Hollywood Terror: Director David O. Russell’s History of Groping and On-Set Abuse

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind hits like ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and ‘American Hustle’ has a dark past.

Hollywood Terror: Director David O. Russell’s History of Groping and On-Set Abuse

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

After decades of alleged predatory, abusive behavior ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault, Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood are finally on the outs.

While Weinstein’s one-week outpatient program doesn’t really feel like justice, there’s some satisfaction (or just relief) to be found in the fact that the superproducer has been fired and robbed of his once-oversized influence in the entertainment industry. Due to a lengthy list of accusations and a handful of high-profile exposés, the former kingmaker will have a hard time finding work in a town that used to be entirely under his thrall.

Though industry insiders and A-listers initially appeared to sidestep the allegations, the sheer number of accusers, not to mention the big names who spoke out, eventually made it so that every Matt Damon and Quentin Tarantino had no choice but to issue an “I denounce Harvey Weinstein” statement. Within a few days, Weinstein’s web of influence turned toxic, calling the viability of any Weinstein-associated project into question. Moving forward, according to Deadline, The Weinstein Company has informed networks that “Harvey Weinstein’s name will be scrubbed from the credits” of all of the company’s TV projects, which include Lifetime’s Project Runway and the upcoming Waco.

But unfortunately for TWC, it’s going to take more than a credit edit to staunch the Harvey Weinstein fallout. Already, Apple has nixed a 10-part Elvis biopic that was in the works with The Weinstein Company. Director Oliver Stone, who’s currently attached to the Showtime series Guantanamo alongside TWC, said on social media that, “I’ll therefore recuse myself from the ‘Guantanamo’ series as long as the Weinstein Company is involved.”

In mid-October, Amazon went public with its own Weinstein reckoning, reconsidering the fates of two upcoming projects—both co-productions with The Weinstein Company.

Amazon Studios, which recently announced the suspension and later resignation of studio chief Roy Price in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, announced that the company “intends to move forward” on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs “without the involvement of The Weinstein Company,” but it “no longer plans on moving forward with the David O. Russell Project.” According to a joint statement from director David O. Russell and the untitled drama’s slated stars, Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, “We support Amazon’s decision as in light of recent news and out of respect for all those affected we have decided together that it is best to not move forward with this show.”

Amazon’s decision to pull the plug on this series is not laudable. In fact, the smorgasbord of sexual abusers associated with this pricey project merely begs the question of how a show like this—and men like these—were able to find support, funding, and employment in the first place. Much like his mentor Weinstein, whose appalling behavior has often been referred to as an open Hollywood secret, Russell’s bad character is well-known and documented. Anyone with access to the internet can find profiles that detail the Silver Linings Playbook director’s on-set harassment, interviews in which stars recount his cruel tactics, and even videos of Russell verbally abusing actors.

Amazon’s decision to trash a David O. Russell project not because of the monstrous behavior of the director and the hostile work environment he fosters, but rather because a producer who was known to be a predator was finally, publicly outed, displays the full-blown hypocrisy of an industry in which men consistently flourish in spite of allegations against them; an industry in which men only perform shock, disgust, and denouncement when a former colleague has been so thoroughly exposed that he is no longer useful.

The stories that former co-workers have told about David O. Russell should have been enough to render him unhireable. In fact, just glancing through a list of behaviors that Russell himself has admitted to would appear to bar the director from future employment. Instead, Amazon jumped on the Russell project, making a deal that was reportedly worth $160 million for just two seasons.

As Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson recently wrote, “The multiple Oscar nominee behind American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook has one of the industry’s most visible reputations as a nasty piece of work, both as a bullying colleague and a sexual abuser off-screen. He’s made multiple people’s lives hell and never faced the consequences.”

One of the earliest recorded instances of Russell acting out at work was on the set of the 1999 war movie Three Kings. Producer Charles Roven recounted the ongoing feud between Russell and star George Clooney that eventually led to a physical bout. “Now we’re shooting the climax of the movie,” Roven recalled. “Helicopters, explosions, gunfire. It’s chaos, madness. And George sees David talking to the extras’ [assistant director], and it looks like he’s yelling at him. But he’s yelling to be heard. And George comes running over and goes, ‘I told you, motherfucker, if you’re going to pick on somebody, pick on me.’ And David goes, ‘Why don’t you just fucking remember your lines for once?’ And boom! They grab each other, and they’re tussling.”

