Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on Down Under actor Russell Crowe, who embodies road rage to terrifying effect in the first big movie to hit theaters in five months, “Unhinged.”
Bottom Line: Well past his movie-star prime, New Zealand-born Crowe, 56, is still chewing up screens in juicy character roles that show his range as an actor, from relentless Inspector Javert in Tom Hooper’s live musical “Les Miserables” (2012) to his Golden-Globe-winning turn as Fox News czar Roger Ailes in Showtime limited series “The Loudest Voice” (2019).
While Crowe is an exquisitely sensitive actor, his penchant for off-stage fisticuffs forged a bad-boy image that’s been hard to shake, merging with his most memorable action roles. “I am rage past the point of reason,” he promises in his promo clip, below. The risk presented by a movie like “Unhinged” (Metacritic: 41) is he’ll lean into that dangerous persona and away from the fine-tuned character work that is his forte.
Latest Misfires: Derrick Borte’s psychological thriller “Unhinged” (Metascore: 41) might have played differently in another time and place, free of lockdown restrictions. Crowe is terrifying as the wrong man to honk at in a traffic jam, popping meds and racking up an impressive kill count after a stressed-out mom (Caren Pistorius) refuses to apologize to him. Fledgling studio Solstice grabbed headlines for throwing their first movie into theaters ahead of the pack, and as tempers frayed during the pandemic, the movie couldn’t have been more timely. But Solstice got squeezed by COVID spikes and theater closings. At this point, the $30-million B-flick has mustered just $12 million worldwide.
And while Crowe delivered a charming performance as bushranger who trains young outlaw Ned Kelly (“1917” breakout George MacKay) in Justin Kurzel’s outback western “True History of the Kelly Gang,” the well-reviewed January release failed to muster much box office, even in Australia.
Career Peaks: Crowe starred opposite Hugo Weaving in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s award-winning 1991 debut, “Proof,” a gentle comedy that was a modest success for Fine Line Features. However, the film that proved to be his breakout received only a home video release in North America: In Geoffrey Wright’s “Romper Stomper” (1992), he received acclaim as a vicious skinhead and gained the attention of Sharon Stone. As a co-producer on Sam Raimi’s 1995 western “The Quick and the Dead,” she advocated for casting him in his American debut.
Hollywood seized on the rugged actor’s signature blend of volatile strength, vulnerability, and charisma. Crowe hit his stride in the late 90s with his trigger-happy detective in hardboiled “L.A. Confidential” (1997), the first of five films to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar over the next seven years. Crowe also nabbed Oscar nods as dogged muckraker Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s biopic “The Insider” (1999), a tortured, brilliant mathematician in Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius in Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” (2000), the Oscar-winning role that will forever define him.
While he scored a $20-million payday for his portrayal of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring hero Jack Aubrey, the brooding captain of H.M.S. Surprise, in Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003), he was robbed of an Oscar nod. Amid global acclaim and demands for a sequel, the $150-million movie did not turn a profit.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”
Twentieth Century Fox
Biggest Problems: Crowe became known for drunken outbursts over the years, including famously pushing BAFTA producer Malcolm Gerrie against a wall for cutting off his poem during his “A Beautiful Mind” acceptance speech in 2002. To counteract that toxic publicity, the next year Fox put Crowe on a charm offensive during the “Master and Commander” press campaign, booking him on Oprah to woo her female audience.
His well-reported behavior at the Mercer Hotel in New York in 2005 forever tarnished his media profile. He threw a telephone at the hotel concierge, hitting him in the head, which resulted in his arrest and a perp walk in handcuffs. (He later settled out of court.) That year, Crowe failed to land a nomination as a boxer making a comeback in Ron Howard’s period drama “Cinderella Man,” and in 2010 Crowe told Charlie Rose that the event “indelibly changed me. It was a very, very minor situation that was made into something outrageous.”
“The Loudest Voice”
JoJo Whilden / Showtime
Assets: Crowe demands a lot of himself and from his collaborators, and rarely gives a bad performance. He’s picky, turning down movies from “X-Men” (Hugh Jackman landed Wolverine) to “The Matrix.” (Had he been available, he would have done Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” as well as Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” and “The Kingdom of Heaven.”) Scott could handle Crowe and rescued him from his tabloid misery by transporting him to French wine country for “A Good Year” (2006); it did not connect with audiences. He also cast Crowe opposite Denzel Washington in violent street drama “American Gangster” (2007), Leonardo DiCaprio in CIA thriller “Body of Lies” (2008) (for which Crowe gained 63 pounds), and Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian in “Robin Hood” (2010). All proved to be disappointments.
Managing the pressures of stardom is half the battle. While it’s been many years since Russell Crowe has been regarded as an A-list movie star, it was never about his acting skills. Crowe can deliver heroic action (“Gladiator,” “Robin Hood,” “Master and Commander”), musicals (“Les Miserables”), villains (Henry Jekyll in “The Mummy,” Roger Ailes in “The Loudest Voice,” SID 6.7 in “Virtuosity”), romance (“Breaking Up,” “A Good Year”), thrillers (“Body of Lies,” “Proof of Life,” “State of Play”), costume dramas (“Cinderella Man,” “The Water Diviners”), westerns (“3:10 to Yuma”) and broad comedy (“Mystery Alaska,” “The Nice Guys”). He kept pushing away Hollywood suits as well as audiences, retreating to a warmer fan base in Australia.
Crowe appears to embrace a middle-aged physical profile, moving into roles like Superman’s father Jor-El in “Man of Steel” (2013), the title role in Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the homophobic religious father in “Boy Erased” (2018) and bigger-than-life Fox News czar Roger Ailes in “The Loudest Voice” (2019), which earned Crowe a Golden Globe award, his strongest reviews in a decade — and an Emmy snub.
Current Gossip: Crowe dated singer Danielle Spencer off and on for years after they met on “The Crossing” in 1990. When his affair with his “Proof of Life” co-star Meg Ryan ended in 2001, they reunited, wed in 2003, raised two kids, and divorced in 2018. Crowe lives on a 1,000-acre farm outside Sydney that was ravaged by wildfires in 2019; he’s been the co-owner of the National Rugby League team the South Sydney Rabbitohs since 2006. And he’s always pursuing various music ambitions, from Russ Le Roq to 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.
Next Step: In the can is “The Gangster Project” (2021), about an actor unravelling while shooting a horror film. In pre-production is a remake of “A Prophet.”
Career Advice: Beware Nic Cage syndrome. Crowe will field more offers for heavies and villains, and they’re an easy fit, but he should resist the temptation. The richest and most diverse roles are on premium cable and streaming, like “The Loudest Voice.” “Being able to tell the story in that great a depth, from an actor’s point of view, it’s brilliant, you know?” he told one Sirius interviewer. That’s where Crowe should look for inspiration, along with trying to star himself in films he directs, like “The Water Diviner” (2014).In his only directorial outing to date, he portrayed a mourning father tracking down his three sons missing after the battle of Gallipoli. It didn’t pull audiences outside Australia, where it won three Australian Academy Awards.
He could also lean into comedies and westerns, which many older stars have used to good effect, from John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart to Clint Eastwood. In “3:10 to Yuma,” James Mangold exploited Crowe’s bruised solidity as the magnetic outlaw trying to outwit the wily rancher (Christian Bale) delivering him to justice. More, please.
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