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Has the film Academy’s recent push for not only more diverse but also younger members actually moved the needle, as far as what sorts of films and performances wind up with Oscar nominations? A great test case will be Lorene Scafaria‘s Hustlers, a dramedy about a group of New York strippers who team up to con male patrons in order to survive the Great Recession, which features a leading performance by Jennifer Lopez that many here at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it premiered Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall and screened again Sunday at the Ryerson Theatre) feel is awards-worthy.
Adapted for the big screen by Scafaria (heretofore best known for writing and directing 2015’s The Meddler) from a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler that went viral, Hustlers invites comparisons to 9 to 5, the 1980 classic about women facing nonsense in the workplace, and Widows, a 2018 film about women who team up to commit crimes, but also to a host of male-centric films that the Academy actually embraced. Among them: 1995’s The Usual Suspects (which was structured around an interrogation and flashbacks, just like Hustlers, and took home acting and screenplay Oscars) and just about every Martin Scorsese film about the sense of brotherhood felt by men committing crimes together, especially 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street (which captures the desire for — and price of — a life of excess in and around New York’s financial district, just like Hustlers, and wound up with five Oscar nominations, including picture, screenplay and two for acting).
Even though Hustlers, which was made for only $20 million and shot over just 29 days, barely features any nudity and is not really about stripping at all, the fact that it will inevitably be described as “the film about strippers” may hamper its ability to compete for a best picture nom — many Academy members like to nominate films with obvious “gravitas” for their organization’s top prize, best picture. (This is a gender-neutral issue — just ask the folks behind 2012’s well-received male stripper movie Magic Mike, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh.)
But Lopez’s performance, as the most experienced and successful stripper who is also the ringleader of the group of lawbreakers, may be a different story. A highly skilled actress who has been around the, well, block, for quite some time, the 50-year-old has amassed a body of work that includes fluffy rom-coms, to be sure, but also some excellent performances, most notably in 1997’s Selena and 1998’s Out of Sight. She has never received an Oscar nomination, but she is well-liked, famously hard-working and clearly poured her heart and soul into this project.
Moreover, for what I’m sure are a variety of reasons, the Academy has a long history — really, from the very first Oscars onward — of nominating actresses who play sex workers, usually strippers who have a heart of gold and/or face serious consequences before the end-credits. Think about it: Janet Gaynor in 1928’s Street Angel (she won), Greta Garbo in Camille (1936), Claire Trevor in 1937’s Dead End, Anne Baxter for 1946’s The Razor’s Edge (she won), Donna Reed in 1953’s From Here to Eternity (she won), Jo Van Fleet for 1955’s East of Eden (she won), Susan Hayward in 1958’s I Want to Live! (she won), Shirley MacLaine in 1958’s Some Came Running, Elizabeth Taylor in 1960’s Butterfield 8 (she won), Shirley Jones in 1960’s Elmer Gantry (she won), MacLaine in 1963’s Irma La Douce, Jane Fonda in 1971’s Klute (she won), Jodie Foster in 1976’s Taxi Driver, Julia Roberts in 1990’s Pretty Woman, Elisabeth Shue in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, Mira Sorvino in 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite (she won), Kim Basinger in 1997’s L.A. Confidential (she won), Nicole Kidman in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster (she won), Natalie Portman in 2004’s Closer and Marisa Tomei in 2008’s The Wrestler.
In short, and obviously depending upon what other films emerge this season, I feel good about Lopez’s prospects — she would be only the fifth Latina lead actress Oscar nominee — and wouldn’t rule out a screenplay or even a picture nom, either, given how much the Academy and society has changed over the last few years. Even before those changes, the Academy made bold, outside-the-box decisions every once in a while — acting noms for Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, screenplay noms for Bridesmaids and Straight Outta Compton, and the like. And in 2019 (STX will release the film on Friday) and 2020 (when Oscar nomination voting will take place), a film by a woman, starring women and about women who take their fate into their own hands could just click with them.
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