There are “snubs” and then there is what happened to Jennifer Lopez leading up to the Oscars this year. Amidst a sea of worthy films and performances recognized for their contributions to cinema, Hustlers, the gritty crime drama starring the global superstar and directed by Lorene Scafaria was notably absent. The film, a tale of exotic dancers scheming marks out of their money in increasingly dangerous and illegal ways, had performed well at the box office and earned critical praise when it first landed in theaters in early 2019.
Even if watching bikini-clad women in icepick sharp stilettos wielding their sex appeal for financial gain didn’t strike a chord, no one could deny how magnetic Lopez was as the film’s lead. A performance so lean, so fierce, so stripped of vanity was sure to generate Oscar love for the 50-year-old multihyphenate. Until it didn’t.
Instead, while the Academy praised male-centric mob stories and fawned over Joaquin Phoenix’s emaciated form, Lopez’s transformation was casually pushed to the side, shrugged off as simply the by-product of a talented performer doing what she’d spent a career perfecting: performing. The story, an anti-capitalist call-to-arms that touched on class imbalances and the pitfalls of sexism, was pigeonholed in much the same way its main characters are in the film. Bad women doing bad things doesn’t carry the same gravitas as tales of gangster hitman reflecting on their misdeeds or washed-up Hollywood legends-turned-revisionist-vigilantes. Bad women doing bad things shouldn’t be rewarded.
Except these weren’t “bad women” and much of what characters like Ramona (Lopez), Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) accomplish in the film was applauded by audiences. We enjoyed watching these shrewd businesswomen turn Wall Street yuppies into their personal ATM machines. We cackled when they brandished their bodies for monetary gain, turning the male gaze against itself, lifting wallets, drugging drinks, pretending to be enamored with old white men in tacky suits who steal money from the poor and toss their dollars towards the pole. These women weren’t “bad,” they were complicated, layered, living in a morally grey world. They were a merry band of thieves in G-strings and J.Lo was their Robin Hood.
A lot has been said about Lopez’s performance in the film. Ramona is a cunning manipulator, a modern-day Machiavelli in platform heels who hides her con behind feigned smiles and familiar endearments. She calls everyone “baby,” she takes rookie dancers under her oversized fur coat, she caters to the misogynistic whims of her clientele with a smile, gyrating and hypnotizing them as she robs them blind. She’s greedy and callous at times, trading in her mama-bear motif when plans go awry, or she feels betrayed by the women she calls family. We root for her and roll our eyes at her increasingly erratic antics in equal measure, we see women we know — friends, mothers, daughters, sisters — in her, how her friendship is toxic and enabling and empowering and supportive all at the same time.
Lopez made people want to con rich white men, too. “Drain the clock, not the c**k” became a mantra. Her character took pleasure in defrauding male characters who did little more than serve as set dressing for her story, but the good time, the charm Ramona exudes doesn’t negate her suffering. It’s the same suffering Phoenix’s Joker endures as he grapples with mental health issues in a society where the poor are invisible and the sick a burden. It’s the same suffering Robert De Niro shoulders as a criminal too good at his job to ever truly feel remorse for the people he’s hurt even when that means destroying friendships and obliterating the most important relationship in his life. When Ramona narrates her life story to Destiny, her promising past as a Playboy centerfold, her dreams and how they slowly died, she’s no different than Rick Dalton or Cliff Booth.
Lopez suffers for her art in the same way these men do, contorting her body for the enjoyment of others, hard lines and bold edges wrapping around a metal pole under the glaring neon lights. Phoenix may have lost 52 lbs for Joker but J.Lo trained for six weeks with a Cirque du Soleil performer to master the intricate moves and feats of athleticism we see in the film. If you think gripping a pole with just your thighs comes easily, that molding yourself around a steel rod doesn’t leave you bleeding and bruised, you’ve obviously never done it before. There’s probably something to be said about the way we prioritize male suffering, the way we idolize auteurs who “go method” for their roles while shrugging our shoulders at the women working 18 hour days in corsets for period pieces, or the actresses doing months of intensive training to pull off intricate dance sequences.
But that’s not the only reason the Oscars ultimately didn’t reward J.Lo, or any of her Hustlers crew, for their work. In fact, according to Terry Moore, an actor and member of the Academy’s voting body, the film didn’t warrant a nomination because it simply wasn’t an “Oscar movie.” Moore told The NY Post that Hustlers was a bit “too rough around the edges” and that J.Lo was a “phenomenon more than an actress.” A not-so-veiled way of saying that while movies about men burning women alive with flamethrowers and mob films that spend three hours splattering blood like a live-motion Jackson Pollock painting are “Oscar-worthy,” Scafaria’s Scorcese-like ode to the working-class woman, drenched in neon lights and covered in sequined teddys and fishnet stockings is too crude, to raw, to join their ranks.
This isn’t a knock against Scorcese, Tarantino, or even Todd Phillips. Those films clearly reached their target audiences, they generated discussions, they delivered performances and moments that will probably be treated kindly by time and our notoriously short memories. And this isn’t a knock against the Oscars either — at least, it’s not as hard of a knock as the show probably deserves. Despite how many people claim to not care about shows where celebrities hand out trophies to one another for their work, the Oscars and all the ceremonies that come before them, matter. They can influence the trajectory of careers, they certainly can dictate the conversation in film. The Oscars need to recognize performers like J.Lo and films like Hustlers to remain relevant, to earn ratings, and we need these films nominated by Academy voters so that we can see more of them in theaters. Time is a flat circle and all that.
So instead of screaming into the void about the sheer ludicrousness of Lopez’s snub, we need to start asking why. What about J.Lo, her performance, or the film she headlined, made Academy voters so damn uncomfortable? We’ll venture on a very short limb that they’re too out-of-touch, too pretentious in their tastes, too old, too white, too male to appreciate a story about white women and women of color behaving against-type, revolting against conventional power structures and the men in charge of them. Maybe the skin and the sex and the Usher-inspired needle-drops just didn’t play with long-term members who seem to prefer historical war epics and biopics to modern stories with pop culture influences.
But if Oscar voters want to continue to think of themselves tastemakers and gatekeepers of cinema, they’re going to need to start looking past their ingrained prejudices to start recognizing and rewarding the films and talents pushing boundaries and steering conversations outside of the month-long awards race. They’re going to have to start judging stories and performances on their merit, not on their personal tastes and outdated preferences.
In short, if the Oscars want to make it another 92 years, they’re going to need more stories like Hustlers and they’re definitely going to need to get comfortable with Jennifer Lopez.