An Earlier Russell Crowe: The Loving Gay Son
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
THE 1994 Australian movie "The Sum of Us" is a love story but not a
romance: it's a duet between two men, a father and a son, one straight
and one gay. It's also a window into the early work of a brawnily intuitive
actor who went on to become a huge star: Russell Crowe.
Actors don't always become stars by paying serious attention to the
way their craft develops; sometimes it's even a liability for them
to do so. But one of the pleasures of DVD's is that they offer the
chance to sift through an actor's earlier work, to connect the dots
from then to now. They also remind us that as much as we think we can
know what a performer is like off screen, thanks to television interviews
and magazine profiles, a good actor always draws from subtleties that
aren't so easy to grasp. Mr. Crowe's off-screen persona is steadfastly
macho; he's a man's man. But in "The Sum of Us," he's
just a man, plain and simple.
Mr. Crowe, relatively unknown in the United States at the time (he was already
a star in Australia, having appeared in the 1991 black comedy "Proof," among
other pictures), plays Jeff, a plumber, football fan and all-around good
guy who happens to be gay. It's an understatement to say that Jeff's dad,
Harry (Jack Thompson), a widower, accepts Jeff as he is. To Harry, Jeff's
sexual orientation is beside the point: he's first and foremost Harry's son,
deserving of all the happiness life has to offer.
Harry desperately wishes that Jeff would settle down with a nice bloke, and,
coincidentally or not, Jeff has a crush on a hunky gardener, Greg (John Polson),
whom he's met at the local bar. And Harry, after realizing that he's feeling
lonely too, begins to see Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), an attractive divorcée
he meets through that quaint and exceedingly proper channel known as an introduction
The course of true love, or even true like, never does run smooth, but the
overlapping twists and turns of Harry's and Jeff's exploits are far less
significant than the way the two men relate to each other through it all.
The hardy delicacy of their love is at the heart of "The Sum of Us" (MGM $19.99), which was directed
by Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton, from David Stevens's adaptation of his own
play. Father and son look after each other with fierce affection and loyalty;
they also drive each other crazy. The blessed relief of "The Sum of Us" is
that it's not a plea for the straight world's tolerance of gay and lesbian
sexuality; it takes off from a place where total acceptance is already a
given. It's more about the confounding contradictions of family life than
it is about the distinctions between gay and straight.
Harry and Jeff bicker and spar, grumble and grouse. Sometimes they're more like
mismatched roommates than father and son. Harry refuses to close the tap tightly,
hoping to save wear and tear on the washers; Jeff rails at Harry for wasting
water, and also notes that, as a plumber, he's supremely well qualified to replace
a washer now and then.
The exchange is something like comic opera: Harry responds by looking straight
into the camera and shrugging, with a wry expression that says "I told you this
would happen!" But later that night, when Jeff returns home with Greg, Harry
emerges from his bedroom in his bathrobe to say hello and have a beer. Harry's
affability seems like a weird intrusion, particularly when he tries, awkwardly,
to ask if Greg practices safe sex. But Mr. Thompson plays the scene with
the right mix of lightness and gravity, keying directly into the protectiveness
that almost all parents feel for their children, whether the kids are 6 or
The title "The Sum of Us" refers both to children, who are a mysterious merging
of both parents, and to the simple idea that two people, related or not, are
all you need to make a family. The two leads slip right into the movie's mood — it's
heartfelt but unsentimental — helping to steer it true.
But let's admit it: "The Sum of Us" is likely to be an object of curiosity
because it gives us a glimpse of Russell Crowe before most of us had any
idea of who he was. He now comes off as something of a down-under Marlboro
man; it's not just his body that's buffed up, it's his demeanor.
But Mr. Crowe's performance in "The Sum of Us" isn't an anomaly. If anything,
it's a reminder that good actors often start right out of the gate — they
don't improve simply as a result of getting bigger, more challenging or more
prestigious roles. And it unlocks the grand secret to Russell Crowe as an actor:
he's a sensual presence more than a strictly masculine one. That surely explains
why he's so wholly sympathetic as a troubled warrior in a miniskirt in "Gladiator" — his
machismo is a monument he's built in his own honor, but deep down, he knows
In "The Sum of Us," when Jeff takes Greg in his arms — tentatively at first,
and then more resolutely — we can almost see the air around this not-quite
couple sizzle and vibrate. And when they kiss, the soft meeting of their
lips is both tender and immediate. You can't play a character as Mr. Crowe
does here unless you understand that soft doesn't necessarily mean flaccid,
and hard doesn't necessarily mean aggressive.
As Jeff, Russell Crowe is more than just an intelligent, ineffably straight actor
who happens to be doing a pretty good job of impersonating a gay man. He's an
actor who trusts his sense of pitch implicitly, knowing that it's not what rings
his bell that's important; it's the thrum and reverberation of the ringing that
counts, because that's what makes you most wholly alive.
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for the online magazine Salon.