June 6, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition
By AMRUTA SLEE; Amruta Slee writes about popular culture for The
Australian, Elle and The Sunday Times of London.
The Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright knew that Russell Crowe was
perfect for the part of a neo-Nazi skinhead in "Romper Stomper"
as soon as he saw him play a dishwasher in the film "Proof" a
couple of years ago. "I didn't know anything about Russell at the
time," the director recalled. "But I thought he was the most
menacing dishwasher I'd ever seen. There's always something threatening
about him on screen. Right after I'd seen 'Proof,' I called my producers
and said, 'We may have our boy.' "
"Romper Stomper," Mr. Wright's first feature film and Mr.
Crowe's ninth, is a love story set among Australian skinhead gangs. In the
movie, which opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum, the 29-year-old Mr.
Crowe brings his menacing side to the fore as Hando, leader of the pack.
The grim-faced Hando has a paranoid view of the world and a violent streak.
Bashing Asians is his favorite sport. He reads "Mein Kampf" to
his girlfriend, Gabe, raging over what he sees as the demise of
All around him, signs of an increasingly multi-ethnic culture --
Japanese cars, Indian fabric, Italian food -- mock his own squalid
existence. He could be just another bigot, except that Mr. Crowe seeks to
invest Hando with a toxic charisma, making him hard to ignore.
When "Romper Stomper" was released in Australia last year, it
caused an uproar. Likened to Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange,"
it sparked considerable debate about cinematic representations of violence,
and the director was accused of glamorizing fascism. One critic demanded
that the negative be burned; another pronounced the film a masterpiece.
Although "Romper Stomper" broke box-office records in the
country and won a number of local awards, Paul Keating, the Australian
Prime Minister, condemned it as morally bankrupt.
In Melbourne, where the film is set, politicians called for a boycott,
charging that "Romper Stomper" presented an ugly view of their
city. And the actors playing skinheads were arrested one night by police
who mistook them for a real gang.
Perhaps understandably, all the fuss has left Mr. Crowe, who is
visiting New York to promote the film, somewhat wary. During a recent
conversation about his character's motivation, he paused to say, "Listen,
by saying this I'm not agreeing with his solutions, right?"
It would be hard to confuse Hando and Mr. Crowe. The actor, who was
wearing a blue suit, highly polished black shoes and neat argyle socks,
was the picture of respectability. His preference is for meaty roles, and
in this respect he thinks that "Romper Stomper" was a godsend.
"You don't get the opportunity to play characters that extreme very
often," he said.
For "Romper Stomper" he adopted a skinhead esthetic -- shaved
head, tattoos and Doc Martens boots -- which elicited strong reactions
from strangers. He remembers going to a genteel bar one night to play pool
and seeing patrons step out of his way. "I wanted to see why people
did these things, what the buzz was like," he explained. "It's
certainly heady stuff. You can understand why, if there's nothing else for
you, why adrenaline becomes addictive."
Mr. Wright agreed that evil can be attractive. Speaking by telephone
from Melbourne, where he is finishing his second film, he said he wanted
to transport audiences into the middle of a gang and invite a mixture of
emotions; excitement, curiosity and, at the end, revulsion at their own
For Mr. Crowe "Romper Stomper" reflects aspects of Australia
unseen in its popular period films. "For many, many years Australians
have promoted this rural screen mythology that we were a country of
horsemen and girls in floral flowing dresses," he said. "It's a
lie. Films like this are trying to redress the balance."
Mr. Crowe has a bluntness that has ruffled feathers in Sydney, where he
now lives. He has been known to refer to unflattering reviews as tomorrow's
For his part, he is confident about his acting. "I'm good at my
gig," he said. Others agree. Anthony Hopkins, who appeared with Mr.
Crowe in the 1992 film "The Efficiency Expert" said, "He
reminds me of myself as a young actor," an allusion to Mr. Crowe's
dedicated work habits. George Ogilvie, the director who cast him as a
lovestruck sheep farmer in "The Crossing" in 1990, sees echoes
of James Dean in Mr. Crowe's screen presence.
Born in New Zealand, the actor is regarded as a fast-rising talent who
shuns romantic leads for parts that let him exercise versatility. Although
he has been performing on stage and television since he was 6, he worked
as a waiter, a bingo caller and a rock singer ("Singing's a pretty
loose term for what comes out of my mouth") before appearing in his
first film, "Blood Oath," three years ago.
He has worked constantly since, picking up Australian Film Institute
awards for "Romper Stomper" and "Proof." He is
preparing to appear in a Australian stage musical called "The Offical
Tribute to the Blues Brothers." He thinks he may have been too busy.
"Acting's got a lot to do with observation and spending time in
the real world," he noted. "My life is totally unreal because
all I've been doing is catching planes and living in hotels and focusing
on whoever I was playing at that time."