The Jennifer Lopez Oscar Conversation 20 Years In The Making

(Welcome to Role Call, where we examine two performances from an actor – their first defining role and their most recent/last – to get a sense of who they are.)

If Academy voters in 1997 had fully understood Selena's cultural importance, Jennifer Lopez would have been nominated for an Oscar twenty years ago.

Her portrayal of the young singer who was gunned down on the eve of launching into ultra-popularity was such a revelation that it turned Lopez into a star overnight, but it didn't garner Oscar attention, which is a shame because what she achieved with the role was similar to what Joaquin Phoenix did as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line nearly a decade later.

With an Indie Spirit nomination for Mi Familia and a Golden Globe nomination for Selena under the belt, Lopez has never returned to the narrow version of prestige demanded by the Oscars. She opted, instead, for global pop music domination and a genre filmography that's earned billions.

She's part of the Oscar conversation now, but it's not because Hustlers is the kind of movie that fits into the Academy's tidy vision of what deserves recognition. If Lopez gets nominated, and if she wins for playing Ramona Vega, it will be because she and others have forced the Oscars to widen their gaze far beyond the days when Helen Hunt, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, and Kate Winslet were all vying for the top prize.

Let's look at how Lopez got here.

Her Early Role: Selena

Before Selena, reviews of Lopez almost always noted that she was poised for stardom. After Selena, she attained it.

Full disclosure: I grew up in the 1990s in Selena's home town of Corpus Christi, Texas, where her music was constantly in the air. When she died, national news often referred to her as "The Mexican Madonna," but her influence was way stronger in south Texas because, while Madonna felt like distant pop royalty, Selena was a superstar who lived down the block. She was worshiped.

Lopez's portrayal hit the sweet spot of all the best biopic roles, threading the needle between celebrity impression and great acting that doesn't touch on the real-life person. No scene conveys that better than her singing "Como La Flor," bursting with youthful excitement and inhabiting the raw joy of the music in front of a crowd swaying in time as they fall deeper in love. But to recognize how thoroughly Lopez nails this role, you need to know Selena. Or be Roger Ebert.

Which is why I have no doubt that the Academy would have nominated Lopez if they'd understood Selena's cultural significance and known her public appeal. This isn't revisionist history, either. Writers at the time, like The Washington Post's Donna Britt, recognized the snub.

If there's any fault in the film, it's that it's too sanitized and protective of the family's image (ahem, Bohemian Rhapsody). But in a movie dedicated to preserving a squeaky clean view, in a movie focused almost too much on Selena's father (played by Edward James Olmos), Lopez still manages to shine as a superstar.

The Persona: Promising Young Star

Selena was only the biggest element of Lopez's breakout. 1997 was the kind of year young actors dream of, but it was also incredibly weird. It started with Lopez dancing in a hotel room across from Jack Nicholson in the thriller Blood and Wine, which primed her with tons of praise. Then, Selena and Anaconda hit theaters within a month of each other which makes for a sequin-covered, CGI-snake infested whiplash of a double feature. She bookended the year with another thriller, U Turn, across from Sean Penn. That is a hell of a launch.

But without Selena, Lopez might have easily faded into the background the way too many young romantic interests do. That she didn't is a testament to her strength and presence. It's also a testament to the genuinely wide swath of movies she was prepared to do, rom the creature feature depths of genre, to a Steven Soderbergh crime flick with George Clooney, to an animated movie about ants.

If you don't think the freakish nightmare-scape of The Cell and the schmoopy vanilla frosting of The Wedding Planner landing back to back makes Lopez one of the most fascinating mainstream actors of this generation, nothing will convince you. She makes choices. And she lands them. Even in her worst films, she manages to rise above.

But in 1997, neither of those would have fit the image people had of her – primarily as the moll in crime films opposite bedraggled, aged leading men of intensity. With the roles she took (and the peerless pop music empire she built simultaneously), Lopez was able to capitalize on her image as an ingenue without being boxed in.

Her Latest Role: Stripper, Mastermind

Even after proving herself in Selena, profiles were more than happy to focus on her physical attributes instead of her talent, like this particularly gross Entertainment Weekly piece drooling about interviewing her in her bathrobe and lamenting that, "Alas, she isn't nude," during the conversation. This was the context in which culture outlets pre-wrapped young women (and still often do!), so it's particularly fitting that Lopez has converted that lust into a role as the matriarch of a group of strippers who drug and rob Wall Street goons.

Based on real life events, Lopez plays the veteran dancer who concocts a clever con to separate the wealthy from their money using a dose of knock out juice and Kung Fu flirtation that turns men's appetites against them. It's a stirring role of intoxicating charm, personal demons, and justified (?) Robin Hood-ism, and, as you knew she would, Lopez rocks it.

The Persona: Overdue Oscar

The physically and emotionally demanding part has earned a lot of Oscar buzz (and Fiona Apple's seal of approval). It's about time.

It isn't surprising that Lopez hasn't been in the Oscar conversation for most of her career based on the kinds of movies she's chosen, but that leaves me wondering what might have been different if voters had had the good sense to recognize her achievement in Selena as her career was just starting.

Maybe nothing. Maybe the late 1990s wasn't ready for an actor/singer who could swing between prestige, genre bloodbaths, quirky crime flicks, and a recording/touring schedule that kept her on top of the charts. That feels like a 2019 convention.

But maybe she would have been offered the kind of roles befitting an actor of her range. Maybe it's Lopez in The Sixth Sense instead of Toni Collette. Maybe it's Lopez instead of Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. Maybe we wouldn't have had to wait 20 years to start talking about Lopez as an Oscar-caliber performer.

And maybe this is the start of a new phase of her career with the brand new persona: Academy conqueror.