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The Untold Truth Of American Hustle

It's hard to believe "American Hustle" came out so long ago. With a high-profile cast starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale, the stylish biographic drama was an awards darling in 2013. Hot off the heels of "Silver Linings Playbook" — a successful collaboration with Lawrence and Cooper — filmmaker David O. Russell wrote and directed this biopic based on the FBI Abscam operation and turned the late '70s fashion up to 11.

"American Hustle" starts in 1978 and focuses on con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) as he begins to fall in love with his fellow con artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The FBI catches the two, but instead of putting them away, agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) recruits them to work on a large-scale sting operation aimed at taking down corrupt New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). When Irving's jealous wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets irritated, she ends up getting involved in a world much larger than she is used to.  

What you might not know about "American Hustle" is how much it strays from the truth. Or just how long the script was tossed around for before it finally wound up on screen. There are many stories, both funny and concerning, that have come out of the making of "American Hustle."

Ben Affleck was originally asked to direct American Hustle

The original title of the script that became "American Hustle" would have raised a lot more eyebrows. Back when it was the more lewd "American Bull***," the script was passed around for years before finding a director. The idea for a drama based on the Abscam scandal was the core of this story, but it was much different than what David O. Russell put to film. Before the "Silver Linings Playbook" director signed on, Ben Affleck was in talks to direct the movie that would become "American Hustle."

In January 2011, it was reported (via Deadline) that following his directorial work on "The Town," Affleck was on the shortlist of potential directors for "American Bull***t." For years, it was on the Hollywood Black List, making it one of Hollywood's hottest unproduced screenplays. In 2013, Russell's stylish take on the Abscam con was released as the award-winning "American Hustle."

David O. Russell was inspired by The Music Man

One of director David O. Russell's biggest influences for "American Hustle" is also one of his strangest. However, once you know the reason behind this connection, the glamorous 2013 drama has more in common with this classic film than a first glance would suggest.

When he was younger, Russell loved "The Music Man." The 1962 movie adaptation of Meredith Willson's Tony-winning musical is beloved by many across generations of moviegoers, but for the "American Hustle" director, it held a special place in his heart. "'The Music Man' was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater that I just loved," Russell said (per Yahoo).

It makes a lot of sense, too, when you consider the plots of the movies. Both are about people who are con men and grifters presented as sympathetic and charismatic characters. The biggest difference here is that "American Hustle" is loosely based on the crimes of real people. "The Music Man" allows its fictional con man to learn compassion and settle into an honest life. The morality of Russell's "American Hustle" isn't so black and white.

Most of the dialogue in the movie wasn't in the script David O. Russell was first given

Through a series of rewrites and improvisations, the movie that we know as "American Hustle" is a world apart from the script that David O. Russell was first handed to work with. In turning "American Bulls***" into "American Hustle," the filmmaker made the plot his own, renamed the characters to make them fictional counterparts, and then worked with the actors to craft them further. According to Christian Bale, Russell once told him (via the Philippine Daily Inquirer), "I hate plots. I'm all about character, that's it."

Bale claimed that there was a great deal of improvising on the set. He said many scenes were radically changed the day of shooting from what was on the page. "He went away and just threw the script out of the door completely," Bale said. "He came in with all the moments in between those beats, as per David's style. 'It's all about the emotional truth,' as he said to me one time."

However, the director disagrees with this assertion of what making "American Hustle" was like (via EW). "You can't make films like this that are improvised. Each of these films has to be scripted many times, 20 drafts at least... Everything is planned and discussed," Russell said. "We may adjust [a scene] or decide to try different things. But there's no scene that every beat isn't written and decided."

The director says you would be surprised at what is fact and what is fiction

There's a reason "American Hustle" doesn't get lumped in with other biopic dramas of its era. Instead of trying to stick to the facts entirely or present the illusion of telling a mostly true story, the film relishes in its embellishments. (An opening title card lets you know "Some of this actually happened.") The film's director admitted to fictionalizing the story (via the Los Angeles Times), but only in an attempt to make a stronger movie. "I care about what's going on in the people's hearts and use the story almost as a blowtorch to move the emotion of the characters, and to get to know these people, who are really making decisions in their hearts about who they want to be," David O. Russell said. 

