- The Weekend Australian
Tough act to follow - By Peter Craven
Russell Crowe the greatest actor of his generation? Peter Craven considers
THERE'S no doubt that Russell Crowe is a huge star as well as a serious actor.
Gladiator director Ridley Scott has described him as the best actor of his generation,
a star who dominates Hollywood by the sheer energy and power of his histrionic
So is he the Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro of his day, a great actor who defines
his time and against whom others will be measured?
Recently London's Old Vic theatre -- now managed by another contender for the
mantle of greatness, Kevin Spacey -- released a poll ranking the best British
actors of all time. Anthony Hopkins was the top male, just ahead of Laurence
Olivier; Judi Dench was top dame, with the remarkable Maggie Smith in fourth
Names such as those give some perspective to Crowe's relatively recent success.
The film in which he first looked like a looming presence in Hollywood was Curtis
Hanson's L. A. Confidential in 1997, still one of his best. It featured a brilliant
ensemble cast, including fellow Australian Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell
and Spacey, and an elaborate James Ellroy plot. Hardly a one-man show.
Crowe comes across as a formidable tough guy in the Humphrey Bogart-Lee Marvin-Steve
McQueen mode, but the man with the halo round him -- the one who makes you exclaim:
``That fellow can act!'' -- is Spacey as the media-savvy cop with the soft voice
that's got a lot of cello in it and that he can make suave or creepy.
This was when Spacey was leaving his calling card in a series of films in which
he often had a smaller role. Remember The Usual Suspects and how he dominated
the last movement of the 1995 Brad Pitt thriller Se7en? He went on to win an
Oscar for his performance in American Beauty (1999). As actor-manager of the
revived Old Vic, his next role will be RichardII. There's a sense with Spacey
of what he can do with Hollywood, whereas with Crowe it's a matter of what Hollywood
can do with him.
And if we're gauging Crowe's claim to be an actor who is more than a star, wouldn't
we have to put him up against the likes of John Malkovich and Sean Penn?
Penn is extraordinary in a film such as Hurlyburly, and in everything from Mystic
River to 21 Grams he looks like an actor of absolute seriousness and authenticity.
As well as Gladiator and Master and Commander, Crowe has given us virtuoso performances
in Michael Mann's The Insider and Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, both of which
won him Oscar nominations. Those films involved playing middle-aged, unathletic
Americans and both are superb performances in large-scale, mass-appeal dramas.
They show Crowe is an actor who potentially can do anything.
But is he great? There's a difference between an actor who radiates a belief
in his greatness and great acting.
It was clear from the outset that he is an extensively equipped actor. Consider
his skinhead leader in Romper Stomper. The performance throbbed with life; it
was so eloquent, so physically and vocally dangerous that it made you think what
a HenryV he would make. Perhaps the flaw in the performance was that Crowe was
already playing Henry V. His street thug was so steeped in histrionic glamour
that he was not entirely believable as the ugly character he was supposed to
That's part of the trick with real acting: not to look too good. A star is someone
who looks good and is loved for how good he looks. A great actor is someone who
transcends that or transfigures it.
Burt Lancaster and Dirk Bogarde were stars long before they worked with the great
Italian director Luchino Visconti, but who could have predicted their respective
performances in The Leopard and Death in Venice on the basis of their earlier
Crowe needs to remember that commercial success is not the same thing as artistic
achievement. Malkovich was not thinking of being a household name when he played
Charlus in Raoul Ruiz's film of Proust's Time Regained. Great acting is about
truth, it's not about looking beautiful.
Think of Brando, the undisputed greatest American actor of his generation. Think
of the brutality of his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, a vitality
so visceral and intense that it provoked Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, a naturally
beautiful actor, into the performance of her life. Think of the iconoclastic
roughness -- like a union leader with a mob -- of his ``Friends, Romans, countrymen''
as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Or the dark depth of feeling in the face of
every indignity and self-exposure he achieves in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango
in Paris. Or the plain power and authority, that rustle of pure ruthlessness,
of his Don Corleone in The Godfather.
But then, as Glenda Jackson once said, ``Think of what Hollywood did with Brando.''
It had the greatest actor of his time but it only occasionally cast him in films
worthy of him. John Gielgud wanted to take him back to England when he was in
his 20s to play the great classical roles, but Brando said no and his Antony
remains a poignant reminder of the classical actor he might have been.
De Niro fared better, partly because of a new wave of directors, in particular
Martin Scorsese. He was fortunate, too, to make a masterpiece with Bertolucci:
1900 (with another great actor in Gerard Depardieu).
Then there are the Scorsese-De Niro movies that are the triumphs of an actor
who is great enough to show his ugliness. The alienated crazy in Taxi Driver,
menacing himself in the mirror; the fat, dumb tragic hulk of a boxer in Raging
Bull; and, in one of the most excruciatingly great performances in cinema history,
his Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. But today De Niro sends his greatness
out to work for him. You don't need the greatest American actor since Brando
to play the father in the Meet the Parents-Meet the Fockers films.
Crowe should remember that playing the noble tough guy can be a version of trying
to look pretty. It can be a far cry from Olivier's mincing nastiness in Richard
III or his music hall comedian in The Entertainer. Or what Al Pacino made of
the evolution of Michael Corleone, let alone what he can do with the little men
Crowe has described himself as the equivalent of a very expensive car. Has he
ever thought of Olivier's case (spurning a life as a Hollywood star for the stage)
or Paul Scofield, who didn't bother to pick up his Oscar for A Man for All Seasons
but whom the British acting profession reveres as its greatest living practitioner?
Does he think what it is that drives Mel Gibson to play Hamlet with Franco Zeffirelli
or to direct films about Christ in Aramaic?
Crowe is at that point where he's the monster man they want on the billboards.
It was admirable that he wanted to film Murray Bail's novel Eucalyptus and it
was a pity that it fell through.
Of course in one respect he has been a tremendous diplomat: he refuses to speak
in anything other than his Anzac tones, except where a character has to have
an American accent. So we have an Australian-accented Gladiator and captain of
the Royal Navy circa 1800. This shows an extraordinary self-possession.
But stardom tends to be a Sunset Boulevard. Being a star is a matter of being
in fashion and fashion dates.
Crowe should remember that although great acting may piggyback on stardom, it's
a different thing. I wonder what lists he'll be on when he's 75.