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Could Hustlers Scam Its Way Into the Oscars Race?

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers. Photo: Courtesy of STX

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I attended a raucous premiere screening of a film about a diverse group of women achieving self-actualization by stealing from rich, white men. I came away convinced that this socially conscious, expertly crafted thrill ride would be a player in the awards race, but experts I spoke to were unconvinced — was this movie really the kind of thing the Academy would go for?

That film was Widows, and I covered that debate in a post called “Is Widows an Oscar Movie?” which just goes to prove the old adage that the answer to every question in a headline is “no.” Steve McQueen’s crime caper was roundly ignored by most awards bodies, and went on to achieve exactly zero Oscar nominations, a major letdown for a director whose previous movie had taken home Best Picture. Now, 12 months later, the same debate is happening again.

One of my favorite films of this year’s TIFF was Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, the real-life story of a gang of New York City strippers who moved from playing with Wall Street guys’ hearts to relieving them of their credit cards. More than one critic at Toronto called the movie “Goodfellas, with sex workers,” and the films do share a similar propulsive energy, as well as a knack for the perfect music cue. As Hustlers is based on a 2015 New York magazine article, I have no choice but to be completely in the tank for it, and were I an Oscar voter, I would choose it in every category, even some that don’t exist yet. (Julia Stiles for Best Performance by an Actor in a Role Based on Journalist Jessica Pressler!)

But despite film’s strong box office and outstanding reviews, Oscar-watchers are hesitant to put the film on their shortlists just yet. As with Widows, there is the lingering sense that Hustlers might not be “an Oscar movie,” a mental distinction that is no less real for being almost impossible to define. (Never forget that Suicide Squad is an Oscar winner.) In the season’s early days, when very few of the year’s contenders have screened, those kind of judgments matter; I’ve heard that over the summer Hustlers wasn’t even an option on GoldDerby’s back end, though that has since changed. Even after the premiere, not everyone is convinced. “Is it an Oscar contender? Don’t believe the hype,” pundit Anne Thompson wrote at Indiewire, adding that the film “is far more likely to play for the Hollywood Foreign Press than the more tony Academy voters, who want their Oscar contenders to shine with the patina of art.”

Getting voters to reconsider the film will come with some challenges. Hustlers is being distributed by STX, a mid-sized studio that, as one critic reminded me, has only one Oscar nomination to its name. (Best Adapted Screenplay for Molly’s Game.) A full-bore awards campaign is an expensive proposition, and compared to its deep-pocketed rivals, STX’s resources are slightly more limited. I’ve also seen the opening of a slight generation gap in how Hustlers has been received. The movie floats, if not outright endorses, the notion that many of the womens’ victims had it coming, an argument that doesn’t seem to be troubling younger viewers versed in an online culture where scamming is an aspirational goal. However, I’ve heard older female festival-goers say they thought the film was “disgusting” and “offensive,” complaints that may be echoed in Sherman Oaks come awards time.

What may ultimately sway voters to sidle up to Hustlers, appropriately enough, is money. Last year, one Oscar strategist pin-pointed to me where Widows went wrong: The film was so afraid of being pegged as “just a genre movie” that its marketing took great pains to emphasize its serious, socially conscious side. The result was a fairly dour campaign, and when audiences didn’t show up, Widows stumbled. Hustlers, meanwhile, is selling itself as unabashed fun, and after pulling in over $30 million on opening weekend looks like a hit. Now, having already established its box-office bonafides, the film can lean into its political message without seeming like vegetables — a pivot pulled off just last year by Bohemian Rhapsody.

And Hustlers also has something Widows lacked: a truly breakout performance from Jennifer Lopez as the ringleader of the gang of grifters. The part calls for Lopez to use every ounce of her star power — never more so than in her introduction, a powerhouse pole dance sequence set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” — but she also invests the role with previously unseen layers. “She’s doing the best work of her career,” our own Angelica Jade Bastién writes, “weaponizing an undeniable charisma and turning it into something hard, pointed, righteous, even angry.”

The film hasn’t yet announced which category Lopez would run in, but outside Laura Dern in Marriage Story, the supporting actress category feels open this year, and a savvy campaign for Lopez would not have to stretch STX’s budget to be effective. But this is a year with few early locks, and Lopez’s path to her first nomination will have some hurdles. The multi-hyphenate star is rumored to be a leading choice to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, and while getting the gig would keep her name percolating (crucial for a September release), it would also pull her away from the trail during the shortened season’s home stretch. And as Kyle Buchanan notes in the Times, Lopez’s star image might be a hard sell for voters who prefer their Oscar first-timers to bring a touch of humility to the circuit: “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.”

Still, her character’s closing argument — “It’s all a strip club: You have people tossing the money, and people doing the dance” — may ring true to voters accustomed to pleasing their own paymasters, and the actress has cannily appropriated the line for herself on the Hustlers promo circuit. If enough viewers dig the message, Lopez remains the movie’s best chance at hearing its name read from a very different kind of stage next year. It’s just a shame many of her best scenes will never make a TV-broadcast clip package.

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Could Hustlers Scam Its Way Into the Oscars Race?