Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #13 - Russell Crowe

photo by Danrok


 Man of Steel
 Les Misérables
 American Gangster
 3:10 to Yuma
 Cinderella Man
 A Beautiful Mind
 The Insider
 L.A. Confidential
The Quick and the Dead

I feel like I discovered Russell Crowe.  I remember my father dragged me kicking and screaming to see the movie The Quick and the Dead.  I mean, who wants to see a Sharon Stone western?  But that was where I first saw this unknown Aussie actor.  I was transfixed by him.  It wasn't just that his story was more interesting than the main character's, it was that Crowe's performance was beautifully understated.  He played a man named Cort who had a violent past but was now a priest trying to atone.  And yet that dark side of his nature was always bubbling right below the surface.  You could feel the itching in his hands for violence (this was helped by Sam Raimi's wonderful direction).  But I was fascinated by this man who was trying to live virtuously when he desired so much vice.

He continued the "tough guy" regimen with LA Confidential.  He held his own well against other great actors like Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey.  But unlike them, he much of his character was buried under a stoic facade.  But he does a powerful break towards the end.  When he finally commits a sin that he detests in others, the anguish in his eyes is heartbreaking.  And yet even with this vulnerability, he was still terrifying in his rage.

Both of the above roles illustrate Crowe's knack for playing complicated characters.  Even though he can play people of paternal virtue (Jor-El in Man of Steel), he still adds layers to each performance, usually with his naturalistic style.  Even though he has gotten flack for his singing in Les Miserables (which I actually thought sounded good), he played Javert much more lost an vulnerable than I have ever seen on screen or stage.  He was a man and soldier in the way a child imagines a man and soldier to be.  You can hear that naivitee in his rendition of "Stars."

He is often remanded to "tough guy" parts, but Crowe has the chameleon's ability to disappear into a role.  I love his risky take on Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider.  He plays a man with almost no charisma and very little social skills.  The story does very little to endear you to Wigand, a whistle blowing scientist.  And Crowe never opens himself up in a simplistic way.  He keeps the characters tough outer shell the entire film, but Crowe quietly grows in your esteem by playing this stubborn man with a sense of righteous dedication that runs underneath his coarse exterior.

All this talk of subtlety and stoicism does not mean that Crowe cannot reach incredible emotional depths.  His Oscar winning performance in Gladiator is proof of that.  Most remember the overwhelming charisma of his Maximus, who exudes leadership with every look and gesture.  Notice that nearly 30 minutes of the 2nd act, he never says a word.  And yet the audience completely believes that others would be drawn to him and lavish him with respect.  But the first act ends with such a horrifically emotional scene where he finds his murdered wife and child.  One of the things that makes that moment so strong is that not only do we see his manly shell crack, but the agony of the moment rings so true to his performance.  We see on his face and hear in his voice that secret inner fear we all have come to light and the shattering experience is reflected in his performance.

His John Nash in A Beautiful Mind is also a fantastically layered performance.  There nuances on top of nuances, but Crowe is not doing it to be showy.  All of his words and gestures come from a place of truth.  We feel for this complicated genius while he frustrates us.  People often focus on his portrayal of mental illness, which is fascinating to behold.  But the story is actually not about the breakdown of Nash's mind but the awakening of his heart.  And Crowe shows how this character "with half a helping of heart" has to move from his comfortable ivory tower to a place where is totally vulnerable.  I love the scene where he sits on the bed, asking his wife to not send him away.  He is totally powerless in this scene.  Watch his performance, especially in his eyes, as he hears the car leave, and then he hears the footsteps on the stairs.  Crowe shows you so much with so little.

Crowe is a very physical actor who can play the strong, action oriented leads of an epic film.  But he also has great inner control over his emotional reality so that he can move you with the simplest expression.

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