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David O. Russell is the latest face of Hollywood’s workplace abuse problem

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Last month, amid the brouhaha of backstage drama rumors of “Don’t Worry Darling,” director Olivia Wilde noted that male filmmakers are held to “very different standards” than their female counterparts. Men are “praised for being tyrannical”, she said on a late night talk showadding that their behavior can be repeatedly questioned and “it still doesn’t go beyond conversations about their actual talent or the movies themselves.”

His words were put to the test almost immediately with the release of David O. Russell’s latest film, “Amsterdam,” in theaters Friday. As attention shifted from one star-studded project to the next, the conversation swung from Wilde to five-time Oscar nominee Russell, previously accused of being verbally and physically abusive on his sets. The new film, which stars Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington, is Russell’s first in seven years.

While noting that “grand stories can overshadow more harmonious settings”, film historian Emily Carman pointed to the director’s cult, which favors men, as one reason why more extreme behavior may be tolerated. Film is a collaborative medium by nature, but directors wield a great deal of control and are therefore often placed on pedestals.

“The appeal to authorship persists,” Carman said, “and I think it’s actually a lot stronger as a marketing tool.”

The “Amsterdam” stars described working on the film as a rewarding experience, but not all of Russell’s projects have gone so well. The charges against him date back to a 2000 interview George Clooney gave to Playboy about seeing the director assault an extra who was nervous about doing a stunt on the set of “Three Kings.” Clooney said he stepped in to intervene, and then Russell headbutted and grabbed the star’s throat himself. In 2003, according to the New York Times, Russell put director Christopher Nolan in a bind while demanding that he let Jude Law, who had decided to work with Nolan, star in Russell’s project instead. Footage from the same year shows Russell shouting at actress Lily Tomlin on the set of ‘I Heart Huckabees’ after she expressed frustration with his directing style: “I’m not here to be yell at it,” he yells. , sliding objects on a desk and referring to Tomlin with gendered expletives.

In addition to other alleged outbursts, Russell has been accused of sexual misconduct compensated by his 19-year-old niece, who told the police that he smelled her breasts in 2011. Russell, who confirmed the incident but told police his niece acted “very provocative and seductive” and allowed him to touch her, was only the subject of no charges.

While stars like Clooney and tomlin said they later made peace with Russell, others held firm. In 2016, two years after an email leaked during the Sony Pictures hack alleging that Russell had “abused so much” of actress Amy Adams on the set of “American Hustle”, Adams says British GQ that the director had developed “this wild, crazy way of working” that caused her to cry and become “really devastated on set”. In a GQ cover story this month, Bale, who also starred in “American Hustle,” reminded that Russell’s behavior on the project caused him to step in as a “mediator” to defend Adams.

During the press tour for “Amsterdam,” Bale said he would happily continue working with long-heralded actor director Russell. (The film’s near-guaranteed academy attention doesn’t hurt; Bale snagged an Oscar for “The Fighter,” joining Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa Leo as actors who have won for their work on the oft-repeated films. nominees from Russell.) While journalist Jonathan Alter mentioned in leaked Sony emails that he referred to the reformed character of Russell as “total bulls—“, the director’s later high-profile projects suggest he continued to receive support from a number of powerful players in the industry.

A person familiar with the “Amsterdam” filming, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly, told the Washington Post that there were “no incidents on this production”.

“There was a huge cast that loved working with him — they went public with it,” the person said.

A representative for Russell declined to comment on the allegations against him.

From a business perspective, whether Russell has moved on only matters to the extent that these powerful players act on the answer. A-list actors flocked to his projects, with some receiving his reputation for unpredictable set pieces as a creative challenge. Robbie, for example, said at the New York premiere of “Amsterdam” that Russell stars often show up not knowing “what you’re going to shoot that day, which is terrifying and also exhilarating”.

Ambitious actors have always been drawn to collaborators whose established track records of dynamic work can bolster actors’ profiles, according to Carman, a film historian on the faculty at Chapman University. While creative power in the studio era was largely concentrated in tycoons such as Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner, it changed when the notion of directors as brands emerged with the New Hollywood movement that began in the 1960s.

This idea has persisted and, in today’s concentrated media landscape, carries significant weight.

“David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino are brand names as much as a movie star,” Carman said. “Maybe even more so now, since movie stars still matter but seem more attached to a specific brand, like the Marvel franchise.”

Beyond awards and prestige, there’s what Kate Fortmueller, a professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, called “the ‘the devil wears Prada’ kind of thing.” If you can survive being that person’s assistant, your career is done.” She made the comment about Scott Rudin, the producer at the center of a Hollywood Reporter expose last year, which detailed his alleged history of “unbalanced” behavior, but extended the logic to other demanding bosses.

“’Are these conditions significantly worse than any I’ve experienced? … Is it worth it for me to do this for an Oscar nomination?’ For some people, it will be worth it,” Fortmueller said. “I think culturally there’s a lot of leeway given, especially to white male directors, in terms of what needs to happen to make great art.”

Sometimes things go too far, even for top talent who have more of a say than crew members. Speaking to The Times in 2018, actress Uma Thurman reminded how Tarantino persuaded her to do her own driving stunt on “Kill Bill” even though she said she was uncomfortable doing it after hearing the car might have had some trouble. She ended up in an accident that she says left her with neck and knee injuries and made her feel helpless as a creative collaborator.

Tarantino, whose “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” grossed more than $140 million at the domestic box office the year after Thurman’s interview aired, didn’t seem to face a bigger backlash from the industry for the behavior she described. Money continues to be a huge liability factor in Hollywood, according to Carman, who said Russell’s last film, ‘Joy,’ released in 2015, grossed just under $56.5 million. at the box office, against 150 million dollars garnered by its predecessor. , “The American Unrest”.

Carman said that if ‘Amsterdam’ doesn’t achieve “the same success as ‘American Hustle’, that’s where Hollywood starts to curb those behaviors. There’s historical precedent for that. Fortmueller, who studied the working practices in the entertainment industry, noted that “Hollywood is a really tricky business because the line between art and business is really fluid and quite difficult to analyze”.

“There are certain things where, ‘This is the method he needs to create his art’ becomes a justification,” she said. “These things are going to make a lot of money. It’s hard to imagine how unregulated these working conditions can be.