On Monday, the dynamic Hollywood duo, director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence, joined Women in the World founder Tina Brown on the stage at The Paley Center for Media to discuss their newest collaboration, the movie Joy, opening December 25.
Before an audience of business executives, entrepreneurs, and media personalities of the likes of Gayle King, Joanna Coles, Paula Zahn and Sheryl WuDunn, they discussed their close friendship and creative partnership, the difficulty of romantic relationships for successful women, and empowering young women to follow their dreams.
But the woman who stole the show was the real Joy — Joy Mangano — whose introduction by Brown resulted in an excited eruption of applause.
Mangano may not be a household name … yet. But her inventions are universally beloved household products (the Miracle mop and velvet Huggable Hangers, to name just two), and her story is the classic rags-to-riches American Dream. Although this time, the woman isn’t in a supporting role; she’s the one who comes out on top.
A creative child from the beginning, Joy quickly became tied down in adulthood by kids, an ex-husband, and a family who demanded a lot of support and attention. But when the increasingly overworked mother had the idea for a self-wringing mop that would be more durable and functional than the flimsy versions available at most supermarkets, she refused to take “no” for an answer. Her determination and inventiveness eventually led her to become a multi-millionaire entrepreneur and businesswoman, but not without overcoming many obstacles along the way.
Lawrence is convincing and sympathetic in the lead role. Russell described the actress as the “unanxious presence in the room,” both in the movie and in her real, off-screen life. He said he’s seen this quality in other male characters, like Michael Corleone, but Lawrence is the first woman who has really inhabited it.
But the story is also somewhat of a natural fit for the actress. Lawrence and Mangano share the driving determination to see their passions and dreams come to life.
Lawrence told the attentive crowd that she began trying to find work as an actress at the age of 14. At 16, she won a role in her first sitcom, but she had to overcome a lot of “no’s” along the way, especially from her family, who weren’t eager to allow their teenage daughter to run off to Hollywood. (Lawrence said she wouldn’t necessarily be supportive, either, if a daughter of hers tried to do the same thing).
But, she described her drive to act as “like a fire”; she had to do it. And so, she saved up some babysitting money, and she made it happen.
Russell said Mangano and Lawrence’s stories both deal with the question of how do you stay true to yourself, and he describes the resulting movie as a “cinematic fable,” rather than a biopic.
“What is sublime and extraordinary comes out of what is ordinary and ugly, and that’s the mystery of life,” Russell said.
Beginning with his 2010 movie The Fighter, Russell said women have become increasingly important in his films. When he directed the Academy Award-nominated Silver Linings Playbook (the first collaboration of the Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro trio, who are reunited forJoy), a relatively unknown Lawrence came in and stole the show.
Since then, the two have developed a relationship based on “enormous fear and respect for each other.” When it came to Joy, Russell said, “from the beginning, it was Jennifer and myself, or not.” No other actress would do.
It helps that Russell has watched Lawrence grow up. He said watching the young actress in her early career “was like watching a Jackson Pollack explosion of paint. And it worked.” Five years later, he saw her buy her own house.
There was pride in his voice as he described the leadership role Lawrence took on their most recent collaboration. After deciding that they should adopt French hours, a 10-hour stretch of work without a lunch break, so that they could finish each day earlier, the actress set about convincing the many unions working on the shoot to agree. When everybody was on board, Lawrence then held the entire production — including Russell — to the promise to leave right on the 10-hour dot.
For Lawrence’s part, she said she’s “a victim to his writing.” Russell jumps in to suggest “vessel” would be a better choice of words, but both seem apt.
Russell crafts tales that are often zany and highly entertaining, but they also feature unconventional heroes and plot lines that defy the norm.
While Joy has a very close relationship with her ex-husband (“one of the best divorced couples in America,” as Russell described it), the movie lacks one element that most blockbusters wouldn’t go without: a center-stage love story.
“I loved the idea there was a Cinderella without a prince,” Russell said. “That was one of the most daring things about the film.”
It’s a challenging concept to sell audiences on, but one that is ultimately empowering. Joy is successful purely because of her own drive and ability, and often in spite of the men — and family — in her life.
While she doesn’t need a man or a romance to achieve corporate domination—and the story, in fact, would be weaker if it conceded to the trope — it’s also true that relationships become a bit more difficult for wildly successful women. Lawrence has faced this dilemma in her own personal life.
“Fortunately, for me, I love what I do so much as a part of my body and who I am. It’s just so much more important than romance, so I just don’t have romance,” Lawrence laughs.
But despite the lack of a new romantic relationship (say, with the Bradley Cooper character) in the film, Joy is a well-rounded woman who has a robust family life as well as her own dreams.
Lawrence said one of the hardest moments for her to shoot also became one of the most important. At one point, Joy lays on her daughter’s bed after tucking her in, and she says aloud, “I feel like I’m in a prison.”
Lawrence said she struggled with this scene initially because she didn’t want people to think that Joy didn’t like being a mother —she was clearly a very devoted one. But Lawrence realized it was so much bigger than that. She realized that “It’s ok to love your children and love yourself and your desires, too.”
And that’s the overarching message of Joy. As the debate over whether women can have it all rages on, here is the hero that we need: an ordinary woman who had a vision and a dream for her life, and refused to let anything or anybody—even her family—stand in her way.
“I used to say if one woman or one person is impacted by this movie that will be an amazing thing,” Mangano told the audience. “I no longer say that. Millions, millions of women, people young and old, are going to be impacted by this movie. It has a touchpoint for everybody.
“There comes a point where we have to say who am I? Where is that courage going to come from? Once you find that space within yourself, well then, you really can attack anything, I think, and achieve anything.