As if she isn’t getting enough attention these days for her role in the new film Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez proved this week that when you’re hot, you’re really hot. She caused a sensation by closing the Versace show in Milan wearing a green dress with a plunging-to-the-belly-button neckline that was almost identical to the dress that helped make her a star 19 years ago. Lopez “looked like she hadn’t aged a day as she strutted down the runway” noted Page Six.
Playing Ramona, a world-weary stripper, in Hustlers—which opened as the biggest box office hit the weekend before last, with a majority-female viewership—Lopez shows much more of her great 50-year-old body. But it’s not how she looks in a bikini that makes J. Lo stand out in the film. She has made Ramona a deeply realized character. She is loving and big-sisterly to vulnerable Destiny, played by Constance Wu, whom she takes under her wing (and, literally, under her fur coat) but also abidingly tough and pragmatic.
As wisdom and cynicism emanates from every nuanced expression on her artfully maintained face, Lopez makes her way in the ego-shredding world of stripping and lap dancing and then games the system to the benefit of herself and her younger colleagues. The movie, based on a true story first presented in New York Magazine, rightfully put a Me-Too feminist angle on a group of pole dancers who, led by Ramona, drugged boorish Wall Street clients, lifted their credit cards—and maxed them out.
The film has had critics anointing Lopez a Best Actress nominee. Indeed, the combination of woundedness, business sense, irony, and great humanity that Lopez gives Ramona is complex and unique. And her display of her body is both aggressive and natural; there isn’t anything trying-to-be-younger about it.
Not Enough Respect
To me—a J. Lo fan from way back—this performance was not surprising. But at least one die-hard old male reviewer, Rex Reed, was snidely condescending, his words epitomizing the underestimation of Lopez that I think has subtly gone on in some circles for years. “Despite an occasional entertaining turn, I have never thought much of Jennifer Lopez,” Reed wrote,. “Her acting has been mediocre and the noise she calls singing has left me cold.” He relaxed his hauteur enough to say, “But you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.” He praises her in Hustlers, which he otherwise thinks is a “a pop flick of no consequence, it’s inviting but forgettable an hour later.”
Actually, Hustlers is of consequence; it realistically shows the humiliation and exploitation of “sex workers,” by everyone from sleazy Wall Street clients to bosses to pimp-like hangers-on who siphon off a portion of each woman’s nightly take, and the challenges of low-income single mothers with few alternatives other than the demeaning work. But the dismissal by Reed shows, to me, another issue: a bit of class-based nose-holding at J. Lo herself.
Jennifer—“Jenny from the Block”—is the talented, fabulously hard-working, self-made daughter of a hardworking lower middle class Puerto Rican family from the Bronx. She’s been a generally terrific actress since her first breakout movie, 1998’s Out of Sight, in which she played a canny U.S. marshal escorting—and having a dalliance with—a bank robber, played by George Clooney.
The Bronx Baby
Lopez has said that playing Ramona was easy because Ramona was from the Bronx. She has always celebrated her ethnicity and her roots. After working hard as a “fly dancer” on In Living Color, she got her first break playing Selena, the beloved Mexican American singer who was murdered at 24, in the 1997 movie of the same name. She won a Golden Globe nomination for that role—and, with it, raised the pay bar for Latina actresses to a million dollars. Her breakout album was an ode to her neighborhood subway, On The 6. In every way, a local girl she has always been.
At the same time, in a pair of movies that I count as two of my favorite message-sending rom-coms ever, she became our new Cinderella: a gratifyingly ethnic version of the good “shop girl” roles of Doris Day. And, in doing so, she made “all-American” ethnic. In 2002’s Maid In Manhattan, she was a romanticized version of herself: the Bronx-dwelling, hard-working Hispanic woman who changed bedsheets in a hotel, was a doting mother, was collegial and uplifting to her fellow female hotel workers—and nabbed her Prince Charming (elite New York politician played by Ralph Fiennes) away from a snobby socialite, played by Natasha Richardson.
A year before that, in The Wedding Planner, she’d similarly portrayed the hardworking up-from-humble-roots perfectionist ethnic—this time, an Italian woman—who won the man, Matthew McConaughey, in the end. “Lopez has a working girl amiability that is recognizable across ethnic identities,” noted one website. The realism of the heroines in both of these movies was formidable; you had a strong feeling—I did, anyway—that these two female protagonists were her best version of herself.
Not Perfect, But Real
Throughout the long course of her public life, she hasn’t been “perfect”—that impossible state that female stars are still more expected to attain than their male counterparts. She had a string of romances, some of which earned her tabloid cover bad press. When she was with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, back in December 1999, she was briefly arrested with him when, after Combs had a melee at a club, she was sitting in the car next to him when he ran a red light speeding down a Manhattan avenue.
Her subsequent tabloid-ready love affair with Ben Affleck resulted in a movie for which they were widely panned: Gigli. So some of this is the noise that may have gotten into the ear of the likes of Rex Reed and others who have underestimated this superstar who, in 2001, was the first female to have a number one album and number one film in one week – and who is considered the most significant Latin performer in the U.S.
I don’t know who else will be in the Best Actress field but, after J. Lo almost inevitably wins her nomination, I hope she takes the trophy home. As she herself put it, teary-eyed—and truthfully: “I’ve just been working so hard for so long.”
To me, she’s pulled off something interesting and admirable: At 50, she’s a kind of “everything woman.”