In the early 2000s, you could barely move for romcoms. Among the armies of hobbits, Jedis and boy wizards, Sandra Bullock was dealing with needy man-child Hugh Grant in Two Weeks’ Notice, Reese Witherspoon faced up to her past in Sweet Home Alabama and Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos was trying to find love under the watch of her pushy family (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). On the crest of this new millennium wave was Jennifer Lopez. She starred in box-office hits including The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, in tandem with her pop career. Compared to her American peers, she was redefining the genre in a way that hadn’t been seen before. “When I first started, one of the things that I wanted to do, because I was Puerto Rican, Latina, was that I wanted to be in romantic comedies,” Lopez explained in 2019. “I felt like all the women in romantic comedies always looked the same way, they were always white.”
Twenty years later, however, the cinematic landscape has changed dramatically. Disney is churning out CGI-heavy remakes of childhood favourites, Marvel bombards us with one spin-off after another, or there’s the Oscars fodder: “worthy” films that seem written with awards season in mind. There has been the odd romcom success – the 2018 adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians received two Golden Globe nominations and was praised for skewering romcom tropes – but they tend to be anomalies. Other attempts have come across as too self-mocking to appeal to fans of the traditional format. For a time, it seemed as if the romcom had had its day.
But next week could prove to be the pivotal moment that sparks a true romcom renaissance on the big screen. Marry Me, starring Lopez opposite the perpetually baffled Owen Wilson, is a rarity today: an all-frills romantic comedy with two major Hollywood leads and a ludicrously far-fetched plot. She is Kat Valdez, a pop superstar preparing to marry her fiancé in front of her thousands of fans, until she learns that he’s cheating on her. Rather than go into hiding, she walks onto the stage in full wedding regalia and spots Wilson’s character Charlie, the stranger she ends up marrying instead.
While this does sound ridiculous, it also seems familiar if you’ve followed Lopez’s trajectory. She began working on the project years ago with her former agent-turned production partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who said recently that it made total sense that Lopez would follow 2019’s raunchfest Hustlers with something more in line with her own life. “She had an opportunity to pull the curtain back and make a film about what it was like to live and to love in a glass bowl, to have your mistakes amplified and crucified across all platforms, and to ultimately find your way in spite of it,” Goldsmith-Thomas told The New York Times. “Add to that the ability to produce, and perform a soundtrack to that journey, and we’d be fools not to make it.”
Lopez started finding her way back in 1990, with In Living Color. All day, hundreds of dancers had spun and sweated their way through the New York audition room. But Keenen Ivory Wayans was still looking. “I’d been there hours and seen every dancer in New York,” the show’s creator recalled in a 2010 episode of VH1’s documentary series, Behind the Music. “And then this young girl steps up, and a spotlight landed on her and she captivated everyone in the room.”
She started dancing from a young age. Lopez was born in 1969, New York City, to parents who arrived in the US from Puerto Rico as children. She took dance classes and parts in school musicals from the age of five. When she was a teenager, however, her aspirations to become a professional dancer created tension with her strict Catholic parents; after falling out with her mother, Lopez moved to Manhattan and slept in her dance studio for several months.
Lopez credits her first gig in 1989, touring around Europe with a musical revue show, for giving her the “tough skin” required for the entertainment business. Regional theatre, music videos and dancing backup for MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block followed, before she landed her role as a Fly Girl on In Living Color, where she worked for two seasons. “I think I was pretty fearless. I think when you’re younger, you are… ignorance is bliss,“ she has said of that time. Even in grainy archive footage of those In Living Color episodes, Lopez’s precision and skill radiates from the screen. “I always consider myself as a dancer first,” she said in 2017. “I became a singer and actress after dancing.”
It wasn’t long before Lopez was tapped up by a casting director. After a small part in the short-lived TV show South Central, she was cast in CBS’s series Second Chances before receiving praise for her first major film role, as the young Maria Sánchez in the 1995 drama Mi Familia. By 1997, she’d given one of her most critically adored performances to date, in the musical biopic Selena. In a throwback to the fierce audition process of In Living Color, Lopez won the part of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez against 20,000 other candidates, becoming the first Latina actor to earn $1m for a film. Selena helped Lopez reconnect with her Latin roots and remind her how much she missed performing onstage. After she finished filming, she cut a demo in Spanish, but was rebuffed by record companies who wanted English-language songs. Perhaps as a compromise, she decided that her debut album would be a blend of all her influences, inspired by Selena’s infusion of traditional Puerto Rican and Mexican sounds with soul, rhythm, and American pop.
