OSCARS: David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' Wows At First Industry Screening

Another piece of the Oscar-season puzzle was unveiled Sunday night when Sony held the first major screening of David O. Russell‘s American Hustle at the Cary Grant Theatre on the Culver City lot. The packed crowd was largely made up of SAG and a few Academy members, plus select press. Since this and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (which begins screening at the end of the month) have been the two remaining question marks before we have a clear view of the complete competitive landscape, the unveiling of this one was hotly anticipated. It was definitely the place to be. In fact, one New York-based consultant working on the film flew in Sunday afternoon specifically for the screening and flew back on the red-eye immediately afterwards.

If rivals were hoping it would be a bust, or at the very least a disappointment, I hate to bring them the bad news. Although formal reviews are verboten until early next month, I can say that from my vantage point, Russell — whose last two films Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010) were nominated for Best Picture and Director, as well as taking some acting Oscars — has another winner with a film that will have strong appeal particularly in the actors branch and at SAG. I also think, even in this fiercely contested year, Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing and Costume nods could be in the cards along with any number of possibilities for its superb ensemble including lead actor  Christian Bale, lead actress Amy Adams, supporting actors Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner, and supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence. Especially Lawrence; she is simply dazzling as Bale’s wife, a total knockout scene-stealer throughout. If she hadn’t already won last year as Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook, there is no doubt she might be unbeatable here. At 23 years old and the star of this weekend’s all-time November record breaker, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, she may well become the frontrunner anyway to take back-to-back Academy Awards after this performance is seen. It’s prime Oscar bait. The actors, including voters I spoke to afterward, were clearly blown away. In fact the entire cast — which also includes a terrific unbilled one-scene cameo from Robert De Niro, who was nominated last year for Silver Linings — will certainly figure heavily for the SAG Outstanding Cast of a Motion Picture award. One person connected to the film to whom I spoke said early reaction had been on the mixed side, but I couldn’t detect that at this screening. It was all upbeat. Time will tell.

At last week’s Governors Awards, Russell told me he simply couldn’t pass up the chance to do this film which offered strong roles for stars of his last two films. So Bale and Adams from The Fighter joined Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro from Silver Linings. I remember Russell talking about prepping this film while at the same time hitting the awards circuit last year. Somehow despite all that he has pulled it off.

The film, loosely based on the 1970s Abscam government sting operation which nailed several members of Congress, involves Bale and Adams in a con game where they team up with an out-of-control FBI agent played by Cooper. Bale is remarkable and, in customary fashion for him, put on 40 pounds and shaved his head so he could create a hairstyle with a god-awful comb-over. Adams is complex and excellent and Cooper, sporting a perm, matches his Oscar-nominated work in Silver Linings. Renner, playing a corrupt but likeable politician, also shines as the soul of this enterprise.

Russell’s last two films netted a total of seven acting nominations and three wins. I would expect more of the same this time. The director has a knack for getting the best from his performers and there is verve, excitement, energy, and top-of-their-game acting in just about every frame. Russell puts these characters in your face and it’s something. It would be hard to imagine the actors branch passing this up despite killer competition in every category this year.

After the screening, Russell, Adams, Renner, co-star Elisabeth Rohm, editor Jay Cassidy, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, and casting director Mary Vernieu appeared for a 40-minute Q&A. Although it is loosely  based on real-life events, Russell took Eric Singer’s existing screenplay and did what Renner termed was a page-one rewrite. He gave the characters priority. “The love triangle and emotions are the center of the piece. I love the way people walk and talk and dress as much as I love the story,” Russell said. Rohm added, “With David, it’s all about the truth. You can discover things in moments”. The actors all said it was a free-flowing atmosphere on set with ever-changing script pages. Cassidy, who also earned an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings, echoed that when he said in the editing room, “I got to be there for the final re-write.” There was also improv. In fact Adams, who doesn’t often take credit, said a scene in which she impulsively grabs Lawrence in the ladies room and kisses her full-on on the lips was actually her idea and she praised Lawrence for making it work. “She’s amazing. She’s fearless. I’m fearful, but I will do anything except I will do it with a lot of thought”, she said. “Unless Jennifer is keeping a secret though, she’s completely fearless”.

American Hustle itself is a fearless piece of American cinema and more evidence that Russell is really on a roll. It’s my guess that Sony can add this one to Captain Phillips (which passed $100 million at the boxoffice this weekend) on its list of true contenders this season.

  1. Jennifer Lawrence seems to be the Kristen Stewart of the moment. I’ve yet to see a performance from her where I actually bought into the character she was playing. She’s popular. But is she two time academy award winning actress? I’m baffled that she even has one where people like Garry Oldman has yet to win ONE.