According to The Guardian, Three Kings crew members “have spoken of a fight that broke out after Russell allegedly kicked one crew member and fired another.” Clooney claims that the director head-butted him, while Russell insists that the actor attacked him first. Talking to Playboy in 2000, Clooney recounted that the director “yelled and screamed at people all day, from day one.” He continued, “For me, it came to a head a couple of times. Once, he went after a camera-car driver who I knew from high school. I had nothing to do with his getting his job, but David began yelling and screaming at him and embarrassing him in front of everybody. I told him, “You can yell and scream and even fire him, but what you can’t do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it.” Another time he screamed at the script supervisor and made her cry.

David’s a loon, talented, but geez once I saw him bring Sally Field to a party and reduce her to tears. Plus remember when he got in trouble for feeling up his transgender nieces [sic] boobs?
Michael De Luca, film executive
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“David wanted one of the extras to grab me and throw me down,” Clooney remembered. “This kid was a little nervous about it, and David walked up to him and grabbed him. He pushed him onto the ground. He kicked him and screamed, ‘Do you want to be in this fucking movie? Then throw him to the fucking ground!’ The second assistant director came up and said, ‘You don’t do that, David. You want them to do something, you tell me.’ David grabbed his walkie-talkie and threw it on the ground. He screamed, ‘Shut the fuck up! Fuck you,’ and the AD goes, ‘Fuck you! I quit.’ He walked off. It was a dangerous time… I said, ‘David, it’s a big day. But you can’t shove, push or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.’ He turned on me and said, ‘Why don’t you just worry about your fucked-up act? You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.’ I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, ‘Hit me, you pussy. Hit me.’ Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts.”

In a 2004 interview, Clooney made it clear that he and Russell were not on speaking terms, admitting, “Quite honestly, if he comes near me, I’ll sock him right in the fucking mouth.”

Common sense would dictate that physically fighting with your star would be a directorial red flag—not to mention the allegedly abusive environment that’s rumored to have ticked Clooney off. But Russell went on to make a series of star-studded films, some critically acclaimed, others… not so much. The director’s hit-or-miss vision appears to have come at a considerable cost to the well-being of his co-workers. And while Clooney was an early example, the majority of Russell’s subsequent targets have been women. In one email exchange that was made public during the Sony hacks, journalist (and Daily Beast columnist) Jonathan Alter asked his brother-in-law, Sony Entertainment CEO and chair Michael Lynton, “Are you guys doing anything else with [Russell]?”

“I know he’s brilliant but we have someone on our show who worked closely with him on ‘American Hustle’ and not only are the stories about him reforming himself total bullshit but the new stories of his abuse and lunatic behavior are extreme even by Hollywood standards,” Alter wrote in a 2014 email. “He 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.” Lynton ultimately appeared to confirm Alter’s allegations, responding, “Next film for fox… Trust me I know all about the other.”

In an interview with British GQ, Adams spoke out against Russell’s behavior during the American Hustle shoot. “I was really just devastated on set,” she explained, no doubt choosing her words carefully. “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.”

But Russell’s most viscerally disturbing on-set behavior was recorded in a now infamous video from the I Heart Huckabees shoot in 2004. In the video, Russell calls beloved actress Lily Tomlin a “bitch” and a “cunt,” screaming, “I’m not here to be fucking yelled at. I worked on this fucking thing for three fucking years not to have some fucking cunt yell at me in front of the fucking crew when I’m trying to fucking help you, bitch. Figure it out yourself.” To which the seemingly imperturbable Tomlin responds, “Well I have figured it out.” Throughout the tirade, Russell can be seen kicking objects around and throwing things into the air, with Tomlin and one crew member in the background visibly ducking.

In 2015 Tomlin, who has worked with Russell on multiple projects, told The Hollywood Reporter, “I was like stoic in my suffering,” before insisting that she and Russell have “overcome it.”

