A Timeline of David O. Russell’s Biggest Controversies

The filmmaker has reportedly exhibited abusive behavior on the set of numerous films throughout his career

david o. russell controversies scandals lily tomlin amy adams george clooney assault
David O. Russell, photo by Jordan Strauss

    David O. Russell is a lauded filmmaker, producer and screenwriter, credited with helming much-loved movies such as 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, 2010’s The Fighter, and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. A frequent collaborator of A-listers like Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, the director has been nominated for five Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes throughout his career.

    However, Russell has also developed a dark reputation alongside his massive success, known for violent outbursts, abusive behavior on his sets and a sexual assault allegation by a family member. As he gears up to begin production on his first major motion picture in more than six years, Consequence has rounded up a timeline of some of Russell’s worst behavior.

    Read on for a list of the many controversies and scandals that have marred the filmmaker’s career throughout the decades.

    1999: A physical altercation with George Clooney

    George Clooney detailed his own experience working with Russell on 1999’s Three Kings in a 2000 interview with Playboy, calling it the “truly, without exception, the worst experience of [his] life.” In the feature, the actor revealed Russell’s abusive behavior towards both members of the crew and extras on set led to a physical altercation between the two. Clooney recounted the following:


    “It was a dangerous time…I was trying to make things work, so I went over and put my arm around him. I said, ‘David, it’s a big day. But you can’t shove, push or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.’ He turned on me and said, ‘Why don’t you just worry about your fucked-up act? You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.’ I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, ‘Hit me, you pussy. Hit me.’ Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts…”

    Half a decade later, it appeared the animosity between the Oscar winners hadn’t cooled, with Clooney saying in a 2004 Premiere cover story, “Quite honestly, if he comes near me, I’ll sock him right in the fucking mouth.”

    2004: The infamous Lily Tomlin video

    Back in 2004, a video from the set of I Heart Huckabees went viral of Russell verbally berating Lily Tomlin. In the two-minute-long clip, the director can be seen storming around set, hurling obscenities and lashing out at the actress. At one point, he throws the contents of a table between him and Tomlin onto the floor while screaming, “OK bitch? I’m not here to be f–kin’ yelled at! I worked on this f–kin’ thing for three f–kin’ years not to have some f–ckin’ c–t yell at me in front of the f–kin’ crew when I’m trying to f–kin’ help you, you bitch!”

    Years later, Tomlin claims she and Russell eventually worked past the outburst. “David is a very mercurial person, and that’s part of why he’s so brilliant,” she told Movieline in 2011, adding that she would “of course” work with him again.


    One year later, the viral rant came back to haunt Russell at the 2012 Gotham Awards, when host Mike Birbiglia chose to recite the entire, expletive-laden tirade word for word in his opening monologue. Later in the ceremony, Russell was presented with a special Gotham Tribute award honoring his body of work.

    2011: Sexual assault claims by niece

    In December 2011, Nicole Peloquin, Russell’s then-19-year-old transgender niece, filed a police report alleging her uncle had groped her while working out together in a Florida gym. Police reports of the incident confirmed that Russell admitted the inappropriate touching occurred. However, he pointed the finger back at his niece, blaming her for “acting very provocative toward him” and claiming she invited him to touch her breasts. (Russell also told police in the statement that he was “curious about the breast enhancement.”)

    While the sexual assault case was eventually closed without charges being filed, the scandal was resurrected during the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures.

    2013: Making Amy Adams cry on set

    Word of Russell’s mistreatment of Amy Adams on the set of American Hustle first leaked the following year as part of the great Sony Pictures hack. The director “so abused” his leading lady, whom he’d also worked with on 2010’s The Fighter, that eventually co-star Christian Bale stepped in to defend her, wrote journalist Jonathan Alter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton in one of the leaked transcripts. “His abuse and lunatic behaviour are extreme even by Hollywood standards,” the writer continued.

    Adams herself confirmed Russell’s toxic workplace behavior in a 2016 GQ profile, admitting he made her cry nearly every day while making the Oscar-nominated crime drama. “He did,” she said. “He was hard on me, that’s for sure. It was a lot…I was really just devastated on set.”


    “Jennifer [Lawrence] doesn’t take any of it on,” the actress added regarding her co-star and one of Russell’s most favored muses. “She’s Teflon. And I am not Teflon. But I also don’t like to see other people treated badly, you know what I mean?…It’s not OK with me. Life to me is more important than movies.”