In the hood
Russell Crowe strides into your local cineplex this week as perhaps the dourest and burliest big-screen Robin Hood yet. Of course, he's not the first Antipodean to play the legendary English outlaw, but there's a world of difference between Errol Flynn's dashing performance in the 1938 Michael Curtiz classic and Crowe's sturm und drang portrayal here.
Flynn's Hood had bright green tights, a perfect smile and was morally unambiguous. But if there were no shades in the 1938 Robin Hood, in Ridley Scott's 2010 version there's nothing but.
Russell Crowe's Robin returns from the Crusades impersonating a dead knight and carrying a stash of stolen swag. Early in the film he admits to having taken part in a spot of ethnic cleansing out east, and his glowering mood is scarcely improved by the sight of a handsome widow called Lady Marian. He doesn't even wear tights, for God's sake, and only takes to the woods with his not-so-merry men at the end of a film that is clearly intended to spawn at least one sequel.
In many ways the Scott/Crowe Robin Hood is an attempt to reprise the mood and success of their 2000 blockbuster Gladiator, and the characters of Robin and Maximus have more than a little in common. And while in terms of quality the two films don't bear much comparison, Crowe is compelling as ever as the arrow-happy outlaw.
In Gladiator, Crowe proved that -- perhaps alone among the modern screen actors -- he has the charisma and star quality necessary to make a historical epic work. He also embarked on what's been a remarkably fruitful relationship with veteran English film-maker Ridley Scott (see panel), one of the few directors who actually seems to enjoy working with Crowe.
The actor's mercurial temper and intolerance of fools is well known, and in many ways Robin Hood is the perfect role for a performer whose unpredictable behaviour and intemperate outbursts have made him something of an outsider in Hollywood, a place for which he has never hidden his contempt. "I'd move to Los Angeles," he has said, "if Australia and New Zealand were swallowed up by a huge tidal wave, if there was a bubonic plague in Europe, and if the continent of Africa disappeared in some Martian attack."
No love lost there then, but there's a sense in which Crowe and Hollywood need each other. And in an age where film stars in the main are deadly dull health freaks who go to bed early and spend most of their time pretending to be charitable, Russell Ira Crowe is a lone iconoclast whose behaviour harks back to a time when movie folk were larger than life and rules were for the little people. And you could also argue that he's been demonised by the tabloid press for refusing to play the celebrity game.
After plying his trade for a time in Australian television (he appeared in several episodes of Neighbours), the New Zealand-born Crowe won wide praise for his portrayal of a neo-Nazi Melbourne skinhead in the 1992 film Romper Stomper. That got him noticed in Hollywood, but crucially he was 30 by the time he made his first US film, set in his ways and unwilling to suddenly become an American.
He stole the show from the likes of Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman in the 1995 neo-spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead (1995), and followed it up with an interesting turn as a serial killer in the thriller Virtuosity (1995). But it was Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential that made him a star.
There were several better-known actors than Crowe in Hanson's stylish 1997 adaptation of a James Ellroy novel, including Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey, but it was his portrayal of sociopathic cop Bud White that stuck in most people's minds. The actor was quick to capitalise on the film's success and, over the next six years, he cemented his star status by appearing in a series of highly acclaimed films that earned him three Best Actor Oscar nominations and one win.
In The Insider (1999), Gladiator (2000), Proof of Life (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Master and Commander (2003) he proved he could do drama as well as action, and became perhaps the most sought-after film actor in the world.
But Russell didn't just lie back and purr gratefully on foot of all this success. From the very start, he shunned Hollywood and the limelight as much as possible (he lives with his wife and kids on a ranch some seven hours' drive from Sydney), and had the eccentric notion that he was still entitled to a private life. This plan, however, might have worked better if he wasn't prone to the odd temperamental outburst.
Like his Robin Hood predecessor Errol Flynn, Crowe isn't adverse to a spot of fisticuffs, and his involvement in a dust up at a hotel bar near his home in Coffs Harbour in 1999 landed him on the front of the Australian papers. And he hit the British headlines in 2002 after an apparent brawl outside a Japanese restaurant in London. That, however, was nothing compared to an incident at the 2002 BAFTA Awards.
Having won Best Actor for A Beautiful Mind, Crowe was so upset that BBC producer Malcolm Gerrie had cut his acceptance speech that he allegedly pushed Gerrie against a wall and reportedly said: "Who on earth had the ... audacity to take out the best actor's poem? I'll make sure you never work in Hollywood." It sounds pretty bad, until you realise the the 'poem' in question was a heartfelt tribute to his friend and kindred spirit Richard Harris, who was terminally ill at the time.
But Crowe himself would admit there were no such mitigating circumstances in a 2005 New York hotel room incident involving him, a telephone and an unfortunate member of staff. When a concierge at the Mercer Hotel refused to place a call for Crowe the actor threw a phone at him, causing a facial laceration. He was arrested by the NYPD and subsequently charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (that being the telephone). But to Crowe's credit he was quick to describe the incident as "possibly the most shameful situation that I've ever gotten myself in". A handsome settlement ended the affair.
Crowe has not gone out of his way to pay court to the great and good of Hollywood either. He's been outspoken in his contempt for ostentatious charity stunts (Crowe himself is extremely charitable, but likes to keep it quiet), and has criticised such luminaries as George Clooney and Robert DeNiro for involving themselves in unseemly ad campaigns. Indeed, the actor seems to have a knack for making enemies, but through it all one man has stayed close to him -- Ridley Scott.
This despite what sounds like a fairly rocky start on Gladiator. In a new book on the DreamWorks studio, author Nicole LaPorte claims that Crowe had a run-in with Scott over perhaps the film's most famous quote. Apparently Russell was not impressed with the film's climactic line, "I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next", and decided to improvise his own instead.
After many unsuccessful takes, he was persuaded to return to Scott's original line, but reportedly did not do so graciously. The line, he told the director, "was shit -- but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even shit sound good". LaPorte also claims Crowe threatened to kill an elderly Jewish producer "with my bare hands", but none of this has shaken Scott's faith in his leading man.
Since 2000 they've made four more films together, including one extremely good one (American Gangster), and even as we speak are planning to work together again. In a recent interview, Scott gave a hint as to why this screen partnership is proving so successful.
"Russell and I are very similar," he said. "He's angry all the time and I'm angry all the time as well. We don't mean to be irritable, but we don't suffer fools gladly." In Crowe's case, you can say that again.