David O Russell finds himself in Oscar’s sights again this awards season, with eight nominations (including best director) for his sixth feature, Silver Linings Playbook – a truly unexpected take on the traditional romantic comedy, whose clunky title shouldn’t put you off. It stars Hangover heart- throb Bradley Cooper and super-credible Golden Globe-winning Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar- nominated for Winter’s Bone and a hit with the kids in The Hunger Games) as, respectively, the manic-depressive and recovering sex addict whose ensuing, tear-jerking romance acts as a kind of therapy. It’s a film where tissues meet issues.
The New York-born Russell (whose middle initial “O” stands for Owen) originally carved an idiosyncratic niche for himself in the 1990s with offbeat, neurotic comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. But Hollywood’s grown-up wunderkind was not to be straitjacketed by indie cool, bringing his own brand of damaged humanity to bear on Gulf War movie Three Kings and double Oscar-winning true-life boxing fable The Fighter.
But he stands apart from talented contemporaries like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne because of a reputation for being, shall we say... difficult. In 2004, one UK broadsheet even asked: “Is David O Russell a monster?”
Tap “Hollywood feuds” into a search engine, and among the usual titanic Tinseltown tussles like “Joan Crawford vs Bette Davis” (a fabled career-long animosity between the two former Warner Bros stars that got physical while filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) and “Christian Bale vs Shane Hurlbut” (the YouTube-circulated outburst by the former child star against his director of photography on the set of Terminator: Salvation), you’ll also find the more all-encompassing bout, “David O Russell vs Everyone”.
Though not averse to weird psychological warfare to get what he wants from his actors, Russell has gained notoriety for several headline-making incidents.
First, there was a fight with George Clooney during the shooting of Three Kings in the Arizona desert (doubling for Iraq), after the star stepped in to stop Russell’s apparent mistreatment of various crew members. Clooney is reported to have berated his boss, “You can’t shove, push or humiliate people,” and described the incident as the worst experience of his life. Even five years later, the usually sedate Clooney told Premiere magazine that he would “sock Russell in the f***ing mouth” if he ran into him. The director responded in foul-mouthed kind in another interview.
A leaked video of Russell’s equally potty- mouthed shouting match with veteran comic actress Lily Tomlin on the set of all-star “existential comedy” I ♥ Huckabees also circulated on the internet, back in the days before YouTube hit critical mass and such trifles went viral overnight. “We just both had a bad temper fit,” she told Movieline in 2011, long after the pair had kissed and made up.
A piece in the New York Times described how Russell also took off his clothes on set and put director Christopher Nolan in a headlock during a dispute about Jude Law’s availability. Phew! Russell explained away his disrobing as being in line with Tibetan Buddhism, which he studied, to “break the boundaries” with his cast. “I became the crazy Zen priest to promote spontaneity,” he told the Telegraph.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that on Russell’s subsequent film, The Fighter, there appear to have been no scuffles between the director and the cast during its swift 33-day shoot. (No mean feat considering one of them was the short-fused Bale.)
However, it seems that Russell is mellowing with middle age (he’s 54). Those who worked with him on Silver Linings, and the attendant promotional tours, found him easy to be around. Star Bradley Cooper was effusive in his praise for the director in recent UK interviews and "signed up in a flash" to star in his next project, which also stars Amy Adams and Christian Bale, who must be happy to work with him again. Sorry to disappoint anyone, but those close to him say that he and Clooney have "completely made up" and were even photographed "chatting peaceably." As the forgiving Lily Tomlin says: “David is a very mercurial person, and that’s part of why he’s so brilliant.”