When Marisa Tomei was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her role in The Wrestler, it was hailed as her comeback role. At 45, she had largely faded from the spotlight, when she was cast by Darren Aronofsky as a struggling stripper who falls in love with Mickey Rourke’s broken down protagonist. She didn’t win, but the mere nomination gave her career renewed momentum — and a role as Spider-Man’s Aunt May in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Playing a stripper is a time-honored tradition for women seeking to enter the Oscars race. Thus far though, those so called “award-worthy” characters have been circumscribed in their scope: They’re dramatic, soul-searching roles, more about repentance and a desire for absolution than a positive and joyful celebration of sexuality. Tomei’s portrayal is a perfect example of the genre.
But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the time, she hoped for more. "My aim in the film was to honor the women I met and to represent them in a meaningful way,” she said. “I wish there was a movie called The Stripper because I found out so much about these women, like the physical toll that dancing takes on a stripper's body, and on her feet, that we couldn't fit into the movie."
It took a decade for Tomei’s wish to finally come true. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers finally puts strippers front and center in their own stories, rather than supporting footnotes in the lives of men.
Hustlers has been in theaters for less than a week, and already the Oscar buzz around Jennifer Lopez is reaching a fever pitch. Though second-billed in a powerhouse ensemble that includes Constance Wu, Cardi B., Lizzo, Lili Reinhart, and Keke Palmer, among others, J. Lo. is undeniably the draw, a force of nature who’s mesmerizing to watch. She plays Ramona Vega, a glamorous veteran stripper who welcomes Wu’s inexperienced Destiny into an ersatz family on her first night at a new club. Years later, when the 2008 financial crisis causes Wall Street guys to seek shelter elsewhere, the two team up on a scam to squeeze them for money, using an explosive combination of drugs, booze and seduction.
Lopez delivers a performance that’s dangerously seductive. Often viewed through Destiny’s impressionable gaze, she’s a larger-than-life figure, maternal and loving, but also ruthless and shrewd. I can’t even pick a favourite moment to highlight. Is it when Ramona first makes her entrance dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”? When Destiny finds her lounging on the roof wearing nothing but a silver bodysuit and a gigantic fur coat, the city lights framing her silhouette like the goddess she is? When she gets arrested at an ATM wearing leather leggings and a crop top and puts her arms up without letting go of her hard-earned cash? When she purrs that money makes her horny? When she hosts an elaborate Christmas party dressed as a cream-lingerie Santa? I don’t know; I love it all!
At 50, Jennifer Lopez has never really disappeared from the public eye — just last year, she starred in Second Act, which grossed $72 million, and mere months ago, her sold-out Madison Square Garden concert literally shut the lights on New York City — but like Tomei’s Cassidy, this still feels like a revelatory role, a career-defining moment launching the star into her real-life second act. But how likely is it that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science will give her a nomination? And what are the chances that she’d actually win?
In 1928, Janet Gayner won the first-ever Best Actress Oscar for Street Angel, a silent film about a woman who falls into a life of sex work in order to pay for her mother’s medical treatment. When she meets a nice man and falls in love, she finds that her past continues to haunt her. In the near-century since, dozens of of Hollywood actresses have been recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for playing either a sex worker or stripper. (It’s telling that those two are often lumped together.) Oscar voters love a comeback story, especially if it involves repentance and moral fortitude. Think Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8), Jane Fonda (Klute), Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge), Natalie Portman (Closer), and Charlize Theron (Monster) — to name a few.
With Ramona, Lopez shatters the mold. She’s not a down-on-her luck gal just trying hard to make ends meet so she can follow her dreams. Nor is she stripping to put food on the table for her ailing family, or dealing with daddy issues, or wishing she could just meet some nice man and get out of the life. She’s not selling her body, she’s selling a dream. She’s a performer, and the pole is her stage.
True to the film’s title, Ramona is a born hustler. Lopez cooes and cajoles, and revels in her own success. Her sultry, seductive appeal is distinctly engineered for the female gaze. She’s ambitious, capable, and fierce, a lioness who will stop at nothing to protect her cubs. She never backs down, and she never regrets. At the end of the movie, there’s no moral comeuppance. Yes, she faces legal consequences, but the film doesn’t frame that as a price to be paid out for transgressing social mores.
All of that makes for quite a stark departure from the kinds of performances the Academy is used to rewarding. And that’s precisely why it’s important that they do. This is stripper performance by and for women, a completely new way of looking at a group that has historically been marginalized, and condescended to.
But the substance of Lopez’s performance wouldn’t be the only groundbreaking aspect of a potential Oscar nod. In 91 years of Oscar history, no Latina has ever won Best Actress. In the last two decades, only two — Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace in 2004, and Yalitza Aparicio for Roma in 2019 — have even been nominated. (Aparicio was also the first indigenous woman ever to be nominated for the award.)
Still, there’s a good chance that Lopez would be considered for Best Supporting Actress, even if she has nearly as much screen time as Wu. But even in that category, Latina actresses have struggled to break through, with only two winners — Rita Moreno West Side Story in 1962, and Mercedes Ruehl for The Fisher King in 1992 — and just a handful of nominees.
Just last month, USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, in partnership with National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and Wise Entertainment, released a study tracking Latinx erasure in the top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018. They found that
Latinx characters made up only 4.5% of the 47,268 total studied, while just 3% of movies featured Latinx actors in lead roles. In that 12-year stretch, only two of those roles were played by Latina actresses over 45. Lopez portrayed both of them. Hustlers makes three.
There will undoubtedly be those who claim that Lopez isn’t a serious actress, or worthy of consideration by the Academy. They are wrong. In the last 33 years, she’s starred or appeared in, and voiced characters for over 30 films, and nearly a dozen TV shows. Her breakout role as Selena Quintanilla in 1997’s Selena was critically acclaimed, and she’s gone on to play some of our most memorable romantic comedy heroines in movies like The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, and Monster-in-Law. She’s been an NYPD officer battling corruption in the FBI on NBC’s Shades of Blue, a U.S. Marshall in love with a bank robber in Stephen Soderbergh’s Academy Award-nominated Out of Sight (which made her the highest-paid Latina actress in Hollywood history), and a grieving mother on a quest for revenge in Lila & Eve. She orgasmed on top of a cheese barrel in The Back-Up Plan, for god’s sake! What more can she give us?
Okay, about that last one. Lopez’ film career is also peppered with duds. One can’t talk about her on-screen legacy without mentioning Jersey Girl, or Gigli, widely considered to be some of the worst films of the aughts. And then there’s her years of tabloid-fodder — can Oscar voters look past Bennifer? Or J-Rod?
The problem is that rather than consider her work on a performance-by-performance basis, J.Lo., actor, tends to come as a package deal, the good buried underneath the bad. Her Hustlers performance is the culmination of years of work, and honing her craft. It, and she, deserve to be celebrated.
Of course, this is all pure speculation. The Oscars are months away, as is the nomination process. As Kyle Buchanan pointed out recently in the New York Times, this year’s potential contenders are particularly strong — Margot Robbie and Laura Dern are already generating supporting actress buzz for Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood and Marriage Story, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women still has ample time to sweep us off our feet.
But close your eyes for a second, and imagine a world in which Jennifer freaking Lopez takes the stage for her acceptance speech. That is the future we deserve! Hustlers is a movie about those at the bottom striving for a chance at the top. And what better representation is there than having Jenny from the Block inducted into Hollywood’s most exclusive club?