Scorsese Passed on Hustlers

Defamation, feminism and accountability in entertainment

Heather M. Edwards
Jul 17, 2020 · 8 min read
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All rights © Gloria Sanchez Productions, 2019

Many internet-ers have made the comparative lit argument that Jennifer Lopez is a modern Robert DeNiro and Constance Wu-as-protege is Ray Liotta in G̶o̶o̶d̶f̶e̶l̶l̶a̶s Hustlers.

But when a multiethnic cast of Scheherazades enterprise to game the system — women who subvert an asymmetrical economy of servicing men with money to burn it’s apparently a tough sell for production companies. No one was rushing to champion female underdogs who bucked the norms that oppressed them to rise above as the new captains of industry. Despite the commercial value of the cast and the salaciously unexpected plot, no one was clamoring to bring this forbidden fruit to the market.

And I thought this country loved its underdogs. I thought we loved the comeuppance.

“ … it turns out that persuading rich white men to make a movie about other rich white men being scammed wasn’t easy. ‘I’d literally stand at the front of rooms with white men and try to get them to open their wallets,’ says Scafaria. ‘I felt very much like I could understand them. I think we’ve all danced for the money a little bit,’” said screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria.

Although Scorsese passed due to “scheduling conflicts” with directing The Irishman I suspect if it was a project he believed in he would’ve found a way to helm it with all of the clutch and savvy he did for The Departed or any of his other sausage fest classics — most of which I revere along with any other movie watcher with a pulse.

The interesting double-edged sword in this case is that although he was asked, many already involved in the movie’s development hoped Scorsese would indeed pass so that screenwriter Lorene Scafaria could direct it.

But she couldn’t direct the movie whose script she wrote unless Scorsese said no.

It is both a win for women directors, who apparently direct only 8% of films but perhaps also a question mark for feminism and representation when one of the world’s most acclaimed directors of crime dramas passes on a scintillating crime drama.

These enterprising, conflicted, complicated women embody traits we admire in antagonists-as-protagonists in all of our favorite mafioso movies and well into the golden era of cable television and streaming networks.

But when the bootstraps became Louboutins too many suddenly became hyperfocused on criminality. Although Hustlers was well received by critics and moviegoers both, far more of the chatter seemed to stall around the ethical implications of treating criminals like heroes. Good/bad suddenly become a binary with no moral gray area.

Do we only root for the bad guys when they’re guys? Will male directors only direct male leads?

We’ve long celebrated the outlaws, the bootleggers, mobsters, bank robbers, narcos, and the occasional serial killer. Perhaps it’s the vicarious thrill of the extralegal fuck-you bravado. We lionize Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Henry Hill, George Jung, Tyler Durden, Tony Soprano, Dexter, Heisenberg, John Dillinger and whoever that drug-runner was that Tom Cruise played way too late in the genre game.

The movie production’s origin story and reception are as equally complex as the story itself.

Samantha Barbash, the real-life “ring-leader” on whom the movie is based filed a defamation lawsuit — “$20 million in punitive damages and $20 million in compensatory damages.”² She claims she was only offered $6,000 for the life rights to her story. She “politely declined” and the production went on without her and, she claims, grossly misrepresented her.

Why didn’t JLo, a notorious perfectionist, spend the same time interviewing her real-life character that Constance Wu did with Roselyn Keo, the real-life inspiration for the Destiny character she played? Wu even invited Keo to her Jimmy Fallon appearance.

While the lead actresses were having remarkably disparate experiences with their characters’ inspirations, the culture wars narrowed the aperture on the morality imperative with a scrutiny their male counterparts have not been subjected to historically.

More people seemed to have a problem with female dancers exploiting johns than they did coked-up Tony Montana, for example, murdering his sister and her husband in a delusional coke-fueled incestuous rage.

In fact, young men worship this fictional character decades after the movie — from dorm rooms all over the US to a Scarface-themed barbershop in Monterrey, Mexico, decorating bachelor spaces with Tony Montana posters and paraphernalia is a ubiquitous aesthetic that seems to imply this character is more than just an icon — he’s a role model.

So where is Ramona’s cult following? How many 18-year-old young men even know who Ramona/Samantha is? Or do we only celebrate the rule-breakers when they’re men?

Hustlers is JLo’s most important movie since Bordertown. And she got overlooked for both. Don’t remember Bordertown? That’s because it went straight to DVD almost twenty years ago when it should’ve gone straight to the film festival circuit on its way to the awards shows.

But nobody cares about Ciudad Juárez —then the “rape capital of the world”. Because the maquiladoras in post-NAFTA border towns also bring us our cheaply assembled electronics — the flat-screen TVs we should’ve been watching their stories on. Never mind the staggering number of women raped and murdered in the desert, some buried alive, even more never found.

