Many years ago, I happened to be reading a trashy showbiz rag when I noticed a photo spread of two poor, struggling, raggedy young actors. One of them was blinking at the camera as though he'd never seen one before. Maybe he hadn't. He was strikingly called Jude Law, a cool name like two bold calligraphic slashes. The other unknown actor suffered under a dumpy, commonplace, plumber's-mate kind of name: Russell Crowe. God, you had to feel sorry for the guy. Who would ever remember that? The caption underneath the two grainy pictures asked: WHO IS THE HOTTEST? I took a close look, and then I thought: Are you freaking kidding me?
Here we had young Jude Law, with flossy gold hair and lips like a Southern belle. I don't want to be mean, and it's not his fault, but Jude Law looks like a girl. He always has. These days he looks like an older girl.
And over here we had the strapping young Aussie/New Zealand buck Russell Crowe: laughing at the camera as though he didn't even care that he was obscure. His chestnut curls were in manly disarray, but what counted, then and later, is that he's got something extra in his face. Maybe it's the blood of his Maori great-grandparent, maybe plentiful pints of gleaming beer, or a brain lobe he'd shaken loose with all his thrashing and head-banging in his youthful band. There's a liveliness in his eye.
Crowe's rise to stardom and his filmography are well-known. I'll focus instead on the tribulations of his faithful fans, including me. It's not all peaches and cream, being a Russell faniac. Because the good news is that the man literally breathes talent and fearlessness and a robust appetite for life out of his pores. But the bad news is that if he can get his tit caught in a wringer in public, he will.
There was the time during the BAFTA awards that a producer edited out Russell's recital of a sonnet in his acceptance speech. Russell furiously threatened the man: "You'll never work in Hollywood again!" Doubtless the producer would have wet himself in fear, except that he was an Englishman who'd never worked in Hollywood, and never wanted to. This incident probably cost Crowe the Best Actor Oscar for A BRILLIANT MIND (2001).
Next Russell was vilified in the press when he bounced a phone off a desk clerk's head. Russell was in a New York hotel, lonely, passionately missing his wife and baby Crowe, and the goddamn phone wouldn't work. WE understood perfectly, but the police led him away in handcuffs. Not every actor can rise above handcuffs, but Russell was unfazed. He looked as though he was planning what to have for lunch. Eventually there was a settlement with the desk clerk, well in excess of $100,000. A few more customer complaints like that, and the guy could retire to Palm Beach. "In Australia, we would have settled it over a beer," said Russell.
Then there was the interview I saw, where the newslady was scolding Russell for being on a different continent when his wife Danielle gave birth to their second child. "Oh," he said with a sunny smile, "it will make her happy to get back in shape so she can be Magic Girl for me when we see each other again."
Whoa! In America, for some reason, a guy isn't considered a good father unless he's not only present in the delivery room, but practically has his nose up the birth canal urging on the crowning baby while simultaneously capturing professional-style footage on his video camera. So Russell's remark enraged the Birth Fascists. They thought he was commanding Danielle to lose the lard so he wouldn't be repulsed by her balloon bazooms and gross baby fat when he finally wandered in. But WE knew that both Russell and Danielle were gym rats, and this was probably her wish more than his. And if they hoped to be Magic Boy and Magic Girl together, with a newborn and a toddler, well, good luck with that!
Personally I believe that Russell's true character is within shouting distance of his most famous role, the noble but gentle warrior Maximus Decimus Meridius in GLADIATOR. Maximus is brave, but also wise and tender. And if one dropdead gorgeous killing machine is called for, he is the man for the job. In fact, a geneticist might think that Maximus should be allowed to father all the babies in the world. But there is one tiny, tiny hitch in his behavior in GLADIATOR that troubled this faniac and, for awhile, made me lose faith in my Maximus. (I first worried about this in my October 12 post, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??)
We're all familiar with that moment in the movie when all of the gladiators are in the Coliseum, in the death ring, and feeling very nervous since Siberian tigers and Roman legions and spiked chariots and numchuk-swinging dwarves are about to descend on their trembling enslaved asses. It's at this moment, not before, that Maximus casually asks the others, "Were any of you guys ever in the army? Because it would really help us if we can use our old battle strategies..." It turns out that they are old soldiers and they do snap back into fighting form, and within two minutes Maximus is taking his victory gallop on a white stallion around the Coliseum, prancing over his enemies' corpses. But does he deserve to?
Why, I worried, did he wait until this juncture to ask that question? Wasn't it important? Hadn't they all been together for days in their cells with nothing to do but chew the fat? What if, with the Coliseum's giant tigers' saberteeth breathing down their necks they'd answered, "Actually, I was a potato farmer from Thrace," "I gave the Sultan foot massages in Turkey," etc.
It was troubling. Had Maximus done something dumb? But the fine veteran blogger Cal happened to see my post, and was kind enough to explain Maximus's thinking. Those gladiators were not talkers, even at the best of times. They were seriously mad at the world. And they would not have taken kindly to some big dude shimmying up to them in their cells wanting to practice frenzied battle rollovers with them. "And just let me oil you up a little bit so those nasty breastplates don't chafe!"
Yup, makes sense. Maximus would have known better. So now I'm a true believer again, and can watch GLADIATOR with a tranquil heart.