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This one is a little scary to undertake, because Russell Crowe is a little scary. I'm not talking about thrown phones - good grief, people, actors don't get into acting because they're happy and well-adjusted - I'm talking about onscreen menace. The kind of dangerous masculine presence that Robert Mitchum exuded in Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter. Crowe, in his breakout role as Bud White in 1997's L.A. Confidential made me nervous every time he appeared onscreen. But he also had a measure of Mitchum's riveting charisma. You pulled for him, even as you deplored him.

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Well, hello there.

Then, in 1999, he ditched the charisma and stretched himself for The Insider, and the industry sat up and paid attention (even if moviegoers stayed away in droves: $30 mil on a $90 mil budget). We had ourselves a hulking prestige actor, someone just a little bigger than life. Not quite Gregory Peck, but maybe Charlton Heston?

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Not even Brad Pitt could make those glasses sexy.

2000: Gladiator. Crowe sells a sword-and-sandals pic to a public that is supposed to be over sword-and-sandals pics and wins the Oscar in the process. (Kubrick's Spartacus is from this moment forward doomed to be remade as a triumphal blood 'n boobs fest on Starz.) Crowe is the new face (and physique) of cinematic masculinity.

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The way he wears it, it barely looks like a costume.

Also, in 2000, we got Proof of Life, which remains significant, I guess, because Crowe got to bust up co-star Meg Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid - proof of Star Privilege, I guess. Also, perhaps because it hinted at a weakness for forgettable actioners down the line...

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Hey, so about that scene in When Harry Met Sally...

In one of the neater about-faces in leading man history - really, sort of a magnified version of the L.A. Confidential-The Insider move - Crowe turned around and did A Beautiful Mind in 2001. And came thisclose to winning another Oscar, this time by going after the Academy's other weakness: playing damaged. (Gladiator played on their weakness for epic-y grandeur.) His triumph seemed complete.

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Never mind the beautiful mind, baby. Check out these guns.

And then, like Oscar-winner Kevin "Waterworld" Costner before him, he took to the water and get all wet. Personally, I loved Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. But apparently, there wasn't enough action for the action fans, or enough romance for the romance fans, or enough maritime homoerotic subtext for the maritime homoerotic subtext fans, or something. Because suddenly, the bloom was off the rose. What should have been the perfect marriage of Crowe's actorly chops and blustery manhood...wasn't.

The film wasn't a flop: $212 mil on a $150 mil budget, but only $93 mil of that was domestic. Note to everyone: boats are big and ponderous, and water slows everything down. Unless you have sexy, sexy airplanes launching off of them (Top Gun) or Johnny Depp mincing around on them (Pirates of the Caribbean I-XVII), maybe don't get your feet wet. Let Costner and Crowe be your warning on this. Don't let their nightmare be in vain.

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Seriously, though - what's not to love?

Crowe wisely took 2004 off, then returned for what was supposed to be his triumphant comeback: working with Ron "I am America" Howard on an uplifting tale of American triumph over hardship, set in the sepia-toned Depression of the Greatest Generation. But alas. Personally, I felt like I should have liked Cinderella Man more than I did. God knows I loved Paul Giamatti, and Crowe pitched his performance just so. Fighting for milk! It just seemed less than the sum of its parts. Crowe's star was dimming before our eyes, and it was just five years since his Oscar.

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"If you don't get out there and fight for your career, you're gonna wind up wearing pinstripe suits in the South of France and wondering what happened! Now get out there and hit something!"

2006: A Good Year. Apparently, Crowe didn't listen.

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No comment.

2007 looked like a comeback, however, as Crowe took on two genre pics and gave good fun with both of them. First, as a fabulous, rumpled '70s cop chasing drug kingpin Denzel Washington in American Gangster...

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Not even Brad Pitt could pull this off as well as I can.

...and then as a deliciously, maliciously clever bad guy in Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake. (Lose the bloated ending, and I would recommend that one without reservation.)

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Old dudes make the best human shields. They don't jump around so much.

So, then, how to explain 2008's Body of Lies? It felt like Crowe was going for a Hopkins-as-Lecter-in-Silence-of-the-Lambs performance. You know, show up in a few scenes, exude an aura of mysterious omnipotence and hidden agendas, and quietly steal the show. Didn't happen.

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Admittedly, it is extremely difficult to act well while sitting in front of a computer.

2009? Tenderness and State of Play. Did you see Tenderness? How was it?

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I didn't.

State of Play was apparently about a newspaper reporter who pinned actual clippings of news stories to his wall, instead of keeping a file of them on his computer. Because that's the way it was in 2009.

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Apparently, that's also the way hair was in 2009. I dunno. It was a long time ago.

