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The Sound and Fury of Russell Crowe

At the height of his fame, the Oscar-winner brought a ferocious masculinity to his best performances. But in recent years, he’s had to contend with a shifting culture that’s less in awe of ultra-intense actors

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Russell Crowe has been a movie star for more than 25 years, but I think it’s fair to say that his heyday is over — or, at the very least, his initial heyday is over. (Actors have comebacks all the time.) At one point, not so long ago, Crowe headlined major films. Now, not so much — as witnessed by the fact that he’s but one of the marquee names in the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. He plays Zeus, although it’s a good bet you’re not going to the theater because of him. More likely, you want to see Chris Hemsworth play Thor. Crowe is just part of the ensemble, bringing gravitas and old-school stardom. He’s a fine additional hook to lure you to a film you were probably going to check out anyway. 

Interestingly, this has been Crowe’s M.O. in recent years. Lately, he just shows up in stuff, and it’s always a bit of a surprise. Oh, look, he’s a bad guy in True History of the Kelly Gang. Wow, he’s Dr. Jekyll in Tom Cruise’s Mummy reboot. Cool, he’s Superman’s dad in Man of Steel. It’s always a treat when he’s there.

This transition from leading man to ace cameo provider was disorienting at first. But it’s proven to be a nifty demarcation point signifying the end of a long phase of his career in which he was among Hollywood’s most exciting and intense stars. His peak found him embodying a rugged, brawling masculinity we don’t see much anymore — not to mention a now-antiquated notion that bare-knuckled manliness equated to serious acting. For Crowe, performing isn’t something to be taken lightly. To him, it feels like a contact sport — and, to extend the metaphor, he always left it all out on the field. Acting is an art, and it’s also a craft — Russell Crowe wants you to see him sweat.

He was born in 1964 in New Zealand before moving to Australia as a boy, his interest in acting first percolating due to the fact that his parents were location caterers. “I grew up around film sets, and it stayed with me, I guess,” he said. “My grandfather was a cinematographer, so I’m the third generation to be involved in this business.”

He was in bands, he did musical theater. And in 1992, he landed his first significant movie role, that of the dangerous skinhead Hando in Romper Stomper. A portrait of modern-day neo-Nazism, the film was controversial but also persuasively acted, especially by Crowe, who did nothing to “humanize” the monster he was playing. Romper Stomper was a hit in Crowe’s homeland, although he resisted the idea that the film in any way glamorized Hando’s worldview. 

“What it did, in Australia, was to put racism on the breakfast table,” he said in 1997, “and it made everybody examine their own bigotries, which was a very healthy thing. It was certainly divisive, in terms of film critics and stuff. One of the major film critics in Australia said something to the effect that the negative should be burned, which just made the filmmaker shake his head very sadly, you know?”

Crowe soon made the leap to Hollywood movies, although his home is in Australia and initially he was contemptuous of the City of Angels. “I was fond of making quotes about Los Angeles as being the last place on Earth I’d live,” he admitted a few years ago. “But in reality, as you get a little wiser I suppose, you look at that town and it’s kind of a beautiful place. People go there and they create incredible lives for themselves, because there are so many like-minded people around.”

In a short span of time, he appeared in the Western The Quick and the Dead and the forgettable sci-fi action flick Virtuosity. But it was Romper Stomper that got him the part of cop Bud White in 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Curtis Hanson, who directed L.A. Confidential, told the Los Angeles Times, “I knew from that picture that he had the stuff to hold the screen, and that he was able to play violence and still keep a character interesting.” Crowe was thrust into the middle of an ensemble with bigger names — including Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey — but Hanson wasn’t concerned about the new guy. “He understood the duality of the character,” Hanson said. “Bud White appears to be a mindless thug, and Russell handled that well, but he also brought a courtliness to Bud that lets women know there’s more to him than that.”

It was in L.A. Confidential where American audiences got their first true taste of Crowe’s ability to play unpolished, difficult men. Bud is, ultimately, a good guy, but he’s hardly warm and fuzzy, refusing to rely on charm to get his way. Rather, he’s like a shark circling his prey, determined to get to the truth, no matter what. Where other actors want to inject some kind of tell, hinting to the viewer that they’re nothing like the prick they’re portraying, Crowe seemed unafraid of letting his un-cuddly characters be their stormy selves. But that’s one reason why Basinger’s Lynn Bracken goes to bed with Bud: In a town full of phonies, at least he’s unabashedly himself. 

