The rise of Russell Crowe was a success story for the ages. In 1999, Crowe was one of dozens of somewhat exciting rising actors in Hollywood—a talented Aussie whose name cinephiles knew, but who was unfamous enough that he was stuffed all the way into the back of the poster for L.A. Confidential. By the end of 2000, he was an enormous star, an action hero who had dramatic chops and could transform himself at will. He headlined a gigantic box-office hit in toga and sandals, and also portrayed a courageous scientist who blew the whistle on Big Tobacco. He could go brawny or brainy, invulnerable or wounded. He would be nominated for three Best Actor Oscars in a row, the kind of feat only accomplished by performers of the stature of Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep. His bad-boy behavior was legendary, and he was so seductive that America’s sweetheart blew up her marriage for him.
These days, Crowe’s hamming his way through The Pope’s Exorcist, a schlocky horror trifle in which he rides a Vespa and confronts Satan in a dark Spanish castle. Recently, his only even slightly buzzy roles have been cameos in superhero movies: a return as Superman’s dad in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and a funny, Greek-accented, self-referential take on Zeus in Thor: Love and Thunder. He’s gotten more press for the “divorce auction” he staged for charity (and the jockstrap John Oliver bought) than he has for such nothingburger movies as Unhinged, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher, and his own 2022 directorial effort Poker Face, which grossed $1.7 million in a week in theaters before going to VOD.
Russell Crowe was once such a star that he could not only get a studio to greenlight a Noah’s Ark epic—an idea so silly that Troy McClure did it first—but push it to a $360 million worldwide gross. These days, his best-case scenario is a movie like The Pope’s Exorcist, a satisfying B picture that finished behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie in its opening weekend. What happened? Looking back at that amazing two-year period at the turn of the millennium reveals not only how far and fast Crowe rose, but how he might find his path back to stardom.
Crowe’s success didn’t come overnight. He was in his 30s when his first American film appeared, and it followed a decade and a half of striving: touring Australia as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Show, DJing at an Auckland club called King Creole’s, shooting promotional videos for the Australian department of workers’ comp. As “Russ Le Roq,” he recorded several rockabilly-ish songs, including a little ditty called “I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando.”
He came to Hollywood’s attention through two sharply different performances in two Australian films that made minor international splashes. In Romper Stomper, he’s all bluster and bug eyes as the leader of a Melbourne neo-Nazi group. It’s a role with zero subtlety in a movie whose energy mostly comes from its live-wire direction. Crowe won the Australian Academy Award for Best Actor, but to my mind the early performance that really showed his promise was the one for which he won the award for Best Supporting Actor. In Proof, a jagged little relationship drama written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, Crowe plays the quiet, observant friend to Hugo Weaving’s distrustful blind hero. He’s genial, good-hearted, and intelligent, and considered alongside his Romper Stomper charisma, the turn makes it easy to see why Hollywood came calling.
Crowe’s early studio career featured roles that seem straight out of the we’re-not-sure-what-to-do-with-you playbook: the most boring character in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (cast on Sharon Stone’s orders) and the scenery-chewing A.I. villain in Virtuosity, a misbegotten Denzel Washington sci-fi vehicle. It wasn’t until L.A. Confidential that a Hollywood director, Curtis Hanson, figured him out. Crowe plays the tightly wound police officer Bud White, who falls for Kim Basinger’s high-priced call girl. Crowe’s performance as a sensitive brute got lost in the acclaim for his castmates Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and especially Basinger, but in many ways White’s journey to understanding is at the center of the picture.
And then came 1999 and Michael Mann’s The Insider. As Jeffrey Wigand, the scientist who blows the whistle on cigarette companies, Crowe is conflicted and stormy, brave and angry, calculating yet impulsive. Above all, Wigand is intelligent: Even when he’s caught by surprise, he’s always searching his mind for the right move. It’s that intelligence that Mann brings so clearly to the screen, that intelligence which arms Crowe for his scenes opposite Al Pacino, who plays Lowell Bergman, a wheeling-and-dealing 60 Minutes producer. Though Crowe is a quarter-century younger than Pacino, Wigand seems Bergman’s equal, and not just because of the 35 pounds Crowe reportedly put on, or the silver wig and aging makeup he wears throughout. They’re both entirely believable as grown-ass men, volatile and complicated, with fierce ideals that drive them to difficult choices.
