Academy Award Wins: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress
Whereas most people are lucky enough to weather their mid-life crisis In the safety of their own home, director David O. Russell had the distinct misfortune of having his play out onscreen in front of a large, discerning, and increasingly-disapproving audience. THREE KINGS (1999) was a critical and financial success, but the process of making it was a tremendously difficult and demoralizing ordeal. I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) gave Russell a platform to exorcise his existential demons, but found only a handful of supporters to empathize with his struggle. Then there’s the case of NAILED, the production of which was such an unmitigated catastrophe that Russell disowned it entirely when it was finally released in 2015 under the title ACCIDENTAL LOVE. On top of it all, his own celebrity as a tempestuous, combative, and even verbally abusive filmmaker had arguably overshadowed the cultural profile of any one of his films. It was a sustained, nearly decade-long run that would all too easily sink any filmmaker regardless of talent, yet Russell came through the fire as something of a new man. His artistic convictions reinforced, his entry into his 50’s would find him finally hitting his stride, delivering a string of critical and commercial hits that would rejuvenate his career.
This new era began in earnest with Russell’s sixth official feature, a gritty boxing drama called THE FIGHTER (2010). The story of the film’s making is almost as long and arduous a struggle as its protagonist’s comeback narrative. Taking its foundational inspiration from the 1995 HBO documentary HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL, the screenplay (credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) serves as a dramatic recreation of welterweight boxer Micky Ward’s quest for the title and his complicated relationship to his crack-addicted older brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. Mark Wahlberg– a personal friend of Micky’s because of their shared working-class upbringing in Greater Boston– became passionately involved with the project early on, shepherding it through the grueling interminability of its development period. The lengthy list of credited screenwriters and producers (which includes Wahlberg, Tamasy, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Dorothy Aufiero & David Hoberman) is a clear sign of THE FIGHTER’s long residency in development limbo, which initially saw director Darren Aronofsky attached for some time before he left to go make 2008’s THE WRESTLER. The idea of hiring Russell reportedly came from cast member Christian Bale, who had wanted to work with the director and utilized Wahlberg’s personal connection from his work on THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES. Understandably, Russell was in dire need of a great story to get back on track– his career essentially in tatters, THE FIGHTER’s against-all-odds comeback plot afforded him a redemption narrative of his own. Any good comeback story requires for the protagonist at some point in the story to go home, and for Russell, this would necessitate his re-embrace with his scrappy, independent roots.
The year is 1993; the place, the gritty working-class Boston suburb of Lowell, MA. Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a middling welterweight boxer who has messily entangled his personal life with his professional career by making his chainsmoking 80’s-queen mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), his manager, and his crackhead has-been half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Bale), his trainer. Tired of being a stepping stone for other, better fighters who would use him as an easy win to ascend the bracket, Micky has decided that he wants that title for himself. Micky’s story is a boxing narrative as old as the sport itself, but THE FIGHTER makes the yarn compelling by surrounding him with a conniving, deluded and self-advantageous entourage that can’t help but foil him at every turn. This role is the type that Wahlberg was born to play, and his enthusiasm for the material is evident at every turn. In addition to getting his hands dirty with producing, he also waived his upfront salary and maintained a rigorous training regimen throughout the project’s endless gestation period– even as he was off working on other films. With the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), it’s hard to think of any other film in which he’s been better. His performance is anchored by an amazing cast delivering career-best performances– indeed, THE FIGHTER marks the beginning of Russell’s reputation for consistently directing his cast to award-worthy performances. Bale took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dicky Eklund, through which he utterly transforms himself into an alarmingly-scrawny crack addict who tragically believes his own boxing comeback is around the corner. The title of THE FIGHTER could arguably apply just as much to Dicky, who battles tooth and nail to deliver his kid brother to glory despite the crippling liability he engenders with his rampant narcotics abuse. The sheer magnetism of Bale’s performance is undeniable, but Leo proves just as formidable a force in her role as Micky’s mom-ager, Alice Ward. She gives a gloriously capitalistic, peacocking performance that’s underscored by a mother’s heartbreaking compassion for her children, rightfully earning an Oscar win all her own in the Best Supporting Actress category (despite the controversy surrounding her active campaigning for the honor– an unconventional move at best that saw her take out her own vanity ads in the trades). Russell’s cast as a whole oozes as much authenticity as its real-life Lowell locales and blue-collar denizens, effortlessly mixing with key participants in Micky Ward’s real-life drama like trainer Mickey O’Keefe and boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard.
