Maybe the audience loved Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe America loves Jennifer Lawrence. And I don’t doubt SBIFF director Roger Durling loves Jennifer Lawrence. But the interview format imposed on the 22-year-old two-time Academy Award-nominated phenom unquestionably did not love Jennifer Lawrence. In the end, even granting a number of thrills and revelations, it must be said that the film fest’s Outstanding Performer of the Year award presentation was a painful ordeal for nearly everyone involved.
Part of the responsibility for Saturday night’s awkwardness derived from a format that usually reviews lifetime art achievements of its celebrated guest. There just wasn’t enough story for that kind of love. Without question, Lawrence has done great things — Winter’s Bone and Hunger Games alone would make a proud career. And her star shone brightest this year in David O. Russell’s brilliant revisionist screwball comedy, Silver Lining Playbook.
But for some strange reason, the fest producers decided to review Lawrence’s work backwards. After an excessive torrent of introductory praise — Durling called her a “supernova” which some wag nearby whispered meant burnout — the show never seemed like it could go anywhere. And it mostly didn’t.
Durling’s enthusiasms were clear and his affection for her obvious, but he never seemed to recover from an early gaffe asking her about high school performance years, seeming caught off-guard by her denial of ever performing outside of choir. “I did church stuff,” she said, then produced a gush of apologies. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I could start coming up with stuff.” His lavish compliments through the evening left her uncomfortably silent too.
The night was not bereft of pleasures or insights. The duo settled down after a second set of clips speaking more easily about working with Robert DeNiro — a connection later reinforced by David O. Russell in the actual award presentation portion. But it kept hitting obstacles: Lawrence’s assertion that she was lazy and never really ran her lines before working on a set made Durling question her self-deprecations. “I just have a talent,” she said at one point, then listed a number of things her friends could do — write songs, direct, or photograph — that she was completely incapable of performing. There wasn’t much anybody could reply to that.
The evening ended with good words about Hunger Games, the joys of seeing your name on a marquee, and a nice quote about the advantage of being a second-time Academy Award nominee. “I’m still scared,” she said, “but now I know more people.”
It was an unenviable job with some momentary levities. Lawrence claimed that she didn’t belong on that stage, even though she loved the praise. Later, when presenting her award, Russell praised her “alchemy” while describing the “firewall” she had built around it. We saw too much of the guarded person, the one that Russell described as able to “stop your heart a little when she walks onscreen.” Up on the Arlington stage last Saturday, however, it was not the good kind of heart-stopping we got to see.