Russell Crowe turns back the clock on
by Barrett Hooper
Each generation has at least one: Leading
actors who smoulder on the screen, with real-life egos to match their
performances. In the 1940s and '50s, it was Robert Mitchum. Today ...
A recent Entertainment Weekly
headline stated, "Brooding bad boy and brilliant actor. Hellraiser
and heartthrob. Player and poet." The subject of the story was
Russell Crowe. But 50 years ago it would have been Robert Mitchum, the
heavy-lidded Hollywood icon who defined cool before anyone knew what cool
A former boxer and Georgia chain-gang escapee, Mitchum starred in more than 100 movies -- Night of the Hunter,
Cape Fear, The Sundowners and Not as a Stranger, to
name a few -- opposite Hollywood's most glamorous leading ladies: Jane
Russell, Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth.
On-screen, he was cool and reckless, heroic
and sinister, and as one biographer put it, "laconic to the point of
inertia, yet still a man of action." Brooding and intense were words
often used to describe his performances. In his Biographical Dictionary
of Film, David Thomson said of Mitchum: "Since [the Second World
War], no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many
Off-screen, Mitchum was a celebrity who didn't give a damn about
celebrity, a raffish outsider in a profession
orchestrated by insiders. He chafed at having to play the Hollywood game
and exhibited contempt for directors, studio bosses and journalists alike.
His nonchalance led Katharine Hepburn to remark, "You know you can't
act, and if you hadn't been good-looking you would never have gotten a
picture." A drinker and a ladies' man, he said of his time in jail
for marijuana possession in 1948 that it was "just like Palm Springs
without the riff-raff."
He is best remembered for his chilling
portrayal of the sinister "Reverend" Harry Powell (his knuckles
tattooed with the words HATE and LOVE) in 1955's The Night of the
Hunter and as the vengeful ex-con in the original Cape Fear.
The irony was not lost on Mitchum, who initially turned down Cape Fear
but, "unfortunately, I'd demonstrated that I knew more about the
behaviour of the functional criminal than anyone else they could get."
Mitchum was an anachronism. He produced his
own films. He wrote plays and an oratorio that Orson Welles produced and
directed. He recorded a few songs, including the title track for the
bootlegger epic Thunder Road. He turned down movies he felt "pissed
on the world," such as Patton and Dirty Harry,
believing, "If I've got $5 in my pocket, I don't need to make money
that f---ing way, daddy."
Like Mitchum, Crowe is an actor curiously
out of step with his contemporaries. He quotes Oscar Wilde and fronts the
folk-rock band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts (who have released a handful of
albums). He is combative and hard-living (only Sean Penn and Johnny Depp
rival him for notoriety) and sweet and tender.
He projects old-fashioned masculinity (the
strong, silent type), and buries himself in each role as though screaming
at the audience, "Are you not entertained?" He shoots his mouth
off with surprising regularity (just about any time there's a microphone
in front of him) but he always shoots straight. And he admits he spends a
lot of time "telling people to f--- off and get out of my life."
Just as Mitchum defined cool, Crowe is
redefining it, setting the clock back a few decades in the process.
Next to him, Harrison Ford is an ageing monument, Bruce
Willis's knowing wink becomes a facial tick, Tom Cruise
looks girlish, and Tom Hanks, the modern Jimmy Stewart with whom Crowe is
often compared because of how they've dominated the Academy Awards for the
past decade, appears boyish.
Mitchum's rugged good looks, gruff manner
and deep voice fulfilled the audience's desire for manly heroes after the
Second World War (consigned to playing heavies in dozens of westerns,
Mitchum's stock in Hollywood began to rise with his Oscar-nominated
performance in The Story of GI Joe in 1945).
Likewise, Crowe's scruffily handsome
features and lean, unsculpted frame make him the antithesis of the
steroid-weaned he-man of the 1980s and '90s.
Hailed as the new Mel Gibson when he
arrived on North American movie screens in 1994, his first two outings --
as a reluctant gunslinger turned preacher in Sam Raimi's neo-spaghetti
western The Quick and the Dead and a cyberkiller hunting Denzel
Washington in Virtuosity -- appeared to live up to the hype. But
Crowe lacked Gibson's glibness, and the films lacked the weight to carry
Crowe's emotional intensity and bottled volatility.
After all, here was an actor who attracted
the roving eyes of Hollywood with his menacingly realistic turn as a
neo-Nazi skinhead in the Australian film Romper Stomper. When asked
what he saw in the portrayal, Ridley Scott, who directed Crowe to an Oscar
in Gladiator, said, "Animal."
But it was Curtis Hanson who first figured
a way to harness Crowe's edgy restlessness.
Needing an unknown -- "someone
audiences wouldn't automatically assume was a good guy or a bad guy,"
Hanson said -- he cast Crowe as the bull-in-a-china-shop cop Bud White in LA
Confidential, based on James Ellroy's gritty crime novel.