That film kick-started a winning streak of impressive performances, with 1999’s The Insider only further suggesting that this was an actor’s actor fully committed to his craft. Based on the true story, the Michael Mann saga starred Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower who wants to tell the world that his former firm, Brown & Williamson, knew the health risks of the cigarettes it was peddling. Mann is renowned for sleek, high-wattage action-thrillers like Heat, but in The Insider he constructed a relatively reserved (but still electrifying) procedural, with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) trying to get Wigand’s story on the air. Crowe portrayed Wigand as a complicated, sometimes enraging man whose paranoia and temper could get the best of him — he might be a whistleblower, but he wasn’t a conventional hero. Crowe let those flaws be noticeable, which only made the character more compelling.

The Insider earned Crowe his first Oscar nomination, but by then he was already focused on his next project, which would change his life. “I shot [Gladiator] in 1999,” he said in 2016, “and there is not a single day of the year where it won’t be on primetime TV somewhere in the world.”

That swords-and-sandals saga required Crowe to do something he’d never really attempted before: Be an unabashed leading man. Courageous and mournful, grieving his family who had been slain by his beloved king’s evil son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus went on a classic hero’s journey, fighting in the arena as he plans his revenge. The character might not have been as layered as some of his previous roles, but Crowe didn’t approach the performance any differently. His Maximus was stoic and unyielding, the actor never before being so inspiring and commanding on screen. Crowe showed how you could make heroism riveting without losing any nuance. Gladiator showcased an actor’s actor learning how to be a movie star.

Not that most people figured Gladiator was going to be any good. “They thought that was such an out-of-touch step to make,” Crowe said in 2020 about industry expectations around the film. “I had one conversation with a guy who asked me about it, and I was talking to him about how difficult the shoot had been because, just being honest, it was tricky and it was exhausting and it took everything I had. So I was discussing it in those terms, and he took that as a negative. He said, ‘Well, look, you’ll always have L.A. Confidential. If a career has a movie that fine, you’ll be able to work.’ And I went out of that meeting and talked about it with my agent, I was like, ‘Is that what people really think?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yep.’”

Instead, the film went on to be one of the biggest smashes of the summer of 2000, eventually winning Best Picture — as well as Best Actor for Crowe. For a man known for his on-set intensity, Crowe delivered an acceptance speech that was disarmingly humble and soft-spoken. “When you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney or Auckland, or Newcastle like [Gladiator director] Ridley [Scott] … or the suburbs of anywhere, you know, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable,” he told the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium, slightly dazed and trying to collect himself. “But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings. And for anybody who’s on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it’s possible.”

The graciousness of his words was touching, but also a striking contrast to the reputation he was developing as a combative performer who clashed with directors. “People accuse me of being arrogant all the time. I’m not arrogant, I’m focused,” he said in 1999. “I don’t make demands. I don’t tell you how it should be. I’ll give you [expletive] options, and it’s up to you to select or throw ‘em away. That should be the headline: If you’re insecure, don’t [expletive] call.”

It’s true of lots of talented people: You can be as brusque and difficult as you want if you’re delivering the goods. And Crowe kept doing just that. After Gladiator, he was once again the star of a Best Picture-winner the following year, A Beautiful Mind, a not-good film elevated by his tortured turn as troubled mathematician John Nash. Much better was 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, his stirring portrayal of Captain Jack Aubrey a throwback to the kind of sweeping, high-seas adventure yarn that, like Gladiator, had seemingly gone out of fashion. Master and Commander wasn’t a mammoth commercial success, but it’s the sort of film that the people who love it absolutely love — and it’s far superior to the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters that were just on the horizon.

But, eventually, his offscreen antics started to outpace his talent — or, put another way, those antics caused fans to reassess the baggage that came with his furrowed-brow seriousness. 

If it had happened today, the 2005 altercation in which he hit a hotel concierge with a phone might have been a career-killer. To be sure, it was bad back then, too, but it occurred during a period before social media, which would have certainly amplified the story. Crowe had arrived in New York to promote Cinderella Man, his reunion with A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, when he threw a phone at Nestor Estrada, who worked at the high-end Mercer Hotel. The reason was that he couldn’t connect with his wife and young son back in Australia, causing him to lose his cool. Crowe later blamed what happened on “the combination of jetlag, loneliness and adrenaline,” appearing on Late Show and telling David Letterman, “I’m just getting used to being a husband and a father away from home, and that’s a level of abject loneliness I’m not used to at all.” 

