Director David O. Russell first made a splash in the film industry after his debut feature film Spanking the Monkey (1994) won him accolades at both the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance Film Festival. The director was an instant darling to the art scene, and became somebody to watch. Years after, O. Russell found himself in numerous scandals that involved on set fist fights with George Clooney and anger tantrums toward actress Lily Tomlin that made his work ethic quite questionable. The New York born filmmaker disappeared into a showbiz abyss after the fiasco around his 2004 philosophical drama-comedy I Heart Huckabees almost tarnished his reputation completely.
The strange case of David O. Russell is no tall tale to film lovers and Hollywood regulars. He came back with a vengeance (questionable to some, and yet he has achieved cult status gaining a loyal pack of cinemaphiles behind him) since his resurgence with The Fighter (2010), the boxing drama staring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale that launched what he coined as “His Re-Invention Trilogy”. The film received numerous Oscar nominations, including three acting nominations for Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, the latter winning in their respective categories.
He had found a way to silence his detractors, produce good cinema that was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. Actors were on board again, despite rumours that O. Russell was a tedious perfectionist, giving his cast and crew wrath for hours on end. A slight dent with Melissa Leo’s “tasteless” and self-serving Oscar campaign left a sour taste in some people’s mouths.
By 2012 O. Russell was on a roll, and had planned the second edition to his trilogy, Silver Linings Playbook, adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel telling the story of the mentally unstable Pat and his search for a silver lining in life. Originally slated to star Mark Wahlberg as Pat, and Anne Hathaway as Tiffany (Pat’s eventual on-screen partner, and another town crazy who challenges his inner goals), Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were cast instead. Mark Wahlberg’s negativity towards the director (after seeking him out to produce the successful The Fighter) led to rumours of bad blood between the filmmaker and actor. Hathaway had dropped out to do Les Miserables (2012) instead.
The director found a steady partnership with his leading man and woman, consistently working with them as muses for the upcoming years to follow. Silver Linings Playbook was received extremely well, garnering a Best Picture nomination, Director and Screenplay nods for the man at the helm, four acting nominations (a rare feat for a single movie) and win for the young ingenue Lawrence for her leading role. The movie proved to be a strong contender in the 2012 Oscars, however, people began to question the Academy playing favorites with new Golden Boy director. Even throwing a controversial nomination to supporting actress Jacki Weaver for a performance that featured no depth and almost mere silence.
By the following year, the ensemble of American Hustle, David O. Russell’s third and final film in the series, had caused a stir. His four favorite performers (who have proven successful in the past) were asked to return in the principle roles: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence – all whom which were eventually nominated. This was his dream cast and was expected to be a big player come awards night. Lawrence was killing competition in precursors and the film was a smash hit, despite bashing from non-believers for it’s gimmickry as a Scorsese-esque rip-off.
On Oscar night, Hustle lost all 10 of its nominations, including its strongest bet – Jennifer Lawrence. The film, set in the 70s made sure to have everything it needed to be an awards champion: big acting, intricate costumes and sets, quick editing and a “biting” screenplay skillfully orchestrated to be up the Academy’s alley. However, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was too strong a contender and Hustle remained in the shadows.
After four years of O. Russell exposure in both the cinemas and awards season, audiences began to feel over-saturated with the filmmaker and his collection of glistening stars. The director, was not quite over with his film obsessions and began to adapt Joy (2015), the story of the creator of the miracle mop. He casted Silver Linings alumni Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro as her supporting players. The historical and inspiring subject matter about regular people and their rise to the top seemed like a perfect fit for him, but a troubled set began to worry insiders.
Fights between him and his ingenue were said to be a normal day on set. While the bitterness of Annie Mumolo, the writer who had penned the screenplay but was demoted to have “conceived the story” after O. Russell re-wrote the entire thing, was making headlines. Life imitated art and Joy (despite Lawrence’s glistening performance) was released to mixed reviews and only one Oscar nomination for its lead actress.
What is next for O. Russell? Personally, I have nothing against him as I love his work and his cast of characters. But does this halt in acclaim signal that some filmmakers clearly cannot take fame and accolades? At the rate he is going, another “Re-Invention” series may be in order. The rocky road is long and not all artists are lucky enough to receive another chance. Let’s hope that a third is in store for the sake of this director’s potential. Or is it the end?