JENNIFER LOPEZ, MORE THAN JUST A FLY GIRL

During a holiday dinner late last year, the topic of Jennifer Lopez’s acting career came up, within the context of a larger film discussion, thanks to my mentioning her excellence in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). It was at this point that one person made a joke about her acting prowess—basically, that she cannot act. He asked if she was ever actually that good in Out of Sight, or was the film around her just so good that it fooled audiences and critics into thinking she was any good?

Annoyed with his condescension, I was also bothered by the implications of his statement; namely, that Lopez did not add value Out of Sight but instead only gained value through participation in the film. This opinion simply serves to diminish her contributions. Lopez is a large part of the reason why the film is a classic. Being the resident cinephile at the table—and the only one who actually writes about movies—I considered presenting my TED Talk on why Lopez has been, at various points in her long career, a very good actress. I could have launched into an exegesis on her work in films and television series like Money Train, The Cell, Enough, and Shades of Blue, each of which proves my thesis. I could have done this, but decided against it, as these arguments might be lost on my audience. Not everyone takes movies as seriously as some of us do, after all. Instead, I politely disagreed, and decided to just write about it later. Then I saw Hustlers soon after, and realized Lopez’s charismatic performance as Ramona basically wrote both the article and much of my TED Talk for me. First though, let’s look at why critical perceptions of her onscreen are often unfair and her strengths as an actor.

Lopez is not just an actor, of course, but also a successful pop star, talented dancer, all-around performer, global personality, Super Bowl halftime entertainer extraordinaire—in other words, a brand. Few superstars of the last two decades come close to her level of pop cultural saturation. In many ways, her being regarded as a multi-hyphenate has resulted in critics downplaying her skills at acting. Surely, the thinking goes, she can’t possibly be a full-time celebrity personality—appearing everywhere at once, seemingly, from records to films to tabloids to Instagram—and also produce lasting work that matters. That dinner party certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone express this opinion. However, when we watch Lopez (or any actor) onscreen in movies or television, we should attempt to see her as the character she’s playing, to analyze her work within the context of the film without dragging ingrained and largely unfair perceptions into it.

With that in mind, and pushing all of Lopez’s pop star baggage aside, we’re left with a body of work that has often been uneven, yet not unexpectedly so when you consider some of the material she’s had to work with. Certainly, could she have made a few better choices? Gigli would seem to point to the answer being “Yes.” But we could say the same about any number of actors, too. When Lopez is at her best, she brings to her roles a very appealing blend of quiet strength, old-school cool vibes (reminiscent of Pam Grier’s style), and a vulnerable humanity. Think Karen Sisco in Steven Soderbergh’s Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight (1998). Widely regraded as her best work (well, not for guys like the one at the holiday dinner, of course), the performance captures what makes Lopez such an engaging and charismatic presence onscreen. She’s tough and resilient as US Marshal Sisco, while also conveying the character’s kindness and vulnerability. She falls for escaped convict Jack Foley, played George Clooney, knowing full well that it’s a terrible idea. But Lopez and Clooney have off-the-charts chemistry, and we believe their attraction is more powerful than either of them can deny. Lopez manages to reveal Karen’s conflict throughout the film, torn between stoic professionalism and her passionate heart.

Although hardly anyone seems to remember these days, Lopez displayed many of these charms in earlier roles also. In Money Train (1995), which was really her first big movie, she’s very much the love interest for Wesley Snipes, but still manages to craft something memorable. As New York City transit cop Grace Santiago, she masterfully utilizes two of her best physical gifts—a radiant smile and big, expressive eyes—to reel in both Snipes and the audience. She’s positively electrifying in what still stands as one of her most delightful performances. She feels light as air here, natural and effortless, sexy and spirited. It’s a lovely performance in an extremely fun film.

Two years after Out of Sight, Lopez returned to cinemas in Tarsem Singh’s underrated visual feast The Cell (2000). While the film is rightly remembered as a phantasmagoria of surreal and highly disturbing imagery, it’s less often noted for placing Lopez at the center of it all in a way that perfectly plays off both her beauty and public perception. As a child psychologist brought in to literally enter the mind of a serial killer, through an experimental virtual reality treatment, Lopez acts as the contrast to the killer’s fractured mental imagery. Singh treats her as a work of art within the deranged canvases of the serial murderer’s mind. The elaborate costumes and makeup she wears through much of her travels inside this hellscape of twisted thoughts and memories are intensely beautiful and frightening, often in equal measure. Her work here seems overlooked because its easy to view her as simply posing in front of a series of intricately conceived set designs and effects, when she’s actually perfectly representing the converse of the film’s horrors, standing as a source of light and goodness, a woman who can emotionally reach the wounded inner child of a serial killer. Her character is an extreme empath, and as in many of her roles Lopez conveys this humanity through a compassionate performance.

In between her lesser films over the years, Lopez has contributed other strong and memorable turns in films as diverse as Selena (1997), Anaconda (1997), Angel Eyes (2001), and Enough (2002). She took several long breaks from making movies, focusing professionally on making albums, but with her recent, excellent performances in three seasons of the NBC series Shades of Blue (2016-2018) and last year’s Hustlers, she reminded us that it’s often quality over quantity that counts. With Hustlers, especially, Lopez was as good as she’s ever been onscreen.

