Following the current trend of crime films involving female ensembles (Ocean’s 8, Widows, The Kitchen), Lorene Scafaria‘s Hustlers is the first of this group to be based on a true story. And it’s clearly influenced by a couple of movies similarly adapted from nonfiction source material. Speaking of which, you should read the original New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” for the real deal.
For this week’s Movies to Watch After…, I’m recommending those other films based on true stories, plus other features involving strippers, women criminals, and sisterhoods of women taking revenge on bad men. And I’ll admit it, my reason for wanting to curate a syllabus of suggested viewing inspired by Hustlers was entirely in order to highlight the last title on the list.
When Love Kills: The Falicia Blakely Story (2017)
Exotic dancing is not necessarily a gateway to crime, so I’m not starting off with this TV movie (also known as Hit a Lick) to perpetuate a stereotype. But when it does come to dancers who become criminals, the story of Falicia Blakely is far more extreme and much more tragic than that of the characters (and their real-life counterparts) from Hustlers. Blakeley didn’t just rob men. With help from fellow stripper Ameshia Ervin, she killed three of them.
As depicted in the movie, then-19-year-old Blakeley (she’d been dancing nude since 16, courtesy of a fake ID) was coerced into “hitting licks,” or robbing rich guys for large amounts, by her manipulative pimp. Then the man allegedly called her during the act and told her to “clean house” or she’ll be dead, too. Later, Blakeley and Ervin lured another man from a club with the promise of sex and robbed and shot him, too.
Certainly, these ladies’ crimes are worse than the dancers who seduced, drugged, and scammed wealthy Wall Street guys, but Blakeley’s is also a story of a woman corrupted by an abusive man ever since she was a minor, and for that, she’s viewed as a victim. Does she deserve greater justice than being sentenced to life in place of the death penalty? If this were a Hollywood fiction, the women would have fled and been portrayed as heroes, though they also probably would have died in the end, as martyrs.
The Big Short (2015)
The impetus for the women to turn criminal in Hustlers is the Great Recession. The 2007-2008 financial crisis leads to a decrease in strip club patronage, and that causes the characters to lose their jobs and luxurious lifestyles and slum it in jobs at Old Navy and other retail outlets. There’s actually less focus on what happened at the time as you’d think because the story fast forwards to the early 2010s when the ladies began their schemes.
If you want a slick depiction of the cause of the Great Recession, check out The Big Short, which just so happens to be directed by Hustlers producer Adam McKay (through his and Will Ferrell and Jessica Elbaum’s female-focused sister label Gloria Sanchez). The star-studded, multi-narrative movie almost qualifies as a documentary in its aim to show audiences what happened, with all kinds of visual aids including cameo appearances from famous people directly explaining subprime mortgages and more.
Like Hustlers, it’s based on a work of nonfiction — Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine — but has changed some names to allow for dramatic license, as minimal as was needed while still maintaining credible accuracy. Hustlers also manages to include a terrific cameo of its own, though the one in that movie doesn’t get to break the fourth wall so much as assist in representing one last great moment before the fall.
Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Before women got their feminist stripper movie where the dancers are to be identified with as sexy and real, not objectified or one-dimensional, this Magic Mike sequel provided a feminist stripper movie as fuel for the female gaze. The male strippers are still the center of attention, but Magic Mike XXL pays a lot more attention to women characters, all kinds of women characters, and respects them as human beings who are also sexual beings.
The movie also features a standout supporting performance that received some Oscar buzz early on that didn’t pan out. Many fans believe Jada Pinkett Smith was robbed of a nomination for her role as a strip club owner and emcee. Fans of Hustlers hope the same thing doesn’t happen to J.Lo.
The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama loosely inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is not something most of us are thinking of while watching Hustlers. But Scafaria admits to The Master, particularly the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix’s characters, being an influence. As she explains on the Los Angeles Times podcast The Reel:
“This friendship between these two people, it’s so much deeper than what you might have with your spouse or your parents or your children. It’s that friendship that’ll completely bail you out of trouble but also get you into trouble. I like those stories, those power dynamics. Those codependent kinds of relationships. I’ve always something I’ve been drawn to that.”
Other movies that Scafaria has acknowledged as influences, that might not seem so obvious (and that I’ve not put on this list) include Clueless (1995), A League of Their Own (1992), Dirty Dancing (1987), Creed (2015), and 1983’s Flashdance (okay, that last one isn’t so surprising). Also, the TV series Keeping Up with the Kardashians and, uh, Big Bird. Despite her mention of Flashdance, she says she didn’t really look at other stripper movies, though she admits that a favorite is 1998’s The Player’s Club.
Boiler Room (2000)
Jordan Belfort’s story has since been depicted more directly in the form of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), but this earlier movie inspired by the same true story is filled with the kind of character we see as patrons of the strip club and as clients and scam victims of the women of Hustlers. These are not just any Wall Street bros, these are the guys who worship at the altar of Gordon Gecko from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).
And in turn, because they follow that character’s mantra of greed being good, they’re also prone to scheming in a criminal manner. There’s a moment in Hustlers where a victim of the women is calling and begging for his money back because the mistake on his part coupled with their manipulation is literally ruining his life. Essentially the same scene can be found in Boiler Room with a doctor who was scammed into buying worthless stocks.
Set It Off (1996)
There are a few crime films involving women that I thought about recommending. Both Sugar & Spice (2001) and The Bling Ring (2013) are loosely based on true stories of teenage robbers and have their own appeals. But I was reminded more of the bond between the ladies in F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off, as well as the issues that motivate their decision to rob banks. The foursome here (one of whom is also played by Jada Pinkett — not yet Smith) are reacting to unfair life and employment situations and status based on their race and gender, and they prove to be more clever and savvy than anyone gives them credit for.
