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From Selena to Ramona: The Winding Acting Career of Jennifer Lopez

Jenny from the Block has come a long way since being a backup dancer in Janet Jackson videos and ‘In Living Color’

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If you’re a millennial for whom the 2002 music video for “Jenny From the Block” meant a lot, it may not be surprising to learn that Jennifer “Jenny” “J.Lo” Lopez, soon to appear in the true-story ensemble film Hustlers as a scamming stripper, got her start on TV as a dancer. Lopez was, famously, one of In Living Color’s in-house “Fly Girls,” the female dancers who performed in between sketches by Keenen Ivory Wayans and his assorted family members, as well as Jim Carrey and a young Jamie Foxx (who started on the show in its third season, like Lopez). The 22-year-old Lopez, who joined the show via a gigantic national audition, was already a standout in the diverse cast, not only for her Puerto Rican origins, but also for not being a conventional size-6 dancer and for having loads of natural charisma. At times, she basically looked like a Latina Marilyn Monroe.

In 1993, Lopez appeared in Janet Jackson’s excellent, fourth-wall-breaking video for the hit “That’s the Way Love Goes.” Perhaps it’s the effect of perspective, but the camera seems at once helplessly attracted to Lopez and hesitant to give her too much screen time—upstaging Jackson would not be proper. And yet, in the lounging vibes of the video, the young dancer doesn’t need to dance much to draw attention.

Indeed, despite this promising start in the dance-music business, Lopez first became a star as an actress—out of her own volition. Music producers were already interested in giving her a record deal when Lopez decided to focus on acting, appearing in three short-lived television series in 1994: Second Chances and its spinoff Hotel Malibu (in which her character was named Melinda Lopez) and South Central. Regardless of the quality of these soaps, they gave the actress a platform to develop her skills and make an impression, and soon enough, she was offered movie roles. In the crime drama Money Train (1995), her tough policewoman worked alongside Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, even punching the latter in the face. She starred opposite Robin Williams in Francis Ford Coppola’s bizarre (in retrospect) comedy-drama Jack, playing a kind but firm schoolteacher who has to reject the advances of a kid in a grown man’s body. That sweetness she displayed as Miss Marquez is only a front in Bob Rafelson’s 1996 neo-noir Blood and Wine, in which Lopez plays a calculating Cuban maid. She helps Jack Nicholson’s indebted wine merchant in his attempt to break into a client’s house to steal some jewelry, even as she becomes attracted to Nicholson’s stepson, played by a dashing Stephen Dorff. In a film where she already goes against the class stereotype associated with her ethnicity, Lopez also holds her own against Nicholson, engaging at one point in a violent shouting match with the frequently terrifying star. Her guts and talent are simply undeniable.

Lopez’s big break came in 1997 when, at the age of 28, she portrayed legendary Tejana singer Selena in the biopic of the same name. The selection of the Puerto Rican Lopez was met with raised eyebrows at the time, and though the concerns of representation were absolutely valid—and prescient—Lopez brings a compelling energy and charm to the part. She doesn’t imitate Selena, but like her, she is able to exude an incredible joviality and a playful sexuality, far from her temptress act in Blood and Wine. While Selena is one of the most sanitized biopics ever made, Lopez makes watching her heroine’s seemingly untroubled life far from boring, expressing her subtlest (and less subtle) emotions with such a mix of childlike wonder and courage that the spectator simply roots to see all of the character’s dreams come true. This “you go, girl!” spirit makes Selena’s infamously sudden death—not directly represented in the film, but instead poetically suggested—even more devastating.

Naturally, the role of Selena required Lopez to match her inspiration in many ways: Selena had a powerful and beautiful voice and an equally impressive stage presence. This is where Lopez’s showmanship truly shines: from her singing to her dancing to her ease interacting with her audience in concert scenes, the actress seems to truly come to life when performing through song, even as she manages to resemble, without mimicry, the specific style of her character. She pays tribute to Selena by making the latter’s iconic shows her own.

In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lopez explained how playing the tragic singer changed her life’s path once again: “I grew up on that movie [...] It just made me realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen, you need to do whatever you want to do today, because tomorrow might not come.” Coming off stage after shooting a big concert scene, she reportedly told Selena’s father, who was present on set, that “she wanted to do what Selena did, for herself.” And so in 1999, Lopez decided to finally fully dedicate herself to music, releasing her debut album, On the 6, named for the New York subway train that leads to her native Bronx.

Before “If You Had My Love,” however, more movies came out that solidified Lopez’s rising starlet status, making a turn to singing seem even bolder. In Anaconda, the unintentionally hilarious story of a documentary crew attacked by gigantic snakes in the Amazonian forest, Lopez plays a filmmaker in love with gorgeous explorer Eric Stoltz and lusted after by a sinister, Tommy Wiseau-esque Jon Voight. In a potentially thankless role, Lopez demonstrates both her physical strength and ability to make the most ludicrous of movies feel at least a little bit grounded (it helps that, together with Ice Cube, the only other nonwhite character, she manages to kill the snake and save the day); later that year, in Oliver Stone’s exhausting neo-noir U Turn, she also made the most of a potentially exploitative femme fatale role.

