Jennifer Lopez has always been obsessed with authenticity.
It’s there in her music, like the 2014 single “Same Girl,” the radio sensation “I’m Real” with Ja Rule and her signature bop “Jenny From the Block.” In the latter, a girl from the Bronx makes the solemn promise: “No matter where I go, I know where I came from.” It’s also been doled out in her film roles, many of them rags-to-riches fairytales that emphasize both her street smarts and supreme glamour, like “Maid in Manhattan,” “Second Act” and, most recently, “Marry Me.”
So the prospect of her all-access documentary – Netflix’s “Halftime,” which opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and debuts on the streamer today – not only makes perfect sense for J. Lo-the-brand but also suggests her larger obligation to the truth as she enters the fourth decade of a tremendous career in show business. Interestingly, though, the Lopez mythology we’ve come to know seems rote compared to the real bombshell of the doc: that global superstars are not immune to crushing defeat, as evidenced by her failure to secure an Oscar nomination for an acclaimed turn in the 2019 drama “Hustlers.”
On the petty byways of Hollywood, bruised egos and anger over a star’s inability to get awards attention is never spoken of publicly. It is gossiped about at endless For Your Consideration lunches and cocktail parties, over dishy group text threads and at gay brunches across metro Los Angeles (including mine, to be real). The trope of actors being “humbled and honored just to be nominated” is so pervasive that award show presenters have crafted musical numbers poking fun at its artifice.
But in “Halftime,” Lopez is deeply vulnerable in discussing what that Oscar nomination would have meant to her – acknowledgment from an artistic establishment that has not historically accepted her pop star ambitions and splashy public romances.
Directed by Amanda Micheli, “Halftime” masterfully creates a subplot around Lopez’s momentum as a contender for best supporting actress prizes. In the film’s first 10 minutes, we see Lopez set expectations as both a producer and star of “Hustlers,” about an opportunistic ring of exotic dancers who robbed their investment banker clients after the 2008 financial crash.
The day after the “Hustlers” world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Lopez is seen in a hair and makeup chair prepping for an intense round of press. Her producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, phones in with the first round of “Hustlers” reviews.
“Jennifer Lopez dominates in a quintessentially American story,” Goldsmith-Thomas oozes through a speakerphone, capping it off with, “Jennifer Lopez is Oscar worthy.” The star’s face crumbles into childish excitement, then quickly dissolves into paranoid superstition.
“We’re on our way to the Oscar,” one glam squad member says as the entourage heads out for the press day.
“Stop!” Lopez commands. “See? You’re making me nervous.”
In numerous interviews over the years, Lopez has said that her film career was front-loaded with prestige roles — “Out of Sight” and her breakout “Selena” being the most notable. But directors like Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh stopped calling when her platinum-selling music career launched (and with it, fashion lines and fragrances and other lucrative brand opportunities that often conflict with high art). In one tribute, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria said, “maybe because she’s made hard work look so effortless for so long, it’s easy to take Jennifer Lopez for granted. I’m so proud she’s getting the recognition she deserves.” The doc also goes out of its way to directly quote awards pundits wondering aloud that Lopez may seem too much like a celebrity to award acting’s greatest prize in earnest.
This white-knuckle ride of will or won’t she ascend the Oscar stage follows Lopez through most of the film. Though other, more consequential life events play out — her Super Bowl LIV Halftime show performance, for example, which was watched by more viewers than the last five Oscar telecasts combined — they don’t seem to carry the same emotional weight with the girl from the Bronx.
“There’s a whole circuit around awards season that I had never done before. it truly becomes a campaign. if you don’t do it, they make you feel like you don’t have a chance,” Lopez tells her documentarian, with genuine distress in her voice.
Her journey continues down a well-worn path to Oscar glory that many industry insiders will recognize: a spotlight award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, then the elation of a Golden Globe nomination (which certainly dates this doc, considering that group’s implosion in the time since “Hustlers” made its rounds).
On the eve of the Golden Globes, many of the same glam squad and supporters from Toronto and Lopez’s entire career packed a suite at the Beverly Hilton, only to watch her lose out to Laura Dern for “Marriage Story.”
Entering the suite with Goldsmith-Thomas after the loss, Lopez and longtime manager Benny Medina fight off tears as they embrace.
“I really thought I had a chance,” Lopez says. “I feel like I let everybody down.”
For fans staring at Lopez on magazine covers, or peers and media players witnessing her float between afterparties and power lunches, these are the private moments we’ve only ever speculated over. Later on in the documentary, just before the Oscar snub is handed down, Lopez breaks into tears from her bed, reading an article from Glamour magazine.
“Frankly, it’s thrilling to see a criminally underrated performer… “ Lopez reads about herself, before getting choked up, “get her due from prestige film outlets.”
It’s not the bumpy ride on the 6 train into Manhattan, the one Lopez would take to audition for dance gigs in her youth, but it’s her reality. And it’s deeply revealing.