At the same time, Lopez was able to use music as a way of showing her fans her true self. “When you’re doing a movie, you’re playing different characters,” she once observed. “People don’t really get to know you. With music, you really get a sense of who people are. So now, when people see me perform, it will be a different thing. They’ll be getting more of who I am, who Jennifer is.”
Lopez’s debut single “If You Had My Love” was a perfect opening salvo. Its success – topping the US charts for five weeks – came as a shock to critics, who were unused to seeing film stars cross over to a pop career with such ease. Yet it shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the pop masterminds working with Lopez on the track: LaShawn Daniels, Cory Rooney, Lopez, Fred Jerkins III, and producer Rodney Jerkins (Darkchild). Using the box of tricks they’d assembled over years of collaborations with Michael Jackson, Mary J Blige and Mariah Carey, they helped Lopez craft her distinctive blend of styles, with her vision at the helm. “I’m very into Latin music. I’m very into R&B and hip-hop music, and I’m very into pop music,” she told CNN the week the song hit No 1. “I just wanted to hear something that mixed all three.”
If “If You Had My Love” channelled the 30-year-old’s warmth, charisma and assertive nature, it also established her as a triple threat. Not everyone was convinced. One review hilariously claimed: “In the year 2020, this album will be part of someone’s doctoral thesis on the dangers of crossover.” Few statements have got it quite so wrong. To date, Lopez has sold more than 24 million albums and charted multiple singles, including 2002’s “Jenny From the Block”, 2005’s “Get Right”, and the club-filler “On the Floor” from her seventh album Love?. All alongside a fruitful acting career.
Of course, not all of her films were acclaimed. Who could forget Gigli – in which she appeared opposite her then (and now, again) boyfriend, Ben Affleck – a box-office bomb that is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. But Lopez recovered two years later with Monster-in-Law – Jane Fonda’s first film in 15 years – which grossed $154m (£114m) on a $43m (£32m) budget. Lopez, it seems, doesn’t let the odd raspberry get in the way of hard work. In a 2021 piece for InStyle celebrating her 30 years in the industry, Lopez’s former co-stars marvelled at how she was always the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. “Jennifer is an absolute powerhouse,” her friend and fellow actor Charlize Theron told the publication. “I can’t begin to comprehend how she does all that she does, always giving 120 per cent, and she has made it seem effortless for 30 years. To call her a triple threat doesn’t come close to describing her – she’s all of the threats!”
Matthew McConaughey, Lopez’s co-star in 2001’s The Wedding Planner, agreed: “Extremely deliberate, intentional, fully choreographed, and self-aware, she even knows how to make accidents look like accidents,” he said. “When we acted in scenes together, she would turn in take after take as if timed on a meter, 1:01, 1:00, 1:02, 1:01…yet you couldn’t tell that she was keeping a clock.”
It was the 2019 film Hustlers in which Lopez reestablished herself as a cultural force. She set the screen alight in her career-best performance as an exotic dancer turned con artist Ramona Vega, all cuddly mama bear one moment, lean, snarling panther the next, with one helluva pole-dancing sequence (something she replicated months later when she headlined the Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira). You can’t help but wonder if Hustler’s writers threw in her line of dialogue – in which she tells Constance Wu’s character Destiny she’s a “triple threat” – as a knowing nod to her own career.
With Marry Me, Lopez has come full circle. Along with her genuine passion for romantic comedies, Lopez clearly has a deep understanding of how huge the market is for films such as this. She knows how to maximise their full potential, too. Not only did she produce and star in the movie, she performs its soundtrack, which was released the week ahead on Friday 4 February. If both the film and album do well, Lopez could repeat her feat of two decades ago, when, with The Wedding Planner and her second album J Lo, she became the first woman to achieve a No 1 album and film in the same week. Thirty years in the game and Jenny from the Block’s still in control and loving it.