Demystifying David O. Russell

By Brent Glass


David O. Russell’s films have become widely acclaimed.  His last three films, The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013), each earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Director.  He did not win for the first two but, considering the 2014 Oscars have yet to be, he could possibly for American Hustle.  Unlikely – in my opinion – since he is facing the likes of Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, Steve McQueen, and Martin Scorsese; one of whom (Cuarón) has become the favorite.  Nevertheless, being nominated three times in four years is nothing to scoff at.  Additionally, those three films were each nominated for a swath of Academy Awards.  The Fighter received seven nominations in total (four wins), Silver Linings was nominated for eight categories (also won four), and American Hustle received a mammoth ten nominations.  Suffice to say, he is kind of a big deal.  However, these last three films have been referred to as the “reinvention trilogy” by some; a hint that success was not always synonymous with David O. Russell.

Let’s go to the beginning.  Most likely the average person in America fails to realize that the three aforementioned movies do not encompass the work of Mr. Russell.  His first full-length film was released in 1994, Spanking the Monkey.  An oddball comedic drama which involved the action the title suggests, his injured mother, and the girl next door, Spanking the Monkey was applauded by some small critic circles.  The Independent Spirit Awards presented the rookie director with Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.  Furthermore, David O. took home the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.  Rarely does a directorial debut do so well.

David’s second film was another underappreciated work that included Ben Stiller, Patrcia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins, and Josh Brolin.  Phew, quite a few names there.  Another offbeat comedy, Flirting with Disaster (1996) was also adequately praised upon its release.  With a small bevy of unheard-of nominations, Flirting with Disaster‘s/ Russell’s biggest prize was taking home third place for Best Screenplay as judged by the National Society of Film Critics.  The original plot and inventive story-telling earned him a small-yet-dedicated group of fans.

Three years later, Russell deviated course.  Rather than continuing with another black comedy, the then-junior director took his turn at making a war film; albeit, not a very traditional one.  Three Kings was released in 1999, starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze.  A political commentary, Three Kings chronicled the adventure of a small group of American soldiers.  Following the decisive Gulf War victory in Iraq, American soldiers find a map lodged between the cheeks of a POW’s rump.  Putatively holding the whereabouts of stolen Kuwaiti gold, the ragtag group of Americans decide to follow the map and take the gold for themselves.  An impressive film throughout, Russell proved he could smoothly transition into a completely different genre.  He also demonstrated his ability to glean the necessary skills from his actors; I mean, even Ice Cube was good in that movie!

Three Kings

Sadly, as is with most up-and-coming artists, Russell had a stumbling point.  While not a terrible movie overall, I Heart Huckabees was considered a failure when compared to his previous works.  Again, Russell teamed up with Mark Wahlberg and Lily Tomlin, but he also recruited Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, and Naomi Watts.  Another screwball comedy, Huckabees revolved around Schwartzman’s character who, through odd circumstances, hires a husband-and-wife existential detective agency.  You know, one of those agencies hired to investigate all of those interminable questions, such as: What is the purpose of my life?  I liked the premise and thought it deserved a little more credit than it received.  In a nutshell, the criticism was that the film was outrageous for outrageous’ sake.  The film was not a complete failure, however, for Jennifer Lawrence loved it.  Check it out, here.

Following subpar I Heart Huckabees reviews, David Russell went on to make Nailed; well, he tried to make it.  Because of shaky funding, Nailed was never released.  Many sources concluded that preliminary filming was finished but cash ran out before the postproduction process.  The film was written by David O. Russell and Kristin Gore (yes, that’d be Al Gore’s daughter).  A political comedy, Nailed was about a small-town-diner waitress who gets a nail accidentally lodged in her head, causing unpredictable and promiscuous behavior — therein the double entendre of the film’s title was found.  A young and naïve Senator took up her cause until his visceral feelings become a problem.  Unfortunately this work never found its way to the silver screen; it was to star Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, Jessica Biel, and James Marsden.  Despite Russell’s first three fairly well-received projects, he could not secure funding.  In fact, it was because of Mark Wahlberg’s sway – and billfold – that enabled the director to make The Fighter; thus beginning the reinvention.

Like many artistic geniuses, Russell was not free of controversy.  If one does a simple Google search on Russell, it would not take long for an article to pop up on the brilliant-yet-difficult dichotomy he presents.  The first example was his tussle with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings.  Fueled by the stress of his first large budget film and outdoor shooting, Russell was exceptionally difficult.  Upon a confrontation by Clooney, Russell and the Oscar-winning actor ended up in a shouting match, forehead-to-forehead.  Other sensationalist sources claim that Russell psychically attacked Clooney and, in response, Clooney put him in a headlock.  To get a better idea of what the arguing match might have sounded like, let’s discuss his second high-profile tussle – with Lily Tomlin.

Like many directors, Russell has reused many actors and actresses.  One of those actresses was Lily Tomlin.  A strong character in Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, Tomlin came back to work for the director on I Heart Huckabees as one of the “existential detectives.”  At one point, however, she and David O. did not see eye-to-eye.  Observe here.  The last major controversy Russell was a part of was the alleged molestation of his transgendered niece.

As can be fully discovered here and here, Russell reputedly groped his niece’s new breasts at a gym in Florida.  Yikes.  No matter that he said his niece gave him permission; that’s not something you want attached to your name.  This narrative may strike up memories of another troubled director: Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s alleged molestation of his daughter is not novel news.  However, this year the Golden Globes played a few-minute long video celebrating the directing achievement of Allen.  As a result, many writers and show hosts of all sorts have come to consider the seemingly age-old question: How should one evaluate the work of a morally questionable individual?  One could argue that David O. Russell falls into this category of “morally questionable.”

So, how should we, the obviously moral consumers, judge Russell’s works?  I suppose the first question, actually, is “Should individuals aware of his questionable acts even see his films?”  I mean, it’s an integral part of American history; the boycott, that is.  Should we employ it in this case?

Naturally there are opposing views.  Some people wouldn’t think twice.  They would find something about the artist personally offensive and swear off all of their products (think Chick-fil-A).  Others would find the personal facts about the artist unappealing, but wouldn’t stop enjoying the work of art.  The third group of individuals would reason that the artist and their art are separable.  They would determine that, while the artist may have committed heinous acts, the work of art itself could stand alone and, since the work doesn’t reverberate the sins of the artist, should be celebrated.  Hopefully you stayed with me there.

Firstly, I must say that I would not consider Russell’s first two skirmishes worthy of boycott.  They may show that there is a jerk underneath his façade, but that’s about it.  The third is a different story.  What sane person can justify the groping or molestation of a family member?  Answer: none.  However, in this case, the facts are so convoluted that the story loses its potency.  It could be that Russell wrongly felt up his niece, but it also could be – and more probably – that there was some sort of major miscommunication between the two.

I have not stopped watching Russell’s films and plan to see every future release.  I am of the opinion that the boycott-process must be case-to-case.  One sin definitely shouldn’t cast a shadow on an artist’s entire life work.  If the work itself is morally questionable, I’d probably refrain from seeing it.  But doesn’t every individual deserve their right to privacy… and forgiveness?

Russell and Cooper

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working as a freelance writer for Sagamore Institute, creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in public policy.


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