According to Crowe, he kept having problems with different phones at the Mercer and couldn’t get word to his family that he’d arrived in America safely, throwing the phone in anger but not intending to throw the phone at Estrada. (The actor’s publicist claimed that the phone actually hit a wall by Estrada, not Estrada himself.) Still, Crowe offered no excuses. “This is possibly the most shameful situation I’ve ever gotten myself in in my life, and I’ve done some pretty dumb things in my life,” Crowe told Letterman. “So to actually make a new number one is spectacularly stupid.” Letterman asked him if he had anger issues. “Yeah, I do,” replied Crowe, who also said during the appearance, “I’m extremely sorry for this whole incident, and I regret everything that took place.” 

Crowe was accused of second-degree assault and was handcuffed by the New York police. (He pleaded guilty to avoid jail time.) But years later, he was less conciliatory, insisting in a 2014 interview, “I never touched him, mate. Never touched him, never laid a finger on him.” At the time, Estrada had come away from the run-in with a cut over his right eye, but in that later interview, Crowe claimed that the hotel employee had hurt himself while trying to get away from the actor. As far as Crowe was concerned, Estrada had treated him rudely when he called down to the lobby to complain about his inability to reach his family: “His response was, ‘Whatever,’ and he hung up on me, so I went downstairs and had a word with him.”

No matter the specific details, the 2005 altercation threw into sharp relief Crowe’s trouble with his temper. And it wasn’t the first time he’d had a public dustup. A year earlier, he’d gotten into a fight with his bodyguard, Mark Carroll, over what was later described as a “misunderstanding” at a party. (Crowe wrote to the Sunday Herald Sun, saying, “[We] called each other a few ripe names, had a hug and got on with the job.”) In 2002, according to The Guardian, he went after a BBC producer, Malcolm Gerrie, because his BAFTA acceptance speech was trimmed for time: “[T]he bearded star pinned the TV producer against a wall, launched into a verbal tirade and declared that Gerrie would ‘never work in Hollywood.’” (Crowe later apologized, saying his behavior was “inappropriate” and “overbearing.”) A month later, South Park mocked the star’s violent disposition, casting him in an imaginary show called Fightin’ Around the World With Russell Crowe, where he goes around decking people. 

Then there was the war of words Crowe tried initiating in 2005 when he declared in a GQ interview, “I don’t use my celebrity to make a living. I don’t do ads for suits in Spain like George Clooney or cigarettes in Japan like Harrison Ford. And on one level, people go, ‘Well, more fault to you, mate, because there’s free money to be handed out.’ But to me it’s kind of sacrilegious — it’s a complete contradiction of the fucking social contract you have with your audience. I mean, Robert De Niro’s advertising American Express. Gee whiz, it’s not the first time he’s disappointed me. It’s been happening for a while now.” (Clooney reached out to Crowe to clear the air, prompting Crowe to apologize by sending Clooney a book of poetry. Still, even in 2020, Clooney seemed miffed: “Just out of the blue, he’s like, ‘I’m not some sellout like Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford and George Clooney.’ I’m like, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’”)

There’s a strain of artistic integrity that’s heavily connected to a certain kind of rugged masculinity. It’s an adoration of a tough-guy mentality, a belief that true genius can only be achieved through physical exertion, turning the act of creative expression into a no-pain/no-gain gut test. Crowe’s brute-force approach to moviemaking — highlighted by a rumor that he threatened to kill a producer on Gladiator if the man didn’t give Crowe’s assistants a raise — might have impressed some people, but that kind of aggressive antagonism can get old fast. And especially after Crowe’s phone incident, it seemed that the culture started viewing him differently, no longer willing to humor his temperamental tendencies. 

It also didn’t help that, a year later, he starred in A Good Year, which saw him working again with Gladiator director Ridley Scott for a would-be grownup romantic comedy that failed to impress critics or audiences. It was Crowe’s first outright stinker during his meteoric rise, taking the shine off his star. He no longer seemed invulnerable — he just seemed like one more sullen actor too enraptured by his own somber dedication to his muse. 

Crowe did strong work afterward — I’m quite partial to his villainous Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma and dogged journalist Cal McAffrey in State of Play — but what once seemed so gripping about his tempestuous performances started to descend into a grumpy, bland fussiness. Films like Body of Lies and Robin Hood, both directed by Ridley Scott, were dull star vehicles, followed by The Next Three Days and Broken City, utterly forgettable. 

But the real sin of that period was Les Misérables, in which he played Inspector Javert, prompting the internet to gleefully dunk on his singing skills. For the record, I don’t think he’s terrible in that musical, but he seemed less confident than his co-stars, even though Crowe had recorded and toured with his band Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts for years. “Music’s always been a huge part of my life, and my first record came out in 1981,” Crowe said around the film’s release. “But what I’ve been doing for quite a while now is just writing songs. My last major tour was back in 2006, so when this movie came up I wasn’t really prepared. There was a lot of work involved in reclaiming the voice I once had when I was younger.” 

