Critics agree that Jennifer Lopez’s absence from the Best Supporting Actress category, announced by the Academy on Monday, qualifies as a “snub.” I think that’s accurate for two reasons: first, because her performance in “Hustlers” generated strong hype, and second because it was outstanding.
It was outstanding because Lopez transformed shrewdly into a difficult character, masterfully conveying layers of class tension and womanhood that less capable actresses wouldn’t have adequately grasped. “Hustlers” is a surprisingly sharp commentary on class and sex, both for its neutral politics and nuanced sexuality. Given the subject matter, it’s hardly the tawdry fare typical of Hollywood blockbusters.
Lopez’s performance as Ramona complemented director Lorene Scafaria’s decision to capture the story’s strippers more as beautiful women than sex objects, a feat she managed to accomplish quite well. While probably not Best Picture material, it’s an exceptionally keen film.
The New York Times posits that Lopez’s snub was due partially to her not being taken seriously as an actress and “Hustlers” not being taken seriously as Oscar material. That’s probably true. To some extent, I’ll even buy the Times’s contention that female-fronted films like “Hustlers” struggle at the Oscars because the Academy “is still dominated by older men who’ve spent decades telling us what narratives are considered weighty and worthy.” (See this year’s Best Director category.)
That said, I actually think the Lopez snub is a statement on the high level of competition in the category. The list of nominees included Kathy Bates for “Richard Jewell,” Laura Dern for “Marriage Story,” Scarlett Johansson for “Jojo Rabbit,” Florence Pugh for “Little Women,” and Margot Robbie for “Bombshell.” To me, Pugh is the category’s only obvious weakness. She did a lot with the role of Amy March, I’m just not sure she did it successfully.
Despite the quality of the competition, it’s a shame Lopez will go without recognition from the Academy this year. Her celebrity hardly undercuts the strength and cultural import of her performance. Lamenting “The Death of The Hollywood Sex Symbol” in a column last month, Camille Paglia pointed specifically to “Hustlers” and Lopez as “signs of hope for a revival of Hollywood’s pagan glory days.” (I’m not so sure I agree with the “pagan” part.)
“A female caper film set in a real-life strip club, Hustlers amusingly documents the ancient sexual theater by which women have aroused, managed and profited from male desire,” Paglia wrote. “With her tough athleticism, steely jaw and commanding gaze, Jennifer Lopez as a virtuoso pole dancer restores the Amazonian lineage of Raquel Welch and relights the fire of Hollywood sex.”
In the industry’s “glory days,” Paglia explained, women represented a “secret treasure that could only be won by extraordinary men,” and sex had a “mystique” that’s since been lost.
What’s more, in the age of digital media, Paglia believes “the sex symbol as radiant Hollywood icon has been displaced by a blizzard of Instagram selfies, where increasingly young girls strike provocative poses, appropriating star-making techniques pioneered by the movie industry.” It’s difficult to argue with that.
“Bare flesh,” Paglia added, “is suffering serious overexposure. Wholesale blurring of the line between private and public is ultimately antithetical to eroticism. When everything is seen and known, there is no titillating taboo to transgress. Paradoxically, despite its relentless skin display, virtual reality dematerializes the body and has made it a locus of chronic anxiety.”
With its careful visual and emotional depictions of complicated female antiheroes, “Hustlers” managed, improbably, to overcome these very real problems–and that was thanks in no small part to Lopez’s performance. She deserved a nod. Even pitted against Johansson’s striking turn in “Jojo Rabbit,” Lopez may actually have deserved the win.