Thanks to an opening title screen that says, “Some of this actually happened,” we begin to wonder right from the get-go just how much of American Hustle occurred in real life. And much like the actual Abscam operation of the 1970s and ‘80s on which the movie was based, the answer is a little muddy. (Beware, spoilers ahead.)
For those who need a little refresher, here’s what went down in director David O. Russell’s Hollywood version:
Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a scam artist with a comb-over that makes Donald Trump’s look reasonable, falls in love with the beautiful former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and, after a steamy afternoon of playing dress-up in the back of Rosenfeld’s dry cleaning shop, she agrees to help him with his various fraudulent dealings. When they get busted—which, inevitably, they do—the crooked couple signs on to help the FBI in a sting operation in exchange for dropped charges.
In the sting, Rosenfeld and Prosser help overeager (and over-caffeinated) FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) eventually bring down a handful of elected officials, most notably the sympathetic mayor of Camden, New Jersey, by getting them to accept bribes. Somewhere along the way, DiMaso finds himself infatuated with Prosser, who, by the way, has been impersonating a fictional British aristocrat, Lady Edith Greensly—you know, because investment scams are way more believable when the backer is a mysterious woman with an exotic accent.
From here, things quickly spiral out of control as Rosenfeld enlists an associate to impersonate a wealthy sheikh, the mob gets involved, DiMaso assaults his superior (Louis C.K.) with a telephone, and—well, you’ve seen the movie, right?
And let’s not forget Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wildcard neurotic wife, who almost blows his cover a couple of times because she’s feeling neglected.
What Really Happened
The Scam: The real-life Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser were convicted con artists Melvin Weinberg and Evelyn Knight (who actually was British), and the sting operation is known today as Abscam. In 1978, Weinberg, Knight, and the FBI created a fake foreign investment firm—which they said was funded by Middle Easterners—called Abdul Enterprises (the FBI claims “Abscam” is a contraction of “Abdul” and “scam”). The FBI used Abdul Enterprises to elicit bribes from U.S. politicians.
While elements from several of the FBI agents involved in the sting were used to create the curler-wearing character of Richie DiMaso, agent Tony Amoroso—who reportedly acted as a consultant on the film—seems to be Richie’s heaviest influence. (There’s no evidence to suggest that Amoroso ever smashed a telephone into his boss’ face, but considering that he was a consultant on the film, it makes you wonder if the thought didn’t cross his mind a time or two.)
Ultimately, Abscam led to the arrest and prosecution of seven United States Congressmen, Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti, and a handful of lower-ranking government officials. Mayor Errichetti—called Carmine Polito (and played by Jeremy Renner) in the movie—wasn’t exactly the guilt-free guy represented on film, though, and Weinberg didn’t try to finagle a reduced sentence for him. They were friendly, but not that friendly.
The Relationships: Weinberg did indeed have an affair with Knight and Knight did represent herself as “Lady Evelyn” to help with Weinberg’s faux investment firm London Investors, Ltd, which lured people into making fake investments much the same way Abscam did. However, in reality Knight had nowhere near as much to do with Abscam as American Hustle leads us to believe.
Evelyn also never had an affair or relationship with an FBI agent and Mel’s wife Marie wasn’t involved with any mobsters; those torrid love triangles were invented by David O. Russell and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer strictly to add plot tension (and one fabulous disco scene) to the film.
The Ending: Angelo Errichetti served nearly three years in prison for accepting bribes. He died at the age of 84 last May and never regained the political footing he had before he got involved with Weinstein and his fake sheikhs.
Just like their silver screen counterparts, Weinberg and Knight eventually got married. But it wasn’t happily ever after. They later divorced, and Weinberg recently told the Telegraph that “Lady Evelyn” refuses to speak to him these days.
In the movie, Rosalyn also gets her happy ending: she moves on from Rosenfeld with a mobster who adores her and she happily shares custody of her son with Irving and Sydney. In real life, Marie Weinberg hanged herself in January 1982. “My sin was wanting to love and be loved, nothing more,” her suicide note read. “I haven’t the strength to fight him anymore. Everything I have attested to is the truth.”
Just like Russell promised, some of American Hustle actually happened.