“Some of this actually happened.” So reads the non-committal title card that precedes the opening scene of David O’Russell’s sixth feature, American Hustle (2013) – a film nominated for 10 Oscars at the 2014 Academy Awards.
The title card indicates how the bones of American Hustle’s plot lie in the FBI anti-corruption operation known as Abscamthat ran between 1978 and 1980. In this highly racist scheme, the FBI enlisted the assistance of a well-known conman in employing fake Arab sheiks to dupe US congressmen and senators into accepting money for various illegal activities. Those officials were later arrested on bribery and conspiracy charges.
Unsurprisingly, O’Russell has opted to gloss over the bureaucratic facts of this operation in favour of a focus on five strong characters in a painstakingly recreated New York and New Jersey of the late 1970s. For numerous commentators the result is too slight an achievement to bear the weight of being the most nominated film in the 2014 Academy Award season.
American Hustle is seen merely as a group of big name stars flaunting their costumed bodies, as College Humor’s Honest Titles for 2014’s Oscar-nominated Movies poster neatly sums up.
But why should such a spectacle not be award-worthy? The Oscars is an institution that values performance above everything, and American Hustle is a film whose very essence lies in the performative.
In O’Russell’s hands the Abscam operation becomes an ethical meditation on how to survive in a world where one’s options are limited, and to this end each character reinvents his or her self in a performed role that is founded upon behaving illicitly towards others.
To hustle is to survive, and everyone is hustling someone — whether by assuming an aristocratic British identity to lure desperate people into fake loan agreements (Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser/ Lady Edith Greensly) or by threatening to expose a husband’s illegal operations if he tries to divorce you (Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld).
The drama of the narrative is based on the cracks that start to open up between these brash roles and the “real” humans beneath, and is situated most emphatically in the guilt that central conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) feels upon developing a genuine friendship with the New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who is the main pawn in the FBI operation.
For each character, one persona is constantly visible in another, and the slippage between them casts the film as a strong character piece – more than just a “comedy caper”.
But the real achievement of American Hustle lies in the way this interest with personal transformation and reinvention is matched by the performance of the five lead actors, who all visibly put on their roles as though dressing in drag.
Each plays against type, meaning against the star-image that has been constructed for them on the basis of their appearance in other roles and in extra-textual arenas such as interviews and gossip.
Thus Christian Bale’s slick, restrained image (composed largely in and by his turn as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) is wholly subverted in his manifestation of the paunchy, balding and messily candid figure of Irving.
Similarly, Amy Adams gloriously shatters the image of the buttoned-up “good” woman that has enlivened her performances in roles such as Peggy Dodd in The Master (2012) and Julie Powell in Julie & Julia (2009).
As Sydney, Adams brings the quiet strength of these figures to a new and convincing dimension that is intensely racy, desperate and treacherous.
And the centrepiece of the film is the masterful rebellion that Jennifer Lawrence achieves against the image of The Hunger Games’ earnest teen warrior Katniss Everdeen.
As Rosalyn, Lawrence is sublime – a vampy, bored, hysterical wrecking ball that can and does bring the whole operation of the plot asunder.
The fascination that these characters hold can be illuminated by some of the concepts discussed by various film theorists on acting, stardom and performance.
James Naremore of Indiana University employs the notion of ostensiveness (meaning, broadly, demonstrativeness) to name the degree to which the work and skill of a performance is made visible to the audience. A performance that is obviously crafted and committed – the “great” performance that wins an Oscar – is an ostensive one.
A well-known paradox exists here. If the achievement of an individual performance is traditionally valued in terms of how completely a performer disappears into their role, the perception of this disappearance must inevitably be based upon keeping the performer’s star-image in mind, in order to appreciate how fully it is subordinated to the demands of characterisation.
A “good” performance must simultaneously be and not be ostensive.
One common critical position assumes that stardom in this way necessarily precludes a quality performance, for the star can never sufficiently eradicate their recognisable image.
This is an assumption that underpins much of the criticism of American Hustle as overrated, incoherent and superficial.
But I see instead a film that maintains a precise balance on this tenuous and mesmerising scale of ostensiveness, with key players that dwell within a liminal register where they show and obscure their performance in subtle and unpredictable rhythms.
As a period piece, the ostensive dimension of performance in American Hustle is matched by its production design, which emphatically foregrounds the aggressive taste of the era. The shock of the style is a constant reminder that nothing about this film is natural.
It enacts the mythic theme of reinvention with the critical distance of every film employing the prefix “American” in its title (American Gigolo , American Beauty , American Psycho …) — delivering a set piece that showcases not only the performances of its five leads, but the spectacle of performance itself.
See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.
This article first appeared in The Conversation
Waleed wins Silver Logie from field of celebrities
The Project host and Monash lecturer Waleed Aly has won the coveted TV Week 2017 Silver Logie Award for Best Presenter.
Apply now: Hong Kong field school
What does it take to get a job in journalism in Asia – and why is Hong Kong so vital to the global news industry? In this unit, students will travel to the Asian media capital to explore why this world city is the big draw for news companies from around the globe.
Monash journalism graduates & staff win three Quills
Monash University students, graduates and staff have stamped their authority on Australian journalism to claim three Quill awards and three high commendations in the coveted 2016 Melbourne Press Club awards.
What leading editors look for in student journalists
Colleen Murrell, a senior lecturer in the journalism department at Monash University, spent part of January and February this year interviewing media editors in Sydney, London and Paris for a research project. The Times editor, John Witherow (pictured left), offers great advice for student journalists.
Nathan joins AFL reigning premier, the Bulldogs
Monash University journalism graduate Nathan Lay has landed an impressive role at the Western Bulldogs, working as the social media and digital coordinator for the AFL’s reigning premier. Nathan interned at St Kilda to prepare for his great opportunity.
Game, set, match with alumnus Joel Smith
From creating a documentary in Norway to producing a 10 week radio show, we spoke with Joel Smith about his study experience at Monash and how he landed his dream job at Tennis Australia.
MFJ academics play key part in Screening Melbourne
Screening Melbourne, an exciting conference and events program, was held in the the CBD recently, which involved moving attendees through the city to experience its history, materiality and contemporary complexity.
Monash alumni launch Australian women in film festival
Monash Arts Film & Screen Studies PhD alumni Sian Mitchell, Kirsten Stevens, Whitney Monaghan and Janice Loreck are behind the inaugural Melbourne Women in Film Festival (view the trailer) launching 3-4 March 2017 at Melbourne’s Treasury Theatre, the former State Film Centre.
Margaret Simons joins Monash journalism
Award-winning journalist, author and academic Margaret Simons will join the journalism department in Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism in July.
The rise of storytelling in journalism’s digital age
The challenges of telling true stories in an era of disruptive media and “fake news” were the focus of three events hosted by Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism last week, attracting widespread interest from journalists, PhD students and academics.
Emily aims high in the exciting world of journalism
Bachelor of Journalism graduate Emily Neilsen, who is a personal assistant and client coordinator at Arrow Digital Marketing has big ambitions in the exciting media industry.
A PhD journey with Michael Kho Lim
Michael Kho Lim shares his research insights as a joint Monash/ Warwick University PhD candidate uncovering the dynamics of film distribution in the Philippines.