One of independent cinema's most successful purveyors of familial dysfunction, writer, producer, and director David O. Russell first thrust his vision into the faces of filmgoers with his 1994 film Spanking the Monkey. A darkly hilarious account of a young man's sexually torturous and seemingly interminable summer "vacation" spent in the company of his bored and bedridden mother, the film was a critical favorite, particularly at that year's Sundance Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Picture.
A native New Yorker, Russell attended Amherst College, where he majored in English and Political Science. Following graduation, he worked as a union organizer in Maine and taught literacy in Boston. Harboring an interest in filmmaking, Russell spent his spare time writing scripts and documenting his experiences; his video documentation of workers' conditions led to an internship with Smithsonian World for PBS in Washington, D.C. After completing his internship, Russell returned to New York, where he wrote and directed the short, Bingo Inferno, which was accepted into the 1987 Sundance Festival.
After using a grant from the New York Council for the Arts to produce a short comedy feature, Hairway to the Stars, in 1990, Russell made his feature directorial debut with Spanking the Monkey (also financed through grant money) in 1994. Featuring a cast of such talented but relatively unknown actors as Jeremy Davies (who played the film's luckless protagonist) and Alberta Watson, and a degree of Oedipal conflict not seen since Murmur of the Heart (1971), the film emerged as an unexpected hit. In addition to the Sundance Audience Award, Russell won Best Screenplay by a New Writer and Best Picture by a New Director awards at the 1995 Independent Spirit Awards.
Unsurprisingly, the success of Spanking the Monkey allowed Russell greater flexibility (to say nothing of funding) for his next effort, 1996's Flirting with Disaster. Another foray into family dysfunction (albeit a much more broadly comical one) that centered around a man's search for his biological parents, the film starred Ben Stiller as the man in question, Patricia Arquette as his put-upon wife, and George Segal, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, and Alan Alda as Stiller's adoptive and biological parents, respectively. This line-up of '70s television celebrities was indicative of the influence of that decade's deadpan comedy on the film -- one that Russell has pointed to as a great overall inspiration for his work.
Flirting with Disaster received a fairly strong reception among both critics and audiences, paving the way for Russell to employ an even more ambitious scope for his third feature, Three Kings (1999). The tale of three Gulf War veterans (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) who go looking for hidden treasure in Iraq before their consciences get the better of them, the film marked a drastic change in direction for Russell. Far from being a typical God, Guns, Guts, and Glory war picture, however, it was an irreverent and energetic anti-war statement, and a very successful one at that. In addition to garnering a number of honors for the movie, Russell also earned a new degree of respect as a filmmaker, one that allowed him to graduate from the category of indie upstart to established director.