Neither labor violations and human rights violations were blockbuster enough. Journalists assassinated in their pursuit of the truth weren’t sexy enough to sell.

Fifteen years later, not enough has changed. While Hustlers did well commercially and received widespread critical acclaim, there wasn’t a single Oscar nomination. Not for Wu as a lead actress, not for Lopez as a supporting actress and not for Scafaria for directing.

I don’t think this movie wasn’t strong enough to be nominated for best picture. But I have put exactly zero stock, scratch that, negative stock in “The Academy” ever since they awarded best original score to “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in a pathetically transparent attempt to ingratiate themselves to a younger demographic while simultaneously elevating pimp culture at the expense and ongoing marginalization of trafficked women and children. Fuck you and your golden statues.

Their anachronism renders them irrelevant. But they remain the cultural gatekeepers.

My generation has been celebrating anti-heroes since at least as far back as Goodfellas. But all of a sudden when it’s not Scorcese’s nuanced male criminals and it’s female dancers, we become very preoccupied with the law.

But these women were criminals! They broke the law! Cue moral outrage and collective crisis of conscience. These women are mocked and marginalized for giving men exactly what they want — one-dimensional sex appeal unburdened by any distracting humanity.

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All rights © Gloria Sanchez Productions, 2019

Men have been drugging women since who knows when. And/or just using brute force to take what they want and meet their rapacious needs.

And as Samantha Barbash points out, the movie fails to depict all the men who come to strip clubs and drug the dancers in the champagne rooms.

It is another heartbreaking example of men’s money being worth protecting more than women’s bodies, their autonomy or their integrity.

To be clear, I’m not a proponent of stealing from anyone or drugging anyone. Not even Robinhood redistribution. But I’m not opposed to learning about it in based-on-real-life dramas either. And the double-standard is unmistakable.

These actresses were criticized for the exact same lifestyle we have celebrated when male characters break the rules. Without a control group, it’s hard to prove causation. But the correlation is not hope-giving. And we are inherently pattern-seeking creatures. The only other female ensemble cast heist movie I’m aware of is USS Ocean’s 8 that sank as soon as it sailed. But even in anti-hero stories with just one “bad guy” we always want our hero to get away with it or to die heroically.

As elderly Clint Eastwood tries to outrun the authorities in The Mule we are hoping against history that he will miraculously get away. In Breaking Bad we are at least comforted by terminally ill Walter White’s brilliant denouement. The entire premise of the show is rooted in his cancer diagnosis. So at least he took out the “real” bad guys when he heard the curtain call.

But Goodfellas, Scarface and The Godfather still reign from Mount Olympus as the greatest of the rise-and-fall Greek tragedies in Hollywood.

While it is unlikely that unadulterated misogyny prevented this film from being directed by a prestigious male director or inaugurated into the canon of heist classics, perhaps there is still deeply ingrained sexism in our culture that prevents “female” stories from being regarded as cinematic classics. We just don’t take women seriously.

I do enjoy that JLo is wealthier in real life than everybody on the set of this movie combined. It made it easier to watch financially disenfranchised women sublimate their needs and integrity to indulge the fantasies of Manhattan’s bourgeoisie — the hustlers who bankrupted so much of this country without consequence in the 2008 financial crisis.

“This whole country’s a strip club. You got people tossing money and people doing the dance,” Jennifer Lopez’s character concludes the movie by contextualizing human manipulation within human nature. She’s not wrong. And it’s not just this country.

Hustlers is not a flawless movie. There are too many music-video slo-mo entrances. There are easy moments and montages of gloss and formula instead of depth and texture. But overall it has the coveted ring of authenticity, deep heart and a quest for the greater good.

Soviet composer Glière was recognized for his “fast and bright tempo”. Hustlers was shot in 29 days. It too is fast and bright while it is trying to be deep and dark. It could’ve used more time in the incubator.

Kubrick wasn’t the only director to juxtapose plot and scene with classical music. In Hustlers there is more clear-as-a-bell Chopin piano than throw-back Janet Jackson but the soundtrack is designed to foster an almost nostalgic camaraderie. Yet it is not enough to save them from their inevitable demise.

Everyone gets in over their head. Empires always fall. (Although an awful lot of men got away unscathed with scamming the country.)

Listen. I’m all for moral outrage. As long as it’s unilateral. Until then, I would hope to see Ramona posters next to Scarface posters.

Buzz and chatter are not the same things as formal and official recognition. Good reviews are great. But this movie deserved more.

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