So the fiancee and I watched American Hustle the past weekend. Overall, I quite enjoyed the film. It was well-acted and, for the most part, well-plotted. Abscam was largely simplified in order to bring Mel Weinberg and his crew to the silver screen. The beginning of the film claims that “some of this actually happened.” In the credits, the film claims to be a “work of fiction.” The truth is that it’s somewhere between the truth and fiction. (It’s worth noting, before I hop further into this, that I agree with Frank Askin’s claim that this movie isn’t a comedy. I’m not sure who decided it was, but it’s just not that funny.)
I’m fascinated by bad guys–killers, maniacs, mafioso, traitors. I enjoy when they’re on the screen or the page, shaking up whatever fictional world they inhabit. One of the joys of the entire thing is that I get to experience madness, mayhem, and sometimes even empathy, all for someone I’d run screaming from in real life. Normalcy is an easier return when the bad guys are just characters. But Mel Weinberg is the real-life version of Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfield; and Mel Weinberg’s accounts have dominated the way we tell this story. Rosenfield/Weinberg is the narrator for most of American Hustle. We briefly hear from Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his mistress, but for the most part the story is told through Rosenfield’s eyes. The screenplay is mostly based on a book version of the sting operations, written by Weinberg and Robert W. Green, The Sting Man.
One of the casualties of adaptation is Marie Weinberg. Marie was Mel Weinberg’s second wife, and she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film. Lawrence does a nice job with the part as it’s written. She’s a little funny, a little melodramatic, and much like that nail polish she won’t stop going on about, she’s something sweet with something rotten underneath. But while Jezebel was busy talking about Dorito dust on Lawrence’s costumes, I was busy wondering why they weren’t discussing what happened to Marie in the adaptation stage.
The male characters were portrayed as more sympathetic than their real-life counterparts in two key instances-Rosenfield/Weinberg begins his life as a conman to save his father’s business (something that was actually done as intimidation), and Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is based on NJ Mayor Errichetti and the bribes he takes are less obviously for his own gain in the film than in history. (For more disambiguation between the characters and their counterparts, see this efficiently laid-out version at History Vs. Hollywood. Askin’s piece also does good work out outlining key differences.)
But the depiction of Rosalyn is different. Jennifer Lawrence is 23; I can believe that she might be 30, but I can’t believe that she’s much older. Matthew Eng does a very good reading of this, but while he lays most of the blame for Rosalyn’s “lack of interiority to the performance on the whole” on Lawrence’s comedic acting and her youth, I think the script is to blame. Polito, Rosenfield, and even Sydney Prosser (based on Weiberg’s real-life mistress, Evelyn Knight) are given plenty of opportunities for this interiority. We see them on-screen often, and we see them interacting with multiple characters. (Let’s not forget that Knight is actually British, while Prossser is not, and Knight not only never had an affair with the FBI agent, but played little part in the scheming. Her adaptation is rife with problems, too.) But Rosalyn doesn’t get many of those chances. We really only see her outside of the home in a few key instances-toward the end of the film, once the two are divorced, and in a earlier scene that much has been made of, when she confronts mistress Sydney Prosser in the bathroom at an event the two are attending.
In actuality, it’s hard to decide when Marie Weinberg knew about her husband’s affair. Some sources say that she found out when she read The Sting Man, but was placated by her husband, who said the mistress was made up to make the book sell better. Most sources agree, though, that she found out about Evelyn by going to the apartment Mel was paying for and finding the mistress for herself. That in itself is a small change, yes. But what’s more troubling is this: I can only find, right now, a People editorial from 1982, the year Marie Weinberg killed herself. But in that editorial, Marie is described as a troubled, unhappy woman. At one point, Mel Weinberg wanted custody of their son because Marie was “emotionally unstable.” She’d already tried to hang herself once before, in 1959.And then, something really, really interesting happens. The story reveals that the two women, Marie and Evelyn, were living in homes decorated by Mel, homes that had the exact same furniture and wallpaper. It was Mel who wanted to have Marie declared emotionally unfit. Mel persuaded her to wait months for the divorce so as not to jeopardize a film opportunity. He also called her a “cuckoo.” Marie Weinberg, whatever else she might’ve been or done, was being gaslighted by Mel.
Her funeral was held before her body was ever released. If all of this is in a People article from 1982, what more could be out there? What more is there to Marie Weinberg’s story? Her death by hanging happened just a week after a 20/20 interview aired that accused Mel of perjury and taking illegal bribes during the Abscam investigation. (Including that microwave that’s played to such comedic effect in the film.)
I understand that changes can, will, and in general must be made to turn life into film. But I think we should examine those changes, especially when they stifle the characterization of a woman who has only ever been characterized by her husband. Especially when it’s another way that the living Mel Weinberg gets to keep his voice, while his dead ex-wife loses hers. And especially when we’ve turned her into fodder for comedy, laughing at her unhappiness, social anxiety, and depression. David O. Russell did a disservice to Marie Weinberg and to Jennifer Lawrence. He further gaslighted a woman who’d been gaslighted until her suicide in 1982.
American Hustle is no comedy.