On the 7th of April, Russell Ira Crowe turned 50. One of Hollywood’s true leading men at a time when their ranks are swiftly thinning, the career of the New Zealand-born actor has been fascinating because Crowe has the powerful inclinations and bearing of a mid-20th century classical British screen star (his voice is one of his great assets, at least when he speaks) combined with a roiling emotional openness befitting the 1970s American method actors; few Hollywood movie stars have been such gifted dramatic players. From a sizable career, dominated by A-list filmmakers, here are 10 memorable Russell Crowe roles.
Hando in Romper Stomper (1992, Geoffrey Wright)
There had been television guest spots and even Jocelyn Moorhouse’s fine feature Proof the year prior, but Crowe effectively announced himself at home and abroad with a fearfully compelling performance as the leader of a Neo-Nazi skinhead gang literally targeting multicultural Australia in inner-city Melbourne. Hando was a charismatic despot, ruling his pack like a fiefdom while dispensing largesse and quoting Mein Kampf, and his rage was never greater than when he lost his lieutenant (Daniel Pollock) to a female interloper (Jacqueline McKenzie). By the closing credits Russell Crowe was a movie star.
Wendell ‘Bud’ White in L.A. Confidential (1998, Curtis Hanson)
The next step up: Curtis Hanson took the vivid, staccato prose of James Ellroy and made it into a cracking film about the pervasiveness of corruption and how the search for truth invariably leads the inquisitor into temptation. Crowe’s ‘Bud’ White is a two-fisted 1940s Los Angeles police officer whose capacity for violence is a weapon waiting to be used, but opposite Kevin Spacey’s judicious fixer and Guy Pearce’s ambitious operator Crowe reveals a man no longer sure of what he does, who surrenders to Kim Basinger’s spectral escort.
Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999, Michael Mann)
Michael Mann transformed Crowe, taking a bruiser and recasting him as a 40something scientific researcher who feels slighted and underappreciated, a man struggling to hold onto his family after he falls into conflict with the American tobacco giant that once employed him. Greying and paunchy, Wigand is a tenuous human half in this real life tale, linked to Al Pacino’s investigative television producer Lowell Bergman, where the flow and control of information persistently eclipses the individuals involved. The scenes between the pair are charged, slowly revealing a deep empathy between the characters.
Maximus in Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)
The fearsome stare, the unyielding belief, and the declamatory dialogue – “at my signal, unleash Hell”, “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next” – provided the emotional compass that Ridley Scott’s digital effects-heavy update of the sword and sandals epic required. As the betrayed Roman commander who rises through the gladiatorial ranks purely to reach Rome and obtain revenge, Crowe projected righteous ancient fantasy in a way that contemporaries (such as Brad Pitt in Troy) couldn’t.
John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
And less than a year later he was John Nash, a gifted 1940s mathematician whose struggle is not with his field of expertise but rather schizophrenia. Prey to hallucinations that offers him a best friend as well as a case officer for his code-breaking and paranoia, Nash is bereft of Crowe’s usual broad chest and formidable self-assurance. He’s haunted by the belief that his brain is both his gift and his downfall, and it’s notable how well Jennifer Connelly matches her sympathy to Crowe’s cracked psyche (she does the same in Noah). Watch his face in the final “pens” scene: the whole film is there.
Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Peter Weir)
At a point in his career when he could have got nearly anything made by agreeing to be in it, Crowe chose exceptionally well with Peter Weir’s masterful adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved series of books about the friendship between a British naval captain (Crowe’s Jack Aubrey) and his ship’s doctor (Paul Bettany’s Stephen Maturin) during the Napoleonic Wars. The film took over US$210 million worldwide – which meant it basically broke even – and Weir elicited a warm, full-bodied performance from Crowe that didn’t pander to contemporary concerns while showing the fine line between comradeship and authority.
Max Skinner in A Good Year (2006, Ridley Scott)
A misfire, both from Crowe and director Scott, that probably put an end to the idea of Crowe stepping significantly outside his dramatic range. He plays Max Skinner, a rapacious London stock trader who finds himself back at his late uncle’s Provence vineyard, where he spent the best parts of his childhood. The change of pace, language and peers – most notably Marion Cotillard’s Fanny – is played with gentle humour that Crowe can’t quite make shine. Nearly every review complemented the French landscapes, which tells you all you need to know about the movie itself.
Richie Roberts in American Gangster (2007, Ridley Scott)
One of Crowe’s strengths has been a willingness to share the screen: last year’s Man of Steel was never better than when his Kryptonian supporting role was in session, while in this Harlem period crime drama he’s the dogged foil to Denzel Washington’s narcotics kingpin, Frank Lucas. Scott’s film was a little broad and familiar at times, but Crowe was able to show the cost of being straight in a crooked milieu before an interrogation scene put the two leads together in an effective back and forth.
John Brennan in The Next Three Days (2010, Paul Haggis)
This underrated drama, an effective procedural with a steady moral heartbeat, is noteworthy for Crowe playing an ordinary man who struggles to do the extraordinary things required to free his wife from prison; the human element is never subsumed by the tight plotting. It was only the fourth feature Paul Haggis had directed (2004’s Crash was the second), and it’s worth asking if Crowe could have diversified the directors he collaborated with. There have been five Ridley Scott movies, but only one feature debutante (bizarrely, hip-hop luminary RZA for 2012’s martial arts mash-up The Man with the Iron Fists) and not a single female director in almost two decades.
Noah in Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)
If Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker whose abiding obsession is obsession itself, then he found the perfect lead for his reimagining of the Biblical epic. Crowe’s Noah is not a savior figure, he is the man who upon the orders of The Creator will preside over the end of humanity when the planet is scoured by floods. The weight of this task illuminates Crowe’s soulfulness in every scene, and you can see how the responsibility turns a devout man of faith into a zealot willing to sacrifice his own family.
(Pictured credit, top: Larry Busacca, Getty)