Hollywood's Real-Life Hunger Games

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jennifer Lawrence for making the point: You don’t have to go to ludicrous extremes to play a part.

The 22-year-old star of “The Hunger Games” came under some seriously BS criticism in certain circles last spring over whether her Katniss Everdeen was sufficiently emaciated-looking to be convincing. As Manohla Dargis complained in the New York Times, “A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but 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, meanwhile, duly noted her “lingering baby fat.” 

Now, months later, Lawrence has a gem of a response. For the new issue of Elle, the Oscar nominee says, “In Hollywood, I’m obese. I’m considered a fat actress.” It’s an amazing, depressing and no doubt totally true claim from a woman who appears on the cover in body-hugging white dress, looking anything but plus-size. She adds, “I’m never going to starve myself for a part … I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner’… I was trying to get my body to look fit and strong — not thin and underfed.”

But hey, thin and underfed is how you get attention in this business. Well, that or enduring the nightmare of gaining weight, a la Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” or Charlize Theron in “Monster,” and then losing it and returning to one’s former glorious sylphlike state. Remember when Gwyneth Paltrow packed on 20 pounds for “Country Strong” so she could look like a down-and-out crooner/still-skinnier-than-everybody-else person? Remember how “frustrating” she said it was to have to eat chicken — what a “nightmare” it was? Remember last year, when Jessica Chastain underwent self-described “torture” of gaining 15 pounds for “The Help”?

Yet when an actress goes in the opposite direction for a role, there’s a kind of hushed awe about her achievement. When, in 2010, Natalie Portman played a ballerina in “Black Swan,” she told the Daily Mail her physical transformation “was more difficult than anything I’ve ever experienced before … I was barely eating,I was working 16 hours a day.” In the same story, the Daily Mail described her in the movie as “breathtaking.” And when her co-star Mila Kunis, who went down to 98 pounds for her supporting role, left the movie behind and returned to her usual size, the Hollywood Reporter concern trolled, “One has to wonder what Dior thinks of her weight gain. She and her ‘Black Swan’ co-star Natalie Portman are both brand ambassadors for the couture house.”

And now there’s Anne Hathaway, who followed up the strict regimen required to play Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises” with a punishing diet to become the consumptive heroine Fantine in the upcoming big-screen version of “Les Miserables.” In a Vogue cover story, Adam Green describes her Fantine as both “emaciated and radiant,” noting that the cleanse that helped her lose 10 pounds for the early scenes of the film gave her “a gossamer quality.” In contrast, ABC this week unreservedly described Matthew McConaughey, who recently lost 30 pounds to play a man with HIV in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club,” as looking  “shockingly frail.”

A two-week “near starvation diet” of dried oatmeal paste brought Hathaway down another 15 pounds for Fantine’s deathly later scenes, an “obsessive” experience the actress describes as “definitely a little nuts … definitely a break with reality.” Writer Green, meanwhile, marvels that today, “Hair volume and body-fat percentage aside (she lost 25 pounds to play Fantine and remains very thin, though not unhealthy-looking), Hathaway’s life seems fuller than ever.”

Actors of both sexes aren’t going to stop shape-shifting for their parts — and if you’re playing a starving woman, it’s definitely more convincing if you don’t look like you’ve been noshing on grilled cheese sandwiches. But note if you will the dysfunctional ways in which weight gain and weight loss – and whether the gainer or loser is a man or woman – play out in how the media treats its stars. And kudos to performers like Jennifer Lawrence, who recognize that microscope gaze and refuse to go along with the fetishization of emaciation — and recognize the sick message it sends to girls. She may be lined up to reprise Katniss in “Catching Fire,” but there are some hunger games she just won’t play.

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