Signature line: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” – Maximus Decimus Meridius in 2000’s “Gladiator”
The new millennium dawned with Russell Crowe hoisting his sword and shield as he established himself as a broodingly complex action hero — all in the service of reviving Hollywood’s tradition of historical epics as the conflicted Roman general reduced to slavery in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” But as the quote from his Oscar-winning role implies, Crowe’s penchant for angry outbursts off screen would eventually overshadow his acting feats on film. His temper tantrums took a toll on his status both as an A-list leading man as well as a popular box-office draw. However, this past weekend’s healthy $44 million opening of “Noah” with Crowe as the ark builder not only revitalizes another genre – the biblical epic – but it could help re-establish the actor’s rep as a major player in the film industry.
Career peaks: Crowe was born April 7, 1964 in Wellington, New Zealand, to a pair of movie-set caterers who moved to Australia when he was 4. He made his acting debut soon after with a line of dialogue on the Aussie TV series “Spyforce,” produced by his mother’s godfather. His career as a performer initially began as a musician with the stage name of “Russ Le Roq,” although songs like “I Just Want to Be Like Marlon Brando” gained little traction. His first major professional acting role was in an Australian stage production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the late 1980s. TV show appearances and small films followed, along with a bit of street busking . But he found his stepping stone to global fame as Hando, the vicious leader of a ring of skinhead neo-Nazis in 1992’s “Romper Stomper.” Variety described his character as “a brute with a veneer of charm whose bible is Mein Kampf.”
Hollywood soon came calling, casting him in the so-so techo thriller “Virtuosity” and the gunslinger yarn “The Quick and the Dead,” both in 1995. But Crowe’s brutish tortured cop in 1997’s film noir “L.A. Confidential” — The Washington Post praised his “ unique and sexy toughness … Mickey Rourke without the attitude” – ignited a hot streak as he went on to star in a string of other best-picture Oscar contenders: winners “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) along with “The Insider” (1999) and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003). But a cooling-off period began in 2005, when the boxing bio-pic “Cinderella Man” – his reunion with “A Beautiful Mind” director Ron Howard – under-performed at the box office after his bullying behavior off-screen started to interfere with the public’s perception of him.
Biggest asset: Anyone who witnessed a surfer-haired Brad Pitt’s stilted stab at playing Greek hero Achilles in 2004’s “Troy” realizes it isn’t easy to bring a larger-than-life legend down to Earth for modern audiences. Despite his career ups-and-downs, Crowe – much like Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster of yore – continues to excel in these roles, as his performance in “Noah” proves once again. He will never possess the easy-breeziness of a George Clooney (and Lord help us if he lumbers through another comedy like 2006’s “A Good Year”) or the soulful agony of a Denzel Washington. But Crowe’s innate manliness and physicality can still provide a welcome anchor for audiences in the midst of emotional turbulence and CGI-produced spectacle. As The Guardian observes in its “Noah” review: “Russell Crowe is just about the only actor who could have pulled off the mixture of muttering, furrowed-brow intensity and slice-and-dice combat … that the role calls for. Crowe’s commitment is entirely commendable, and he brings his A game: the furious singleness of purpose, the savage whispering, the unadorned machismo.”
Awards attention: Crowe won a best actor Oscar for “Gladiator” and was nominated for “The Insider” and “A Beautiful Mind.” He is part of an elite club of seven performers who were nominated in the lead category for three consecutive years, joining Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, Jack Nicholson and William Hurt. Marlon Brando holds the title with four – while Al Pacino had three best actor nods and one for supporting.
Latest misfire: Even some “Les Miserables” fanatics haven’t forgiven Crowe for his rumbly-grumbly singing style – the kinder among his detractors described it as being “pub-voiced” — as the self-righteous Inspector Javert in 2012’s divisive film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical. But at least he appeared in his first best-picture Oscar candidate since 2003. Such ho-hum action pics as 2012’s “The Man With the Irons Fists” and “The Next Three Days” mainly provided Crowe with a paycheck but little else. But one should probably point to this year’s romantic fantasy “Winter’s Tale” – which boasts the actor’s lowest-ranking title on the Rotten Tomatoes site with just a 14% approval rating. He rightfully earned critical debit marks as Pearly Soames, a demonic gangland boss with a barely coherent Irish accent.
Biggest problem: At the height of his fame a decade ago, a hot-headed Crowe was prone to public eruptions. It’s a habit that caused him to reveal to Inside the Actors Studio’s James Lipton during a TV interview in 2004 that his three least-favorite words are “Hollywood Bad Boy.” Between 1999 and 2005, he made headlines for several incidents. In 1999, he got into a fight at a hotel in Coffs Harbour, Australia, that was picked up by a security camera. Two men were acquitted of charges of trying to blackmail him. At the 2002 BAFTA awards ceremony, Crowe reamed out a TV producer for editing out a poem he recited in honor of the actor Richard Harris, who was terminally ill. Although he won an award for “A Beautiful Mind” that night, some believe his outburst caused him to lose the Oscar to Denzel Washington in “Training Day.” Most infamously, he was arrested and charged in 2005 with second-degree assault in New York City after he threw a phone at a Mercer Hotel employee when he wouldn’t help the actor place a call. The news media descended, shooting pictures taken during a perp walk after his arrest. Crowe described the event as “possibly the most shameful situation that I’ve gotten myself into.” He pleaded guilty and settled the lawsuit filed by the concierge involved.
Gossip fodder: It’s hard to recall the fuss over Crowe’s affair with Meg Ryan – a relationship often portrayed in the press as the despoiling of America’s rom-com sweetheart – while they filmed 2000’s “Proof of Life.” Although a check of Ryan’s resume suggests that her career suffered more from their association together – she divorced her husband of 10 years, actor Dennis Quaid, in 2001 – while the then-single Crowe continued to soar professionally. He would wed his longtime on-again, off-again love, Australian singer Danielle Spencer, in 2003. They had two sons, Charles, 10, and Tennyson, 7, before the couple separated in 2012. The avid Twitter user apparently hasn’t lost his eye for the ladies. He tweeted earlier this month while promoting “Noah” in Russia: “There are a lot of beautiful women in Moscow. Am I the first to notice or does everybody say that?”
Career advice: With Crowe on the brink of 50, he could be tempted to continue taking bank-account-padding roles that trade on his prestige factor, such as Jor-El in last year’s Superman reboot “Man of Steel” (his highest-grossing film ever at nearly $300 million even if it barely tapped into his talents). But now that he has his blockbuster mojo back with “Noah” and audiences have reconnected with his more sensitive paternal side, it might be nice to see Crowe in more intimate settings, too. Perhaps in an independent film that doesn’t require giant rock monsters. He should follow the senior career path of someone like Paul Newman more than, say, Harrison Ford by taking age-appropriate parts that allow his still-abundant strengths to shine. He certainly doesn’t have the comedy chops of Jack Nicholson or even Robert De Niro to fall back on. But just by going on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon and daring to sing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” reveals he is taking himself a little less seriously these days.
Next step: Crowe has two potentially interesting projects lined up. He is making his feature directing debut and starring in an Australian production due this year, “The Water Diviner,” about a father who heads to Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I to find his three sons. In 2015, he plays a mentally-ill New York City novelist and widower who struggles to raise his 5-year-old daughter in the 1980s in “Fathers and Daughters,” directed by Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”). Crowe once said of his work choices, “If I don’t get the goose-bump factor when I’m reading it, then I can’t do that.” He would be wise to let that rule to continue to be his guide.