Why is David O. Russell so controversial?

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF

David O RussellMovies are a big deal when it comes to awards seasons. The director, producer and screenwriter has been nominated for five Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes throughout his career. Movies like 2013’s American Hustle, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, 2010’s The Fighter, and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook have all attracted phenomenal awards and casts, including regular collaborators like Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale.

But throughout his Hollywood career, his success has come at a cost, particularly in the form of Russell. The filmmaker has generated controversy with his behavior on and off the set. Every time a new Russell film is released, he returns the argument: how does the director still have so much power at the top of Hollywood?

The criticism was particularly sharp in September 2022 when Russell released his first film in almost seven years. amsterdam dominated Twitter, but not because of the ensemble film’s impressive cast.

Russell’s repeated abusive behavior on set and allegations of assault have caused movie fans to call out the industry for apparently allowing his behavior to go unchecked for years. So why is Russell so controversial?

fights on set

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

It started on the set of Russell’s first big-budget movie. 1999 Three Kings starring Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, but it was George Clooney who took on the director.

A year after the film’s release, Clooney told Playboy that working with Russell was “truly, without exception,” the worst experience of his life. Clooney described how she confronted the director about his abusive behavior towards the crew and extras on set, which reached its peak during a particularly high-pressure scene with helicopters and hundreds of extras. Clooney described his attempt to have a reasonable word with the director only for Russell to headbutt Clooney.

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Clooney and Russell seemingly cleared things up in the two decades since, but the hostility continued through interviews for quite a few years. Russell reportedly set a high price to work with the actor again, with Clooney telling Playboy, “Life is too short.”

Assault Claims

I_Heart_Huckabees
Image via Searchlight Pictures

Hollywood legend Lily Tomlin was at the end of a tirade by Russell five years later during the making of what appears to be Russell’s most difficult film, and this time it was recorded.

A 2004 video from the set of I heart huckabees showed Russell verbally abusing Tomlin. She has seen him shout sexist obscenities as he marched around the set and nearly finished off a crew member when he threw the contents of a desk in anger. It’s an impressive tirade of profanity that puts everyone firmly on Tomlin’s side.

In 2011, Tomlin told Movieline that she and Russell had eventually gotten over their differences, but there were signs that Russell’s reputation was starting to get to him. When the director attended the 2012 Gotham Awards to collect a special Lifetime Tribute award from him, he first had to sit in front of host Mike Birbiglia reciting the entire on-set tirade, insults and all. Russell then responded by saying: ‘I’m just saying you have to laugh at all that stuff. You have to laugh at that.

That Gotham City tribute award was presented to Russell by Amy Adams, the lauded actress who had worked with the writer-director on the 2010 film. The fighter and was shooting what was probably her last movie with him.

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Russell treats Adams on the set of american hustle was revealed in 2014 as part of the great Sony Pictures hack. The emails showed that Russell had abused Adams so much on set that co-star Christian Bale had to intervene. A leaked transcript of the hack described Russell’s behavior, which included swearing and physically assaulting team members, as “extreme even by Hollywood standards.”

Adams confirmed that Russell had made her cry almost every day while making the film, and described herself as “devastated on set”. She described her co-star Jennifer Lawrence as “Teflon.” That’s a term that many may think applies best to Russell, but in any case, it’s not a resounding endorsement considering Lawrence and the director’s frequent collaborations. Adams added: “Life to me is more important than movies.”

I heart huckabees it may be a fiery peak for Russell, with allegations that have dogged him for nearly two decades. Rumor has it that Russell was upset when Jude Law jumped out of the film during pre-production and saw his chance to confront the director of the film Law had signed on at a party. That director was Christopher Nolan, who was heating up the cameras on his thriller Moment. Russell allegedly humiliated Nolan, put him in a headlock in front of the guests and demanded that he release Law. Apparently, Law was back in the huckabees‘ released in a matter of days.

In December 2011, Nicole Peloquin filed a police report alleging that Russell had groped her at a gym in Florida. Peloquin, then 19, was Russell’s transgender niece, and the incident triggered some awkward remarks. Police reports of the incident confirmed that Russell admitted inappropriate touching had occurred, and the director claimed that his niece had been provocative and invited him to touch her breasts. Despite Russell’s admission, the assault case was closed without charges being filed due to a lack of witnesses, as reported in the Chicago Tribune. Like many of the Russell-related scandals, it didn’t go away, and the details were some of the most shocking moments to emerge in the 2014 Sony Pictures attack and leak.

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Premieres in Amsterdam

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for 20th Century Studios

The 2014 Sony email leak revealed Russell’s conduct on the set of american hustle but also Sony’s concerns that the film hadn’t lived up to its award promise: It garnered 33 of 151 nominations but failed to convert any of its 10 Oscar nominations.

More stories may emerge from the interesting production of amsterdama shoot delayed by the 2019 COVID-19 outbreak. There is no suggestion of inappropriate conduct on set, but the film only ended when police stepped in to shut down production after exceeding their filming permit.

amsterdamRussell’s immediate story was that social media juggled the film’s mixed reviews, arguably the most mixed of Russell’s career, with the surprise that the filmmaker is still operating at such a high level in Tinsel Town. Those questions will be asked every time Russell releases a movie, so those reviews are likely to come under even more scrutiny.


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