Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
What Happened? Russell Crowe
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.
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?
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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...
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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?)
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.
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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