'American Hustle': Is This the One To Beat or Just An Oscar Con Job?
by Joey Magidson
September 27, 2013
"Now, who's the master? The painter, or the forger?" If you're like me and are of the notion that Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave won't ultimately be able to win Best Picture, then you likely have David O. Russell's new movie American Hustle as the film to beat. Why is that though? We know surprisingly little about it to be talking in terms of Oscar wins, right? Well, maybe, but also maybe not. Over the past few years Russell has been inching ever closer to really hitting a home run with the Academy (he came quite close with Silver Linings Playbook last year), so this could very well be the year that he goes all the way.
For those curious what American Hustle is about, it's basically a fictional reworking of the notable ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s. The story revolves around con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), forced with his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to work for an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Their work would eventually lead to one of the biggest political scandals of the era. The main supporting players include Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, a New Jersey politician, specifically the Mayor of Camden, caught between the con-artists and the FBI, along with Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's unpredictable wife Rosalyn. Also in the cast are the likes of Robert De Niro, Louis C.K., Jack Huston and Michael Pena. Russell ALSO co-wrote the script with Eric Singer. If it sounds baity to you, you're not alone.
When you combine that plot (which sounds somewhat similar to a non-Hollywood version of Argo) with Russell's ability to circumvent one clear genre in this films, you get something that could easily be a huge Oscar contender or just too offbeat for them entirely. Some folks are of that latter persuasion, but pundits like myself don't quite by that and see it as potentially the most likely winner of the Best Picture Oscar.
One look at David O. Russell's recent history suggests that he's been building to a big win for a while. The Fighter scored a total of seven nods in 2010 (winning two, both Best Supporting Actor for the previously mentioned Christian Bale as well as Best Supporting Actress for Melissa Leo), while last year's hit Silver Linings Playbook managed eight noms (winning Best Actress for the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence). Both flicks were nominated in Picture and Director, while Russell received an Adapted Screenplay citation last time around. This year, he may very well be due for a win somewhere on the awards circuit.
American Hustle certainly has the potential to get a ton of nominations. Beyond Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, all of the acting categories are in play. Bale is going to be contending for Actor, while Adams is apparently going for her first Lead Actress citation. In the supporting categories, Cooper and Renner represent the Supporting Actor hopefuls while Lawrence is still up there for Supporting Actress. Considering that it's a period piece too, we could see potential nominations for Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. It'd be unrealistic to assume all of them happen, but if they did, wow would we have a frontrunner on our hands.
Of those 15 possible nods, I'd say it has a decent chance to actually score double digit citations. Only a few flicks this year can actually boast that, so a nom total like that is what the ultimate Best Picture winner will have to have. After Silver Linings Playbook last year ended up scoring acting nominations in all four of those categories (along with The Fighter scoring three Supporting nods overall), it'd be foolish to not assume that at least one acting nom will be coming American Hustle's way. Getting them in each of the four categories might be hard, but Russell proved he could do it last time around.
Especially if the film is as good as I think it might be, Russell himself will be a major player in Directing and Original Screenplay, likely becoming the frontrunner in the latter category. If he can get nominated in both and see Best Picture come its way, American Hustle will fully be cemented as a huge player for the big win. Of course, expectations for his work is now higher than ever, so Russell certainly won't be surprising anyone like he's been able to do in the past. In fact, he'll have to exceed expectations for the first time in his career, at least in terms of pleasing Academy members. The voters are inclined to like him now, but they're not indebted to him in any way, so American Hustle will have to really deliver the goods to be in a position to score more than just a few nominations.
Assume the Academy is looking to avoid going incredibly dark with Best Picture, that puts American Hustle in a very nice position. They'd be able to reward a filmmaker they've been slowly welcoming to the club while also citing a true (if fictionalized) tale with their top prize. It's hardly a foregone conclusion that it'll win if it's a good movie, but the film has a lot of ingredients that the other contenders don't happen to have.
What's the end game here? Well, at the moment it's not scheduled to play at any festivals, though I have a hunch that it could very well be the Secret Screening at the New York Film Festival (which just kicked off). Time will tell there, of course, but it would make sense for the film to launch with a splash in this way. It's in the odd position of almost benefitting from not a whole bunch being known about it, as opposed to other late year contenders still to come that are being looked at in a more skeptical way because of that.
If you put a gun to my head, I'd say that this will be the primary Best Picture competition for 12 Years a Slave, since it represents a pretty ideal mix for the Academy to embrace. I go back and forth as to whether it can actually go the whole way (which makes sense since I haven't seen it yet nor have many other Oscar pundits), but as of today, I'm saying yes. At some point it's going to have to put up or shut up, but for now… David O. Russell's American Hustle is the one I'd put money on. Of course, they could just be pulling a sneaky con job on us all, wouldn't that be a bit ironic? For now, catch the trailer for American Hustle here.