Rachel Sklar: 'Hustlers' snub shows no place for strong women in film'

Picture it: a classic Wall Street fable of sex, money, greed, power, lust, betrayal and comeuppance. What’s not to love? I am one of the people who had their fingers crossed for ‘Hustlers’ this awards season.

I watched that film on the edge of my seat, my jaw on the floor for Jennifer Lopez’s incredible pole-dancing routine; the opulent, shady world of the high-end strip club and its high-rolling clients; the stress of watching plucky-yet-clueless Hervé Léger-bandage-dress-clad strippers drug hapless Wall Streeters with homemade ketamine-MDMA; Constance Wu’s blood-smeared midriff as she strode into pre-school drop-off; the inevitable sting that brought it all down as bills flew out from JLo’s outstretched hands just as surely as they’d rained down on her at the film’s beginning.

It was gorgeous, stylish, dark, gritty, edgy (homemade drugs, for all of you people who loved ‘Breaking Bad’!), thrilling, and the perfect cocktail of morally ambiguous yet righteous (once again, for all of you people who loved ‘Breaking Bad’). It was a stripper movie, a heist movie, a buddy comedy, a drug movie, a capitalist fable, an exploration of friendship and family, a period piece – and there were tons of gorgeous, amazing women looking super-duper hot. It even had a training montage featuring feats of physical prowess by an elite athlete. Like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, but with Cardi B and Lizzo! Based on a true story! The Academy was gonna love it. Right? Right?

Well, the Academy loved ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, which got nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay (among others) in 2014, but somehow, something changed when the women were the wolves instead of the playthings.

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Despite amazing buzz, a star-studded cast, impressive box office, great reviews and a steady awards-season drumbeat, ‘Hustlers’ came up empty across all categories when the Academy Award nominations were announced. Whatever could have made the difference here?

Could it be that the heroes of ‘Hustlers’ were… women? Could it be that it focused on women pointedly to the exclusion of men? Sure, there were men in the film – someone had to throw cash at JLo! – but they were nameless and generic. In the ‘Hustlers’ universe, the women are the protagonists and the ringleaders, driving the action and working together to learn, grow and experiment with grand larceny.

The men are a means to an end in terms of money, but they provide little to support or nurture the women – they are either foolish marks to exploit, or corrupt and abusive of their own powers at every step along the chain. There are two, maybe three, sympathetic men in the movie, plus Usher. Otherwise, it’s a matriarchy functioning on female power and connection. (Is there a male version?)

“Well, actually,” one might say, “maybe ‘Hustlers’ was good, but not good enough!”

Maybe writer-director Lorene Scafaria should have shot it in more than 29 days.

Maybe there were just too many characters to keep track of.

‘Hustlers’ is about women and female friendships and how those friendships can become family – but it’s also about how those friendships develop in the absence of support from men. Yes, it’s true, ‘Little Women’ got all sorts of nominations this year. But the male characters in ‘Little Women’ were actual characters. And yet, unless the film magically directed itself, there was one particularly glaring omission from its nominations.

I can make all sorts of excuses about why ‘Hustlers’ deserved to be a contender, and you can make all sorts of excuses why no film is a lock on an Oscar nomination.

Who can say why an Academy voter votes the way they do? There’s a reason that “Oscar snub” has more than 30 million results in Google.

And when the numbers tell the story, they bring us back to the first words you hear in ‘Hustlers’: “This is a story about control.”

© Washington Post

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