    1. I feel like O Russell knows JLAw can be the main draw and so he edited the movie to make her stand out even if her character was funny on paper. They are heavenly relying on her, I believe.

    2. Winter’s Bone was good. She won me over there. SilverLinings was pretty good (not great). The charming script and co-stars went a long way toward her win.

    3. Could not disagree with you more! Have you even seen Winter’s Bone? I like Kristen Stewart well enough, but I really think there is no comparison between the two, other than the fact they both starred in franchise films.

      1. I’m with you. I actually like Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart (sorry HP fans but I find Emma Watson vastly overrated), but Jennifer is WAY beyond them. Jennifer is beating out actresses like Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman, and others in that range for roles at this point.

        1. I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Lawrence since Winter’s Bone, where she was phenomenal. She was also very good in Hunger Games; that whole franchise really rests on her. I liked but did not love her performance in Silver Linings Playbook; I thought Naomi Watt’s little-seen performance in The Impossibles was MUCH better. But I look forward to seeing American Hustle.

        2. I don’t think you have a clue of what you are talking about. I have yet to see a movie where Lawrence was believable.

    4. Say what? Jennifer Lawrence may be a bit overrated, but she’s leaps and bounds above all of her peers in her age group and some of the older actresses too. This is coming from someone who actually thinks KStew is a decent actress in her indie films, but Jennifer Lawrence is way above the Emma Watsons, KStews, and Emma Stones and even better than the Natalie Portmans and such…..I do wonder if it is too much adulation at once for JenLaw though….I remember when Swank had two Oscars and then basically disappeared…

    5. JLaw has a great PR Team supporting her because I find most of her performances stiff and wooden , and she seems not to know how to act with subtlety and complexity . Now, Amy Adams is a completely different story . That lady can read a phone book and make it sound wonderful . But, I still can’t wait to see American Hustle .

      1. Different strokes, I guess. I’ve never found Adams believable in any of her roles. Her characters seem to be 90% her own personality and 10% costuming/make-up. I don’t put much stock in awards or nominations as an indicator of acting ability, but any recognition Adams has received has always surprised me.

    6. I couldn’t desagree more. I think Stewart is a fair actress, but there isn’t even a point of comparison between the two of them, other than the franchise discussion which I believe Lawrence’s performance in Catching Fire is proving everyone wrong. She’s well above all actresses of her generation and has demonstrated that she can deal with really different roles and pull all of them off. Lawrence is fresh and real and she brings it into her performances. I haven’t seen American Hustle yet, but I have high expectations so we’ll see.

      PS: Sorry about any grammar or spelling mistakes, my first language is Spanish.

    7. The fun part is knowing folks like you will still be throwing stones (gravel really) in ten years, when she’s still a star, and still a magnetic actress.

    8. That is the beauty of different perceptions and opinions then. Because so far she’s moved me in all the movies I’ve seen of her. Her depth and raw emotions really impressed me. So just because the way she acts doesn’t do much for you doesn’t mean she doesn’t act well because she obviously convinces other people, including the vast majority of her peers and her industry.

  2. I was at this same screening and thought the crowd repsonded very differently. Polite, but cool. No standing O, quick applause, and a lot of people talking about being disappointed after.

    1. Amy Adams win Best actress?? please that isnt happening. the award is almost guaranteed to head toward Sandra Bullock’s performance in Gravity.

      Also as for Lawrence she is amazing, and O Russell knows Jennifer is being considered as Actress of this generation. Why else do you think this movie is almost being tailored made for Lawrence. She is also going to be in ANOTHER movie with O Russell in Serena. Honestly by the end of 2015 Lawrence will have 3 Oscars to her name, 2 for best actress and one for Best supporting actress

      1. Cate Blanchett could win for Blue Jasmine, assuming the campaign behind it is effective. It might have been released too early and in too few theaters, but that hasn’t hurt other best actress winners.

        I think enough actors would have a hard time making Bullock a two time Oscar winner that she might just miss out on the win. It’s a much stronger performance than she gave in The Blind Side, of course, but it feels similar to when Crowe won for Gladiator and missed out for A Beautiful Mind.

  3. How can you even compare her to Kristen Stewart? This girl can actually act. Try watching Winter’s Bone, Silver Linings, and even Catching Fire. Her performances couldn’t be more diverse

  4. With all due respect to Pete, a writer and journalist I greatly admire, this article seems to be way over the top, to the point of gushing like a PR flack. I’d prefer analysis that’s a bit more tempered and grounded. I hope good things for this movie–whether anyone wants to see a movie about the ABSCAM scandal…..well, who knows?

