Can Russell Crowe act?
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31.03.2001 As the
Oscar hoopla dies down, film critic PETER CALDER takes a measured
look at the talents of Russell Crowe.
Any doubt that Russell Crowe can act should have been laid to
rest when he took the stage in Los Angeles on Monday to pick up the
Best Actor Oscar for his bloodstained performance in the title role
of Ridley Scott's Gladiator.
His acceptance speech was a copybook piece of stirring - even
slightly mawkish - manipulation, its punchline delivered with a
stage actor's sense of timing.
"When you grow up in a suburb of Sydney or Auckland or
Newcastle," he said, staring at the golden statuette he hefted in
his hand, "a dream like this seems ... completely unobtainable. But
... for anybody who's on the downside of advantage and relying
purely on courage, it's possible."
The half-second pause after the word "courage" - a screenwriter
would call it a beat - was perfectly judged and as he threw the last
two words to the back of the auditorium, his jaw jutted and his eyes
clouded with emotion.
Contrast the mumbling, ear-tugging display in the backstage press
conference when he gracelessly mocked the assembled journalists.
There, he was every inch the innocent abroad keen to impress us
with his ordinariness, but displaying just enough cockiness for his
gaucheness to be charming.
That was a performance too, of course; no one ever lost public
esteem by displaying contempt for journalists, particularly the
baying pack which attends on Hollywood. And in some ways it was the
more subtle of the two star turns that night and every bit as
well-judged as his on-screen work.
"Stir them up on stage," you could almost hear his acting coach
saying, "but out the back let them know that you're just a regular
Regular guy - or "good bloke" as those of us Down Under might say
- Russell Crowe may aspire to remain (he prefers his ranch in
northern New South Wales to the cossetted luxury of life in Los
Angeles), but his pay packet will be anything but ordinary.
The Oscar has fixed him firmly in the firmament of the star elite
- he was even being fingered in some wire stories this week as the
next James Bond - and from now on he'll be naming his price, which
will probably nudge $US20 million a picture.
It's worth saying that he rather stretched a point depicting
himself as a boy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and
battled against all odds to make it to the top.
Being born in Wellington and later living in Mt Roskill may seem
like hell to some, but there would be plenty in this country who
would have trouble regarding education at Auckland Grammar School as
"the downside of advantage."
What's more, he's made much of how he caught the acting bug when
his parents worked as film set caterers. It's not a bad start for a
boy with stars in his eyes, getting so close so young to the centre
of the action.
Certainly, there have been big stars with less auspicious
beginnings - Michelle Pfeiffer once bagged groceries in the San
Fernando Valley and Anthony Hopkins, who spoke so warmly of Crowe
when they worked together on the Australian film Spotswood, grew up
in a Welsh mining village which would have made Mt Roskill look
The 2001 Oscars, which named Crowe as the Best Actor of last
year, are now a matter of record. But whether he was the year's best
actor (without the capital letters) remains a matter of opinion and
does not become a fact because of a little gold statuette.
Anyone who genuinely believes that the revisionist sentimental
hogwash that was Forrest Gump or the SFX-laden but leaden-keeled
Titanic were the best films of their years (never mind The Last
Emperor and The Sound of Music) simply doesn't get out enough.
So can Crowe act? His performance as the
general-turned-slave-turned-gladiator in the biggest film of the
century is not, it has to be said, the stuff of thespian legend. The
film was big, tough and dumb - which is exactly what it was intended
to be - and Crowe, who had buffed up for the bare-armed role, was
the toughest thing in it.
But his performance wasn't dumb. As the general
and then bereaved by the murder of his wife and son, he was faced
with a script which called for him to transmute private pain into
rage in combat.
It could have been a flat and flabby Schwarzenegger turn, yet
behind his eyes, and at the most unlikely moments we sensed
something of his simple human suffering.
As a performance it was a good deal better than it needed to
but more a feat of physical endurance than a test of acting craft,
and much less than Crowe is capable of.
For that we need look no further than Michael
Mann's 1999 film
The Insider. Crowe's performance as tobacco-industry whistleblower
Jeffrey Wigand in the based-on-fact story earned him his first Oscar
nomination (he was beaten out by Kevin Spacey for American Beauty).
Crowe, then 34, piled on 15kg in six weeks (principally by
scoffing cheeseburgers and slurping bourbon) and changed his walk to
get into the role of the 54-year-old Wigand.
That dedication inspired Mann to compare Crowe to a young Marlon
Brando, saying that he "walked the way Wigand should walk, even if
Wigand didn't walk that way."
Curtis Hanson, who directed Crowe as the hot-tempered police
detective Bud White in 1997's LA Confidential, is similarly
"Russell was relentless in his pursuit of the essence of the
character. If that made him a pain in the ass sometimes, you live
with it. What I don't like living with is someone who's a pain in
the ass out of either star stuff or just self-involvement. With
Russell it was about the work."
In Hollywood, of course, they're notorious for saying nice things
about each other to publicise their joint endeavours, but Crowe has
had his fair share of bouquets from the more dispassionate
assessments of the critics.
The respected Janet Maslin of the New York Times hailed
Crowe's "fiery, brawny" performance as "a revelation" and the Los Angeles
Times said he had "talent to burn." The National Society of Film
Critics too, rarely in step with Academy voters, preferred Crowe to
Spacey as the actor of 1999.
For American and world audiences, LA Confidential was the film
that launched Crowe's career. But at this end of the world we know
better. Even setting aside television roles (including an obligatory
stint on Neighbours), his filmography includes 21 films.
Like anybody's curriculum vitae - and particularly those of
Hollywood stars - it includes some moments best forgotten. Sam
Raimi's spoof western The Quick and the Dead was, for my money, one
of the lowest points, although it earned him the description "the
sexiest guy working in movies today" from his co-star Sharon
which can't have done his reputation any harm.
But in early roles in Australia he made his mark as an actor of
assurance and intelligence.
In Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof, in 1991, he showed that he could
work small and subtle as he played a kitchenhand who becomes
embroiled in the toxic and manipulative relationship between a blind
photographer and his housekeeper.
The next year, in Romper Stomper, an explosive and controversial
film about a gang of Melbourne skinheads engaged in a running war
with Vietnamese immigrants, he was at once repellent and utterly
And in 1994's The Sum Of Us, he played a gay plumber opposite
Jack Thompson as his father, and turned in a performance of
endearingly gentle good humour.
Back in the mid-80s when he was a wannabe pop star with the stage
name Russ Le Roq, Crowe released a record called I Want To Be Like
Insider director Mann, who reckons he already is, says Crowe
"puts on this tough redneck act, but the reality is that he's one of
the most intelligent, sensitive actors around."
If history judges him to be the 21st century's Brando, it
be on the strength of his role as a battler in the Colosseum. The
man who calls himself both a New Zealander and an Australian will be
remembered for, and prouder of, other, better roles.
But he'll never forget that the gladiator Maximus was the one
that made him a megastar.