Jennifer Lopez gives the performance of her career in Hustlers, and mark Sam Brooks’ words, she’s going to get an Oscar for it. And it’s long overdue, he writes.
My worst trait, at least according to me, is my tendency to side-eye people who are lumbering on up to bandwagons that I’ve been on for years. Lizzo? Been here since 2014, mate! Carly Rae Jepsen? Where were you when Kiss tanked! BoJack Horseman? I even liked the first six episodes.
One bandwagon I’m staunchly at the helm of – assuming that bandwagons have helms – is the ‘get Jennifer Lopez an Oscar’ campaign. I’ve been here for years, and I’m not ceding it for anybody. Jennifer Lopez is getting an Oscar in 2020. Half of it is because the Academy really likes giving Oscars to famous people once they do work they think is worthy of it (as Sandra Bullock’s mantlepiece can attest) and half of it is because she absolutely deserves it.
Here’s the scalding hot tea that I’ve been keeping my hands wrapped around for years now: Jennifer Lopez is one of our most enduring, committed and talented entertainers. She’s one of the few people to make the jump from acting to singing successfully and continue to do both for a long time, and maybe the only person to make the jump from dancer to actor to singer to worldwide superstar.
Let’s leave her musical career to the side for a moment, but it’s worth noting that having the biggest hit of your career ten years in, well into your forties, as a woman, is nearly unheard of, Madonna excepted. Seriously. At one point, ‘On the Floor’ was the third most-watched video on YouTube ever. And while we’re not talking about her musical career, let’s also not talk about her voice. A great singing voice has never been a guarantee of a long lasting singing career, especially in pop music, and Lopez’s could be at best described as … competent.
Let’s also leave her fame to the side for a bit. J Lo has been one of the most famous people in the world for nearly 25 years now. It doesn’t play into her talent at all, but it weirdly is one of the reasons that makes her great in Hustlers.
What we are talking about is her acting. She gets a lot of shit for not being a very good actress, which I think is absolute bullshit.
The sad fact is that Lopez just… hasn’t been in very many good films, and especially not the kind of films that get critics raving about the performances in them. Her performances are in horror films (The Cell, a genuinely visionary and underrated movie), romantic comedies (Maid in Manhattan, The Wedding Planner), thrillers (The Boy Next Door, Enough) and procedurals (Shades of Blue, the two season show that nobody except me watched). She does well in pretty much all of them, even though none really make use of her wild charisma. But when she is in a role that makes use of it? She’s magic, and people take notice.
Firstly, take Out of Sight. Not only is it one of Steven Soderbergh’s best films with a remarkably tolerable turn from George Clooney, it features Lopez giving one of the best performances of the 1990s, as Karen Sisco, a cop who falls for a con artist. Lopez rises to the screwball-noir timbre of the script: She’s defensive, she’s sexy, she’s funny, she’s hard-nosed. She’s playing the archetype of the detective, while also playing a real life, breathing human being who finds George Clooney very attractive, and isn’t afraid of that. There’s not a false note in the performance, which is even more remarkable given the multiple levels of deceit that Sisco is operating on, including self-deceit.
Secondly, take Selena. A boilerplate biopic, but one that Lopez acquits herself well in. She’s not a great imitator – movie stars tend not to be especially gifted mimics – but she carries the same kind of radiance that Selena herself had. Even more importantly, she convinces as someone who could capture the attention of an entire nation, which Lopez herself would later do on a worldwide level.
And thirdly, triumphantly: Hustlers. As Ramona, the experienced stripper based on a real-life woman from this New York story, Lopez delivers the performance of her career. On one level, it’s just a showcase of great acting. Lopez knows Ramona inside and out – she’s the kind of person who’s looking only to their next pay cheque, and that knowledge rests in every gesture, every line reading, every reaction to someone else’s success.
But on another level, it’s the kind of performance that you can only really get from a star. A huge part of the joy in watching a star onscreen is seeing them just do things. This is Jennifer Lopez smoking in a fur coat on a rooftop. This is Jennifer Lopez doing a dance to Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’. This is Jennifer Lopez giving a speech on how America is exactly like a strip club (which is honestly one of those gift monologues that exists to win awards, a la Mo’Nique in Precious). As a viewer, there’s a subconscious charge to watching someone this famous doing that. This woman who has been in your brain for the past few decades is in front of you just being.
Hustlers doesn’t just allow her to give the performance of her career, it’s one of those perfect roles that draws on everything a performer has in their arsenal – all the things that only they can do – and showcases them. Hustlers lets Lopez hold court, it lets her dance, it lets her be absolutely goddamned terrifying.
The one thing that Hustlers draws on that no other role Lopez has ever had has asked of her is, for lack of a better word, her hustle.
The greatness of J Lo, as performer and personality, is that she lets you know how hard she’s working, but she makes it look easy. In her most memorable live performances, that’s what shines the most. Take this performance of ‘Let’s Get Loud’ (an absolute stormer) from a few years ago. It’s performance as sport – she changes outfits, she slides through people’s legs, she has more than a few dance breaks, she sings live, and she entertains. When you look at her generation of pop star, nobody is doing what she’s doing except maybe Beyonce – and even then, Beyonce is not doing precisely this. Beyonce covers the work with art, with Lopez the work is the art.
Which is why she’s perfect for, and perfect as, Hustlers‘ Ramona. Ramona’s life is the hustle. Everything she does is in service of that, because it’s the only way she knows how to live. Jennifer Lopez has been working it, in one way or another, her entire life. Whether it’s as a Fly Girl, an actress, an American Idol judge, or walking an iconic Versace dress on a runway two decades after she made it famous, thus unwittingly inspiring the invention of Google Images, she’s always working. And she doesn’t just make it look easy, she makes it look great.
There’s a format meme that’s been going around recently, largely making fun of all the kudos that dudes get for playing dark and gritty roles, while women go largely unpraised for doing great work in lighter work that’s regarded as being easier. It goes like this ‘A actress could do B film but C actor couldn’t do D film.’
Kirsten Dunst could do Joker but Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t do Bring It On. Julia Louis-Dreyfus could do There Will Be Blood but Daniel Day-Lewis couldn’t do Veep. Cate Blanchett could do The Revenant, but Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t do, well, any of Cate Blanchett’s roles.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, could do Hustlers like Jennifer Lopez does. It’s the kind of role that would make her a star right from the jump, if she wasn’t already one of the most famous women in the world. But right now, I think she’ll be happy just settling for an Oscar.
You can watch Hustlers in theatres now, and you really should.