American Hustle: Recreating the 1970s Disco Era

Russell relied on his longtime collaborator, production designer Judy Becker, to bring about the look he desired for the film.  Becker was excited by the opportunity. Her research, combined with the screenplay, inspired her to build unique worlds for the characters that expresses who they are.  “That’s one of the things that drew me to this project,” says Russell.  “So much of this movie takes place in different worlds: it’s the world of the Long Island home of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, it’s the world of Sydney Prosser’s East Side apartment, its’ the world of Richie’s Brooklyn apartment, it’s the world of the FBI with Stoddard Thorsen, it’s the museum with Irving, it’s City Hall, it’s the home of Carmine Polito with his five children and his wife in Camden, it’s the beautiful local restaurant where Carmine takes Irving out to dinner with the wives.  So many, many worlds, bringing warmth to the film.”

But it wasn’t just the chance to re-team with one of her most cherished collaborators that excited her – she was also drawn to the film by the fact that it is set in New York in the 1970s.  “I have been interested in tackling that period for a long time, partly because it’s my favorite period in film history,” she says.   “The funny thing is, I was surprised by the world I found myself creating – instead of the gritty 1970s New York that influenced me, the movie took a more glamorous point of view.”

For a designer, Russell’s concept for the themes of American Hustle added several layers that made the project especially intriguing: because the characters are running a con, the designs would not only show who the characters are, but who they are pretending and aspiring to be.  Becker’s approach is best seen in the contrast between Sydney’s New York apartment and Rosalyn’s Long Island home.  “They are really contrasting worlds – what was interesting was that we used similar palettes, textures, and materials, but completely different taste levels for those two sets,” says Becker.  “For Rosalyn’s house, the character is a stay-at-home mom and housewife, a woman who clearly enjoys decorating and maybe enjoys decorating too much,” Becker laughs.  “Everything is based on reality and our research, but it looks a little over-the-top: we made extensive use of foil-patterned wallpaper, different patterns, furniture from the Pace Collection, and custom-made engraved Lucite screens.  It may not be tasteful, but it’s a feast for the eyes – and tells you immediately who Rosalyn is.”

To contrast Rosalyn’s home, Becker sought to make Sydney’s apartment more sophisticated and stylish.  “She lives on the Upper East Side in a white brick building – common for single girls of that era.  For Sydney we created a more minimalist look; where Rosalyn had gold, Sydney has a sunny yellow; where Rosalyn had wallpaper, Sydney has neutral grasscloth,” Becker notes.  “It’s sexy, the apartment of a woman who would look cool at Studio 54.  When one of my assistants saw the apartment, he walked in and said, ‘Wow, I wish my girlfriend had an apartment that looked like this’ – and that’s the feeling that we wanted that apartment to have.”


With the film set in the 1970s, costume designer Michael Wilkinson had a chance to express the decade’s distinctive design through the film’s fashion.  His designs further expressed the film’s theme: characters remaking themselves, transforming themselves into the people they aspire to be.  “Michael constructs each character’s personality in the fabrics they like, the colors they like, how they feel when you’re around them,” says Russell.  “The cream bathing suits that he put Irving and Sydney in when they meet – this tells you a lot about them – they’re stylish, but very much of their period.”

Wilkinson explains, “The characters are wholly unique and wildly imaginative.  In the script, there were a lot of opportunities to explore different social backgrounds, from the vibrant, racially diverse world of blue-collar New Jersey to ultra-fashionable Upper East Side Manhattan to the sprawling suburbs of Long Island. 1978 – the year the film takes place – is a fascinating year, because it marks the beginning of a transition away from a truly flamboyant, exaggerated lines of the 1970s and into a more streamlined, early 80s vibe.”

Clothing plays an important role in defining Bale’s and Adams’ characters. In fact, each character has over 40 costumes.  “There had to be something about Irv’s clothes that was very appealing – you want to trust him, you want to believe him.  There’s an aspect to his character that wants to fly a little below the radar.  It’s Sydney who starts helping him find a way to present himself to the world.  We played with a lot of beautiful fabrics, some colors that were quite expressive, great combinations of vests and shirts, stripes and plaids.’”

In addition to remaking Irving, Sydney is also remaking herself.  “She’s a small-town girl who arrives in New York.  She has a natural sense of style – and when she meets Irv, she gets the confidence to explore it.  She picks out Diane von Furstenberg dresses, wears Halston, and starts really enjoying this new silhouette, this new freedom – it’s super-sophisticated and confident.”   For Sydney and for all of the characters, Wilkinson worked with real clothes from the period to be as authentic as possible. He also ended up building a lot of clothes from scratch, designing costumes for specific moments in the film.

Adams’ character is contrasted against Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Rosalyn.  Wilkinson says that the designs for Lawrence’s costumes are meant to underscore the character as another hustler. “Rosalyn is a master of emotional manipulation – she really knows how to work a person over and she uses her sexuality to push her agenda.  At the same time, we had to balance that against the fact that she lives this totally boring existence in the suburbs,” Wilkinson explains. “She has wild mood swings, and this is reflected in her clothes, from her frumpy house dresses and muumuus to her ‘dressed-to-kill’ evening wear.”

Cooper’s character, the FBI Agent who falls under the spell of the hustlers he lures in, is another character remade through the film.  “He starts off as someone who doesn’t care so much about how he looks,” Wilkinson says.  “He’s doing things like curling his hair, but he doesn’t have a very finessed approach to what he’s doing.  When he comes into contact with Irv and Sydney, it has a huge effect on him.  He re-invents himself: he goes from ill-fitting polyester cotton blends to silk shirts and stylish leather jackets.”

“For Jeremy Renner’s character, David wanted to put him in pale suits,” continues Wilkinson.   He had a signature way of dressing with a slightly old-school feel to it, a Rat Pack kind of boldness to it.  Maybe his clothes aren’t the most up-to-date – they hark back to another era, especially when juxtaposed with the finer, sophisticated clothes we see from Irv and Sydney – but he’s a very well-dressed man expressing a New Jersey bravado, and that was fun to explore.”