Russell Crowe’s Extraordinarily Good Year
What a difference a year makes. Back in June 2005 Russell Crowe was facing a self-inflicted publicity meltdown and even possible jail time after throwing a broken telephone at a New York hotel concierge. It wasn't the first time he'd been involved in a violent fracas. A year earlier he'd got into a scrap with his own stunt man during the filming of Cinderella Man. And back in 2002 he got heavy with a BBC producer after he discovered part of his acceptance speech at the BAFTA awards had been cut from the TV broadcast. When South Park got Crowe in its sites, they imagined him starring in his own show, Russell Crowe: Fightin' Around the World.
And now? Now Australia's Courier-Mail has christened him: 'A Mellow Fellow'. At 42, he's 'relaxed', he says. 'Work isn't the most important thing in my life now. It's not even in the top ten.'
This from the most driven, passionate, demanding male movie star of his generation! (If you're interested, his wife and two kids come first, then the type of non-chemical fertilizers in use on his farm in Nana Glen, Australia.)
Not coincidentally, this is also the thrust of Crowe's new movie. A Good Year is based on Peter Mayle's book about a London stock market dealer who inherits a French chateau from his beloved uncle and reevaluates his life as he tries to fix the place up for sale. Why knock yourself out making a fortune in London when you could be sitting on the terrace in Provence sipping wine with Marion Cotillard for company?
It's a convincing argument in as far as it goes, and an unexpected about-face from Crowe, whose attempts at comedy have been few and far between. He once played Dr Frank N Furter in a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show, and I guess Rough Magic sort of qualifies if you're feeling generous. (Stranger still, the movie marks a reunion with his Gladiator director Ridley Scott - who's even less experienced at this type of thing.) Maybe you could see it coming at that: Crowe has made only three movies in the five year period since earning Oscar nominations three years straight, 1999-2001. Is that because he's choosy, or because he's chosen a different kind of life?
But if A Good Year marks the beginning of a new, less challenging phase in Crowe's career, it's worth remembering just how much he's achieved in the last 15 years.
Born in New Zealand then raised in Australia, Crowe grew up around movie sets and made his first walk-on at age 6. As a teenager he performed in a rock band under the mortally embarrassing moniker 'Russ le Roq' (sample song title: 'I Want to be Like Marlon Brando'). Still he was 25 when scored his first major acting break, in an Australian movie called The Crossing (1990). Asked by the director which role he would like to play, Crowe replied 'All of them'. Fortunately he didn't get his wish - it was on this movie that he met his future wife, Danielle Spencer.
The thoughtful drama Proof (1991) was another step in the right direction. But the skinhead saga Romper Stomper (1992) really put him over big - catching the attention of Sharon Stone, who insisted he played her love interest in The Quick and the Dead (1995), even delaying the start of production until he was through on The Sum of Us (1994). Director Curtis Hanson was equally impressed, casting him as the heavyweight killer cop Bud White in LA Confidential (1997) despite the fact that Crowe is no bigger than his co-star, fellow Neighbours veteran, Guy Pearce. James Ellroy ascribed the character's strength to 'brilliant sustained rage,' and that description fit Crowe to a tee.
Like the rest of his male co-stars he was ignored by the Academy that year. But then came his remarkable hat-trick: a nomination for this unforgettable performance as whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999); an Oscar for the warrior Maximus in Gladiator (2000); and another nomination for the bewildered genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001).
It was an extraordinary run, and when it comes to range, only Daniel Day Lewis, De Niro, Penn and maybe one or two others have shown us so much in such a concentrated time-frame. Add in his staunch Captain 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander and the boxer Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man, and you have a portfolio worthy of the utmost respect.
A Good Year is no disgrace either. Whatever the shortcomings of the movie, they're not attributable to his performance. But it's not the kind of project that would have tempted him five or six years ago - and that's either a mark of maturity, or… well, let's not call it complacency, let's say 'contentment'.
You certainly get the feeling that Crowe no longer feels he has anything to prove to himself or anybody else. It probably makes him an easier person to live with, but here's hoping he doesn't do a De Niro and stop striving on screen, which is where it really counts.Tom Charity