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David O. Russell weaves Oscar pattern from his own reinvention

Best director nominee David O. Russell arrives at the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills, California February 10, 2014.
Best director nominee David O. Russell arrives at the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills, California February 10, 2014.

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For the aspiring actor and actress who sits at home during awards season fantasizing that they too could be feted as an Oscar nominee or Golden Globe winner there is a simple recipe: get cast in a film by David O. Russell.

The director of romance "Silver Linings Playbook" and boxing drama "The Fighter" has helped the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale score some of Hollywood's biggest prizes, and this year has coaxed performances worthy of four Oscar nods from the stars of his crime caper "American Hustle."

If an "American Hustle" actor - which could be Lawrence, Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper - takes home a statuette on March 2, it would be the third consecutive Russell film to have an actor win Hollywood's top honors.

"I feel great pride," the 55-year-old director said of his actors' Oscar nominations.

"I feel that I delivered to them because I aspire to deliver a role to them that is special, and I'm going to ask them to do things they've never done before and take risks they've never taken," he added.

Russell, who is easily identified by his uniform of dark three-piece suits and black-rimmed glasses, has himself been nominated for five Oscars and this year is up for best director and best original screenplay. "American Hustle," like his previous two films, also earned a best picture nomination.

But the transformation of Russell over his past three films into a surefire Hollywood director came together like the self-reinvention tales of his cast of characters, which have ranged from downtrodden boxers to con artists and the mentally ill.

"Sometimes fate deals you a hand where you've been undone for the better," the director said. "I think I did that a little bit."

'ACTOR'S DIRECTOR'

Russell's career appeared to stall after his 2004 comedy "I Heart Huckabees" did poorly at the box office, and his public reputation took a hit with stories of butting heads - sometimes literally - and furious on-set arguments with his stars.

"Certainly there have been people who have made flops and come back from them before," said Andrew O'Hehir, a film critic and senior writer for Salon.com.

"But David's reputation was of somebody who not merely was this auteurist, independent filmmaker who wanted to do everything his own way, but was also a jerk and was difficult to work with," he added.

There is also no contemporary filmmaker with a trajectory quite like Russell, who went six years between "Huckabees" and the release of his career-reviving "The Fighter," O'Hehir said.

Now, Russell has made himself into a director who gets the most out of his players and who has helped turn Lawrence and Cooper from Hollywood headliners into serious dramatic actors, and his staunchest supporters.

"The man who made my career what it is," Lawrence, 23, said accepting the Golden Globe award last month for her supporting role as the loopy housewife in "American Hustle," a year after she won her best actress Oscar for "Silver Linings."

The film also won best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild awards, the top honor of their peers.

"He is an actor's director ... he is the embodiment of it," Cooper said of Russell while accepting the prize. "He's the reason why all of us wanted to become actors when we were children."

'ON THE FRONT LINE'

Stuck in so-called director's jail and struggling to get work, Russell points to the upheaval in his personal life - his divorce in 2007, and the effort and energy it took raising a son suffering from bipolar disorder - as one of the pivotal moments in turning around his career.

"By the time I'd come back, I think I saw more clearly the kind of people that had been right under my nose my whole life that I had enormous fascination with and affection for, making cinema about these people," Russell said.

"I didn't see that 10 or 12 years ago ... 20 years ago when I first started. It was really after going through some trials with my own life, my son and having some projects that didn't come out well."

Russell said he now tries to foster a warm and loose environment on set, often playing music, as the brisk schedule of film production can be a pressure cooker for all involved.

Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer, who co-wrote "American Hustle," said the director's on-set style could be described as a companion to his actors.

"No other director in the world works like David," Singer said. "He's an alchemist. ... Most directors will lay back. David is right up on the front line with his actors and in the scene with them in a way. There are no rules with him."

Russell likes to call the challenge of eliciting top-notch performances from actors a task of "braiding" a character's story with its on-screen portrayal.

"If you do a braid or a weave, you have to be balanced," he said. "You have to find just the right measure of each character to care and blend them."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

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