Reporter Stacy Lambe captured this terrific moment from the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala, in which Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence jumps into the frame of cameras taking pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker, who, in keeping with the event’s punk theme, wore a daring, mohawked Philip Treacy headpiece to the Ball. Marion Cotillard is caught in the .Gif laughing, and we laughed with her. It’s the perfect distillation of why Jennifer Lawrence has become a Hollywood sweetheart—and why so much contempt is heaped on actresses like Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow:
What’s striking about Lawrence in this image is the gap between her decorum and her self-presentation. She’s being goofy, and to an extent, she’s even making fun of one of her fellow attendees at the Met Ball. She’s displaying an awareness that there’s more than one way to win the Met Ball, and more than one set of observers watching the event. While Parker is posing for the credentialed photographers on the red carpet, Lawrence is disrupting their shots and mugging for us. It’s a savvy act of complicity, an acknowledgement that the event is ridiculous.
But it’s also one that lets Lawrence have it both ways. She’s at the Met Ball, after all, rather than staying home because she’s rather be doing something else, or out of active protest at the dog and pony show. Not only did Lawrence attend, she did so in a Christian Dior dress and a birdcage veil that wasn’t exactly in keeping with the evening’s punk theme. Maybe it’s less conformist for Lawrence to rock Hollywood glamour than to hew to the directions she was given for the night, but it’s not as if she was taking any risks to her image by rocking a ball gown, either. But unlike Anne Hathaway, who puts on a prim-and-proper demeanor to match her Prada (nice girls wear it as well as the Devil), Lawrence is careful to obscure the extent to which she cares what anyone thinks of her in a layer of quotations about going to see New York theater phenomenon Sleep No More and going to Walmart.
Ultimately, Lawrence is playing out an old game in a new medium. She’s a screwball heroine come to life, a woman whose behavior breaks the codes of her class and gender without ever becoming genuinely challenging or disconcerting. Sometimes that characters is annoying, a la Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. And sometimes she’s incisive and cutting, like Barbara Stanwyck’s con woman in The Lady Eve, who, in a famous speech about high-status women who are falling all over themselves to be introduced to her mark, a brewery heir played by Henry Fonda, is effectively serving up the same critique of women who play by the rules that Lawrence’s photobomb did:
These figures aren’t unimportant, and their behavior and their observations can stretch the limits of acceptable female behavior. But the extent to which they play by the rules is just as important as the small ways in which they break them. Stanwyck employs the same tools that the women she makes fun of do to land the exact same man—she’s just better at it, and in her slinky, solar-plexus-baring dress, sexier than the handkerchief-dropping battleaxes who are her competition. Hepburn may be a goofball, but she’s still a rich girl who ends up resolving her romantic quandaries via philanthropy. And it’s possible to appreciate Jennifer Lawrence the same way. Whether she’s performing or not, her performance at the Met Ball and elsewhere is a lot of fun. But that doesn’t make her a genuine rebel against Hollywood norms. And as long as we don’t mistake a screwball performance for a revolution, we might as well enjoy Lawrence for what she is.