The director also said he liked including true details that were unbelievable. Russell believes that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction and says he enjoyed playing with that. "If I told you what it was based on in truth, you'd be surprised what was true and what wasn't true," he said.

The FBI, for example, really did recruit a con man from the Bronx and pair him up with a fake Arab sheikh named Abdul in the hopes of catching dirty politicians (per Slate). And Bale's character's real-life counterpart, Mel Weinberg, really did develop a great friendship with the mayor of Camden, which ultimately made the con even more tragic.

The kiss between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams was Adams' idea

In the famous bathroom scene of "American Hustle," Rosalyn confronts Sydney about sleeping with her husband. As the two go off on each other with personal attacks, the two draw closer, and the framing becomes more intimate. And then the two kiss. But that huge detail was never supposed to happen that way in the script. And while it is Jennifer Lawrence's character who initiates it in the scene, the improvised kiss actually came from the mind of Amy Adams.

In an interview with POPSUGAR Entertainment, Adams opened up about filming the scene and how she came to the idea of a power play kiss. "David [O. Russell] and I were talking about the scene, and I don't know why, in my head, I was just like, 'How about if she kisses her?" Adams said. According to her, the director understood what she was going for right away. Lawrence was apparently immediately on board with the idea when approached with it. Adams wanted to make sure that the director and actors understood this kiss was not romantic or sexual. Instead, she said, it was more like "the perfect exclamation point on a toxic conversation" that fit with the power struggle going on in the scene.

Jennifer Lawrence kept getting Dorito dust on her costumes

There aren't many better "stars are just like us" moments than this one with Jennifer Lawrence. At a peak of her career, the at-the-time 23-year-old was busy eating snacks while shooting one of the biggest movies of the year. Apparently, Lawrence was known by the crew who worked in the costume department for sometimes getting Dorito dust on her costumes (via Vanity Fair).

"Jennifer Lawrence is a very ... let's say ... raw and intuitive young lady, and she's not against eating Doritos and snack food in her costume," costume designer Michael Wilkinson said. "So we were glad that we had a couple [backups]." This is referring to one particular white metallic jersey that Rosalyn wore during her climactic scene that the costume department ended up making four different renditions of. The scene involved Rosalyn spilling champagne all over herself, necessitating all the dresses, but in a funny turn of fate, this preparedness ended up working in the crew's favor when they discovered Lawrence's Dorito habit.

Robert De Niro did an uncredited cameo because he thought the character was cool

While not impossible to miss, if you haven't seen "American Hustle" since it came to theaters, you might forget that another huge movie star has a cameo. "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" actor Robert De Niro makes a brief and uncredited appearance as a mobster in "American Hustle." But the character he plays isn't just any mobster. There is a twist to him that made De Niro especially interested in playing the minuscule role.

For De Niro, it was the language the character, Victor Tellegio, spoke — Arabic. The older actor apparently found this detail fascinating and began to construct a character for himself. At a press conference (via Indiewire), David O. Russell spoke about working with De Niro, whom he'd worked with previously on "Silver Linings Playbook," and why the great actor became involved in "American Hustle." "He loved the fact that this man spoke Arabic," Russell said. "[Tellegio] was based on a collection of gangsters. [De Niro] was really into meticulously constructing this guy."

De Niro didn't recognize Christian Bale on set

Speaking of Robert De Niro, when the legendary actor first appeared on the set of "American Hustle," he failed to recognize another pretty famous actor. Upon arrival, De Niro met Christian Bale without even realizing that was who he just talked to. This sounds ridiculous, but remember that Bale is known for his extreme physical transformations in movies like "The Machinist" and "Vice," to name a few. For "American Hustle," the "Dark Knight" actor gained over 40 pounds and shaved the top of his head to embody the role of Irving Rosenfeld (via PEOPLE).

This transformation sparked a series of funny comments from De Niro after meeting Bale. Director David O. Russell later recanted them in an interview (per Film Independent), saying, "[He] met Christian first, but he kind of blew by him, like he was nobody, and he gets all the way around and he pulls me aside ... and he goes, 'Who's that guy, the fat guy?' I said, 'That's Christian Bale.' He said, 'No, no, no, the fat guy, the guy who's talking to Jeremy Renner right now.' That's Christian Bale.'" De Niro was apparently so shocked at the weight gain that he couldn't even recognize the English actor and had to be introduced again.

