Written and directed by David O. Russell, American Hustle (2013) is an Oscar-nominated crime drama that tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney Prosser as they work for unpredictable FBI agent Richie DiMaso. The plot, loosely based on a true story, involves the New Jersey mafia as well as power brokers such as Mayor Carmine Polito. The following are five facts you might not know about the film and its production.
1. It’s Based on the Real-Life ABSCAM Scandal
The real-life story upon which American Hustle is loosely based is the FBI high-level sting operation known as ABSCAM. The investigation received this name in recognition of Abdul Enterprises, or AB(dul)SCAM, the fake company the FBI established in the late 1970s to catch criminals dealing in stolen art.
The FBI made it appear as though the company was owned by a rich Arab sheik interested in fine art investments. Once the company was established, it recruited an informer — Rosenfeld in American Hustle — who connected the law enforcement agency with underworld criminals to sell the stolen artwork.
The multi-year investigation eventually uncovered $600 million in fraudulent securities sales and exposed corrupt politicians in New Jersey and Washington, DC, the latter of which is at the center of American Hustle. Although Russell reimagined much of the story, a lot of the real-life ABSCAM investigation is depicted in the movie, including the fake sheik and the Rosenfeld character, who helped obtain sufficient evidence to prosecute the New Jersey mayor as well as a senator and six congressmen on bribery charges. “Some of this actually happened,” notes the film’s opening title card.
2. The Cast Has Worked with Russell before
Russell has directed seven feature films including I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook. American Hustle brings together many of the actors with whom he had previously worked. Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who play Rosenfeld and Prosser, were both in The Fighter, while Bradley Cooper (DiMaso) and Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld) were the romantic leads in Silver Linings Playbook.
Each of these four actors received Oscar nominations for their respective films (with Lawrence winning) as well as for American Hustle. While it didn’t win any of the 10 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, American Hustle stood out as only the second film in three decades to have nominees in all four major acting categories. The only other film to achieve that distinction was Silver Linings Playbook.
American Hustle also earned Academy Award nominations for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Directing, and Best Achievement in Costume Design.
3. Russell Cast the Actors against Type
Although he clearly found success with the four main stars of American Hustle in prior roles, Russell had Bale, Cooper, and Adams, in particular, play against their perceived character type. To start, Bale gained 50 pounds for the role and wore a fake combover as well as excessive chest hair to play the sleazy Rosenfeld character. Cooper, who was once named Sexiest Man Alive, had the idea to put his hair in a perm, ultimately for comedic effect. Adams, prone to playing good-girl roles in the past, plays more of a seductive and sultry character.
4. It Features an Uncredited Role by a Big-Name Star
Robert De Niro is one of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood, but his name is nowhere to be found in the film’s credits despite the fact he played the role of mobster Victor Tellegio. According to Russell, the Oscar-winning actor signed on because of his interest in the unique role. Moreover, De Niro had just worked with Russell in Silver Linings Playbook.
Said Russell: “He loved the fact that this man (Tellegio) spoke Arabic — which happens to be one of the true things in the story. Truth is crazier than fiction, but there was a mobster who spoke Arabic. He (Tellegio) was based on a collection of gangsters. He (De Niro) was really into meticulously constructing this guy. He wanted to do something he’d never done before.”
5. There Was Emphasis on Improvisation
Russell is on record as saying he wasn’t trying to make a historical drama and instead wanted to tell the most captivating story with elements of truth and fiction. He also placed substantially more emphasis on crafting the characters themselves than the dialogue, much of which is improvised.
In particular, Louis C.K.’s character tells an ice fishing story in the film that was entirely improvised by the comedian. One of the most iconic moments in the film takes place when Prosser (Adams) and Rosenfeld (Lawrence), the mistress and wife of Bale’s character, respectively, meet in a hotel bathroom. They exchange insults before Rosenfeld leans in and plants a kiss on Prosser’s lips. This was actually Adams’ idea, although she credits Lawrence with executing it correctly and making it fit within the structure of the story and the motivations of the characters.