvy, Kardashian-style cartoon. After years of carping about the lack of strong women characters in Hollywood movies, isn’t it time the critics showed a little more respect when one comes along?
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Jennifer Lawrence, right, in a scene from the film "The Hunger Games." Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate