For over two decades, Jennifer Lopez has been flying high in show business. But it’s her career-defining performance as the formidable stripper Ramona in her latest film Hustlers that’s finally earning her the recognition she deserves.
The year was 2008, and America was in the grip of a dark financial crisis. As the dollar tumbled and the market collapsed, four glamorous strippers by the names of Samantha Barbash, Roselyn Keo, Karina Pascucci, and Marsi Rosen were making serious money moves. Their hustle? Swindling millions from Wall Street bankers, Guggenheim partners, and club regulars at Hustler and Scores, two notorious strip clubs in New York City.
Over the next decade, the women crafted a strict business plan: “fish” rich men with sexy selfies, ply them with drugs and alcohol, and secure their credit card details. When they were suitably under the influence, the women would then charge them up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for alcohol and private dances. With the funds, they lived a life of luxury.
By 2014 though, the game was up, and the women were charged by the New York Police Department for forgery, conspiracy, grand larceny, and assault, to which all four pleaded guilty. The era of the Hustlers’ criminal enterprise was over, but the story of the real-life women behind the scam was only just beginning.
One year later, New York Magazine published an account of the glitzy scandal, ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ by Jessica Pressler, which detailed exactly how four corrupt, immoral strippers had rinsed their corrupt, immoral Wall Street clients in the wake of the 2008 recession. Hollywood soon came calling, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to 2019, and Hustlers, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, has already been hailed as a serious awards season contender, thanks to the exceptional performances of its star-studded cast of Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Cardi B, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Julia Stiles and Keke Palmer.
It’s the performance of J-Lo, who plays the formidable strip club matriarch Ramona, that’s especially got the critics talking. Everyone knows that Jenny from the Block is a woman of many talents, but her role as the ringleader has been hailed as a career-defining moment, not least for her masterful pole-dancing, which took six weeks of intense one-to-one training with a professional pole choreographer to nail the moves.
Few people would doubt that J-Lo was capable of bagging a potential Oscar nomination, given the strength of her past performances. This is, after all, the woman who has notched up a slew of compelling screen roles in films like Out of Sight, and Selena, for which she received a nomination in the category Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. And despite numerous acting credits in recent years, like Maid of Manhattan, The Wedding Planner and Second Act, J-Lo has largely been left out of the awards conversation.
So why has it taken so long for Lopez to earn this moment in the spotlight? In an interview with the Inquirer, the performer had some ideas.
“People think ‘Oh, she’s not a serious recording artist.’ Or, ‘she’s not really a serious actress,’ or ‘She’s not really a serious entrepreneur.’ No, I’m very serious about all of them. That’s why I’ve spent most of my life doing as many of those things as possible,” she explained. “Because I do all those things, I don’t get the credit at times — which is fine, I don’t care. I love what I do. I have the most amazing life. I feel good about my life. I feel good about where I am.”
If that’s the case, Lopez’s fortunes might be able to change. Like her character Ramona, who was born in the Bronx, a good degree of grit and determination have finally earned the woefully underrated performer the critics’ attention, and the reviews are rapturous.
“Jennifer Lopez is the shining neon star of Hustlers, a shrewd, deliciously entertaining pop culture caper that kicks off the new season with a splash. Bring some dollar bills, because they deserve them,” wrote Benjamin Lee in The Guardian.
Meanwhile Leah Greenblatt wrote in Entertainment Weekly: “Lopez (who seems to hold the centre of every scene she’s in) and Wu bring a soulfulness and desperation to their roles that defy easy profiling. The room Hustlers leaves for that humanity — and the draw of Lopez’s magnetic presence - gives the movie more than legs; beneath all the chinchilla and body glitter, there’s a smart, beating heart,”
Elsewhere, Ramin Setoodeh of Variety left no-one in any doubt that J-Lo should receive an award: “If there’s any justice, Jennifer Lopez will receive her first Oscar nomination for channeling the ringleader Ramona as Erin Brockovich by way of Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike.”
Much has already been made of the game-changing perspective of Hustlers, which provides a window onto the world of strip clubs from the female gaze. While the actions of the former exotic dancers can’t be condoned, the characterisation of complex, flawed women is refreshing, and the feminist insight into an industry so overwhelmingly dominated by men, is definitely cause for celebration.
“People go into the movie expecting something because stripper is a word that has so many connotations and preconceived notions,” said writer-director Lorene Scafaria in an interview this week. “That’s the hustle. Hopefully we’re subverting expectations but subverting them in a way that has some nuance to it.”
Time will tell if Lopez will receive the Oscar nomination everyone is calling for, but in the meantime, Jenny from the Block, the multi-hyphenate star left out by the film industry, might just have pulled off the biggest hustle of all.
Hustlers will be released on September 13 in the UK.
Images: STX Films/Allstar