David O. Russell (American Hustle)
New Yorker David O. Russell burst onto the scene in 1994 with the darkly comedic Spanking the Monkey, and has made a name for himself tackling difficult subjects with humor. Raised by his father Bernard, a sales executive at Simon & Schuster, and his homemaker mum, who passed her love of political activism to him, Russell worked as a teacher in Nicaragua and Boston in the early 1980s, as well as a labor organizer in Maine, before focusing on film. His big break came with Three Kings (1999), a caustic satire on the Iraq war that cast George Clooney, Spike Jonze, Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg as hapless GIs involved in a caper against the chaos of battle. It stands as a 1990s counterpart to such classics as M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now.
Russell followed that effort with I Heart Huckabees (2004), a quirky comedy which further explored a surreal brand of comedy. In 2010 he returned to the screen with The Fighter, which marked a departure into more realistic and mature emotional territory. The film, set against the gritty backdrop of drugs and boxing in blue collar Boston, received critical raves for the cast that included Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. It also earned Best Director nominations from both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Pictures. Russell cemented the star power of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which was Globes-nominated and for which Lawrence won a Globe and an Oscar. His latest, American Hustle, is also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture Musical or Comedy – he re-teamed with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to make it.
Russell’s unorthodox and sometimes forceful approach to directing has been both heralded and at times criticized. His early career was occasionally shadowed by stories of acting out on set, famously that of Three Kings, when Clooney stepped in on behalf of an extra. Russell claimed he was demonstrating the level of physicality he required; Clooney thought otherwise, and the two wrestled as a result. But the whispers have disappeared as his career has grown, delivering a one-two-three critical punch with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – films that the director considers parts of a trilogy. With these three films he started focusing on members of his own extended family, some of whom are from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. They’re rich characters with a passion for life. Each story is to some extent about people who have lost their way.
“The rest of my work and the rest of my life were leading up to this point. For better or worse. People know the story. I went through a period where I was divorced and dealing with a bipolar son. That contributed to a lost direction. I felt a little lost. But it brought me to a point where I could relate and love characters I wouldn’t have looked at twice,” Russell recently told the HFPA.
Frequent collaborator Christian Bale elaborates: “With David we can be blunt with each other and know we are going to overcome that completely. There’s no sulking, that’s not allowed, and you get some really bloody good work coming out of that.” Good enough, with American Hustle to earn a field-leading seven Golden Globe nominations.