THE FIGHTER announces the arrival of Russell’s retooled visual aesthetic, which injects the film with a dynamic, cinema verite energy that’s similar to THREE KINGS, albeit without the radical color processing. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, in his first American film, collaborates with Russell to bring a fluid, loose, and organic approach to the camerawork. Despite shooting with spherical lenses, the filmmakers impose the 2.35:1 aspect ratio upon the 35mm film frame to infuse Micky’s story with the feeling of an epic. Russell’s handheld camera effortlessly captures Hoytema’s natural lighting schemes and production designer Judy Becker’s muted color palette, giving the picture a documentary realism that echoes the production of the HBO documentary so pivotal to Dickey’s character arc. Russell also employs an inspired technique that differentiates THE FIGHTER’s boxing sequences from all the others of its ilk while simultaneously solving a major production problem. Faced with the challenge of needing to shoot all these fights in only 3 days — when a conventional studio picture would normally need about 20 — Russell turned to the actual video camera used by HBO to shoot boxing matches back in the 90’s. Nearly every aspect of these sequences, including close-up dialogue exchanges, is rendered in this flat, low-resolution format that’s riddled with interlacing artifacts; and yet, it works. Reading like a blend of dramatic recreation and eyewitness archival footage, this approach hammers home THE FIGHTER’s sense of realism in a language that the audience, having probably watched boxing matches on television, can intuitively understand. THE FIGHTER’s rollicking kinetic energy finds a complementary companion in its soundtrack, with an ethereal original score by Michael Brook composed of ambient tones, and a sprawling suite of needledrops that span the gamut of “classic rock”. The influence of Martin Scorsese is extremely palpable throughout THE FIGHTER, perhaps no more so during a training montage that Russell syncs to the confident strut of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”. The chosen tracks are appropriate to the story’s period, save for one anachronistic inclusion: 2009’s “How You Like Me Now?” by The Heavy, which Russell uses as a recurring, triumphant theme celebrating Micky’s rise to glory.
Indeed, THE FIGHTER (as well as Russell’s subsequent output from this period) owes a great debt to Scorsese– an ironic development considering that Wahlberg unsuccessfully lobbied his THE DEPARTED (2006) director to take on the film so many years prior (1). A foundational influence that’s evident as far back as his 1994 debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, Russell channels Uncle Marty’s spirit more directly here than ever before. And yet, he manages to avoid wholesale rip-off by employing his thematic fascinations to make the material his own– not that he had to try too hard, given that the story is fundamentally deals in the core themes of his filmography: familial conflict and identity crisis. Micky’s narrative best encapsulates the former theme with his struggle to keep his family/business team from sabotaging his shot at the title, while Dicky embodies the latter in his growing realization that his addiction to crack has caught him in a death grip and his days as a champion fighter are far behind him.
Finally released in 2010 after an eternity in development hell, THE FIGHTER’s embattled rise to glory parallels its rising-phoenix narrative. The film was such a commercial and critical success, in fact, that Wahlberg is currently development on a sequel that would further chronicle Micky’s stormy boxing career (2). For Russell personally, THE FIGHTER sees him finally shake off his mid-career slump and deliver on the promise of his early films. His work here would result in seven Oscar nominations, including his first one for directing. With its twin wins for Bale and Leo in the Supporting Actor/Actress qualities, THE FIGHTER also marks the transformation of Russell’s reputation from combative hothead to an awards-circuit mainstay who consistently delivers nominations and accolades for his dedicated cast. Going from ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s abject fiasco of a shoot to the harrowing resonance of THE FIGHTER is no easy feat– indeed, the title of the film could ostensibly apply to Russell just as much as it does its narrative protagonists. The celebration of the film come Oscar night was an occasion that many directors would count as the unmitigated high point of their career– but in Russell’s case, he was only just getting started.
THE FIGHTER is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Produced by: Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Paul Tamasy, David Hoberman, Mark Wahlberg
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production Designer: Judy Becker
Edited by: Pamela Martin
Music by: Michael Brook
- Via Wikipedia: “Stax” (pseudonym) (2007-02-22). “Wahlberg Talks The Fighter”. IGN. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
- Via Wikipedia: Aranda, Ramon. “Mark Wahlberg Confirms The Fighter 2 in the Works”, 3MoreRounds.com, June 10, 2011