The What Happened? Effect was in full...effect by this point (2010), and a proper comeback was called for. Something big. Something epic and yet intelligent. I know! A bold retelling of Robin Hood from the Sheriff of Nottingham's point of view! Yes! But no. Instead, we got Robin Hood: Prince of Squints. (Did Crowe learn nothing from Costner?)

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Why yes, Gladiator was ten years ago. Why do you ask?

Follow that with The Next Three Days, a small-scale thriller which may have been great. I missed it. So did you. Only $21 mil domestic on a $30 mil budget. Thank goodness for the foreign market, which brought in an additional $46 million. Maybe they know something we don't.

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What can I say? I love pinning stuff to walls!

So what happened? Hard to say, but the Waterworld-style seafaring thing may have had something to do with it, along with Ron Howard's curiously flat direction on Cinderella Man. But remember Denzel? His string of films with director Tony Scott? Yeah, Tony has a brother Ridley - maybe you've heard of him. Anyway, Ridley and Crowe worked together in 2000 to make Gladiator, and everybody was happy, sort of the way Tony and Denzel worked together on Crimson Tide in 1995. But then a few years went by, and suddenly, we got A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood. Four films in four years, and three of them decidedly underwhelming. What is it with the Scotts and great actors?

Correction: an earlier version of this post stated that Crowe won a second Oscar for his performance in A Beautiful Mind. This is false, and a testimony to the author's Unbeautiful, Even Swiss-Cheesy Mind.

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Comments

JustJo March 8, 2012 @ 10:38 a.m.

An interesting, if opinionated, overview. I have, sigh, gone to all the trouble to set up an account merely, sigh, to comment on a certain point that you make. You see, he was so good in A Beautiful Mind that it lives on in the public's perception, and obviously yours as well, that he DID win a second Oscar for his portrayal of John Nash. Though the picture won, he himself did not win, and has only the one Oscar for Gladiator. I am actually quite fond of this misconception because it just goes to show how not only should he have won, but a large percentage of the populace actually remembers it that he did. You are not the first to make this statement as fact and will not be the last. I just always enjoy it when I come across it because it makes its own point. Denzel won that year for Training Day, a role that cannot compare with Russell's Nash. Obviously it does not compare because people seem to remember that Russell won. There is some justice in that, I do believe. Jo

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Matthew Lickona March 8, 2012 @ 11:14 a.m.

JustJo! Thank you so much for going to the trouble to open an account! I am flabbergasted by the enormity of my own ignorance! Will fix post-haste, and will leave your correction here as a warning to myself not to let memory serve when IMDB is there to help.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa March 8, 2012 @ 11:14 a.m.

He should have played Aragorn instead of that slump-shouldered, thin-bearded, delicate-faced little man, Viggo Mortensen.

CURSE YOU PETER JACKSON!

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Matthew Lickona March 8, 2012 @ 11:28 a.m.

You're onto something with the comparison of faces. Crowe has the bearing for Aragorn, but Jackson probably thought him a little too beefy of cheek for someone regal. What you call delicate-faced, Jackson would most likely call "cheekbones like Narsil."

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JustJo March 8, 2012 @ 3:28 p.m.

Why, Matthew...you did that very graciously. One is...proud. Well, at least of that, possibly not so much for the repetition of gossip that has been proven unfounded in that Meg herself has come forward publicly and said most plainly that her marriage was already over with Dennis and that she went ahead and let Russell take the blame because it was easier for her to do so than to speak up in his defense. He never once called her on that. If you check around I'm sure somewhere in cyberspace is her confession of her so doing. It made the rounds a year or two ago but, of course, a retraction is never so widely seen as the original accusation. At least you are not totally down on the man and had the ability to recognize such as "The way he wears it, it barely looks like a costume." So true. You see, I am not getting my money's worth out of the time it took me to register to post my original comment. In future you should be more wary and let sleeping Jo's lie. Which, come to think of it, doesn't really fit, now does it, since I'm telling the truth. One last thing, well, possible last...one never can hardly ever sometimes actually tell about these things...but you are judging movies you have not seen up there in a few instances. I happen to live in Pittsburgh (people do, you know, though I lived in San Diego the first 2 years of my life and again at 5, but that hardly counts as anything more than a digression of the worst sort) and so am rather fond of The Next Three Days and will not even mention the fact that I entertained myself for a day by being an extra in it because, well, that would obviously cue you into the fact that I am not without bias in this matter and we certainly would not want to do that, now would we? Jo

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Matthew Lickona March 8, 2012 @ 5:47 p.m.

Well, there's over and there's over. Yes, I saw where she revealed that Quaid had been unfaithful. But the separation and divorce came after her involvement with Crowe, so I think I've got some grounds there.

