The world of film has recently rediscovered Jennifer Lopez.
The surprise critical and commercial success of Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s dramatization of a true story involving a group of enterprising strippers who fleece Wall Street douchebags, has reminded audiences of many things. One, the industry will always be surprised when original stories by and for women do well and make money. Two, certain male critics will forever be befuddled by the idea of a narrative where men are utterly frivolous. And three, Jennifer Lopez is kind of amazing. As Ramona Vega, the veteran stripper who orchestrates a scheme to fleece rich customers of their cash, Lopez has received some of the best reviews of her career. Critics praised her for her nuanced work as a bombastic performer who is all too used to being underestimated and knows how to throw that back in the faces of unsuspecting goons. Sometimes, you just need an absolute superstar, and Lopez delivers that in spades. IndieWire’s annual Critics Survey from the Toronto International Film Festival, ranking the best films and performances at the festival, placed Lopez at number four, ahead of Tom Hanks’s turn as Mr. Rogers. Make no mistakes: This is an awards-worthy piece of work.
For many, Jennifer Lopez is one of those public presences who they never would have predicted could ever be considered part of the Oscars conversation. Sure, she’s many things and has many talents, but you seldom hear people talk about her stellar acting. Indeed, it’s usually the aspect of her storied career that’s derided more than celebrated. You could fill an entire book with the jokes made about Gigli. I’m pretty sure someone already has written an entire book of jokes about her oft-discussed backside. Essentially, it’s been very easy to dismiss, malign, or flat-out insult both Jennifer Lopez and her decades of work, despite the fact that she’s consistently one of the industry’s hardest workers and successfully juggling an assortment of projects across fields in a way almost nobody else in American entertainment is doing today.
It would be inaccurate to call Lopez’s Hustlers glow a sign of a comeback because she would have needed to go away for a while in order to qualify for a comeback. Lopez has never truly gone away. In one form or another, she has always been working, from dancing to singing to acting to presenting to fashion to perfume and much more. She’s worked with filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone, sold an estimated 80 million records, sold billions of dollars’ worth of perfume, and her Las Vegas residency is the highest-grossing residency in the city ever by a Latin artist. All that and she helped to invent Google Images by wearing that dress.
The term that plagued Lopez’s career for most of her early years of superstardom — after In Living Color but before her from-com domination — was that interminable claim of ‘diva’. The tabloid reports on her allegedly endless demands for all-white dressing rooms and firing maids asking for autographs were inescapable for many years. Every story seemed designed to be more elaborate and hysterical than the preceding one, regardless of how real it all sounded. It is true that some prominent names, like Rosie Perez, have talked about finding Lopez tough to work with, but there was always a tough to ignore slant of misogyny and racism to such reports on her that have only grown more distasteful with the passage of time. There was a discomfiting narrative here that Lopez, a Puerto-Rican kid from the Bronx who worked her way to the top from being a back-up dancer, didn’t ‘know her place.’
That angle took on even greater power when, after two failed marriages, she bagged America’s dream-boy Ben Affleck. He was the darling Oscar winner who had graduated to A-List success while she was the singer who did a bit of acting, dated Puff Daddy, and wore that dress. Soon, they were a singular entity known as Bennifer, the ultimate super-couple and display of celebrity force. They did movies together, he popped up in her music videos, and they generally spent a lot of time looking extremely hot together. It was a relationship that was mutually beneficial and also destructive by its end, at least in terms of public perception. A seeming perfect pair like that is easy for audiences to turn against, and it wasn’t as if Affleck was positioned as an unwilling participant in it all, but once again, Lopez bore the brunt of the blame. Even when they split (and remember, he dumped her a week before the wedding), Affleck was cracking jokes on SNL expressing relief at being rid of the ‘Bennifer’ moniker. The implication was clear: It was good for Ben and good for us all that JLo was out of the scene.
But she didn’t go away. Why did she have to? She’d done nothing wrong, and frankly, she had a better post-Bennifer period than Affleck did. She got back on the horse, kept working, found new love with Mark Anthony, and had her adorable twins. Her films did solid business and she was almost always headlining them. Then there was her tenure as a judge on American Idol, as well as her string of pop hits, always keeping up with what’s big in music at the time.
In her excellent piece for Buzzfeed, Bim Adewunmi noted how it’s Lopez’s ability to combine all of ‘the sturdiest elements of herself — a good dancer, a good-enough singer, a decent actor’ and have the whole be ‘somehow greater than the parts. What she is truly best at is seizing the moment and striding confidently in the direction of success.’ That may be one of the reasons she hasn’t received the industry respect she probably deserves, especially in acting. Ask any critic worth their salt what Lopez’s best performance is and they’ll most certainly say either Selena or Out of Sight, two films that came out over 20 years ago. The work she’s done in rom-coms and her NBC series Shades of Blue, which ran for three seasons, is seldom considered in these conversations. The general tone surrounding her acting career is the notion that she ‘gave up serious acting’ in favor of popularity, or that since it wasn’t her priority next to music, she was somehow disrespecting it. Hollywood is a lot less kind to multi-hyphenate entertainers than it used to be, but Lopez’s career has more in common with those triple-threat icons of the 1950s and ’60s than any of her American contemporaries.
Perhaps it’s not so much a renaissance Jennifer Lopez needs as a public rediscovery and reconsideration of her output. She’s a superstar who’s gotten to the top of the pile by trying her hand at everything and we have more time for the people who put in the work. At a point in the world of celebrity where it’s no longer enough to be just one thing, Lopez feels startlingly ahead of the curve. In that context, seeing her get her Oscar buzz feels like an inevitable step in her career trajectory. When you hustle as hard as she does, there’s not much that can stop you.