Mila and JLaw the reel deal of Hollywood cool

These days, we want our celebrities to be approachable and authentic. Ahead of tonight’s Oscars, Louise O’Neill explains why ‘real’ is the new cool in Hollywood.

Mila and JLaw the reel deal of Hollywood cool

IN the mid-1990s, Gwyneth Paltrow was the queen of ‘young Hollywood’. Beautiful and talented, she was the daughter of acting ‘royalty’, possessed of such impeccable pedigree that she referred to Steven Spielberg as ‘Uncle Steven’.

On the red carpet, she embodied the archetypal ‘Hitchcockian blonde’, a modern-day reincarnation of Grace Kelly, detached and untouchable.

The public couldn’t get enough of her unattainable perfection and unassailable poise.

Then, the backlash began. She was seen as elitist. Her weeping Oscars speech was ridiculed, her exercise regime denounced as obsessive. Her foray into the lifestyle market, with the Goop website, was decried as out of touch when it was gleefully announced in the blogosphere that using Paltrow’s cookbook would cost a family $300 a day. She was named as the ‘most hated’ celebrity by Star magazine, in April last year, and did not do her public image any favours with comments such as “I am who I am: I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year.”

Yet Paltrow is being true to herself. She comes from a privileged background, she has had a hugely profitable career as an actress, and she’s married to a successful musician, Chris Martin, of Coldplay. She has never been, nor will she ever be, middle class. She is being authentic to her own experience and ‘authenticity’ is the buzzword of Hollywood today, even trickling down to the manner in which stars are dressing on the red carpet.

In the past, young, female stars took fewer sartorial risks, for fear of criticism by the fashion police, but now individuality is flourishing on the red carpet. Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett consistently demonstrate their taste to younger stars, like Emma Watson, who appeared at the Golden Globes this year wearing a distinctive, red Christian Dior tunic over trousers, prompting InStyle’s editor-at-large, Hal Rubenstein, to say that he was “very impressed with the diversity and the somewhat unconventional choices on the red carpet this year.”

In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, on ‘Hollywood’s 25 Most Popular Stylists’, the actress Zoe Saldana, whose stylist, Petra Flannery, was number two on THR’s list, said, “We’ve managed to convince a lot of directors, who now have respect for what we put together and for Petra’s essential place in a huge press tour like Star Trek or Avatar. When Saldana takes a memorable turn on the carpet, those directors are, like, ‘Oh my God, Petra really knocked it out of the ball park,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, she did.’ She killed it, which is very important for me and for her, and for selling a movie.”

Many celebrities, such as the always beautifully attired Lupita Nyong’o, have realised that fashion can play a huge role in creating a brand image that is unique and that expresses who they are. An effective brand image is required if the public is to connect with the celebrity. A star who has a ‘relatable’ image is far more palatable to our tastes. The popularity of columns such as ‘Stars — They’re Just Like Us!’, in US Weekly, with its photos of famous people doing ‘normal’, everyday activities, like filling their car with petrol or doing the grocery shopping, points to a desire of the public to relate to their favourite celebrity. The original ‘real’ girl, Cameron Diaz (who is, ironically, close friends with Gwyneth Paltrow), with her tomboyish image and her willingness to discuss beer, farting and her daily bowel movements, has found her natural successors in such stars as Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis.

Kunis was widely praised for her interview with the shy, bumbling Chris Stark of BBC radio last year, in which she veered away from the publicist’s script about the movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, she was promoting, and discussed her favourite beer and her dream afternoon (a football match followed by the pub). Her light-hearted cheer and sense of humour led to the actress being called “genuine and relatable” by the Huffington Post, with a writer from the Mirror describing her as ‘adorable’.

Lawrence, of course, had a famously admired Oscar campaign last year, by appearing not to campaign at all, doing shots of vodka before interviews, bantering with Jack Nicholson without breaking a sweat, making jokes about cheeseburgers and her need for Spanx; even her fall on her way to collect her Academy Award was seen as endearing.

In contrast, Anne Hathaway, with her almost palpable desire to win the Oscar for her role in Les Miserables, was a polarising figure. Her animated face, her awed acceptance speech as she cradled her award and whispered ‘It came true’, her admission that she practiced her speeches to make herself more likeable — they all came across as unbearably needy, with a blogger on the entertainment website, Hollywood.com, writing, “she always seems like she’s performing, and her favourite act is this overstated humility and graciousness.”

The charge that she’s always ‘performing’ is perhaps the most damning, bringing with it connotations of insincerity, a quality that is completely at odds with the ‘authentic’ celebrity the public wants to see.

There are some who argue that Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘cool, real’ girl image is a construct itself. She is seen as ‘chill’, as not caring too much, but as a young actress thriving in a notoriously fickle industry, Lawrence must possess strength of character and a solid work ethic.

Anne Helen Peterson, a professor of film and media studies at Whitman College, says “there appears to be a particular need for authenticity with star images, as we are going through a time where everything can be manipulated and manufactured, both in terms of star images and actual images, and everything that seems unmediated is automatically more appealing, whether that be a Twitter account or Lawrence’s lack of publicity skills.

“Her lack of image, is, of course, an image itself, but it effaces itself. She’s still the same self-deprecating self, and she’s that self with such consistency that it’s increasingly easy to believe that it isn’t an act — that’s just her normal, goofy self. Consistency is key here: an image seems ‘real’ when it doesn’t show its cracks, and Lawrence has yet to give us one of those moments.”

While we profess that we want celebrities to be approachable and authentic, and ‘just like us’, we really want them to be the best possible version of us. We want to fantasise that we would be like Jennifer Lawrence if we became famous: funny, self-deprecating and charming, unaffected and un-fazed by the madness around us, yet perhaps our real fear is that we might resemble Anne Hathaway more — awkward, bumbling, and ‘trying too hard’.

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