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Deconstructing Russell Crowe

posted by Paul on 3/11/02

You either buy the image or reject it without question...

Russell Crowe: Whenever a discussion of Hollywood's newest wonderboy presents itself, the camp is very much divided. There are those who swear this rather unremarkable looking Aussie is the second Brando, others write him off as nothing more than talented flavor of the month. There's little argument, however, that Crowe is anything less than a gifted actor. He's earned a lot of his plaudits, turning in convincing performances in relatively demanding roles and packing a decent amount of broodish charisma behind his dubious muscle. The question is not whether Crowe is good, but how good, and whether or not this misunderstood star is merely self-delusional, a product of hype and self-creation. Indeed, does Crowe even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Brando and co.?

The modern media has become so obsessed with manufacturing icons that it has often lost sight of what an icon really is. Recently, the U.K viewers were treated to a show called Pop Idol, a four month long project which set out to find/create the next big thing, the new Idol upon which the brainwashed public would lend their support and hard-earned money. Finally, the would-be Idols were whittled down and after we had discovered every facet of their personalities, the public had chosen its new teen dream. The show was a huge success, the experiment reaped (at least temporarily) a lot of interest and money, but the truth was lost: Icons don't grow on trees and "stars" can't become stars just because they are propelled by a monstrous P.R machine. That won't matter too much to the producers, who have several million more reasons to be self-satisfied, but in the end it should highlight that any artist who is blatantly manufactured will enjoy limited success.

Once we know everything about a star, how can they retain their appeal?

Russell Crowe knows full well what the public want: a secretive star who seems to defy all conventions. Crowe has fenced a mysterious aura around himself which has kept the public guessing. Whether he's an upfront rebel or a posturing buffoon has been left open for debate. There is evidence for both. Like a lot of stars, he pretends to hate the system but he doesn't shy away from the press when it's self-serving. He hates being pigeonholed, but he won't mind selling his soul when there's a movie to promote. Like a more self-concious Brando, he courts the very people he claims to despise, and his mouth has wound him up in controversy. At least Brando had the courage of his convictions. Crowe just seems to talk the talk, in order to support the myth and (possibly) to perpetuate the image.

If you believed the press, Crowe is the main reason many Hollywood marriages break down, or you can guess he'll be sniffing out the aftermath. If a single Hollywood starlet needs a burly shoulder on which to cry her exaggerated tears, you can count on Crowe being close-by. He's like one of those ambulance chasers, except he seems to chase after powerful, vulnerable women. His track record makes great reading and he seems to notch up another pretty face every month. How could he get around so many beds? Or maybe the suggestion that he is a preying playboy is mere fallacy, fiction created by a desperate media. By appearances, Crowe presents the typical image of the studied actor who hates to see his private life documented or questioned. Who cares about his fantasy F-List, as long as he continues to stay atop the fantasy A-List, right? Well, yes and no. Much of Crowe's enigma concerns itself with his private life. The idea of some slutty actor who'll screw every diva he meets is humorous and unique, quite paradoxical to the alleged squeaky-clean lifestyles of Cruise and his airbrushed contemporaries.

The Dean, Brando and De Niro legends owed a lot to their bizarre, unorthodox private lives. The struggle between anonymity and being another commodity has always provided an interesting dynamic. Crowe offers himself as a singular, no-nonsense actor with scarce time for Hollywood's obligatary dose of bullshit. That philosophy tends to get forgotten with his on-set temper tantrums and public outbursts. He may be all masculine grit and sizzling intensity onscreen, but away from the cameras we're presented with the image of yet another spoiled, pampered Tinseltown jerk.

Even in black and white pencil, Crowe is far from being a work of art.

Let's face it, if he wasn't famous, chances are you wouldn't think Crowe's at all good-looking. Slightly rugged, tubby and impossibly shaggy, it boggles the mind that this man is often referred to as a heartthrob. Whereas guys like Harrison Ford and Brando combine strong masculinity with handsome looks, Crowe won't be topping any style charts- not that that should matter. You'd think though that he'd at least be consistent. Macho guys, as Crowe models himself, shouldn't care how they look. But when Joan Collins remarked that although he was a great actor, he was "not good looking", Crowe blew a fuse. It's proof positive that no matter how Crowe styles his personality and has P.R doing his bidding, simple aesthetics aren't in his favor (and no female I know actually believes he's good-looking. Where were the raves when he was another struggling actor?).