  5. Pete, do you ever offer constructive criticism on a screening? The response to Saving Mr. Banks was enthusiastic. Of course, no one was complaining about the unrealistic depiction of Walt Disney, not smoking or anything, or the fact that the film was pure mediocre kitsch with little cinematic value. Now American Hustle was just perfect and likely to score many nominations. I’m sure Wolf of Wall Street will go over fantastic too cause it’s Scorsese and every movie he’s done is perfect. I just wish there was more insightful points here rather than nonproductive positives that only help to perpetuate the problems of the Oscars and some of the films they reward.

  6. I was there last night and the crowd went bonkers for this movie. In my humble opinion, it couldn’t have gone better.

  7. We’ve only had three back to back acting winners since 1968 (Hepburn, Robards, Hanks). There aren’t too many living actors with two Oscars to begin with (I believe Streep, Foster, Wiest, Swank, Glenda Jackson, Spacey, Denzel, Nicholson, Hoffman…sure I’m missing someone). And we are going to elevate JL into such rarified air at the age of 23 with less than 15 films in her career?

    1. I do agree to a certain extent that it would be farfetched to expect her to win another one back to back at such a young age unless her performance is mind-blowing to the point where there is no argument. But saying that the little amount of movies she’s been in has any say in this discussion is a bit ridiculous. An actor is not defined by the amount of movies he or she made but by the talent he or she shows whenever on screen.

      That being said it’s not too far fetch for her to get a nomination. Especially if she is apparently “a total knockout scene-stealer though out” a movie that is completely packed with academy award winners and nominees. If her scenes actually were that good around that much talent and that the movie is actually as good as this article suggests, than nothing is stopping her from getting that nomination. BTW…she was exceptional in hunger games:catching fire. Commercial stuff but her her acting is everything but commercial.

      I hope the movie is as good as I expect it to be. Can’t wait to see it.

  8. I just want to see Amy Adams get a lead Oscar nomination. She isn’t going to win this year because Cate Blanchett already has that sewn up. But she DESERVES a lead Oscar nomination. She was ROBBED of one back in 2007 when Enchanted came out. She should have had a nomination for Enchanted but didn’t bc it’s Disney and family movies like that are always overlooked. I like Jennifer Lawrence too and I’m sure she’s good in the movie. But I can’t shake that she’s still far too young for this role and essentially it was a part that should have gone to an actress in her late 30’s who probably won’t get as many opportunities.

    Adams is the one I’m pulling for for the nomination. It’s not that I don’t like Jennifer because I love her too. It’s that Adams, at 38 years old, had to compete with a 22 year old filming this movie. That’s hard in real life but in the ageist, sexist world of Hollywood…it’s darn near impossible. So I’m rooting for Adams.

  9. The slots for actress are alredy dead set full this year, and as an avid believer in that Adams should have won in 2005 – and amongst those who are exasperated because she does not campaign at all for the Academy – am hoping that her performance in this film will earn her a nomination by the least. I look at her filmography and just think, “Why”.

    1. I both love and hate that Adams doesn’t campaign hardcore. I love it because I think Adams (for better or worse) just doesn’t want to go full on diva movie star. I think that’s part of the reason why she has such a girl next door appeal bc she just doesn’t seem ego driven like “me me me look at me.”

      I hate it because I want to see her get more attention and I want her to be recognized the way she deserves to be recognized.

      I just want to see her get a Lead nomination. I don’t even care if she wins. Ideally? I’d like to see her get a double nom for America Hustle and Her.

  10. Jennifer Lawrence is one of the few people out there that I believe deserves all of the love she is getting. Such a bright, young talent. Such a charming, funny, humble, beautiful person.

    I can’t wait for American Hustle. It seems like the film of the year.


  12. I really like Amy Adams as an actress but having seen Blue Jasmine, I can’t imagine anyone walking away with the Oscar other than Cate Blanchett. It was the performance of the year. Oh, and put me firmly in the “Jennifer Lawrence is a breath of fresh air” camp.

  13. I’m looking forward to seeing Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner’s performances; they are as good as it gets, and set the bar within their generation of actors.

  14. Jennifer Lawrence, I think, has proven she cannot be compared to actresses like Kristen Stewart, or even Emma Watson. Her role in American Hustle and Silver Linings are two that were among prestigious cast, and she was still star of the show. I feel that she has been chosen over actresses such as Natalie Portman, Emma Stone, etc who would suit the character, but not play it as well as her.

    1. David O Russell apparently wrote her character into the script explicitly for Jennifer. She slipped this film in between her franchise movies for the love of David and Indies. And from all accounts (from my views of the clips to her fellow actors and directors) she nails it.

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