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Hustlers

For those just tuning in, I recently produced From the Ruby Lounge, a live theatrical show set in a fictional Portland strip club. After many years of research and development (plus my life savings, to say nothing of the blood, sweat, tears, and body hair shed by everyone involved), the entire run of my play oversold and the reviews were phenomenal.

So naturally, I had some thoughts about Hustlers. I had so many thoughts about the movie, I had a whole blog entry written up before I had even seen it. And of course I had to wait to see it so I could watch it with some of my former cast and get their opinions.

Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not an expert on strippers or the strip club industry. I am in no way an authority on the subject. To claim otherwise would be an insult to the actual strippers who’ve found a way to live with the physical and emotional stresses of their job, and how to make a profit from all those challenges. Hell, to call myself an expert would frankly be an insult to those of my cast and crew who put themselves through a year and a half of pole dance classes, exhaustively researched the strip club industry, hit those moves night after night, and built up an impressive collection of callouses and bruises. There are some things you can really only learn about by doing it, and stripping is one of them.

That being said, this has still been a pet cause of mine for most of my adult life. I’ve done the research, I’ve learned a ton of hard lessons, and I’ve been called out on many hundreds of mistakes. I may not be the real thing, but I know the real thing when I see it. And these filmmakers very clearly did their homework. It’s hardly perfect, however.

Easily the most important caveat is that this film should in no way be construed as a definitive portrayal of life and work as a stripper. Every stripper gets into the profession for their own reasons, and every stripper has their own experiences and methods, so of course no one film will be accurate to everyone in the industry. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of setting.

The film is set in New York City, and I absolutely guarantee you that a strip club in NYC will be nothing like a strip club in Miami. Just as neither one of them will look anything like the strip clubs in Houston or LA or Chicago. All of those clubs will be operating under totally different state and county laws, to say nothing of the totally different cultures between the cities. Even within the same city, any two clubs will have different rules, dancers, clients, theming, management, and a million other factors that guarantee a totally different experience and different working conditions for the dancers.

(Case in point: In my hometown of Portland — famously the strip club capitol of the USA — the neighboring strip clubs of Acropolis and Casa Diablo II are so radically different that they’ve become infamous for their bitter long-running feud.)

But I digress. I could talk about this all day (and have, multiple times, in fact). So let’s get to the movie and come back to this later, shall we?

Hustlers comes to us from writer/director/producer Lorene Scafaria, late of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. (Also, as part of the cast for Coherence, she helped to semi-improvise the script for whatever the high holy fuck that was.) The movie is “inspired by” a New York Magazine article written by Jessica Pressler, a fictionalized version of whom is played by Julia Stiles in the film’s framing device.

Our protagonist is “Destiny” (Constance Wu), who just started stripping at a prominent New York City club. She strikes up a friendship with veteran dancer “Ramona” (Jennifer Lopez), who takes the baby stripper under her wing. Flash forward to the 2008 financial crisis, and all the lucrative Wall Street clients are suddenly fewer and stingier. Thus Destiny, Ramona, and their fellow dancers have less tip money to go around, and they can’t find a job elsewhere due to sky-high unemployment rates (to say nothing of the stigma against strippers).

Long story short, Ramona hatches a plot. She, Destiny, and a handful of other dancers (primarily Mercedes and Annabelle, respectively played by Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhardt) go bar-hopping to meet wealthy Wall Street douchebags. They proceed to drug said douchebags with a combination of ketamine and MDMA (!!!), then drag their semi-conscious asses to the club, where they basically rob the rich douchebags through credit card theft.

Let’s break out the checklist, shall we?

  • Based on or “inspired by” a true story? Check.
  • The protagonist gets obscenely wealthy through some criminal enterprise? Check.
  • At least one “party” scene involving drugs, alcohol, loud music, flashy clothes, and/or gorgeous women at least partially nude? That’s a great big Triple-Check.
  • The story ends with the protagonist going down for her crimes and losing everything? Check and mate.

Yes, we’ve got yet another movie in the ever-growing ranks of the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, alongside The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain and Gain, War Dogs, American Made, The Mule, White Boy Rick, blah blah blah. This movie is definitely part of that larger trend and the plot is structured in much the same way, but there are a few crucial differences.

To start with, these are strippers. Their entire MO means dressing in skimpy outfits, seducing men, dragging them back into the club, and stealing their money under the pretense of a hard-partying night. Thus the second and third points are fused together in a way that I’ve never seen in the genre before.

Moreover, that third point is typically the “payoff”, in which our main characters get to have an impossibly great time with all of the money they’ve come into. Because the genre has been so male-centric up until now (seriously, take another look at that list), the payoff has typically manifested as hedonistic testosterone-driven coke-fueled fantasies of nude women and bottomless alcohol. Compare that to this movie, in which the typical strip club atmosphere isn’t a rare day in paradise but just another day at the office for this cast.

(Side note: Seriously, the most prominent male in this entire cast is a one-off celebrity cameo appearance and I don’t think he even has a line. No, I’m not spoiling who it is.)

