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Real Oscar Stories: American Hustle

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Sony Pictures

Thanks to an opening title screen that says, “Some of this actually happened,” we begin to wonder right from the get-go  just how much of American Hustle occurred in real life. And much like the actual Abscam operation of the 1970s and ‘80s on which the movie was based, the answer is a little muddy. (Beware, spoilers ahead.)

The Movie

For those who need a little refresher, here’s what went down in director David O. Russell’s Hollywood version:

Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a scam artist with a comb-over that makes Donald Trump’s look reasonable, falls in love with the beautiful former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and, after a steamy afternoon of playing dress-up in the back of Rosenfeld’s dry cleaning shop, she agrees to help him with his various fraudulent dealings. When they get busted—which, inevitably, they do—the crooked couple signs on to help the FBI in a sting operation in exchange for dropped charges.

In the sting, Rosenfeld and Prosser help overeager (and over-caffeinated) FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) eventually bring down a handful of elected officials, most notably the sympathetic mayor of Camden, New Jersey, by getting them to accept bribes. Somewhere along the way, DiMaso finds himself infatuated with Prosser, who, by the way, has been impersonating a fictional British aristocrat, Lady Edith Greensly—you know, because investment scams are way more believable when the backer is a mysterious woman with an exotic accent.

From here, things quickly spiral out of control as Rosenfeld enlists an associate to impersonate a wealthy sheikh, the mob gets involved, DiMaso assaults his superior (Louis C.K.) with a telephone, and—well, you’ve seen the movie, right?

And let’s not forget Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wildcard neurotic wife, who almost blows his cover a couple of times because she’s feeling neglected.

What Really Happened

The Scam: The real-life Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser were convicted con artists Melvin Weinberg and Evelyn Knight (who actually was British), and the sting operation is known today as Abscam. In 1978, Weinberg, Knight, and the FBI created a fake foreign investment firm—which they said was funded by Middle Easterners—called Abdul Enterprises (the FBI claims “Abscam” is a contraction of “Abdul” and “scam”). The FBI used Abdul Enterprises to elicit bribes from U.S. politicians.

While elements from several of the FBI agents involved in the sting were used to create the curler-wearing character of Richie DiMaso, agent Tony Amoroso—who reportedly acted as a consultant on the film—seems to be Richie’s heaviest influence. (There’s no evidence to suggest that Amoroso ever smashed a telephone into his boss’ face, but considering that he was a consultant on the film, it makes you wonder if the thought didn’t cross his mind a time or two.)

Ultimately, Abscam led to the arrest and prosecution of seven United States Congressmen, Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti, and a handful of lower-ranking government officials. Mayor Errichetti—called Carmine Polito (and played by Jeremy Renner) in the movie—wasn’t exactly the guilt-free guy represented on film, though, and Weinberg didn’t try to finagle a reduced sentence for him. They were friendly, but not that friendly.

The Relationships: Weinberg did indeed have an affair with Knight and Knight did represent herself as “Lady Evelyn” to help with Weinberg’s faux investment firm London Investors, Ltd, which lured people into making fake investments much the same way Abscam did. However, in reality Knight had nowhere near as much to do with Abscam as American Hustle leads us to believe.

Evelyn also never had an affair or relationship with an FBI agent and Mel’s wife Marie wasn’t involved with any mobsters; those torrid love triangles were invented by David O. Russell and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer strictly to add plot tension (and one fabulous disco scene) to the film.

The Ending: Angelo Errichetti served nearly three years in prison for accepting bribes. He died at the age of 84 last May and never regained the political footing he had before he got involved with Weinstein and his fake sheikhs.

Just like their silver screen counterparts, Weinberg and Knight eventually got married. But it wasn’t happily ever after. They later divorced, and Weinberg recently told the Telegraph that “Lady Evelyn” refuses to speak to him these days.

In the movie, Rosalyn also gets her happy ending: she moves on from Rosenfeld with a mobster who adores her and she happily shares custody of her son with Irving and Sydney. In real life, Marie Weinberg hanged herself in January 1982. “My sin was wanting to love and be loved, nothing more,” her suicide note read. “I haven’t the strength to fight him anymore. Everything I have attested to is the truth.”

Just like Russell promised, some of American Hustle actually happened.

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The Princess Ride: Here's What a Princess Bride Theme Park Attraction Might Look Like
MGM
MGM

Do you fight the urge to say “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” when introducing yourself? Have you spent the past 30 years mispronouncing the word “marriage”? If so, you may be a diehard fan of The Princess Bride. The cult film (and the book on which it’s based) has inspired board games, merchandise, and countless pop culture references. Now, two theme park designers from Universal have conceived the inconceivable. As Nerdist reports, Jon Plsek and Olivia West have designed the plans for a hypothetical attraction called “The Princess Ride.

Their idea follows the classic river boat ride structure and adds highlights from the movie around each corner. After watching Buttercup and Wesley’s love story unfold, riders are taken past the Cliffs of Insanity, through the Fire Swamp, and into the Pit of Despair. The climax unfolds at Prince Humperdinck’s castle and leads up to the two protagonists riding off into the sunset. The last thing the passengers see is Miracle Max and Valerie waving goodbye saying, “Hope ya had fun stormin’ the castle!”

The ride’s designers make a living turning stories into thrilling attractions. Plsek works as a concept artist for Universal Creative, the group behind Universal’s theme parks, and West works there as a concept writer. While The Princess Ride was just a fun side project for the pair, it isn’t hard to imagine their ride bringing Princess Bride fans to the parks in real life.

For more of Jon Plesk’s concept rides inspired by classics like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), check out his website.

[h/t Nerdist]

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter." She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: No team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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