As Jennifer Lopez enjoys universal acclaim for her latest role in Hustlers, now in theaters, we look back on the best performance of her career, in the 1998 sexy romantic thriller Out of Sight.
Out of Sight tells the story of career bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) breaking out of prison and attempting one last heist; in the process of escaping prison, he is forced to kidnap federal marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez), who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Karen doesn’t lose her cool, though, and is strangely taken with the handsome robber. The film tracks the flirtatious cat and mouse game as Karen hunts Jack down.
Lopez’s performance is staggeringly sexy and cool. She exudes a classical movie star energy while tapping into a naturalism rarely seen in her work. She personifies the tone of the film even better than Clooney, whose playfulness always veers just one degree too far into goofball.
Lopez projects a wry, knowing confidence opposite him, playing every scene as a seduction, even when he is her captor, cramped together in the trunk of a getaway car. He tells her she doesn’t seem scared, which surprises him. She says she isn’t scared. She probably is, but she’s too smart to show it. (Plus she does have a handgun in her purse that she’s ready to use as soon as the trunk opens.)
Lopez plays the part like she knows she will outsmart Clooney in the end, and vice versa. This tension is the driving force of the film: We know only one can win in the end, but they are on the same level and we don’t know who the victor will be.
It’s a classical Howard Hawksian tête-à-tête, with Lopez embodying the Hawksian female archetype — strong-willed and proactive, both professionally and sexually. You could easily see one of Hawks’ favorite actresses playing the part: Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn.
When Out of Sight was released in June 1998, it was a modest box office success, but it was a critical smash. Early the following year, when the National Society of Film Critics voted for their annual awards, they gave Out of Sight Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film of the Year. Nothing for its wonderful lead performances, though. It also received two Academy Award nominations, and not particularly minor ones: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing, both of which are known to be predictors of the Best Picture win, assuming they get that nomination as well.
Unfortunately, popular entertainment like Out of Sight rarely gets recognized by the Oscars beyond the technical achievements in craft, and 20 years ago this was even more true than today. But Lopez’s performance is easily as good as the five nominees for Best Actress that year, even if sexy and cool performances in heist thrillers are not the Academy’s preferred milieu. The Academy likes to nominate the best of a certain type, and Lopez’s performance was the wrong type for recognition.
After Out of Sight, Lopez never gave a performance as strong again, at least until Hustlers. The directors she worked with were never as strong as Steven Soderbergh, and the writing in her films was never as sharp as Scott Frank’s brilliant script. Lopez struggled for legitimacy as an actor for the next two decades, despite having given a flawless performance.
Perhaps if critics groups or the Academy had singled out this incredible performance, she would have been given that legitimacy. Perhaps the roles she would go on to play would tap into the special knowing confidence of her Karen Sisco, and maybe we would have seen her take on riskier challenges.
We will never know how an Oscar nomination for Out of Sight might have changed Lopez’s acting career, but we will always have her sparkling performance in the movie nonetheless.