I was watching Netflix with my wife, she turned to a film that seemed like an interesting contemporary Urban Film Noir type about revenge and grief. It co-starred Jennifer Lopez. Here is my take. I’m not trying to be snarky here, Jennifer Lopez typically hasn’t been known for her acting skills, although by now she is certainly a Hollywood veteran. She has come a very, very, long way from her days as an In Living Color ‘fly-girl’ go-go dancing in a Fox channel comedy variety show. In addition to a music career, Jennifer Lopez has appeared in an extremely wide variety of movies and TV shows over the last two decades.
The question is, however, ‘Can she really act?’ Why ask the question? Well, we know Viola Davis can act, but society usually doesn’t take Jennifer Lopez seriously as an actor, she’s more of a celebrity in the public mind than a thespian. So I’m asking the question here, and I think the answer gets interesting.
Here is something that women are aware of far more than men; beauty and physical attractiveness can sometimes be a curse, or at least a hindrance. Because when everyone judges you by your looks and looks alone they won’t bother to look underneath the surface.Women are ruthlessly judged first and foremost for their physical appearances in our culture. This is a fact, and it has its consequences.
This is particularly true for celebrities, and most particularly celebrities in the movie industry. Their entire lives and work, and indeed worth, are usually judged by the makeup-mask they put on in the morning, or the $7000 dress they squeeze themselves into, before going out on the town, more to be seen than to actually have an enjoyable time.
Ms. Lopez is no exception. Many of the roles she has been cast in, over more than two decades, have been more of a factor of her pretty face. Now, it is true that the older actresses get the more serious roles that can sometimes get, if those actresses were “movie stars” or if they had the function more of being human images. It is at those times in which is celebrities acting skills are most tested. Because early in their career sometimes there are simply not given, or do not take, material that would seriously test their acting skills.
In Charles Stone III’s film, Lila & Eve (2015), we face this dilemma. Jennifer Lopez plays an extremely dark character. A murderous, and a wrath filled , vengeful one at that. And, with a rather surprising twist, one who ends up actually being more of a phantasm or phantom. Does it work?
Here’s the thing, she pulls off her role extremely well. Convincingly well.
Playing alongside the talented Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez effectively plays as Davis’s counter-part, friend, revenge buddy, and in a certain sense a bit of an alter ego.
Now, Viola Davis’s character obviously has real depth. But I expected that. What is refreshing is that Jennifer Lopez also bring some depth to her role. She is not acting as a pretty face, go-go dancing, mannequin posing for her looks. Which is what some of her career has required. She’s actually digging into herself and displaying human emotion in a way that I found convincing. Basically I think the actresses like Jennifer Lopez, given more serious roles, can bring out increasingly impressive performances.
Something that happens as we age (and why is it insulting to bring up the very real biological fact of someone’s aging), is that we ourselves acquire more depths and nuances to our characters. Sometimes the older we get, something happens to us. We become really interesting people, sometimes anyway. If we already were interesting people we sometimes become even more interesting.
The problem is that in a culture obsessed with youth, almost criminally obsessed with youth to the point of absolute stupidity, the gifts of aging are sometimes ignored or scored. In particular when these gifts are bestowed upon women. Because in a youth culture obsessively and hyper- focused not just on physical beauty but physically youthful beauty, aging itself is like a sin. And that is just a shame. It means that younger actresses who may be extremely talented at certain roles might be channeled into other less challenging roles simply because of their looks.
To be sure, attractive male actors do face a similar problem, of being typecast due to their looks, but not to the same degree. Brad Pitt, for example, apart from Interview with the Vampire and Seven, and I have to admit Fight Club, was largely typecast in certain roles all through his 20s, 30s, and 40s. It is only now, practically as a geezer his 50s, the he can increasingly break out of the roles these been typecast in.
Actually that was unfair of me. There are actually several examples of Brad Pitt trying to break out of his normal typecasting, but most of them were unconvincing. I always had the feeling that he was just being hired as a pretty boy slapped on an otherwise serious movie. Twelve Monkeys was a serious exception to that rule, I have to admit. And maybe I’ll just have to re-examine that whole example to begin with.
Okay, if Brad Pitt is a crappy example of the principle I’m trying to illustrate I trust that you at least get the bloody point.
The point is that physical attractiveness and beauty can be hindrances to deep acting in some kinds of performances. An old friend of mine once argued that Dustin Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s best actors mainly because he was ugly.
Hoffman is also rather short. So am I, a point that is utterly irrelevant here. In any case, the point’s that Dustin Hoffman is not exactly a sex symbol. Leaving the movie The Graduate out of the equation.
Dustin Hoffman is an exceptionally good actor. So is Forrest Whitaker. So is Philip Seymour Hoffman. None are known as sex symbols. Since people get in a tizzy whenever you call a woman ugly, I will refrain from mentioning any female illustrations of this principle. We males can fall on that sword, it’s chivalry you know. Suffice to say, the three men I mentioned are exceptional actors. Their acting skills are, and in Seymour Hoffman’s case were, at the summit of American acting talent (the British have their own use-cases). It’s likely that such men, and Gene Hackman, early-on had to show amazing ranges as actors because they didn’t have pretty-boy looks to fall back on.
There are examples, of course, of male actors who are both very handsome and exceptionally talented. I don’t think they exhibit a trend. I think they are exceptions.
The gift that aging conveys on female performers is a certain freedom, and ability to step outside of their societally defined roles as simple beauty sex figures, and transcend being a mere sex symbol, and tap into something more universal, a universal humanity.
I argue that society, in some inchoate and diffuse way, typically only really values women if they give us men boners. Everyone knows this, arguing against it only makes one sound guiltier.
I make no value judgment, though. I only observe what seems evident. Society, defined in a sloppy general way, will only let few women fit a category in which they can play roles entirely divorced from their physical attractiveness, either to other women, or to men. In other words, roles divorced from the tendency to evoke viewer boners. Tilda Swinton is an example. She is an outlier. For reasons that should seem obvious. Jodie Foster too, and sits as a bit of an outsider because she never allowed herself, and strenuously resisted throughout her entire career, to be typecast in roles based on her physical beauty. She more or less fought the system the entire way. There are other examples, but they are few and far between, and in each case rather quirky in their own way.
Back to this film, though. In it, both Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez pulled off good performances. Viola Davis’ performance seemed far more compelling, but she was the primary protagonist. Jennifer Lopez, however, was a secondary protagonist, and didn’t do too bad at all, standing by Viola Davis’ side. In fact, she impressed me enough that I would go out of my way to see a similar film with her in it, in the future.