As such, the “payoff” scenes are considerably more subtle than drugs and debauchery. It’s mostly comprised of so much shopping, though the characters might also be buying new clothes and makeup for their work. We also get numerous scenes of characters paying off debts, buying new (admittedly luxurious) apartments, and taking care of other necessities. If the movie has an equivalent to the “orgy” scene (ie: the scene in any other Filthy Stinking Rich movie when the characters are at the height of cash-drunk frenzy), it’s probably the Christmas scene. Yes, we get a scene in which the main characters and their families are treating each other to expensive gifts, trading stories, posing for group photos, dancing in the living room, and so on. The most extravagant display of wealth in the entire movie, and it’s our main characters treating themselves to a lavish Christmas get-together. Think about that.

This brings me to what may be the single most important thing this movie gets right: The sisterhood between strippers. While the characters may have their petty squabbles and they are all clearly competing for dollars, they’re all still sharing a cramped dressing room for so many hours at a time. It’s a stressful job, they’re all living as a mistreated and misunderstood underclass, and they all confide in each other because they’ve got nobody else to go to. There’s nobody else who could possibly understand what strippers are going through except each other, and there’s nobody (except maybe the bouncers) willing to step up and help them when the going gets rough.

Take it from experience: When somebody sets out to portray strippers in an honest and authentic light, this is a huge, HUGE sign that the cast and crew are on the right track. Of course every stripper will have different perspectives and histories (one of my own consultants was insistent that stripping is a cutthroat career and everyone’s only out for themselves), but by and large, the strip club industry is such a tight-knit community that it’s often more like a family. I can’t possibly overstate how important that is, and the filmmakers absolutely nail it.

What might be even better is how incredibly diverse the cast is. The movie features dancers of every skin color imaginable. We’ve also got all manner of body types, from the rail-thin Madeline Brewer to the curvy Cardi B, to freaking Lizzo. A wide variety of dancers is crucial for any strip club, and it’s great of the film to show that. Moreover, it’s important to note that “sexy” is not any one skin color or body type. Any woman can get onstage, take the pole, and own her body to the adoration of a paying audience, if they have the courage and fortitude to do so.

As one character points out later in the film, all of us are getting exploited in some way or another already. Women in particular are under all kinds of pressure to smile and look pretty and degrade themselves for men with money, so why not do it on their own terms? Stripping can in fact be an empowering feminist act, and it’s good of the film to portray it as such. Even if the criminal angle poisons that well a little bit as the film unfolds.

Which brings me to another important point: While the filmmakers are sure to convey the righteous anger of our characters (ie: robbing from wealthy assholes who got rich from robbing others, drugging Wall Street rats who are already coked up, using the marks’ own misogyny against them, bringing street justice to those who never had to face any other kind of accountability for their misdeeds, etc.), we’re never allowed to forget that our posse is playing a dangerous game. The drugs can be too effective. Their marks can pass out or even die.

Time and again, we see that these women are perfectly capable of handling themselves when things are going according to plan, and unpredictably panicky when things go sideways. None of these women are murderers (much less hardened criminals), nobody wants anybody seriously hurt, and none of them are willing or able to do jail time over this. What’s more, they’re all varying shades of greedy. Some want to milk the clients for all they’re worth, others are afraid of the risk that a newly bankrupted mark will go to the cops or stop coming entirely. That means finding new marks and bringing in new conspirators, every one of which is a new unknown factor that could send everything belly-up.

This is imperative, because the film makes it clear that even for strippers, drugging patrons and actively stealing from them would be considered out of line. It’s not all strippers or even most strippers who would abuse and assault their patrons in this way, just these few outliers who eventually got arrested for their crimes. And of course it also helps the tension in a big way.

Speaking of which, the movie also introduces dancers who are brought in specifically to perform sexual favors for the wealthier clients as a means of driving up post-Recession revenue. Again, this is framed in a context that makes it absolutely clear that even in the industry, this is not normal or acceptable. It’s not even strictly legal, as heavily implied by how the characters talk about it in hushed tones.

(Side note: One of my former Ruby Lounge actors pointed out the near-certainty that these particular dancers may have been brought in by the local mafia and could very well be trafficking victims. I bring this up because the movie never goes into those details, and it’s likely a more prominent risk in NYC clubs than anywhere else.)

Let’s move on to the most important relationship in the movie: Destiny and Ramona. The two of them are literally thick as thieves, and it’s genuinely compelling to see the both of them develop into ride or die sisters-in-arms over the course of the film. Especially since the framing device makes it perfectly clear that the two of them eventually have a falling out, and Ramona — the mastermind of this whole operation — is inherently untrustworthy from the outset. Thus we have underlying tension, with the persistent question of how and why these two will fall out.

I want to give all due credit to Constance Wu. She carries the film like a bona fide champion, and her performance here is superbly transformative. I can’t possibly give her enough credit as the movie’s protagonist and the audience’s window into this industry. In point of fact, I don’t think there’s a single dud in the cast. Julia Stiles makes for a solid and reliable framing device, Wai Ching Ho is positively adorable, Cardi B and Lizzo are both a riot, Keke Palmer turns in a remarkable supporting role, and Lili Reinhardt is sweetly endearing (most especially in her running “nervous puking” habit). Every single actor in this picture — down to the lowliest walk-on role — makes an impression and gets at least one memorable line or moment.