For an actor who’s always prided himself on his focus and control, Crowe’s performance felt underdeveloped, uncertain. But that vulnerability didn’t add pathos to the character — Crowe just seemed out of his depth.

Since 2014, his profile hasn’t been as high. That year’s Noah was a hit, but other movies from the time — The Water Diviner (which was also his directorial debut) and Fathers and Daughters — were barely noticed in America. (The Water Diviner did win Best Film at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.) He teamed up with Ryan Gosling to show off his comedic side in the darkly comic buddy-cop film The Nice Guys, which failed to find the audience it deserved. 

And then, either because of the industry or his own inclinations, he just stopped starring in movies. Which isn’t to say he stopped being in movies. But he started favoring supporting parts, signing up to play Jor-El in Man of Steel, taking on the role that Marlon Brando had essayed in the Christopher Reeve films. In Boy Erased, he was quite good as a bigoted preacher father who forces his gay son (Lucas Hedges) to undergo conversion therapy. He was ominous in True History of the Kelly Gang, very silly in The Mummy. (He also portrayed Roger Ailes in the 2019 Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice.) In each case, he just seemed to be enjoying himself, not worrying about carrying a movie and instead letting younger stars shoulder that load. For once, he was a little more relaxed, wearing his stardom lightly rather than as a crown of thorns. 

And when he did take the lead in recent years, it was in the thoroughly trashy B-movie Unhinged, in which he played a disturbed driver suffering from a nasty case of road rage who goes after single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius). He had a blast being so bad. “When I was younger and I was first doing lead roles and feature films, I spent a lot of extra time constructing the knowledge I had of a particular person or trying to live the life of that person,” he said around Unhinged’s release. “As you move with any job that you have a passion for, the more you do it, the more refined you’re going to be at how you get to the point of doing your gig. So, I didn’t have to agonize over this too much.” 

Crowe made the guy unknowable, his anger volcanic and frightening. And it was awfully tempting to see the performance as a meta-commentary on his own fiery reputation — one that he hasn’t entirely shed as he’s gotten older. (Indeed, in 2018 he supposedly “stormed off set” during the filming of True History of the Kelly Gang because the caterers had run out of rice. Even more troubling, a year earlier, Azealia Banks accused him of spitting on her, using a racial epithet and attacking her at an event, although some witnesses said it was actually Banks who had attacked Crowe.) Unhinged wasn’t good at all, but it was fascinating for how revealing the performance appeared to be: It felt like Crowe was owning up to an ugly aspect of himself. Or, at the very least, he was having a chuckle at his own expense.

That Crowe seemed to be leaning into his stormy reputation suggested some self-awareness, part of a larger recent shift toward mocking his air of seriousness, a move highlighted by his 2018 “Divorce Auction,” in which he sold off a bunch of his personal memorabilia after splitting with his second wife, the money going to charity. (The auction collected $3.7 million.) The gesture, as well as his general jocular tone on Twitter, made him seem warmer than when he was starting out, back when he was a little quicker to headbutt life. It was an encouraging sight.

“I guess I am one of those people that people like to point the finger at,” Crowe once said about the public’s perception of him. “It’s very easy to put different hats on me. I don’t care about that either way, but I do care about [it] in terms of how it affects my kids.” 

At a time when a more overt masculinity isn’t so much in fashion — when modern men are praised for sensitivity and vulnerability — Russell Crowe feels beamed in from an earlier era. Which isn’t to say that he’s not sensitive and vulnerable — one of his great skills is playing hardened men who find a capacity for compassion — but his bare-knuckled demeanor used to be something that was far more widely embraced in our culture. Being difficult, being combative was how you showed just how much you’d give to your art — anybody who wasn’t willing to go to such extremes clearly didn’t care enough.

Maybe that’s why these recent years have been so heartening. Crowe obviously still cares, but the tenderness in his portrayal of Jor-El — or the steely terror in his turn as Harry Power in True History of the Kelly Gang — possesses an effortlessness that feels new for him. It’s a good look for an actor who’s learning how to ease up a little. His peak is over, but that doesn’t mean his best years are behind him — far from it. But the idea of him being the ultra-intense, brawling actor’s actor of his earlier career, that he should let go of. After all, it was never that stuff that made him remarkable. It was always the talent.