There was a song written in 1970-71 by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band that summed up a good part of the 1970s. It was “Express Yourself”. It said “Whatever you do, do it good.” “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s what you’re doin when you’re doin what you look like you’re doin.”
As we approach the Oscars, I can’t help thinking about how perfectly David O Russell’s “American Hustle” captured the 1970s with all it’s gaudy messiness. The film’s characters and costumes and art direction and cinematography and, of course, direction help capture and amplify the strange whirlwind that blew through the 70s.
Here is the costume designer, Michael Wilkinson, describing how he went about the design of the costumes. He remarks that the 70s were more about expressing yourself than “looking your best”.
Women were coming into their own and becoming bolder about their sexuality. While still trapped in hair curlers the size of lemonade cans, they also began to let their hair down and lowered their necklines. And I remember the color, oh the color.
Wilkinson had as much fun with the men’s costumes as he did the women’s. In the 1970s men also felt freer to “express themselves” even while they too seemed trapped by their hair; Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld carefully applied comb over and Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso permed-look hair took a lot of time and effort. Jeremy Renner’s silver/gold tux lights up the screen as does Renner’s New Jersey mayor with a pompadour that takes a lot of gel and spray. He’s a sunny big-hearted character who dresses the part of the would be savior of his city.
At the heart of the story is Christian Bale’s Irving and Bale dazzled me. As Wilkinson remarks in the video, Bale’s lead character is awash in “paisleys and patterns” in his suits, scarves, shirts, and ties. He carefully constructs a persona for his hustler and Bale loses himself completely in Irving. Amazingly, Irving doesn’t see what we see when he looks in the mirror or when Amy Adams’ Sydney looks at him. We see a paunchy balding slime ball with an ID bracelet. They see a clever and dapper cultured entrepreneur out to have some fun as do the other characters in this wild frenzied ride through the heart of the darkness of America; a land born of hustlers and con men who still think of themselves all as masters of the universe and kings of the world.
It is a story about deceptions and lies. But these are mostly small time cons while a much bigger con was starting to be hatched as wages stagnated never to rise again for the average worker. By the end of the 1970s when this film takes place, hard times were the norm and what was coming was the era of “greed is good” that hasn’t yet let up. I lived in New York during this time. So, as Cindi Lauper sang “When the working day was done, girls just want to have fun.” That’s what I did. And as the designer Michael Wilkinson concludes, it’s about a time when you just didn’t give a damn. You just wanted “to try stuff”. For a time we were out of the box called adulthood and we had some fun.
P.S. I hope the film and it’s designers win lots of awards. It is the mirror opposite of the lovely, funny and sad “Nebraska” which should also win gobs of awards. Maybe that’s why there shouldn’t be any awards at all. How can one really choose what’s best?