Vice President Joe Biden meets with director David O. Russell and actor… (David Lienemann / White…)
The last time David O. Russell went to the White House, to screen “Three Kings” for Bill Clinton in 1999, he brought his 5-year-old son Matthew. Russell didn’t fully know it then, but a world of struggle loomed for the boy, who grappled with emotional difficulties for much of his childhood and adolescence. Those challenges also awaited the director, who felt acutely the frustrations of raising a son with behavioral issues.
Russell was back at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Thursday, making the trip to visit Vice President Biden with his star Bradley Cooper. The “Silver Linings Playbook” helmer made the well-received dramatic comedy--it follows a family whose adult son is afflicted with bipolar disorder--for Matthew, even offering him a small role as a way to reinforce good behavior. (The part has him acting opposite Robert De Niro, not a bad carrot.)Russell and Cooper met with Biden to talk about strengthening access to mental health care and upping its priority level both in Washington and the medical community.
“It’s unexpected,” Russell said by phone from the nation’s capital late Thursday night of his D.C. lobbying trip. “But when you tell a story that for me started with my son it just makes sense that I’d end up here.”
In the hour they spent together, Biden, Russell and Cooper talked about a range of issues, including how “The King’s Speech” had helped current and former stutterers like the vice president feel more accepted. Biden also told Cooper and Russell, as the director put it, that “sometimes movies do what governments can’t.”
Earlier in the day, Russell had taken to the floor of the Senate to make a plea for the Excellence in Mental Health Act, a bill that seeks to offer better access to, and more government funding for, people with mental and emotional difficulties. Russell spoke after some of the bill’s sponsors, which includes Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
“It’s very helpful [for the bill] to have somebody who’s highly visible,” said Stabenow of the Russell appearance. “Someone from the entertainment community brings a different level in terms of public awareness and a buzz and an excitement about an issue.”
Long before he made the Weinstein Co. movie, Russell has been active on this front, imploring policy-makers at boards of education and other governmental groups, sometimes drawing on his access to celebrity to do so. (He’s had De Niro write a letter to influential politicians, for instance.)
In the phone interview, Russell connected the mental-health crisis to recent gun-related mass killings in Colorado and Connecticut, noting that “we’re in a time when great tragedies could have been prevented if there was more awareness and less stigma about mental health.”
Since his film has come out and become a hit—it’s grossed $81 million since its Thanksgiving opening--Russell said he’s been surprised by just how many people have come up to him with their own stories of relatives with mental-health disorders. At an event several days ago at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the father of Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill homeless man killed by police in Fullerton, came up to Russell and said he felt the movie spoke to him directly.
“He reached out and hugged me,” Russell recalled. “I didn’t know what to say."
Russell’s arrival in Washington as balloting for the Feb 24 Oscars was set to start (the voting period began Friday) has led some skeptics to say this was a Harvey Weinstein-orchestrated photo op, meant to give the film an air of gravitas for award voters. Russell said he found that claim irrelevant.
“I don’t really care if people say that. I really don't. For me it’s all so real,” Russell said. “This is something I’m going to do my whole life, It’s not a fight that ends on February 24th.”
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