Jennifer Lawrence nails the histrionic personality in “American Hustle”


Jennifer Lawrence made an interesting portrayal of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the 2011 movie Silver Linings Playbook (actually, the whole movie is a bee hive of personality disorders). Her character, Tiffany, exhibits many of the textbook traits, such as lability, mood swings, splitting etc. The only flaw, in terms of BPD interpretation, is the uptone ending of the movie. Here, Tiffany ameliorates and ends up seemingly at peace and happy. This kind of personal development, though predictable from a viewpoint of cinematic drama, is, unfortunately, uncharacteristic for the disorder. BPD, at its core, is a state of chronic sadness and emptiness.

In American Hustle from 2013, Lawrence plays Rosalyn, the over-dramatic stay-at-home wife to the main protagonist. This is another fine cluster B impersonation by Lawrence, albeit with a histrionic flavor (HPD). Rosalyn employs sexuality, guilt, victimization and a range of other of strategies to get her will. “Passive-aggressive karate”, as her frustrated husband denotes it. Rosalyn can go from scolding to seducing him, literally seconds apart (and he can’t resist).

Rosalyn talks to her son and contradicts herself within the same sentence: “I don’t want to talk ill about your father, but he is an asshole”. This a an example of the fragmented self common for cluster B. Both statements are probably individually true for Roslyn, and the reason they don’t ring false put together is that they do not occupy the same cognitive space; they belong to separate fragments of Rosalyn’s personality that alternate as she speaks.

In one scene Rosalyn walks right up to a group of mobsters in a casino and brazenly starts flirting, right in front of her perplexed husband.

She is described as “the light of the party” by people around her, which is actually a common characterization of HPD in literature.

Later in the movie, Rosalyn deliberately leaks sensitive information to a mobster in order to get back at her husband. He subsequently gets kidnapped and almost killed, but escapes thanks to a last minute plan that fools the mobsters. After his return, Rosalyn now claims it’s him owing her gratitude, for making him come up with such a great plan. Voilà, a brand new narrative with her as the star.

Yet through all of this, Rosalyn is never portrayed as evil or even ill-intended. This is very skillful because while people suffering from HPD may and do cause pain and mayhem, they are nevertheless, in general, none of these things. Rosalyn is first and foremost a prisoner of her own anxiety and fears of being unloved and unseen. Like a permanent state of inner emergency. She is, much like a child, incapable of predicting or admitting bad outcomes of her actions, and even less so of taking responsibility for them. But these are issues of dysfunction, not malevolence.

Equally skillful, Rosalyn is never portrayed as someone who at he end of the day ultimately is all right and who can put her act together when it really matters. As if all that theatrics and oversexualization is something voluntary that can switched off at will. It cannot. As with BPD, the ailments of HPD are chronic and all-pervasive. In one of the final scenes, Rosalyn sits in her car next to the mobster-guy she flirted with and is now dating, complaining over a stiff neck she suffered when crashing into another car; seemingly experiencing some of the self-caused consequences she weren’t able to escape or re-narrate. As she drives away, her (now ex-) husband muses: “She will always be interesting”. He’s probably right.