But of course this is Jennifer Lopez’ show. By virtue of her larger-than-life character and Lopez’ own colossal screen presence, Lopez thoroughly dominates every scene. She turns in a powerhouse performance here, thoroughly and completely proving herself to be a phenomenally underrated actress. (Seriously, was Second Act only nine months ago?)

With all of that said, I’m sorry, we’ve got to talk about her big introductory pole dance number.

Remember, Ramona is supposed to be the top gun of this strip club. She’s the best connected, most experienced, most in-demand dancer, the one that all the clients want to see and all the other dancers want to be tight with.

Yes, J. Lo’s ass has been pop culture legend for two decades. Yes, she’s performed on all manner of stages all over the planet, to say nothing of her long trailblazing history as a provocative fashion icon. Yes, even at 50 years old, she is still sexier than most women half her age. Lopez could make it rain dollar bills on any given night just by stepping out onstage in a g-string, that is no fiction and you know it.

But her pole dancing sucks. It might be good enough for most people who’ve never been to a strip club, and the filmmakers try to make it look flashier with so many editing and lighting tricks, but trust me, folks. Her pole dancing sucks.

Here, let me show you something. This is Athena Aura Nova, my co-director/pole dance instructor/industry consultant on From the Ruby Lounge. Athena was Miss Nude Oregon 2005, the NW Top Female Entertainer of 2006, and a Pole Erotica Portland finalist in 2010 and 2011, among all her many other accolades and accomplishments over two decades in the local strip club industry. This is the level of prestige and experience that Ramona supposedly has. That clip shows the kind of pole dancing you’d expect from such a seasoned veteran dancer at a packed club during primetime. By comparison, if any stripper showed up at 10pm on a Saturday night with Lopez’ routine, I’m pretty darn sure she’d be pulled off the schedule and relegated to a Tuesday night immediately.

(Side note: Every single one of my Ruby Lounge actors went through a year and a half of pole dance training in prep for the show, and I saw each of them perform multiple times. Any one of my actors could’ve done every pole trick seen in this movie and more. If I’m lying, I’m dying. My lovely and talented cast of community theatre actors from a shoestring independent stage production could’ve taken freaking Jennifer Lopez to school. This gives me no small amount of amusement and pride.)

That said, pole dancing isn’t really a huge part of the film. (Probably for the best.) Rather, most of the strip club screen time is given to the private dances, showcasing the misogyny, harassment, and even outright assault that strippers may have to deal with when its just them and the client. I can’t speak from any firsthand experience as to how authentic it is overall, and of course different clubs and locations will have different types and frequencies of entitled pigs. Even so, based purely on my own research and what I’ve heard from my contacts in the industry, I’m sad to say that pretty much all of this checks out. At least these scenes serve as a handy demonstration of what strippers have to put up with for their paychecks, and we get a handy guide for how not to act at a strip club.

On a miscellaneous note, I want to praise the design team for this movie. The sound design is stellar from top to bottom, with crystal clear mixing in the club scenes and all sorts of neat flourishes in the back half. I was thoroughly impressed with the lighting and costuming designs, and the camerawork had just enough shaky-cam to feel immersive without feeling overdone. Brilliant work.

So is Hustlers a good movie? Absolutely. It’s a worthy entry in the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, but with more than enough twists to stand out from the pack. There isn’t a single dud in the cast, the production design is awesome, and I applaud the filmmakers’ efforts at portraying strippers in an honest and authentic light. It’s a bold, solidly made, well-researched movie about a subject that desperately needs more and better exposure in mainstream media.

However, the most important test for this movie will be in what change ultimately comes from it. Will this inspire audiences to see strippers and sex workers in a more sympathetic light? Will we see more mainstream pushback against the harmful stigmas and stereotypes against strippers and sex workers? Is there any hope we can repeal FOSTA/SESTA so that actual strippers, sex workers, and nude models can have a voice online without fear of getting censored or silenced, while Hollywood movies with half-naked A-list actresses get advertised every which way on every social media site? Time will tell.

On a final note, I want to reiterate that nothing I say in this blog entry should supplant or supercede the word of any actual sex worker with an opinion on the film. I’m sure that many strippers will have differing and/or conflicting opinions on the film, but they are the ultimate authority on this subject and their firsthand opinion should be respected above all others.

For a more authoritative look at life as a stripper, I recommend “Striptastic! A Celebration of Dope-Ass Cunts Who Like Money” by Jacqueline Frances, the same stripper/comedian/artist/activist who consulted and cameo’d in the film. I also strongly recommend “Magic Gardens”, the memoirs of the legendary Portland stripper Viva Las Vegas. “The Dancer Diaries” by Andy Norris is a work of fiction written by a non-stripper, but it’s also very good.

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