Russell Crowe’s status shrinks each month. Though thought by almost everyone a fine actor and by some – particularly me – the best male actor in the English-speaking cinema (I have no way of judging the Russian or Polish cinema), he is derided, resented, smeared and, in Helen Garner’s case, belittled for causes which a hundred years from now will seem very puzzling.
He threw a phone at a hotel clerk after trying to phone his wife and baby son from a room then costing him $4,500 a night. He closed down a movie whose naive teenage central character was fat-headedly changed to a thirty-seven-year-old divorcee still cravenly obedient to the wishes of her daft father, citing ‘creative differences’ and putting a lot of people out of work. He cursed and grappled backstage with a television director who erased from a public speech of his a poem dedicated to his friend Richard Harris from whose boozy Irish funeral he had just come. He stole Meg Ryan from Dennis Quaid then left her for his old love Danielle Spencer, co-star of his first movie, wed her and upon her begot, with some fanfare, a healthy child. He punched his bodyguard, and some hoons in a Coffs Harbour pub. He sang in a band that some thought inferior songs that some thought indifferent, hitting all the notes, as he did, in a pleasing Howard Keel baritone, in a rock clip duet with Chrissie Hynde.
And…he demanded script changes in two movies, LA Confidential and Gladiator, that were, in spite or because of his impertinent interference vast worldwide successes. Never, to the best of my knowledge, did any of his films go a year over schedule because of his tantrums (as did, for instance, two of Marlon Brando’s films), or even a month, or a day.
What then is the fuss all about? Was Frank Sinatra, say, who regularly punched reporters, threatened producers, consorted with murderers, humiliated Marilyn Monroe and fixed up whores for John F. Kennedy, by any known measure a better role model? Was the finicky pederast Charles Chaplin, two of whose movies were five fiddly years in the making? Was Warren Beattie, with his bevy of casting couch women and bombastic Presidential longings, or Jack Nicholson with his cocaine orgies, sudden unexplained absences and goofy sadistic behaviour on several Oscar nights? Any reasonable observer would say not. And any conspiracy buff worth his salt would at least consider that somebody was out to get Russell Crowe.
The tobacco industry, for instance, might be after his film The Insider set in train a series of lung cancer lawsuits that may in due course bankrupt and imprison a good few of them. Did they perhaps send out agents in vengeance to hound him, bribing ‘victims’ and bystanders to testify against him, delve into his peccadillos? I would in their shoes. Or the Hollywood agent of a rival star, perhaps, keen to swell his client’s status by shrivelling Crowe’s, like the shrewd, lewd agent who spread the story of Richard Gere, the condom and the gerbil? Or a studio head that Crowe, at a party, once insulted for his right-wing politics? It’s possible.
For one way and another Crowe is doing things in politics and public advocacy that some powerful people want stopped. Did Cinderella Man’s pugnacious joust with American capitalism, and what it did to ordinary working stiffs in the Depression, speed its critical mugging and consequent commercial massacre? It’s possible. When one sees reports that his phone-throwing could get him seven years in gaol – twice what Alan Bond got for stealing a billion dollars – one has to consider the likelihood that the fix is in.
My own dealings with Russell Crowe, mind you, have not been of the friendliest: I wrote for him to direct a screenplay he eventually sacked me from, and thus far despite many rewrites and reschedulings hasn’t made. But I’ve known him slightly for fourteen years, have drunk with him all night only once and have come to a view of him, as man, citizen, singer, co-writer, script editor and actor that contrasts fractiously with that of Helen Garner, who doesn’t know him at all.
Now Garner is a fine, very fine author and critic whose books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation I praised on television not least because they shamed the current fervid feminist correctness of the educated Left and wrestled it into some human perspective. But her Crowe piece shows that she, too, can be shallow, dismissive, ignorant, fashion-fardled, proud and prejudiced as the dimmest blithering lady columnist, and it’s a pity.
Does she really, for instance, remember no more of Crowe in Romper Stomper than a violent fuck? Did she somehow miss a majestic, simmering, Euripidean performance as good as Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or Burton in Look Back In Anger? Does she remember no more of A Beautiful Mind than ‘I felt manipulated. I think I cried’? Did she really, really, I kid you not, miss Gladiator (‘just lazy’) and The Insider (‘don’t know why’) altogether? If I were writing a piece on the art of Laurence Olivier and breezily boasted of missing Hamlet and Richard III I might, just might be judged as big a fool as she.