Crowe strutted into London recently, collected his Bafta award for "A Beautiful Mind" and pretentiously accepted his acting props by reciting one of those reaching, ultimately meaningless poems - actors love to look clever and deep and poetry is the easy way out. Regrettably, Crowe seemed to think he displayed "A Beautiful Mind". It's a pity that this smug act only suggested how stereotypically actorly he has become, just another name who starts to believe his own headlines: the man who has harbored "next Brando" ambitions since he first set foot on the slopy path to superstardom. When the producer of the Baftas decided that Crowe's irrelevant poem should be edited from the broadcast, Crowe went ballistic and mauled the poor guy, screaming "You fucking piece of shit! I'll make sure you never work in Hollywood again".

How dignified. Many argue that Crowe was in the right, that he stars of his ilk have a right to be heard. People like this, who position the likes of Crowe as some sort of superior being, are the sort responsible for these uncontrollable egos. You feed the beasts, they'll bite.

Afterwards, one of Crowe's people apologized on his behalf. It's kind of telling that this supposed everyman has people, desperate lackeys who'll do his bidding. What's more worrying is that he didn't even have the decency to apologize face-to-face, thinking it acceptable to go through the ass-kissing middle-men. That Crowe used such a pompous, cliched threat exposes him as a bona-fide phony - the super-rich egomaniac who tries to look blase, but ends up looking pitiful. Crowe, let's face it, is a bully. He's well-known for throwing his weight around on the movie sets, and his self-seriousness has caused a slew of problems. In a world where insincere compliments are paid on a too frequent and therefore redundant basis, there are very few compliments sent Crowe's direction. Sure, his co-stars say he's a great actor, but no-one says he's a joy to work with or a pleasant human being. He makes camaraderie as difficult as possible, and his input is reduced to desperate cries for attention and affirmations of his own recently-won power (to be fair, Crowe phoned in a personal apology, but is that the work of genuine sincerity or undoing the hefty damage to his reasoned image? You be the judge.)

"Thanks for the fucking award, mate! Might I add that there are worse things to be than a swinger of birches?!"

Typically, Crowe laments that he is misunderstood, the over-used buzzword of those stars the media loves to criticize. You have to laugh at this Hollywood subgenre of misunderstandings. Winona Ryder steals a nice mink from a yuppy L.A boutique, is caught red-handed, then has the audacity to claim there was a...misunderstanding. Yeah, there sure was a misunderstanding: she misunderstood that even preened Hollywood divas still have to exchange money for goods and services - unless Winona's binge-dieting and pill-popping had deluded her. Maybe she's going to stand up in court and tell the world that the garment told her "100% reduction to anyone who appeared in Beetlejuice. Skip the till.". I wonder how many people will have their shoplifting charges dropped when they pretend they misunderstood. Take Hollywood's lead, folks. Come to think of it, "misunderstanding" is probably the best defence of all-time. Instead of lying for a year, O.J should have told the jury that he misunderstood that his wife and her lover were two turkeys, and that's why he carved into them and left the stuffing all over his porch.

Crowe has had his fair amount of negative publicity, but most of it is self-inflicted. He's considered poisonous to relaxed movie set environments, and more than one director has singled him out as a handful. His main problem is that he seems to live the gimmick of the broody bruiser who says what he feels and punches out anyone who dares to challenge him. The difference between movies and reality is that such Bud White-like behavior is unacceptable and unheroic, especially with a blood-thirsty paparazzi awaiting your self-destruction. Crowe is certainly more outspoken and masculine than his contemporaries, but his fiery temper has often wound him up in controversy. How masculine is a guy who throws on-set tantrums and punches out photographers? Does this not sound more like an overgrown, unstable brat?

"Let's talk about your divorce in my back-room apartment. Here, take this Rohyphnol, it'll help you relax!"

Then you have the other side of Russell Crowe, the supposed puppy-dog who justs wants to find his true love and start a family. Or the man his fans say will go out of his way for anyone, who is loyal and generous and an impeccable human being. This isn't at all consistent with the, dare I write it, bloated boozebag who, on a recent British chat show, refused to follow the twenty-year long format and sit alongside the other two guests, feeling that it would "tarnish" his image (the irony being that both guests, Cate Blanchett and Kylie Minogue, are just as popular and talented as Crowe). In some quarters, there are whispers that Crowe is just a nice guy who can't handle the spotlight. His headline-grabbing affair with Meg Ryan ended bitterly, some saying she was jilted by the playboy, others saying that Ryan used him to refuel her fading star. Depending on who you believe, this was either a case of the older, vulnerable mother having her heart broken by a pouncing womanizer or the scheming Hollywood player manipulating the loveless artist. Neither scenario paints a particularly flattering picture of Crowe, but it would be better to be perceived as a bed-hopper than a heartbroken sap, foolishly enamoured by an actress whose best roles required her to fake an orgasm and fall in love with Tom Hanks.

