During a critical moment in 'American Hustle', Irving Rosenfeld, the wickedly effective con man at the center of the new caper film, advises FBI Agent Richie DiMaso that the key to a successful swindle is to start “from the feet up.”
For Christian Bale, the chameleonic actor tasked with bringing Irving to life on screen, that particular piece of direction should be amended. The key to his latest role began “from the hair down.”
In this case the mop in question involved an elaborate comb-over that rivals Donald Trump’s in its intensity and sheer lack of believability. Irving’s attempts to pull over the illusion that he isn’t bald involve an ozone depleting amount of hairspray and glue, and are dramatized during the first five minutes of the film.
Bale was inspired to change his coiffure after director David O. Russell sent him a script and he was curious enough to search out a photo of Mel Weinberg, the real-life inspiration for Irving. Weinberg was a conman who helped the FBI bring down crooked public officials as part of Abscam, an operation that found agency employees posing as Arab sheiks. Like the sting it recounts, 'American Hustle' unfolds during the 1970s, a time of eccentric grooming choices.
“I assumed he’d be a con man in the standard, smooth operator mode, until I saw a picture of Mel,” Bale said. ”I never expected him to look like he did. He was a rotund, rolling ball of energy with this comb-over. It was just like the ultimate con artist who was conning nobody, but he absolutely bought it himself.”
Rosenfeld’s intricate cosmetic techniques serve as a spot on metaphor for the film’s larger theme. The grifters, politicians and Feds who make up this pastiche of criminality and its consequences are all desperately trying to will themselves into being the people they always dreamed of becoming.
“The way Christian puts his hair together, he’s putting a whole dream together,” Russell said. “When he’s done, he looks great, and he’s so deeply charismatic that you see why people are drawn to him.”
Bale’s obsession with finding the proper hair style was shared by the film’s other leading actors. Bradley Cooper who plays the professionally ambitious DiMaso and Jeremy Renner who took on the role of voluble Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito both used outsized hair as an acting tool. So intricate were their looks that makeup department head Evelyne Noraz recently told the Cut that it took three hours for the male actors to do hair and makeup compared to an hour for the women.
Cooper made the decision to give DiMaso a perm in order to make him a more interesting foil to Bale’s con man and to have him appear less like a straight-laced bureau agent. Like Bale, he was inspired to take out the rollers after viewing footage of one of the real life Abscam agents, who looked like he had a permanent wave.
“I called David and said, ‘What if he curls his own hair?’” Cooper said. “We came up with this whole backstory about how he idolizes black baseball players and that’s why he curls it…I had this long hair at the time for ‘Hangover 3,’ so instead of wearing a wig, I came out with curlers, having been in the heat lamp, and we just fell in love with the look.”
In the case of Renner, all that hair and makeup time went into giving him a pompadour that he likens to a cross between Liberace and Elvis.
“There was quite a bit stuff that went into my hair that doesn’t make me feel too much like a man,” Renner said. “There was a lot of blow drying. I’ve never used a flat iron before, and I had to get really comfortable with curling and teasing.”
In this case, the sacrifices actors make for their art, were made possible with a curling iron.