By Gabrielle Marceau
The video of David O. Russell losing his shit on Lily Tomlin on the 2004 set of I <3 Huckabees is infamous but I only watched it a few weeks ago after a very smart friend of mine mentioned that she “hated him so much”. I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I didn’t think that the video would present a vision of masculinity at once laughably infantile and legitimately terrifying. Russell repeatedly calls Tomlin a bitch and a fucking cunt, he kicks a clipboard at her, storms of shouting only to return with such velocity and aggression that it looks like he might strike her (Tomlin herself : “When you came back in through that stage door, I thought you really might kill me!”).
What did she do to deserve this outburst? She questioned his directorial methods. In the last month, I’ve read of two separate cases in which a woman was murdered by the man she rejected. It is an absolute stretch and probably irresponsible to compare the two, but watching Russell I was reminded of that famous Margaret Atwood quote and how quickly a tantrum can turn to a threat.
And then turn to genius. Tomlin: "But then I realized we all have our process, and I wasn't really in danger. My next take was really spectacular, my heart was pumping! You're so good!", I adore him as a talent.“, “He’s Brilliant”. I don’t want to impose victimhood on Tomlin, if she feels no resentment then I believe her. But it is nonetheless disheartening to see the discrepancies in their responses. Where Lily falls over herself apologizing for Russell, and more egregiously, claims that the completely unhinged tantrum is a part of his process, Russell never apologizes, and lets himself resolutely off the hook “It's old news!" he told Vulture with a smile. "What are you going to do? I take it in good fun. You have to laugh at your mistakes." Again I am reminded of that Atwood quote.
The outburst is not an isolated incident for Russell: “George Clooney claimed that the director had grabbed him by the throat after he confronted Russell about berating the crew, particularly an incident in which he threw an extra to the ground and kicked him.” If we are weighing creative brilliance against violent outbursts, Russell and his filmography fall immensely short.
When Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe for her performance in Joy she thanked Russell, saying “Every time I’m up here, it’s because of you”. Maybe, but I am glad to see that the Oscars think otherwise. Lawrence received a nomination and Russell didn’t. Her performance, with its immense, unshowy intelligence and steady charisma, buoys the unfocused film. It is the labour she puts in (and is put through) which is admirable, not her supposed genius and the deference made to it. The emphasis on work is essential to Joy’s story. She does have moments of inspiration, the kind of divine intervention we attribute to geniuses, but Joy’s ideas spring not from a god, but from her labour. The miracle mop came from a lifetime of cleaning up after men and children, the flea collar came from working at an animal hospital during high school to help support her family.
Joy is a kind of humble genius who strives to invent and enterprise because she must (the prospect of a life spent being a housewife might kill her) and also because she is good at it; there is potential and it shouldn’t be squandered. If there’s one thing a working mother could understand it’s the desire to avoid waste. She is creative, but pragmatic first, her genius is hands on and hard-won. Joy Mangano espouses the pleasure of utility, ingenuity and practicality but the film itself is stuffed with arguably useless flourishes, it is rambling instead of efficient, clunky instead of lightweight. The Miracle Mop it is not.
Joy's reverence for female ingenuity does not seem to extend to Russell’s own practice. After he signed on to direct the film, he was given license to change the screenplay Annie Mumolo had spent a year writing. The extent of the changes isn’t exactly clear but Russell’s artistic touch seems to have eclipsed Mumolo’s labour and Fox stripped her of her writing credit (which was partially restored only after arbitration from the Writer’s Guild of America). "David is like an impressionistic artist," says Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. "[Artists] take real things, put them through their imagination and create something unique." some might call this artistic process, some might also call this stealing.
Those I would call genius (Joanna Newsom, Leonardo Da Vinci, George Lazenby) possess a kind of radical inspiration and originality, but also a dedication to craft, a mastery of many mediums and immense hustle. Tantrums and mania don’t undermine genius but they sure as hell don’t signal it either. “Name one genius that isn’t crazy” says Kanye West in Feedback. Ok sure, but name one female genius who can get away with being that much of an asshole.
“I was stoic in my suffering.” said Lily Tomlin of her altercation with Russell, and watching her stand her ground, holding it in, waiting for the tirade to subside, I was reminded of Joy Mangano, who we see repeatedly sitting still while her family berates, badgers, and burdens her. She doesn’t throw fits, she acts. She knows that an outburst will be read as a tantrum and decides instead, that the best revenge is her paper.