For in Gladiator Crowe, easily outclassing Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Richard Burton in The Robe, Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, Yul Brynner in Solomon and Sheba, Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice and Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, somehow inhabited and made known to us, known to us inwardly, the world of bloodstained Roman warrior-honour, death-daring fealty to the emperor and the shadow-world of the afterlife as no actor so cast had previously. To play it, he took off the three stone he put on for The Insider and feverishly body-building and swordfighting became the first Hollywood gladiator to flex, as one producer put it, ‘arms big enough to look okay in a Colosseum.’ And to play with such conviction, amid such daily physical injury, a good man who is also a serial slaughterer of lesser men and still win our sympathy in these weak, piping, pacifist times is achievement indeed.
Even more remarkable, though less massively honoured, was what he did in A Beautiful Mind. This was not only to play a man in his teens and his twenties, then thickening and coarsening his waist and face a bit, his thirties, his forties and his hunched, regretful, pensive seventies, but to play him sane, mad, medicated, relapsed, in denial, in withdrawal, homicidal, remorseful, wasted, triumphant and sad. In one scene he is fighting off a schizophrenic episode while greeting old friends and joking with them about his schizophrenia while simultaneously battling its onset, a quadruple-masked display of twitches and sudden revisions unprecedented in cinema. If there is a better acted scene of doubt and inward struggle (in all the screen versions of Hamlet for instance) I want to know what it is.
Garner, the fool, saw Gladiator and Master and Commander on the small screen, which is a good bit like not seeing them at all: the Colosseum roar around you, the cannon blast behind your shoulder, the sea-spray in your face were not for her, she had better things to experience in the five or six months they each were available to her.
She quite likes Master and Commander though, even Russell’s violin playing; ‘this was the first time I’d liked him,’ she regally allows. She didn’t admit the exactitude with which he impersoned, and somehow made flesh and bone, a man whom other men would follow round the Horn and through the very gates of Death while simultaneously knowing his quest was immoderate, deluded, foolish, that he was possibly killing them all for no sufficient reason. That charm, that quietude, that ocean-gazing authority, that melting of the mutinous impulse in a single authoritative glance, that – let’s use the battered noun – charisma, he gets with few words (‘Carry on, Mr Lamb’) and an attitude that, when so placed, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson in their various Bounty voyages never came near. Crowe always gives us men of honour from systems of honour that are not our own. Cinderella Man is another such, a working class man who gives back the dole.
In this film and in others too (in particular The Sum of Us, in which he plays a naive teenage homosexual) he gives us what few actors, and no American actors, can do any more, and that is innocence, or rather that valid innocence (in John Hepworth’s phrase) that infused many men in the 30s and 40s of last century. Noting it in LA Confidential I once asked him, ‘It was Bob Mitchum you were playing, wasn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, mate, Sterling Hayden. Sterling Hayden was the best.’ With exactitude of this behavioural precision, with trans-generational channelling of this order, it is hard for me, if not for Garner, to find fault.
Why is he unique? This 1940s quality offers a clue. He gives, I believe, black-and-white performances on colour film. Such is his precision, his pared-down minimality (we hardly notice, for instance, from role to role his change of accent, his change of body shape, his change of stance and look, so thoroughly does he inhabit his characters), that what you get is a spiritual experience in a way that few screen actors (Laughton is one, De Niro another, Paul Scofield a third) ever give.
Grudgingly, and I think a little snootily, Garner at last admits that The Insider is a good film and gamely asserts that Crowe’s offstage buffoonery (what offstage buffoonery?) should not overshadow hereafter his art. That his is great art and the best art, or nearly, of these past eighty years of English-speaking sound cinema she does not even venture near the beginnings of saying. Her article – blithe, smug, self-touting, dismissive, jokey, trivial, tossed off – adds to the injustice done to an in-depth performer who, like Depardieu and Smoktunovsky, has in his language-group and medium no peer. And her flippant sneers have made less likely a Crowe Coriolanus or Odysseus or Macbeth or Von Braun or Fred Hollows or Johnny Cash or Nye Bevan or Willi Brandt or Willie Loman or Brutus that we may now never see. Like Lazlo Toth she attacks without reason, restraint or precision a work, and a monument, that was fine, very fine, without her. And her kind.