"I knew from [Romper Stomper]
that he had the stuff to hold the screen and that he was able to play
violence and still keep a character interesting," Hanson told The
Times in 1997. "He understood the duality of the character. Bud White
appears to be a mindless thug, and Russell handled that well, but he also
brought a courtliness to Bud that lets women know there's more to him than
That has been a trademark of Crowe's, this
image of a man who, as one writer has put it, "suffers bruising
unhappiness as much as he doles it out."
LA Confidential heralded
his arrival to moviegoers. His turn as reluctant tobacco-industry
whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider made the critics take
notice, earning him his first Academy Award nomination for best actor two
He has since become famous for the
chameleon-like extremes to which he goes to get inside a character, but
after the bullish, flat-topped Bud White his transformation into the
53-year-old Wigand (19 years older than Crowe) was remarkable. Not only
did Crowe capture the morally conflicted Wigand's restrained fury, he
inhabited his body. Beyond the obvious tricks -- eyeglasses and a dye job
-- Crowe suppressed his Aussie twang under Wigand's Bronx-reared,
southern-inflected accent, altered the way he walks -- shorter, more
deliberate steps -- and gained 48 pounds of Method flab on a six-week diet
of "cheeseburgers and bourbon" to achieve Wigand's doughy
"It's a kind of poetic approach to acting," according to Jay
Roach, who directed Crowe in 1999's hockey
drama Mystery, Alaska. "That's what makes it so powerful. He's
very controlled and disciplined about the externals -- timing, blocking,
choreography. But in addition to that he has a way of connecting to his
subconscious that adds all these other layers of subtlety and nuance to
what's on the outside."
(Asked why he doesn't merely "try acting," as Sir Laurence Olivier famously suggested to Dustin
Crowe responded "You know, f--- him.")
When Crowe unleashed hell as Roman general
Maximus in the sword-and-sandals romp Gladiator, it elevated him to
Hollywood's A-list, proving he could embody the action hero and cause
female fans to swoon without resorting to monosyllabic dialogue,
self-reflexive quips and a fistful of machine guns. Joaquin Phoenix, the
villain in Gladiator, said, "Now we care about heroes with
flaws and humanity. I think that's what's so key about Russell's
performance. He's a wonderful physical force, but there is such depth to
He confounded again with yet another complex, intensely charismatic
role, this time playing John Forbes Nash
Jr. in A Beautiful Mind, a stranger-than-fiction story of a
real-life Princeton mathematician and delusional schizophrenic who wins
the Nobel Prize in economics. (Crowe went so far as to grow his
fingernails so his fingers would feel more elongated and tapered, like
Nash's, even though it wouldn't be noticeable on camera.)
"He's highly intelligent and he has
this self-confidence that you could define as arrogance," said Ron
Howard, who directed A Beautiful Mind. To which Crowe has rebutted
"I'm not arrogant. I'm focused."
So while he has earned the respect of his directors, it is a begrudging
respect. If Crowe is churlish toward the
press (he was quoted in Australia's The Age as saying, "This
whole concept that because you're famous you're public property -- who the
f--- thought that one up?"), he's downright hostile toward those
"You don't have to like an actor to do
a scene with him. You don't have to like a director," Crowe told
And apparently, the feeling is mutual.
Geoffrey Wright, who directed Romper Stomper, has called Crowe
"the rudest actor I've ever met. He's also the most committed. So if
he wants to abuse me and then give me the most sensational take of all
time, I don't care."
It's a sentiment often repeated: by Hanson
("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");
and by Raimi ("The problem with working with Russell is that he
always has a good idea. And he has no tact").
Crowe seems to relish playing the bad-ass;
a motorcycle-riding, chainsmoking, hard-drinking, rugby-loving,
cattle-herding brawler, a "wild man," as he has dubbed the
persona. Manohla Dargis, writing in The New York Times, called him
"the resurrection of the angry white man," someone who "values
friendships between men over those between men and women" and who is
"securely out of touch" with his feminine side.
Coming to Crowe's defence in The Sunday
Times, Insider director Michael Mann has said, "He puts on this
tough redneck act. The reality is that he's one of the most intelligent,
sensitive actors around."
Therein lies the key -- ultimately, Crowe
is deadly serious about his craft. And despite three Oscar nominations (with
a second statue likely on the way for playing Nash) and a fistful of
critics' choice awards, he's never satisfied. He told Entertainment
Weekly, "I always say I've given 24 insufficient performances and
I'm looking forward to the time when I'll do something that I think is
Mitchum, too, always thought he could do better, that he had "as much inspiration and as much tenderness as
anyone else in this business." But he ultimately came to realize that
"you don't get to do better, you get to do more."
When Mitchum died in 1997, he was eulogized
by long-time acquaintance and writer Dick Lochte. "He did what he
wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He lived hard. He played hard. He
drank. He smoked. Mitchum was the genuine article -- the Hollywood tough
guy as hard-boiled as the heroes he played."
In 40 or 50 years, that could easily be