This year, American Hustle, along with Gravity, dominated the Academy Awards nominations, with 10 Oscar nods each. Yet David O. Russell wasn’t the only filmmaker who realized the FBI's Abscam story would make a great movie. In fact, back in the early eighties, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi almost starred in a comedy about the same subject, and it’s a shame the movie never got made.
Abscam was a complex sting operation created in the late seventies by the FBI, which eventually lead to the conviction of a number of politicians. The FBI were assisted in the Abscam operations by a convicted conman, and the acclaimed French director Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, My Dinner With Andre) knew this story could make a great movie, except in his head it would be suited as a straight-up comedy.
Malle learned about Abscam when he was making the film Atlantic City with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. Malle eventually moved to America, and he wanted to make another movie set in the States. With a strong cast, he also knew he could do a biting political satire and get away with it. With playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), Malle got to work a script, and they called it Moon Over Miami.
As recalled in the Belushi biography "Wired," Malle felt the comedic energy of Saturday Night Live still hadn’t been fully captured on the big screen, and he was anxious to capture it in Moon Over Miami. The original Saturday Night Live cast had all left the show by this point, and SNL was in its down period before the next generation found its audience. If a movie could recapture the feeling of the original when it was at the apex of pop culture relevance, there was no doubt it would be a hit.
After the incredible success of John Landis' Animal House, Belushi’s career stagnated. He starred in 1941, a big budget disaster directed by Steven Spielberg that was roasted by the critics. Then Belushi and Aykroyd did The Blues Brothers movie, which is a beloved classic today, but at the time it got a lot of bad press for running way over budget. (At the time, a number of films came under fire for out of control spending, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which cost a then whopping $46 million dollars.)
Belushi wanted to stretch and do different kinds of roles, but he had a hard time branching out into new things. He tried romantic comedy with Continental Divide, but it didn’t stick, then came Neighbors, a dark comedy that was one of the worst catastrophes of his career. But back in the day, audiences maybe weren't comfortable with seeing comedians take on non-comedic roles. When Jerry Lewis played a serious role that was too close to home in King of Comedy, it was a big step forward in this regard, but it was an anomaly at the time.
As much as Belushi tried to avoid being stereotyped, audiences still wanted to see him in a crazy slap-stick comedy, a la Animal House. Although both John and Dan agreed to work separately for a while, Aykroyd wanted Belushi to play Venkman in Ghostbusters, and he knew that Moon Over Miami would have made a great vehicle for the team as well.