Taking a Break Might Be the Smartest Thing Popular Actors Can Do

By  · Published on March 10th, 2014

In a stirring example of how poisonous the populist view on fame can be, Twitter was bubbling during the Oscars with negative comments about the same actor that made it glow with radioactive sunshine exactly a year ago. Of course, you can find steaming piles of antagonism about anyone on Twitter, but the response to Jennifer Lawrence that night was notable enough that Slate convened its XX writers for a thinkpiece conversation about her downfall that might make you slightly dumber if you read it. As a discussion about and a product of a limited view of celebrity, it reduces otherwise intelligent pundits to waxing poetic on whether we “like” someone we’ve never met.

That’s the alien nature of extreme popularity. We don’t know Lawrence or her media-narrative-necessitated rival Lupita Nyong’o, but we have opinions about them beyond the work they produce. We see high profile actors on red carpets giving their opinions, spilling breath mints at press conferences and falling down at major award shows. Yet, apparently, we’ve become so cynical as a culture that even falling in love with naturalistic behavior (amid a sea of practiced, polished fakery) isn’t safe from suspicion that genuineness is also just an act.

That cynicism has a kind of self-fulfilling nature. Lawrence acted greatly at the Oscars in the way she always had. Goofy, off-the-cuff, clumsy. Unfortunately, falling down at Hollywood’s biggest awards ceremony (as she’s done before) is now viewed as part of her planned public performance persona because continuing your natural behavior is suspect for some. It’s a disgusting element of our binarythink culture where someone is either the best thing or worst thing ever of the week – a limb that shares a root with our strange inability to love more than one actress at a time. For all the empty pontificating, the Slate team gets it right that the concept of an “It Girl” is singular.

Thus, seeing news that Lawrence was planning a hiatus from acting was encouraging even though it’s now been debunked as Harvey Weinstein hearsay. It might have been good timing. The thing is, if she were eyeing a break from the spotlight (which also demands a break from working since promotion now goes hand in handcuff with acting), she wouldn’t come close to being alone. With the shovel of salt that typically comes with the celebrity press, Chris Evans, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling are all cooling their heels after a stream of large, exacting projects.

Prevailing wisdom says that pumping the brakes is a fool’s move unless it’s a negotiating tactic. The threat is that no one – not even the tippy toppiest entries on the A-list – is safe from career lag. That there’s always someone hungrier like Nyong’o on the rise. (And, Hollywood, we’re waiting on the bushel of roles you’re about to drop at her feet. Right?) That we have no option but to think of competition as ceaseless.

But there’s also a virtue in taking a break or slowing down to a steady cruise. At the very least it could replace the downfall/comeback narrative that we fans also seem to crave. At the most, there’s an instinct that says that over-saturation and under-saturation are equally dangerous positions to be in. Do your best work, live comfortably as a household name, but jump on one couch and you become a nuisance.

Then again, all of this is bullshit. Even this article.

It – like the Slate piece and Jordan Hoffman’s question about Lawrence “Katniss-ing” us – is a response to and product of a fabricated culture. Is Lawrence more or less liked now than she was last year? Who knows? Nobody does.

It’s all part of a fiction crafted by a media that builds people up specifically so that they can tear them down later on. Nothing gold can stay. The only people who seem immune to that cycle are Tom Hanks and Bill Murray, and we may only be a slow news day and cup of coffee away from seeing an intrepid cultural critic write “Is Billy Murray Overstaying His Welcome?”.

Someone has to be winning, and someone has to be on their heels. It’s the same reason why there’s a ready-constructed “horse race” for “awards season” where one movie is a clear favorite despite not a single vote being cast. It’s probably why people are already talking about the 2016 Presidential election, and probably why Americans will never fully embrace soccer.

The grimace-inducing element of all this is that actors (and directors, and some writers) have to mold bovine feces to build up part of their career. Regardless of how illusory all of this “backlash” talk is, popularity is still relatively important to being considered for roles. Perception still counts.

So at this point I’ve basically talked myself out of the original headline/thesis. Actors: work as much as you like. Forget all of this peripheral nonsense and be as vital as you desire while keeping an eye on whether your public persona will keep you from getting the next character that you’re passionate for. Otherwise, focus on the craft and practicing it at whatever rate you can afford, and we’ll do the same. Even if we get distracted once in a while, some of us will try to remember what matters.

Now for a double feature of American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. There are some great performances in both.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.