In the third installment of our series looking at the Best Director category to make the best case for each one, we’re looking at David O. Russell, who makes Oscar history as the first director with back to back Best Picture and Director nominations to earn four acting nominations. That is a significant achievement, especially considering in the early days of Oscar there were many back to back directing nominees. Not only that, but before Silver Linings Playbook scored in all four acting categories, it had been around 30 years since the last time a film did that, Warren Beatty’s Reds. Russell has done it twice, two years in a row.
There are often three schools of thought when it comes to Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. Best Director usually is focused in three key directions – 1) the visionary/visual auteur, 2) the director who is good with acting/writing, 3) the director who gets in, does the job, but no one particularly notices one way or the other — this is especially good for actors turned directors. We factor in their acting career while evaluating their work.
Russell belongs in the second group. He has always been known for his writing, and now is known for working with actors to deliver virtuoso performances. He allows them room to uncork, he casts them in nontraditional ways by knowing their strengths. He often shapes projects around actors.
In American Hustle he once again gave Amy Adams room to explore her more overtly sexual side, as she’d done in The Fighter. No other director has been able to light Adams’ match like Russell, ditto for Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Russell works alongside them, during their scenes, kind of coaching from the sidelines to guide the performance in a spectacular direction.
The story and the plot are secondary. The shot set-ups, secondary. The actors are front and center. If you think about the major directors who inspired people like Scorsese or Spielberg — Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa — the acting is always secondary to the way a film looks. Russell hails from a different generation of directors, Robert Altman, Billy Wilder and Sydney Pollack — directors who tell their story best by choosing the right actors for the job. Is it any wonder both of Russell’s films have received four nominations in all of the acting categories?
American Hustle has less structure than Russell’s previous films Silver Linings or The Fighter — it kind of gets back to his roots, only there are significant differences; there is a reason why awards voters raved about Hustle and mostly ignored Flirting with Disaster. But what remains is this idea that nothing really makes sense, people don’t make sense, and there isn’t really a need for them to make sense. Once you abandon that need, you can fully enjoy the gifts the film affords.
Since actors make up the largest branch of voters, American Hustle stands to upset in Best Picture while everyone else is watching the two frontrunners. Or he could upset in Best Director, the way Steven Soderbergh did in 2000. Why did Soderbergh take it in the end? The actors. Whenever there is a Picture/Director split in recent times, the actors have played a role if you go by the SAG ensemble win. American Hustle won that award this year when the rest of the awards have been all over the place. This has been 100% true since SAG began. 100%.
Argo –>SAG ensemble
Chicago –>SAG ensemble
Traffic –>SAG ensemble
Shakespeare in Love –>SAG ensemble
The only exception was the Traffic year where Soderbergh won director. True, in the era of the preferential ballot we haven’t seen a typical split, meaning, a surprise ending. We already knew Argo’s destiny heading in and no one was going to bet against it. But the other splits were almost always difficult to see coming from a mile away. The actors appear to be the ones causing the upset. Therefore, it makes as much sense of Hustle to win as it does any other film for Best Picture. This is a three-way race and the many actors in the Academy, double any other branch at least, could make up the difference.
At the rate he’s going, Russell will be an Academy Award winner soon enough. He might win this year for screenplay. If you want to do well with the Oscars invest in actors — that can often be your ticket inside.