Why the Oscars ignored Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

Jennifer Lopez at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards.
Jennifer Lopez at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • When pop superstar Jennifer Lopez invites you to climb into her fur coat, you are supposed to say yes.

Lopez, 50, was perhaps the most high-profile omission from the list of Oscar nominees announced on Monday in Los Angeles.

After Hustlers (2019) began screening in September last year, many pundits expected Lopez to be a major supporting-actress contender for her performance as Ramona, a savvy stripper who steals from her wealthy clients and becomes an unlikely crime kingpin.

For a time, some even wondered if Lopez could win. Those dreams were dashed by the awards-season dominance of Marriage Story scene-stealer Laura Dern, but Lopez still seemed like a no-brainer to score her first nomination: The Oscars love it when a movie star shows unexpected depth and Lopez had plenty of critics in her corner.

What happened? Here are a few explanations for how it all went wrong.

HUSTLERS COULD NOT REBRAND FOR THE AWARDS SEASON

Though it was a box-office hit that grossed more than US$100 million (S$135 million) in North America, Hustlers failed to get much traction this awards season.

Even the Golden Globes, with its separate comedy categories, neglected to nominate Hustlers for the top prize.

When it comes to awards season, populist blockbusters need to effectively recontextualise themselves if they hope to compete against weightier, more traditional "Oscar bait" - meaning it is not enough just to be seen as a hit.

While there was plenty going on beneath the glossy surface of Hustlers - as a parable of class struggle, it would have been great company for Oscar darling Parasite - most voters did not reconsider it.

This hindered Lopez, who would have been the sole nominee for her movie up against a field of women who either hail from best-picture contenders or appear in films that scored multiple nominations.

Ultimately, the supporting-actress category made room for only one such lone-star nominee: Richard Jewell actress Kathy Bates, who fronted a much weaker movie but is, at least, a former Oscar winner.

LOPEZ IS SEEN AS MORE OF A CELEBRITY THAN AN ACTRESS

After acclaimed performances in Selena (1997) and Out Of Sight (1998) early in her career, Lopez has mostly stuck to starring in light romantic comedies, which lowered her critical bona fides.

Even those films were not perceived to be her bread and butter: Lopez is now better known as a performing artist, reality-TV judge and tabloid celebrity.

The latter designation is tough to shake, as Lopez's former flame Ben Affleck can confirm. When Affleck failed to earn a best-director nomination for Argo (2012), many attributed it to backlash incurred by his long-ago love affair with Lopez, which spanned music videos, gossip pages and the notorious box-office bomb Gigli (2003).

Had Lopez been more available this season, time could have been spent emphasising her as an actress, with retrospectives and frequent Q&As to drive that point home.

Alas, Lopez was limited in her ability to campaign. She was busy shooting a new romantic comedy with Owen Wilson in the autumn and was recently announced as a co-headliner for the Super Bowl halftime show, which will air days before the Oscars.

That gig is a major coup for Lopez as a performer, but it has reinforced the perception that acting is not her primary profession.

FILMS ABOUT WOMEN WERE UNDER-SEEN THIS AWARDS SEASON

This year's crop of best-picture contenders are dominated by male ensembles, and films such as 1917 and The Irishman have only a handful of lines for actresses.

Movies fronted by women, including Hustlers, Bombshell and The Farewell, had a harder time standing out. Though Little Women just barely made it into the best-picture race, it did so only after a series of high-profile snubs along the way.

The academy has made it a priority to include more women in its membership, but it is still dominated by older men who have spent decades deciding what narratives are considered weighty and worthy.

A crime ensemble starring men can succeed, but when the script is flipped and women are cast, voters are less enticed.

Even director Steve McQueen, who followed his 12 Years A Slave (2013) best-picture victory with last year's female heist drama Widows, found that acclaimed contender completely snubbed.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2020, with the headline 'Why the Oscars ignored Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers'. Print Edition | Subscribe