It took more adventurous, less commercial directors than Stone to help Lopez further develop as an actress—someone like Steven Soderbergh, then and now one of the most original and ambitious auteurs working on the margins of Hollywood. Out of Sight (1998) actually marked the director’s attempt at more mainstream filmmaking, based as it is on a pulpy Elmore Leonard crime fiction novel and blending elements of film noir with a comic and romantic tone. Often deemed Lopez’s best role, the character of U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco allows her to use her entire range as an actress. Playing a game of cat and mouse with George Clooney’s charming bank robber Jack Foley, Lopez has met her match—a performer just as confident, seductive, funny, and yet capable of great vulnerability. The meeting of Sisco and Foley (and, to an extent, of Lopez and Clooney) is therefore unavoidably sexy, as the push and pull of recognition and wariness of the other makes them helplessly obsess over each other. Soderbergh understands that the point of any real chase is the chase itself and makes his stars’ performances take center stage, nowhere more beautifully than in the film’s now iconic “what if” scene. Sisco and Foley, now too far gone in their romance but doomed by the law that separates them, meet in a bar overlooking a snowy night, as if they were living inside a snow globe, and indulge in a moment of respite. They imagine being other people, meeting for the first time and letting their attraction guide them. Lopez and Clooney’s chemistry becomes tender, and Soderbergh intercuts their frank conversation and delicate touching of hands with the slow undressing that followed later, in Sisco’s hotel room. Breaking chronology helps make Sisco and Foley’s consummation of their love seem even more ineluctable, and therefore ever more sensual and romantic. As they take off their clothes and look at each other, both Lopez and Clooney look extremely vulnerable, until Lopez breaks the sweet awkwardness of the moment with a glorious laugh as they get into bed together. Out of Sight shows Lopez at her most open-hearted, intelligent, and able to work with actors not to overshadow them, but to achieve a profound connection, at the service of the film itself.

The current obsession with Latino pop, with everyone from Drake to Ed Sheeran making their own Latino-influenced hits, has a parallel from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when J.Lo emerged on the scene together with Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, and Nelly Furtado. Lopez’s transition from acting to music proved extremely successful, and as the Los Angeles Times wrote before the launch of Lopez’s debut album, “by doing the Madonna trip in reverse—establishing herself first as an actress, then a singer and dancer—[she was] looking to break through as a triple-threat entertainment goddess in a way even the Material Girl never quite did.” But the music and film industries don’t follow exactly the same (transient and often unfair) rules, and Lopez’s movies post–On the 6 did not all live up to her emerging crossover brand.

2000’s The Cell was the first feature film from Tarsem Singh, the music video director behind the painterly, MTV Award–winning clip for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion;” like his peer David Fincher did with Se7en, Singh wanted to apply his distinctive aesthetic to the thriller genre. In The Cell, Lopez plays Dr. Catherine Deane, a child psychologist using a new technology to enter the mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), a comatose serial killer, in order to locate his latest victim before she perishes. While the plot is rather thin, it allows Singh to fill his film with very disturbing, modern-art-inspired tableaux representing the killer’s twisted psyche. Lopez had more opportunities to show off her skills in the somewhat similarly-conceived clip for her song “If You Had My Love,” which was actually released as an interactive video on her then-groundbreaking website. The internet user could see the singer in various rooms or demonstrating different dances in a pristine blue house through a set of CCTV-like cameras, like an extremely voyeuristic reality show. Unfortunately, be it the “Neurological Cartography and Synaptic Transfer System” device in The Cell or the livestream in her music video, the early 2000s’ eccentric fantasies about technology didn’t make for the most thrilling acting of Lopez’s career.

That period was not just about computers, however—good, old-fashioned love was back in a big(ish) way as well, with a new wave of romantic comedies starring new types of stars. Now, the men were to have sometimes less fancy jobs (doctors rather than architects), and the women put their careers first because, as it turns out, love isn’t everything. In 2001’s The Wedding Planner, Lopez has the titular role as Mary Fiore, helping the San Francisco elite throw the ceremonies of their dreams. As she falls in love with one of the grooms whose wedding she’s planning—played by a pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey—Lopez has the right energy and vulnerability to portray Mary’s stubborn professionalism as well as her eventual existential questioning. And in her scenes with McConaughey, she is the one who makes their dilemma clear to the audience.