Away from the screen, Crowe likes to portray himself as a troubled poet. He boasts that he could never live in Hollywood, so he hides in the wilderness and says he's most at ease when he's performing with his band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. The band are, in my honest opinion, nothing special, but having a Hollywood mega-star as lead singer hasn't dented their sales - they have a pretty healthy status because of Crowe. This overlooks the fact that they're mediocre Folksy, and more than likely wouldn't even have a record deal if not for Crowe. The side-venture makes Crowe look like an all-rounder when, in actual fact, he makes a pretty dire musician. Most actors should stick to acting, and as Glitter and hundreds of other movies prove, musicians should follow the same advice.

Crowe's screen presence is magnetic. However, despite all the hoopla, he's notable for three key roles. Before L.A Confidential, Crowe was another talented bit-player, with only an eye-catching turn in Romper Stomperand a string of flops to his name. L.A Confidential essentially set Crowe on his path, and he did turn in a great performance as the morally ambiguous Bud White, all pent-up tension and rage. Crowe was also great in The Insider, a three hour epic which relied on the shocking premise: smoking is bad for your health! Crowe sported an unflattering wig and added some weight to his ample frame to play The Insider's Jeffrey Wigand. It was a solid, believable and very low-key performance, with Crowe proving the old Academy Award formula: add/lose some weight or play a mentally challenged character, earn a nomination.

It was in Ridley Scott's Gladiator where Crowe won his Best Actor Oscar. The movie was great popcorn fair, and Crowe found the perfect pitch in his Maximus character, coupling a general's honor with a father's pain and imbuing Maximus with pathos. Gladiator was great fun, and it has much to recommend it, but I was puzzled as to why it won so many awards. The story was solid and the all the key elements were in place, but this was essentially another spin on the age-old Roman epics. It wasn't the edgy, original movie that the Academy is alleged to champion. That said, it turned Crowe into a superstar, and the critics hearlded his performance. The problem with Crowe is that, despite his status, he has more bad movies in his portfolio than hits. The last few years are quite deceiving. Indeed, little is made of Crowe's Proof Of Life, a movie which should have done great business but really just fizzled out.

A Beautiful Mind was another good movie, with Crowe reaping yet another Oscar nod for playing a guy with, you guessed it, mental illness. Here, you really believe Crowe as a tortured soul, and he convinces in every one of his scenes - part tortured, part lunatic. He also shows a commendable level of restraint, and manages to make us engage with a fairly unlikeable character. That said, the movie is directed by Ron Howard, and he directs well, fills the movie with great actors and produces a feel-good story with a message - a proven recipe for success, and a meal the Academy will order every time. Don't let that detract from Crowe's sterling performance, just let it add a few question marks to his drawing power. If he can endure, he'll need to play more edgy characters. Once he can no longer rely on the muscle, it'll be interesting to see what choices he makes. At present, he has a mixed bag of movies in his portfolio, and he's yet to enjoy a Cruise, Ford or Hanks bankroll of success. He's bankable at the minute, but for how long? Can he go the distance like Hoffman, De Niro and Pacino? Can he continue to carry movies?

"Why don't we just skip the small talk and shoot straight for the intercourse?"
"Wow, Russell, that's great acting!"

Without the comfort of a proven high-profile director or a sure-fire hit (as sure-fire as things can be, anyway) Crowe usually flounders. His box-office appeal is dubious. He lacks the charm and allure of that other great Australian, Mel Gibson, or the humility of the underrated Guy Pearce. Nevertheless, his future looks bright, and if he keeps his wits about him, he should continue to have a successful career. Provided his movie choices are sensible, his positives should outweigh the negatives. His recent performances have shown great versatility and talent, but his magnetism owes a lot to his offscreen demons. But that will always make celebrities appealing because...

You either buy the image or reject it without question...

AOL IM: paulwdfans

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