TORONTO — Oscar voters, let me hear you make some noise: Are you ready for the one, the only, Jennifer Loooopez to take the stage?
Many a highly hyped awards campaign has been launched from the Toronto International Film Festival, but with this year’s edition, which wraps up on Sunday, all anyone can talk about is whether J. Lo’s ferociously entertaining role as a stripper who runs a credit-card crime ring in “Hustlers” can earn the 50-year-old star her first Academy Award nomination. And if you’re a fan of hers, there are plenty of reasons to be bullish.
For one, Lopez is earning some of the best reviews of her career for “Hustlers,” which premiered in Toronto this week in advance of its wide release in theaters on Friday. In the fact-based film, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Lopez plays Ramona, a veteran stripper who takes some of the club’s new dancers under her wing and starts coaxing them toward a life of crime. Introduced with a stunning striptease to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Ramona gathers her bills and coos, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” to our protagonist, Destiny (Constance Wu), who gazes back at Ramona as if she’s looking at God.
It’s the juiciest role Lopez has had in two decades, and one as complicated as her own star persona: Ramona is soft but steely, a careerist yet a caretaker, maternal but forever young. It would be easy to make her the film’s adversary, but “Hustlers” doesn’t quite do that: Ramona bails her girls out of trouble just as often as she leads them into it, and though she’s utterly shameless, she’s still motivated by a sincere desire to make things better for her fellow dancers. It’s as if Gina Gershon from “Showgirls” believed in Shine Theory.
At the film’s after-party in Toronto, Scafaria told me that Lopez was always her No. 1 pick to play Ramona. “I think people forget what an incredible actress she is and what chops she has just because she’s a triple threat and a brand,” Scafaria said. “They forget what Jennifer is capable of in a close-up, and that she can play someone complex and dangerous.”
So will “Hustlers” serve as a reminder? And will Oscar voters be willing to think of the film, and Lopez’s performance in it, as something more than just a mainstream entertainment?
I’m optimistic. It hasn’t yet been decided whether Lopez will campaign as a lead or a supporting actress, but since she’s second-billed after Wu, the latter category seems like a better bet. Certainly, Lopez would be this season’s flashiest supporting-actress contender,: other viable nominees include Laura Dern in “Marriage Story,” Margot Robbie in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and whoever pops in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”
I suspect critics’ groups could get behind Lopez, too, especially the influential New York Film Critics Circle, which has a habit of rewarding stars the rest of the cognoscenti might be tempted to dismiss, like Cameron Diaz (for “There’s Something About Mary”) and Tiffany Haddish (for “Girls Trip”).
Still, Lopez’s bid is not without potential pitfalls. The academy gravitates toward male-driven crime films, but when women are pulling off the cons — as in last year’s crackerjack “Widows” — the movies don’t always get the attention they deserve. The strip-club milieu of “Hustlers” may also be a turnoff to certain voters: Matthew McConaughey was similarly deserving for his wild-eyed supporting role in 2012’s “Magic Mike,” but the academy declined to stuff his G-string.
Award campaigns can be a monthslong endurance test, and while the busy Lopez will certainly book her fair share of actress roundtables, she may not have time for the Q&As and handshakes that are often required for a first-timer trying to break into the Oscar race. It’s rumored that she’s in negotiations to headline the halftime show of the 2020 Super Bowl, which takes place a week before the Oscars and may complicate her schedule even further.
That gig might also dissuade academy members who may feel that Lopez already has it all. When it comes to an Oscar, voters want nominees to need it just the right amount, the kind of absurd, playacting transaction that Ramona would surely raise an eyebrow at. If a crucial part of Lopez’s mystique is how she flaunts her hard-won success, academy members may sniff that she’s not doing much acting in “Hustlers.”
They’d be wrong. “The part of her that was a single mom from the Bronx, I get,” Lopez told me at the film’s after-party. “The part of her that was a nurturer, a hard worker, a survivor — I get. But the part of her that crosses the line and says, ‘I love you, but I love the money more’? That was something else.”
For as confident as Ramona might appear, it took everything Lopez had to summon up the courage to play her. “Where she’s willing to go, that was hard for me to even watch myself onscreen doing,” she said. Lopez recalled a moment at the premiere when the audience gasped at Ramona’s nerve: “Even I felt like that, and it was me looking at me!” She smiled. “But it didn’t feel like me. It felt like I was looking at somebody else.”