“We were fucking hurricanes, weren’t we?”
The line comes late in Hustlers, as Jennifer Lopez’s stripper-cum-schemer Ramona envelops partner in crime Destiny (Constance Wu) in a tight, meaningful embrace.
But audiences won’t need the reminder. As the veteran dancer at a late-2000s New York strip club who forms a band of stiletto-clad criminals bent on—shall we say—redistributing the wealth still held by Wall Street types after the crash (to themselves), Lopez doesn't simply steal her scenes. She just about struts away with the movie, which, when it hits theaters Friday, will have launched one of this Oscar season’s first bona fide frontrunners.
As the witty, wily Ramona, Lopez—who earned a Golden Globe nod for Selena in 1997 and widespread praise the next year for Out of Sight—is the best she’s been in years. The hook, line, and sinker in a somewhat ingenious racket to rob rich clientele by drugging their drinks then maxing out their credit cards, she's a protective den mother, acrobatic miracle worker, charismatic sister-in-arms, and tough-as-nails lawbreaker all coiled into one glorious, larger-than-life package.
And Lopez wears the character's complexities and contradictions with style, embodying the same kind of old-school, movie-star confidence audiences saw revived elsewhere just over a month ago, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt made cinematic magic in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Her Hustlers performance deserves to be taken just as seriously.
Hers is a thrilling—and extraordinarily athletic—feat of acting, from the moment Ramona first grasps the pole. She's introduced in spectacular fashion, performing a dance set to the hypnotic beat of Fiona Apple's "Criminal" that no one in attendance can look away from for a second: not the younger, less experienced Destiny, not writer-director Lorene Scafaria (whose steady camerawork bears near-unbroken witness to Lopez's gravity-defying theatrics), certainly not the audience.
And as Ramona and her gang of scantily clad thieves escalate, growing riskier and scarier with each new target, Lopez remains magnetic, a Scorsese-esque force of a lead in a movie that has more in common with Goodfellas than first meets the eye, from its clear-eyed view of shifting power dynamics to its intricately barbed script. Not since Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike has the strip club been lit up by such powerful star wattage.
A nomination for Lopez could be historic
Oscar buzz followed Lopez out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered, and it should rise in pitch as Hustlers opens this weekend to an expected $25 million-plus debut (a stellar number, and a career-best for Lopez outside of her animated voicework).
Should the actress find herself acknowledged at this year's ceremony, she would become the first U.S.-born Latina nominated for an acting Oscar since Rosie Perez was up for Fearless 25 years ago. If competing as a lead, she'd become the only fifth Latina nominee. And if she won? It would be historic. No Latina has ever won Best Actress.
It's more likely, however, that she'll compete as a supporting actress. Rita Moreno won in that category for West Side Story in 1961, and Lupita Nyong'o (who identifies more strongly as Kenyan despite having been born in Mexico) won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave. There have been seven Latina supporting actress nominees in total.
Ironically, as discriminated against as sex workers are in most parts of the United States, Hollywood has a time-honored (and not entirely innocent) tradition of nominating actors who play them, most commonly well-intentioned strippers with hidden depths who find themselves at moral crossroads. Dozens of Hollywood's finest, from Greta Garbo (1936's Camille) to Susan Hayward (1958's I Want to Live!) and Elizabeth Taylor (1960's Butterfield 8), have not only earned nods for playing strippers but taken gold in their respective categories. More recently, consider Kim Basinger and Julianne Moore in 1997's L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights, or Charlize Theron in 2003's Monster. In some senses, playing a sex worker or stripper in a sufficiently prestigious film has historically been as safe an awards gambit as impersonating a dead politician or getting into a wheelchair.
Depending on how this Oscar season shakes up, Jenny from the Block could drive Hustlers all the way to the awards stage. Her biggest competition thus far (in supporting) comes from Margot Robbie, who plays a captivating Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time, though Lopez's role is undeniably the more dynamic of the two.
In the months to come, Greta Gerwig's star-studded Little Women adaptation will also undoubtedly introduce some contenders, as will Jay Roach's female-fronted Roger Ailes drama Bombshell (including Robbie, who risks splitting her own vote). And don't count out Annette Bening (The Report), Brie Larson (Just Mercy), or Meryl Streep (The Laundromat), all in films more Oscar-baiting than Hustlers, with its proudly brassy, girls-gone-wild streak.
But for now, there's only one name on everyone's lips. Lopez owns Hustlers, and her spectacular performance—which STX Entertainment has every incentive to capitalize on with a strong awards campaign—is the kind of unexpected pleasure Hollywood's completely right to celebrate.
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