Bradley Cooper's character's hairstyle was his idea

When "American Hustle" was first released the talk of the town was not Jennifer Lawerence's decadent outfits or Christian Bale's weight gain. Those were certainly conversations, but more striking than any of that is Bradley Cooper's hair (via Philly Mag). He sports a supremely dark and curly hairdo, which is a far cry from his natural hairstyle. 

Originally, David O. Russell and the film crew tried to find a wig for Cooper's Richie DiMaso, but the actor came up with a much better idea. "I called David and said, 'What if he curls his own hair?'" Cooper said (per The Wrap). "Instead of wearing a wig, I came out with curlers, having been in the heat lamp, and we just fell in love with the look." Everyone thought the result was much better and decided to stick with Cooper's idea, despite how much more time it required.

Every star of "American Hustle" spent time in hair and makeup, but nobody more than Cooper. In an interview (via The Cut) makeup department head Evelyne Noraz talked about how dedicated Cooper was to the style: "He was probably in there every day for two to two-and-a-half hours. Lori McCoy-Bell rolled his hair with perm rollers, he was under the dryer every day. Bradley would come in the trailer, long and shaggy with a darker beard, and then leave every day with permed hair."

The design of the characters' homes tells us who they really are

Much time went into the makeup and hairstyling needed to transform the cast of "American Hustle" into their gaudy grifter characters. But an underappreciated element of the movie — and all movies to be frank — is the amount of thought put into its production design. In "American Hustle," the characters spend a lot of time putting on facades and lying. The homes of these characters reflect the ways they perform their wealth. In this way, these spaces are allowed to show both who these characters are and who they want to be.

Production designer Judy Becker contrasted the house of Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) with the Upper East Side apartment of Sydney (Amy Adams) in an interview. "Where Rosalyn had gold, Sydney has a sunny yellow; where Rosalyn had wallpaper, Sydney has neutral grasscloth," Becker said. "They are really contrasting worlds — what was interesting was that we used similar palettes, textures and materials, but completely different taste levels for those two sets."

American Hustle's women spoke out about the pay gap between them and their male co-stars

While there has been some progress on remedying Hollywood's gender pay gap over the past decade, as recently as 2019, male stars were still earning on average $1.1 million more per role than their female costars (via The Guardian). "American Hustle" is the perfect example of the way this type of inequality plays out. Even on the set of a Hollywood ensemble picture featuring some of the biggest female movie stars, the best actresses in the world aren't an exception to this pervasive industry trend.

In 2016, a Sony email hack revealed that Jennifer Lawerence and Amy Adams were being paid a significant portion less than their male co-stars (per The Daily Beast). They each received 2% less in terms of back-end compensation, which is the profit earned after the film has been distributed and all costs have been recouped.  

"Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I'm sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share," Lawrence wrote (via Yahoo! News). Going forward, Lawrence began advocating for higher pay for herself to equal her male co-stars, beginning with the Sony production "Passengers" (per The Hollywood Reporter).

Russell allegedly mistreated Amy Adams

While "American Hustle" may be one of Amy Adams' best movies, the actress had anything but a good time on set. A few years after the movie was released to numerous accolades and praise, Adams spoke out about what her experience working with director David O. Russell was really like. In a 2016 interview (per GQ), she opened up about abusive conditions on the set of "American Hustle."

According to Adams, Russell was very hard on her, constantly shouting and displaying aggression that pushed Adams beyond her emotional limits. "I did a scene with Bradley where I have to hit him and he's yelling at me, 'Hit him! Hit him! Hit him! Hit him! HARDER! HARDER! HARDER! Really give it to him this time!'" Adams said that most days Russell's treatment resulted in her crying at the end of the day.

"I was really just devastated on set," she said of her time working on the film. "I mean, not every day, but most." Reportedly, Christian Bale had to step in and intervene on Adams' behalf. Other sources have confirmed Russell has a history of acting out on set (via Consequence) and mistreating his talent tracing all the way back to the 1990s.