Of course I'm not totally down on the man. If I were, the question would not be "What happened?" It would be "Who cares?" I've done these for Clive Owen and Denzel Washington as well. All fine actors who haven't done much with their talent that's made much of an impact of late.

Pretty sure I didn't judge any movies I haven't seen. I grant that I haven't seen them, and leave it at that.

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amberishere March 8, 2012 @ 4:59 p.m.

I too was compelled to create an account so that I could defend my favorite actor. While I have seen all of the above mentioned films and some of them are on the whole more satisfying then others. Mr. Crowe always gives 100% in his performances. I cannot fault him for the choices of set designers, costume designers and directors. Now. I am sure he has some pull in some details, but a movies shortcomings are hardly the result of one person or the success of the film either. I think that if you wanted you could write a whole series on actors that careers have ebbed and flowed over the course of time (paging Mr. DeNiro). I admit I am a bit biased being a huge fan who is eagerly awaiting Russell's take on Superman's father and singing the tunes of Les Mis.

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nan shartel March 8, 2012 @ 9:20 p.m.

i 2 was wondering where he'd gone 2

i thought that middle aged paunchy complacency had set in and quelled his interest as it does with so many actors who r popular young

of course he has family now and perhaps that is his focus...all well and good if that's it

i thought his not winning an Oscar 4 "A Beautiful Mind" sucked...he played that part perfectly

good blog Matt

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Matthew Lickona March 8, 2012 @ 10:39 p.m.

Thanks! As a man best by middle-aged paunchy complacency, I long to see someone like Crowe dig into the drama of this particularly fraught stage of life.

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nan shartel March 9, 2012 @ 11:37 a.m.

ditto Matt...that would be great..but does he have the type of temperament to give the subtle take those kind of roles require

and would the larger public support it with tickets in this smashem and crashem fast paced movies so popular at this time

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Wharfedale97 March 9, 2012 @ 1:03 a.m.

I too have gone to the bother of opening an account to comment on your article. It is clear that Russell Crowe has tried to vary his roles and stretch himself as an actor not just a 'movie star'. A Good Year was not his best effort, granted. You do not mention his earlier work, try Mystery Alaska and the Sum Of Us and you will see his range as an actor. He has a few films in the offing, even taking a major role in a musical. Perhaps some of the problem of his so-called decline could be to do with the directors and perhaps being too comfortable with them. 3.10 to Yuma is underated, he stepped in at the last minute to film State of Play, a truncated version of a six hour TV series. Robin Hood very clearly needs him to film a sequel, to show the character properly. As for his appearance changing, some of the film parts demanded it, but look at him now! There are rumours about the parts he is signing up for, again very different, I only hope that if he does decide to film 'Noah' he does not adopt the terrible Charlton Heston type of acting.

P.S. I will defend him until I consider he has really messed up.

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crowelady March 9, 2012 @ 3:14 p.m.

What can I say in so small a space. You have just 'reviewed?' one of the two-three acclaimed actors in the world and according to you he is a yawn. Dear boy - Russell Crowe has never been in a bad movie. Receiving only one Academy Award caused me to discount the Academy as a credible arbitrator of excellence. Case in point, "A Beautiful Mind" which won every award (or close) except for the actor. Does anybody really remember Training Day (A Lethal Weapon look-a-like). You did note Mr. Crowe's stature overseas....that's where movie goers are not fascinated by cartoons and appreciate fine acting. The Insider, Cinderella Man, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Next Three Days were all outstanding films. Tenderness was made as a favor to a friend. The Australian films, The Sum of Us and Romper Stomper should be run in the USA. At my own peril, I loved Virtuosity, A Good Year and Proof of Life. Can't help it. I agree with the fan (year's ago) who stated that he would go to see Russell read the phone book. I wholeheartedly agree. DaMan is not a movie star, he's an ACTOR.

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Matthew Lickona March 9, 2012 @ 6:50 p.m.

No, according to me, he's on a downward trajectory. That's not at all the same thing as saying he's a yawn. Hence the "What happened?"

And I'm not sure you can argue that overseas crowds "are not fascinated by cartoons and appreciate fine acting" when Transformers: Dark of the Moon pulled in $350 million domestic and $770 million foreign.

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crowelady March 10, 2012 @ 11:23 a.m.

Lickona - Thank you for your response but I didn't make myself clear.
Compare Russell's USA box office, on a particular film vs it's overseas box office. In many cases, Europeans appreciate his films more than Americans do.

I have long felt that he is so darn independent that he only picks scripts (which I love)that he feels are a cut above the usual while I sit at home screaming for him to do a piece that requires him to be in uniform and to die in his lovers' arms. I'm rambling...sorry about that.

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Colonna March 9, 2012 @ 7:03 p.m.

Wow.... Russell's got some fans working the Internet!

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