David O Russell stares expressionless on a red carpet

Yes, We Need To Talk About David O. Russell

O. No

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Taylor Swift has reportedly joined the cast of David O. Russell’s next film and the reaction has not been great.

The cast of this untitled project was already packed to the brim with stars, including Margot Robbie, Anya Taylor-Joy, John David Washington, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Robert DeNiro, Christian Bale, and a ton of others. But reports of Swift’s casting seemed to be the tipping point for a lot of fans, who are wondering why she would work with such a known bully—a man nearly as famous for his abusive onset behavior as for his films themselves.

Russell’s behavior first came to most people’s attention years ago when a video of him exploding at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees went viral. The video shows the two frustratedly arguing about the choreography in a scene before cutting to Russell screaming profanities, calling Tomlin a bitch and a c**t, and throwing things, some of which you can see hit a crew member who then cowered in the corner before running out.

Russell didn’t direct another movie for six years after Huckabees came out. Whether the video played a role in that is unknown (the dismal box office return on the movie could have been reason enough) but it wouldn’t be surprising. The behavior on display in that video is not something that should be tolerated from any boss, but it was also hardly the first or the last time he engaged in that kind of apparent abuse, according to the people who have worked with him over the years.

There are frankly too many instances of this kind of behavior to get into all of them but here are some highlights:

—That time he and George Clooney reportedly got into a fistfight on the set of Three Kings. Russell’s behavior during that movie’s shoot was so bad that the second AD also quit.

—He allegedly confronted fellow director Christopher Nolan at a party after Jude Law left Huckabees to star in Nolan’s Memento instead. Russell reportedly put Nolan in a headlock and Law came back to his project.

—Amy Adams said he frequently made her cry on the set of American Hustle. In a leaked email exchange, journalist Jonathan Alter told his brother-in-law/Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton that during filming, Russell “grabbed one guy by the collar, cursed out people repeatedly in front of others and so abused Amy Adams that Christian Bale got in his face and told him to stop acting like an asshole.”

—Russell’s alleged abuse goes beyond his workplace behavior. In 2011, he admitted to groping his 19-year-old transgender niece. From the Chicago Tribune:

A police report obtained by The Smoking Gun alleges that Russell offered to help [his niece Nicole] Peloquin with ab exercises during which his hand “hovered above” her “private parts.” Then Peloquin says after a chat about hormones used to increase breast size, Russell slipped his hands under her shirt and “felt both breasts.”

It is so disappointing that despite all of this (and much more) being completely public information, Russell can still attract tons of A-list talent for his films. Those films tend also to be beloved by the Academy, and some of these stars are likely after the Oscars that frequently go to Russell’s actors. And maybe some of them think that since Russell’s specific brand of alleged workplace abuse isn’t sexual in nature, it is exempt from the #MeToo and #TimesUp reckonings we’ve seen in recent years.

But Russell’s alleged behavior is inextricable from these larger movements, as is evidenced by the allies that have kept Russell in business over the years.

When Russell was pitching I Heart Huckabees, the source of much of the bullying behavior detailed above, Sony, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Fox all reportedly turned him down. It was Scott Rudin at then-“mini studio” Fox Searchlight who took a chance on Russell. Reminder: Rudin was finally outed as an “absolute monster” earlier this year, allegedly fostering a toxic, abusive workplace for years.

Similarly, Russell hasn’t made a film since 2015’s Joy and initially, his first project back was set to be a series with Amazon produced by the Weinstein Company. Amazon pulled the plug on that project back in 2017 after the stories of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse began to pile up.

Obviously, a lot of people in Hollywood have worked with Rudin and Weinstein who are not themselves abusive jerks. But also, what does it say that these are the men who have consistently made Russell’s projects happen when others wouldn’t?

Some actors clearly don’t have a problem with Russell. Others might but they put up with him because they appreciate his art. He is known for his technique of talking and even screaming over actors during their scenes as a way to get them out of their heads. Julia Stiles called it “jarring” and Jude Law reportedly had something akin to a minor breakdown over it while filming Huckabees. He and frequent collaborator Jennifer Lawrence got into a screaming match on the set of Joy, which was reportedly instigated by Russell because he wanted to get a reaction out of her for a scene where she had to scream at someone.

Personally, I can’t stand stories like this, where directors think they need to mistreat and even torture actors to get a good performance out of them. But some actors are clearly fine with it. Amy Adams said Russell’s behavior on American Hustle left her “devastated” but that Jennifer Lawrence “is Teflon,” meaning it rolls right off of her. And I’m sure lots of people think that means Russell and Lawrence are fine to take whatever approach works for them.

Except Russell and Lawrence aren’t the only people involved in their work. From all of these stories, it is clear that Russell’s behavior affects everyone on set. There are the crew members who get caught in the trajectory of the items he’s throwing during a tantrum, the extras who have to worry if they’re going to get caught in his line of fire next, and just literally every person who has to show up to work with a knot in their stomach every day because this director has created a work environment rooted in fear and bullying.

Jennifer Lawrence and some other actors might not have an issue with Russell’s screaming but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to expose the rest of his crew to it. Lily Tomlin says she forgave him for the Huckabees outburst but what about every other person on that set?

I like Amy Adams’ full quote from British GQ about working with Russell on American Hustle. When asked if he really made her cry, she said:

He did… I was really just devastated on set. I mean, not every day, but most. Jennifer [Lawrence] doesn’t take any of it on. She’s Teflon. And I am not Teflon. But I also don’t like to see other people treated badly.. It’s not ok with me. Life to me is more important than movies. It really taught me how to separate work and home. Because I was like, I cannot bring this experience home with me to my daughter.

Basically: Some people are OK with this behavior but she’s not OK with it, and she’s definitely not OK with seeing it directed at other people.

“Life is more important than movies.” That seems like good advice for a lot of people still jumping at the chance to work with Russell.

(image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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Author
Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.