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I know it's a little early to harp about Academy Awards, but when I see that Jennifer Lawrence is currently the Oscar front-runner for "Silver Linings Playbook," my critical side wants to shout "B.S.!" I've seen that movie. It's terrific and, OK, Oscar-worthy. And Lawrence's Tiffany is vibrant, sexy, and funny, and that kind of manic-pixie-dream dame that brings the hero, in this case Bradley Cooper, to the come-to-Jesus moment that climaxes the film. She's great. But she's a (plot) tool. No one would dare call Katniss Everdeen a tool. She's a weapon: the bow and arrow that unleashed "The Hunger Games" phenomena. And Lawrence owns that character with a ring of truth and hard-won dignity.
But she has three strikes against her when it comes to winning the Oscar as Katniss:
Her character is not physically disadvantaged.
Katniss Everdeen is a whole teenage girl. She shoots arrows. She stands on thighs achieved not by climbing the Stairmaster but by running in the forest after game to feed her undernourished family. As Katniss, Lawrence delivers the most physically empowered performance by a woman without superpowers in 2012. (No disrespect to Scarlett Johansson's femme fatale, the Black Widow from "The Avengers." The catsuited sidekick of a male pack is not running the Oscar race.) And Lawrence can't play the handicapped card, either, like Marion Cotillard, whose troubled Frenchwoman comes into her own once an orca chomps her lower legs and she learns to live and love without feet. Katniss has feet.
Romantic love isn't her prime directive.
Sure, Katniss vacillates between two different and appealing young men, the hunter Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And that love triangle has a powerful force. But she's no Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, forsaking her role as mother and wife and leaping in the path of a train because of her passion for Count Vronsky. In "The Hunger Games," the heroine's greatest love is her younger sister, Prim. Katniss steps forward and takes Prim's place in the almost certainly fatal games, and it is that action, not romantic love, that sets the plot's challenges in motion. Doing the right thing, not doing the romantic thing, defines Katniss and her character in the larger sense of the word.
She's angry, and it's not pretty.
Good girls aren't supposed to raise their voices or fists. Not so Katniss Everdeen. Like Lawrence's sullen but determined Ree in "Winter's Bone," Katniss didn't walk off the set of Teen Nick. She has more in common with a Clint Eastwood character than with a Vanessa Hudgens one. One of Katniss's greatest challenges is not letting her own anger sabotage her -- even if the emotion is justified. Katniss is angry because she's trapped in a totalitarian society that killed her miner father. She's pissed at her fragile mother for crumpling and emotionally abandoning her and her younger sister. She's irate because she's afraid of her own feelings and how they might make her vulnerable to the maw of the Capitol: If she surrenders to love and has children, their fate will be the same as hers. As hard as it is for Katniss to enter the Games, she senses that it's harder for the mother to relinquish her child to the death Olympics. This anger is both her power and her Achilles heel, and it diminishes her Oscar appeal.
In the end, "The Hunger Games" is too successful for Lawrence's Oscar good.
Lawrence is part of a universally acclaimed franchise aimed solidly at girls and women -- but men like it, too. It has grossed $408 million domestically and $687 million worldwide. It has achieved cult status, and there are three sequels in the pipeline. But, lately, Hollywood shuns the best products of its hive mind for smaller, singular performances like Meryl Streep in last year's "The Iron Lady" or, on the male side, Jean Dujardin for "The Artist." On Oscar night, Lawrence may win for her quirky Tiffany in David O. Russell's contemporary, crowd-pleasing "Silver Linings Playbook," but I'll still be pulling for that extraordinary girl named Katniss.
See this clip from 'The Hunger Games':