I’m not a fan of this movie, but it has a significant cult following and I always think it’s worthwhile to become acquainted with what others appreciate even if you might not enjoy it. Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which follows the rising career of an exotic dancer (Elizabeth Berkeley) in Las Vegas, is also the kind of stripper movie we’re accustomed to from Hollywood with its abundance of sex and nudity targeting male audiences.
The difference in the treatment of the main character and her profession, in contrast with the sentimental honesty of Hustlers, is what has made this notorious bomb so popular over time. Showgirls is savored, mostly ironically, for its campiness, and that will likely maintain the movie’s success in the long run whereas something more sincere and authentic like Scafaria’s film will be less-remembered.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)
There are a lot of movies on this list involving far worse crimes than what the women in Hustlers commit, with most escalating to the point where lives are lost. Admittedly, murderers aren’t all that comparable to scammers, but the rationalization of the women robbing wealthy clients in Hustlers is similar to that of Aileen Wuornos’ in her killing spree. They’re all sex workers who are degraded, exploited, and abused more than they should be in their profession, and they react in an illegal manner. Wuornos claims to have done what she did, murdering seven men, in self-defense and/or in response to being raped or almost raped while working as a prostitute.
Nick Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is only the beginning as far as what I recommend for Wuornos’ story. The documentary was followed-up a decade later with 2003’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, in which Broomfield deals with his relationship with his subject as she nears execution. It’s a must for any true-crime junkie and relates well to the more famous situation of Truman Capote’s relationship to his subjects in the writing of In Cold Blood. And then, of course, there’s the dramatized version of Wuornos’ story, Monster (2003), for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance of the woman.
Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990)
Scafaria will be the first to admit that Scorsese is a major influence on Hustlers, though she also humbly says it’s kind of embarrassing to say. The classic mobster movie Goodfellas is the most obvious, given that it’s about a person drawn into a business that becomes more and more criminal until he’s arrested and then takes a deal. The same thing happens to Destiny in the new movie, it’s just that her job begins as legitimate.
She doesn’t have to enter the Witness Protection program after working with the police, though. She also never says, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a stripper,” which would be too blatant. It’s enough that there’s a long tracking shot through a club and a scene in a car involving the main character being paranoid.
Scafaria admits Casino (1995) and Raging Bull also influenced Hustlers, the latter because Ramona comes out like a boxer and because it fits in with her wanting Hustlers to feel like a sports movie. Scafaria told The Ringer:
“Ramona, when she steps on stage, is a bit like a fighter stepping into the ring…It feels like a fighter movie. They’re blue-collar. They’re using their bodies until they can’t use their bodies to make money anymore, and I wanted to make those connections.”
9 to 5 (1980)
Outside of Goodfellas, the most common movie Hustlers has been compared to in social media reactions and reviews is 9 to 5. There are no exotic dancers and it’s not a crime film, but there is a sisterhood of women bonding against a man who is exploiting them, and they do commit similar offenses, namely drugging (well, actually it’s minor poisoning), kidnapping, and extortion. But this is more of a feminist fantasy film so no one goes to jail.
Hustlers is meant to be as universally relatable to women workers as 9 to 5 is. The setting is a strip club, but it’s treated as though it were any kind of workplace in which women are demeaned, taken advantage of, and taken for granted. This was a much more normalized atmosphere in the late 1970s when this movie was conceived, but the issue hasn’t totally gone away, not in all professions. Anyway, 9 to 5 is always worth a recommendation solely for the rapturous trio of Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda.
Viva Maria! (1965)
Imagine if Mel Brooks made a spinoff to Blazing Saddles focusing on Madeline Kahn’s character or at least her world of 19th-century cabaret dancers. The result would be something akin to Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, a comedy actually set in the early 1900s that follows a couple of theatrical performers (Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau) who get tangled up in a Central American socialist revolution. They also inadvertently “invent” the act of striptease along the way.
Now, I don’t want to promise that this movie is as awesome as it sounds given the talent involved and the Brooks comparison, but it is enough of a goofy delight that it should be more well-known than it is (in the US, that is; I’m sure it’s a classic in France). And looking at it retrospectively, the subversion of the Western and buddy movie with women leads as Robin Hood-type heroes in a political farce was rather exceptional for the time.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
What if Hustlers had been made 80 years ago and starred Lucille Ball in the J.Lo role and Maureen O’Hara as the Constance Wu character (and I guess maybe sorta Maria Ouspenskaya in the Mercedes Ruehl part)? Okay, so the burlesque dancers in this classic Dorothy Arzner film don’t resort to robbing their clientele (though O’Hara’s character does wind up in jail near the end), and there’s a lot of romantic plot that Hustlers lacks because that was a Hollywood essential at the time, but when I hear about a project like Scafaria’s described as a feminist stripper movie, Dance, Girl, Dance comes to mind immediately.
The cultural significance of the film, which is on the National Film Registry, is that it was helmed by a woman director at a time when that was rare as well as its later appreciation during the women’s movement in the 1970s and as a favorite subject in feminist film theory texts. Dance, Girl, Dance was critically panned and a major box office failure upon release, but now it’s accepted that the cliches that reviews complained about then are being used intentionally. Even today, it’s mainly a syllabus staple as film studies classes focus on its climactic meta speech from O’Hara regarding the objectification of women.
Hustlers is just as direct in its commentary, but it’s more subtle with its near breakage of the fourth wall by having Wu’s character speak in voiceover narration that itself is diegetically placed in the context of an interview. But it’s not as shaming of its audience and never needs to play up stereotypical roles in order to criticize their traditional function. Hustlers isn’t necessarily better than Dance, Girl, Dance, just of a different time when a story like this with a message like it has can be more nuanced while still rebelling against the patriarchal norm.