They’re destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our hearts throughout 2019. Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Oscars ceremony, EW is breaking down the year’s best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: Adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” director Lorene Scafaria‘s bold cultural critique follows an enterprising exotic dancer, Destiny (Constance Wu), who falls under the spell of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran dancer who corrals a band of badass strip club employees (Cardi B, Lizzo, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer) to scam their wealthy Wall Street clients out of money in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Told through Destiny’s lonely, wide eyes as she finds a tribe of women who, despite their amoral dealings in stealing untold sums of cash from rich executives, find a powerful sense of sisterhood and belonging amid a male-dominated society that’s quick to cast them aside, Hustlers plays more like a platonic love story than it does a brutal true-crime chronicle. The weight of the ladies’ misdeeds (which make for a powerful comment on class and wealth in America on their own) becomes less important than the bonds Scafaria depicts as forged on the fringes of society, and the strength of Ramona’s harsh (yet maternal) “raising” of Destiny charges the film for its emotional wallop of a conclusion that will have you reaching for a few crisp bills to dab away all the tears.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Historical stats gives us the easy answer, as female directors simply haven’t been able to generate the same pull in the Oscar race as men, whether they’re directing financially successful films with subject matter square in the Academy’s wheelhouse (Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) or, as Scafaria did, torching standards for female characters by corralling a group of popular stars for GoodFellas with a feminine twist. Seeing popular actresses like Lopez portray women who skirt morality didn’t sit well with many (Scafaria herself has said that she had trouble getting the film made because executives wanted a clear-cut portrait of good versus evil, which would betray the spirit of the story), and defying expectations is never conducive to winning Academy favor.
The more abstract reason for Hustlers‘ across-the-board Oscars snub, however, appears to be tied to Lopez herself. She’s one of the most famous women in the world, known for stretching herself across multiple industries (music, movies, fashion) to build an entertainment empire over the last three decades, though she’s never been taken seriously as a respected actress. While she’s consistently turned in fabulous performances in films like Out of Sight, The Cell, An Unfinished Life, and more, the rise of her public persona as a superstar — or, rather, the persona created for her in the early 2000s by tabloids obsessing over her various relationships — dovetailed with her success as a rom-com queen (Maid in Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, Monster-in-Law), and she’s been placed in a still-inescapable performative box ever since. Thus, it’s probably difficult for the Academy’s stuffier members (think: older, more traditionally minded voters, even in the actors branch) to consider her as a serious actress.
There’s no justification for Lopez’s snub, however. Regardless of how you feel about the film around her, the months of physical preparation and pole work she did to prepare for her opening sequence — a jaw-dropping, siren song striptease set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” one of the best scenes of 2019 — is seemingly unrivaled among her Supporting Actress category peers, and if merit were the sole guiding force in the race, Lopez’s name would already be engraved on the Oscar Laura Dern will surely win this weekend.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: While the Academy ignored it, America made it rain on the film’s box office totals, as it pulled in around $105 million on domestic screens (Lopez’s first live-action movie to cross the $100 million marker in North America). In an era where female directors are still fighting to share an equal stage with their male counterparts in the industry, Hustlers‘ success pushes the envelope a little further, at the very least widening the field for Scafaria’s path as a director (who doesn’t want to work with someone coming off a profitable hit?) while also bolstering the case for other studios to consider more women (Scafaria wasn’t the first choice for the film, as a crop of male directors was reportedly considered before she landed the job thanks to a considered pitch and sizzle reel) during the first round of hiring.
But, the film’s biggest achievement is its status as an old-fashioned cultural phenomenon. It’s a movie that, from the chemistry between its electric, buzzy stars (Lopez, Wu, Cardi B, Lizzo) to its dazzling trailers and killer soundtrack, became an unavoidable force on social media, inspiring memes and digital discourse from the moment its first trailer debuted online. It’s an increasingly rare, populist commercial hit directed with prestige flair, a real work of art easily consumed by the masses despite its prickly characters who, in the end, were far too sharp for the Academy elite to handle.
But, it’s okay if Oscar sits this one out. In the end, that just means more room in J.Lo’s fur for the rest of us.