Like Al Pacino before her and, more recently, Oscar Isaac, Lopez’s somewhat ambiguous ethinic appearance has allowed her to play people of different backgrounds more or less convincingly, a practice that makes even more evident the ways in which Hollywood deals with race and stereotypes. Mary is Italian American and, after growing disillusioned about her feelings for McConaughey’s Steve, decides to follow in her father’s old-fashioned footsteps and marry an Italian man she hopes to grow to love. Lopez’s performance makes the rather tedious plot device of traditional European practices reach a more emotional level, however. The way Mary shuts down, becoming very quiet once her practical decision has been made, is genuinely distressing and suggests the depth of her disappointment: not only in love, but in herself, for falling prey to the type of pragmatic arrangement that she thought her work had made her immune to. But, of course, by the end all is well, and Mary ends up with Steve.

Ralph Fiennes, for his part, doesn’t really manage to seem American in Maid in Manhattan (2002). But while his accent betrays his British origins, Lopez gets to play a woman from the Bronx, like Jenny herself (the song was released the same year as the film). The transgression of stereotype is here the film’s very subject: After meeting her while she’s wearing the Gucci clothes of a hotel visitor (Natasha Richardson’s hilariously desperate wealthy divorcee), Fiennes’s senatorial candidate falls for Lopez’s Marisa, believing her to be of his elevated social rank. What makes Maid in Manhattan less interesting than The Wedding Planner is the fact that Lopez’s dilemma in it is more economical than emotional: The film forces Marisa’s dreams of professional success to take precedence over not only her feelings for the senator, but also her own pride. “Jenny From the Block” does a better job of making J.Lo’s career success seem truly meaningful on a personal level.

And then, in 2003, came Gigli. Beyond the film’s incidental creation of the media phenomenon known as Bennifer, it is notable for Lopez playing Ricki, a lesbian woman who eventually sleeps with Ben Affleck’s Gigli (and in a legendary exchange, instructs him to “gobble gobble”). While Affleck does an awful proto-Clooney crooner act, Lopez’s badassery is reframed by her character’s bisexuality, and in a film rather tasteless about disability and suicide attempts, among other touchy topics, the fact that Ricki ends up with Gigli instead of doing literally anything else feels reactionary. A good counterpoint to that film’s attempt at containing Lopez’s skills is 2004’s underrated Shall We Dance?, in which rom-com conventions are tactfully broken. Lopez gets to dance beautifully as instructor Paulina, who begins to love her craft again after a new pupil, Richard Gere’s middle-aged and depressed John, proves dedicated to not only her, but also and mostly the simple pleasures of learning to dance. As in Out of Sight, Lopez’s sensuality combines with her sensitivity, making her tango with Gere at once erotic, impressive, and moving, as both teacher and student find comfort in the work.

Lopez is particularly apt at portraying characters seized by powerful emotions as they defy conventions. So even as she has continued working in the romantic comedy genre, with such forgettable films as Monster-in-Law (2005), The Back-up Plan (2010) and, in 2018, Second Act (essentially the same story as Maid in Manhattan, but without Ralph Fiennes’s charm and with even more boring shop talk), Lopez has turned to darker roles. A few independent films gave her more complex parts, most notably An Unfinished Life (2005), for which she successfully adopted a Southern accent to play a victim of domestic violence opposite Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. And in the action film Parker (2013), Lopez’s vulnerability is accentuated as she portrays Leslie, a depressed and divorced real estate agent who gets enmeshed in a dangerous chase between bank robbers including Jason Statham’s Parker. The actress’s sex appeal again provides the eye candy, but just before Parker asks Leslie to undress so as to make sure she isn’t wearing a wire (how original), Lopez, nervously drinking from a glass of wine, delivers a monologue about her character’s miserable life with a striking mix of fear, excitement, and crushing despair. Watching her undress is much less interesting than the internal emotional life she lays bare.

In recent years, while continuing to release new music, Lopez has lent her talents to television as an enthusiastic judge on American Idol, and also by playing herself on a few episodes of Will & Grace. She was the best thing about the erotic thriller The Boy Next Door (2015), a gender-flipped and campier Fatal Attraction that nevertheless shouldn’t have happened to her. The pileup of bad and goofy movies undeniably had an impact on Lopez’s image, but she still knew where she came from and never stopped working.

It is this level of control that has made Lopez so relentlessly successful and visible, from her beginnings on In Living Color to her switch to music to her continued presence in cinema. And it is the same intelligence and tact that makes her stand out in Hustlers as Ramona, a stripper leading her colleagues in a brilliant extortion of their Wall Street clients. “There are moments where Ramona is totally in control,” director Lorene Scafaria told IndieWire this past week. “I’m not sure it was me, I feel like Ramona wanted the camera to be where she wanted it to be. So we put her in control and gave her that power.” In whatever film she’s in, Lopez’s dynamism attracts the spotlight. And when directors such as Soderbergh (and, hopefully, Scafaria) are dedicated to celebrating the many assets that make her who she is—singing, dancing, curves, humor, and ethnicity—Lopez truly becomes the superstar she was always meant to be. Can’t a woman take advantage of what she wants?

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.