Why Has David O. Russell Never Answered for Groping His Trans Niece?
The director never denied fondling his niece’s breasts, claiming she was “acting very provocative.” And yet, A-listers like Taylor Swift are lining up to star in his new movie.
David O. Russell never bothered denying that he groped his niece.
In 2012, The Smoking Gun obtained a police report in which Nicole Peloquin accused the famed director of fondling her breasts. Peloquin, who was 19 at the time, had been visiting Russell with her mother (Russell’s sister by adoption) at an Embassy Suites in Florida, the report states. Peloquin and Russell were working out together, she said, when he offered to help her with ab exercises and placed his hand on her abdomen to point out the muscle groups various exercises engaged. He placed his hand “right above” her genitals, she said.
Peloquin, who is trans, told police that Russell eventually asked about her transition and, after she described the hormones she used, slipped his hand under her shirt and felt both breasts.
When reached by police, Russell did not dispute that the incident occurred. But he did claim that Peloquin had been “acting very provocative towards him”—and that, in fact, it had been Peloquin who asked for his help with the ab exercises. The director told police he’d asked multiple times if Peloquin was uncomfortable, and that she’d never stated that she was. (Peloquin told police that she had felt uncomfortable, but that she hadn’t asked Russell to stop.) Russell did not face any charges.
Russell also told police that since her transition, Peloquin was “always causing drama… and has become very provocative and seductive.”
A spokeswoman for the director said in a statement at the time, “David O. Russell emphatically denies any wrongdoing and has cooperated fully with the authorities." Peloquin did not respond to The Daily Beast’s interview request.
The allegation did nothing to slow down Russell’s career. Silver Linings Playbook, which debuted the same year that the Peloquin news broke and was distributed by serial rapist Harvey Weinstein, won Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar in 2013. That same year, Russell’s American Hustle lit up the box office, and two years later Silver Linings stars Lawrence and Bradley Cooper reunited on Russell’s Joy.
And lest anyone believe Hollywood had no idea what Russell had been accused of, there’s the email that The Daily Beast uncovered during the Sony hack—in which Michael De Luca, co-president of production for Hustle distributor Columbia Pictures, casually asked then-Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal, “remember when he got in trouble for feeling up his transgender nieces [sic] boobs?”
Amazon Studios raised eyebrows in 2017 when it scrapped an upcoming David O. Russell project due to Weinstein’s involvement in the production. As Amy Zimmerman wrote for The Daily Beast at the time, the decision to nix the project due to Weinstein’s behavior but not that of Russell, “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.”
And now, Taylor Swift has joined the cast of his new film Canterbury Glass, which already features A-listers including Margot Robbie, Christian Bale, Rami Malek, and John David Washington.
Tuesday’s news brought plenty of excitement from fans, but also a wave of disbelief. At a time when Hollywood is working overtime to prove it cares about flushing out bad actors and bullies, it’s curious to see Russell continue to make movies without answering for his behavior. As alarming as Peloquin’s allegation was, it’s also not the only strike against the director, who even before that had established an unsavory reputation among his peers as an occasionally violent tyrant.
The earliest of the allegations against Russell came from the 1999 war movie Three Kings—where Russell allegedly verbally and physically assaulted various crew members, including pushing a background actor to the ground and kicking him. George Clooney claimed in a Playboy interview that the incident brought his own long-simmering feud with the director to a head.
“He turned on me and said, ‘Why don’t you just worry about your fucked-up act?” Clooney told the magazine. “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.”
Russell, meanwhile, claimed it was Clooney who attacked first. "I never physically attacked him,” he said at one point. “If I ran into him, I’d say, ‘Shut the fuck up, you lying-ass bitch.’"
There’s also that infamous video from the set of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, in which Russell can be seen fuming on set, throwing things, and berating Lily Tomlin—whom he at one point calls a “cunt.”
Speaking about the blow-up with The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, Tomlin said she and Russell “made up in just a few hours, and then we had a second fracas. By then, I was, like, stoic in my suffering. But we’ve overcome it. It dissipates and it’s gone.” She added that she was probably overextended with too many projects at the time, and added that the altercation “wasn’t any big deal.”
Russell’s other alleged misdeeds include putting director Christopher Nolan in a headlock for daring to poach Jude Law from him, making Sally Field cry, and abusing Amy Adams so horribly on the set of American Hustle that, per journalist and Daily Beast columnist Jonathan Alter in an email leaked during the Sony hack, “Christian Bale got in his face and told him to stop acting like an asshole.” (As previously mentioned, Bale will return to work with Russell in the upcoming film.)
Each of these incidents should be damning enough—but Peloquin’s experience and its subsequent erasure really rankle. It doesn’t help that Swift’s casting announcement landed just at the beginning of Pride Month, as she joined GLAAD in pushing for the Equality Act with a statement on Twitter complete with a rainbow background.
Beyond the treatment Peloquin allegedly received from Russell, it’s worth considering how her identity as a trans woman shaped the media’s treatment of her story—and the degree to which people did or did not bother to engage with it.
The officer Peloquin spoke with misgendered her throughout the narrative portion of the police report, referring to her with both he/him and she/her pronouns interchangeably. Some news organizations also misgendered Peloquin, and framed the ordeal with sensationalized, exploitative descriptions. One story made light of the incident, ending on the kicker, “And you thought your interactions with relatives over the holidays were uncomfortable?” TMZ, meanwhile, cited a “family source” who said that Peloquin had looked up to Russell before the incident, “and she believes he lured her into a false sense of security before taking advantage of her.”
Given the long list of men who continue to thrive in Hollywood despite inappropriate behavior, it’s not necessarily surprising that Russell continues to collect paychecks seemingly without incident. For every Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin who faces reprisal for their alleged misdeeds, there’s a Michael Fassbender or a Casey Affleck who does not. But it would be willfully ignorant to assume Peloquin’s transness did not make her experience all the easier to expunge from the public record. After all, this is a country that erases trans people at pretty much every opportunity—including, as Swift herself once pointed out, in our census.
A representative for David O. Russell did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.