Journalist Sharon Waxman delved into some of the context for that clip in a 2004 story for The New York Times, courtesy of what appears to be an all-access pass to the set of I Heart Huckabees. Waxman also detailed the lead-up to the unconventional shoot. When Jude Law initially quit the film, allegedly for a more lucrative gig in a Christopher Nolan film, Mr. Russell took his frustrations out on his fellow director. According to Waxman, Russell subsequently ran into Nolan at a “Hollywood party” and proceeded to put him in a headlock. “Wrapping his arm around Mr. Nolan’s neck, Mr. Russell demands that his fellow director show artistic solidarity and give up his star in order to save ‘Huckabees,’” Waxman writes. Ultimately, perhaps predictably, Russell got his way, and Jude Law was back on board.

In Waxman’s account, Russell describes his time directing I Heart Huckabees as “The happiest experience of my life.” But The New York Times piece describes a working environment that was unprofessional at best and openly hostile at worst.

Witnessing the shoot, Waxman explains, “Mr. Russell starts the day wearing a suit, but it’s slowly coming off: first the jacket, then the shirt. Also, he keeps rubbing his body up against the women and men on the set—actors, friends, visitors.” She continues, “On the next take, Mr. Russell lies on the ground, just behind Lily Tomlin, but out of view of the camera. Perhaps he’s trying to add to her feeling of unease in the scene. ‘Most likely he was looking up my skirt,’ she deadpans while watching the playback a few minutes later. It seems impossible that a film set could feel any less formal—but come lunchtime, it does. Mr. Russell sheds the rest of his clothing, leaving only his boxers, and starts to exercise—first jumping rope, then sparring with his personal trainer, right on the sidewalk of the suburban street.”

During a particularly difficult scene, Waxman observes, “The actors look tired. As he has throughout the shoot, Mr. Russell is touching them—a lot, and sometimes in private places. At one point, Mr. Wahlberg grabs the director’s megaphone, shouting: ‘This man just grabbed my genitals! It is my first man-on-man contact!’ At other times, the director whispers into the actresses’ ears—lewdly, they later say—before a take.”

“So far, the actors have been remarkably tolerant of Mr. Russell’s mischief,” she continues. “As Ms. Huppert later observed in a phone interview, the actors knew Mr. Russell was intentionally trying to destabilize them for the sake of their performances. ‘He is fascinating, completely brilliant, intelligent and very annoying sometimes, too,’ she said. They also know he has created superb films from chaotic-seeming sets before. Besides, he’s the director and the writer; now that they’ve cast their lot with him, they really don’t have a choice.”

If this is how David O. Russell treats famous people—A-list actors and directors with tremendous amounts of power—in front of a reporter, how does he treat people who don’t have a massive contract or a large public platform in private?

One particularly disturbing story comes courtesy of Russell’s niece (not a blood relative), who filed a police report in 2011 alleging that the actor groped her. According to police reports, the then 19-year-old, who is transgender, was discussing hormones with Russell, after which he “put his hands under [her] top and felt both breasts.” During this same visit to a Florida gym, Russell also allegedly offered to help his niece with ab exercises as his hand “hovered above” her “private parts.”

While Russell did not face any charges and the case was ultimately closed, the director himself confirmed the incident, attempting to justify his actions by telling the police that she was “acting very provocative toward him,” and that he was “curious about the breast enhancement.” According to a police report, “Russell stated she is always causing drama since the transgender transformation and has become very provocative and seductive.”

A “family source” told TMZ that “Russell’s niece really looked up to him...and she believes he lured her into a false sense of security before taking advantage of her.”

This incident was also cited in another Sony hack email unearthed by The Daily Beast, when then Columbia Pictures executive Michael De Luca wrote, “David’s a loon, talented, but geez once I saw him bring Sally Field to a party and reduce her to tears. Plus remember when he got in trouble for feeling up his transgender nieces [sic] boobs?”

Clearly, the incident was already a footnote by that point, illustrating the manner in which the prolific director’s disturbing behavior has consistently been overlooked.