We first meet Lopez’s character Ramona in Lorene Scarfaria’s  Hustlers through the eyes of Destiny, a new hire at Moves, the New York strip club where Ramona is the featured attraction. The moment is treated with near-mythic grandeur, as the wide-eyed Destiny is completely under Ramona’s sway. First, the DJ whips up the (largely) male crowd into a frenzy of anticipation while introducing her. Then, to the opening notes of Fiona Apple’s  “Criminal”—the title of which foreshadows where the story is headed—Ramona saunters out, mostly naked save for a few strategically placed strips of fabric, stalking the stage like a panther about to play with her victims before devouring them.

Ramona’s stage routine is charismatic and memorable, which is no surprise considering Lopez’s talent and experience as a singer and dancer. As she mounts the pole at center stage, she’s in complete control of the audience—and especially Destiny—using her body and physicality to seduce them into showering her with hundred dollar bills. After rolling around on the cash-covered floor, her body bathed in the neon purple and pink hues of the houselights, Ramona confidently struts offstage carrying the spoils of her victory. Walking past Destiny, she coos to her future protege, “Doesn’t money make you horny?”

This is Jennifer Lopez’s electrifying introduction in Hustlers. Soon after, Ramona relaxes on the roof of the club, looking positively regal and resplendent in what must be an absurdly expensive fur coat. She envelopes Destiny in that luxuriant fur, a nurturing act of kindness that shields Destiny from a cold New York night. It’s a lovely gesture, and beautifully signals two things. First, Ramona is the den mother to the other dancers, always encouraging and looking out for them. She treats them like family. Second, it shows the chemistry that underlies much of Destiny’s and Ramona’s relationship throughout the film. Neither woman is saddled with a male partner in the film for long; instead, the central romance is clearly between these two beautiful and intelligent women of color. Their love is platonic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not highly charged, as bright and kinetic as the neon lights during Ramona’s opening number.

Hustlers is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves.” The women of Hustlers are hustling, alright—hustling to make some hard-earned cash and hustling privileged wolves of Wall Street out of their immorally earned cash that led straight into the American financial crisis of the late 2000s. Yet beyond the hustle, there’s the friendships between the women that ultimately forms an unconventional, but very real, family—it’s not the family you’re born into, but the family you make that matters most. Ramona and Destiny are fiercely protective and loving single mothers—at one point Ramona declares with pride, “Motherhood is a mental illness.” Together they build a support group of sisters to help each other get by in a system rigged to exploit them and benefit the privileged.

Ramona’s hustle begins with her and the other dancers flirting and getting the men drunk enough to turn over their credit card information. The booze certainly helps this along, but Ramona knows it’s really about the lure of sex, and if she and her girls can just dangle that prospect for long enough, these men will absolutely bite. By then, it’s too late: they’ve been scammed. Scarfaria never portrays Ramona and her crew as unblemished heroes or outright villains; instead they’re simply regular women fighting against a corrupt system that previously had only exploited them. As Ramona bluntly explains late in the film, in a moment that seemed destined for Lopez’s Oscar reel, “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” Whether they’ve earned it illegally or not, these men are going to throw their money around, and Ramona is smart enough to make sure she and her girls are there to catch it.

Eventually the group’s success goes to their heads, and Ramona’s trust in unreliable members of her group leads to the downfall of the entire operation. At that point, Ramona and Destiny have already had a major falling out. Once the authorities are breathing down everyone’s necks, Destiny cops a plea deal to save her daughter from the kind of motherless childhood that she endured. When the two women meet again, Ramona is furious at Destiny for giving her up. It’s one of Lopez’s best scenes, as she positively seethes with anger before deftly pivoting to a sad, resigned acceptance of Destiny’s decision because, after all, she’s a mother, too. “Motherhood is a mental illness,” she repeats once more, and no other explanation between these two women is needed. Then, like the earlier scene on the rooftop, Ramona envelopes Destiny in a big, nurturing hug. Tears are shed, and our hearts break a little for both of them.

Much of Jennifer Lopez’s best work—Money Train, Out of Sight, The Cell, Enough—came during the first half of her acting career. In a way, I can almost see why that dinner party guest seemed so confident in his criticism—it had been a long time since Lopez had truly shone onscreen. All the more reason to celebrate Hustlers and its importance to her career. It proves that, contrary to popular opinion, her best work may still be ahead of her. Lopez’s unforgettable performance as Ramona garnered several award nominations and a few wins, though the Academy once again proved its irrelevance by not even nominating her for Best Supporting Actress. No matter, awards are meaningless, after all. Watching Lopez dominate every minute she’s onscreen in Hustlers is evidence enough that she gave one of 2019’s great performances. It even deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as her outstanding work in Out of Sight, which is rather remarkable, given that film came out more than 20 years ago. Lopez may have focused more on her music than acting during the intervening years, but with Hustlers she reminded us that she’s still building an impressive legacy onscreen. It seems time to finally lay to the rest the cliche that she’s “only” a celebrity, or a brand. The reality is that she’s been excellent in many roles now, which is more than most people seem to realize. And that includes our friend, the dinner party guest.