After filming The Insider, Crowe traveled to England, Morocco, and Malta to make Ridley Scott’s Gladiator for DreamWorks. The shoot was itself a kind of gladiatorial arena, a high-stakes, high-pressure crucible in which Crowe was expected to carry a $100 million–budgeted movie—a movie that, when filming began, had barely any script at all—on his own muscular shoulders. (He’d lost Jeffrey Wigand’s 35 extra pounds, a much-discussed feat at the time.) Surrounded, and watched, by hundreds of actors and crew members on the set of the most expensive movie DreamWorks had ever made, Crowe was forced to invent his character and even much of his dialogue on the fly. He claimed that he wrote much of Maximus’ speech about the tranquility of his life on a Spanish farm, based on his own homesickness for Australia. Even “Strength and honor,” Maximus’ motto, came from Crowe, an adaptation of his Sydney high school’s Latin motto.
He pulled it off, in part, by becoming larger than life, adopting Maximus’ enormous confidence—arrogance, perhaps—for his own. “A lot of the stuff that I have to deal with now in terms of my quote-unquote ‘volatility,’ you know, has to do with that experience,” he later said. Crowe could be “demanding and temperamental” on set, according to contemporaneous reports. He hated his co-star Oliver Reed and argued with Ridley Scott about whether Maximus, nicknamed “the Spaniard,” should have a Spanish accent. (Scott won that argument: “I didn’t want him to say Barthelona.”) “Your lines are garbage,” Crowe told script doctor William Nicholson, brought in to invent new scenes days before filming, “but I’m the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good.”
And it all worked. (“The funny thing is,” Nicholson says now, “it’s true.”) Crowe is a titan in Gladiator, his fierce commitment making even the stupidest moments in this sword-and-sandals epic utterly convincing. On the battlefield, he’s a leader of men, beloved by his troops; in quieter moments, he’s credibly heartbroken by the slaughter of his family; in scenes of Colosseum combat, he’s magnetic, inspiring a ragtag group of slaves to defeat their opponents and humiliate the emperor who betrayed him. You can’t take your eyes off him, even as you know that everything you’re watching is absolute hooey.
Between Gladiator’s filming in 1999 and its opening in 2000, Crowe’s visibility—and the hype—reached critical levels. Crowe was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Insider (he lost to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty) and became a regular in gossip columns for his carousing. (One representative altercation, an early-morning scuffle outside a bar on Australia’s Gold Coast, later led to a blackmail trial.) Then-influential movie site Ain’t It Cool News went wild for Gladiator, posting a multitude of test-screening raves. (“Is it metaphysically possible for a film to rock this hard?” the site asked, introducing a report that “it KICKS MAJOR ASS!”)
In the run-up to Gladiator’s premiere, Crowe was in Ecuador, shooting Proof of Life, a Taylor Hackford–directed kidnapping drama co-starring Meg Ryan. He had a reputation, by now, wrote William Prochnau, the journalist whose Vanity Fair story was the movie’s inspiration, as “a troublemaker, a brawler, and one difficult dude.” And when Gladiator was an instant smash in May, grossing $35 million in its opening weekend, Crowe returned to Ecuador from his nine-day press tour “a new superstar.”
The trouble with Proof of Life wasn’t the script—Tony Gilroy’s screenplay isn’t as good as many of his others, but it’s tight as a drum—but the chaotic set. Prochnau chronicles rainstorms, mudslides, a failed coup, and two separate volcanic eruptions. Hackford, too, was prone to erupting. Prochnau describes a shocking moment in which the director, furious at a young Peruvian actress for messing up a slapping scene, “showed her how to do it”—that is, slapped her in the face.
In the tumult, Crowe mostly seemed to behave himself. He rented out a theater in Quito to show the entire crew Gladiator, then bought out the bar next door for the rest of the night. Behind closed doors, he was bonding with his co-star, Ryan, then in a stormy marriage with a reportedly philandering Dennis Quaid. Hackford claimed that he spent most of the shoot oblivious to Ryan and Crowe’s developing affair, but in the summer, when the shoot moved to London, Ryan announced her separation from Quaid—and the gossip columns were reporting on the Proof of Life stars exiting a screening of Mission: Impossible 2 arm in arm.
It’s hard to overstate, now, the amount of press the affair got. The pair was on the cover of every tabloid, the lead on Entertainment Tonight through the entire summer. By September, Proof of Life was, for most movie fans, synonymous with the stars’ romance. Wrote Gillian Flynn (yes, that Gillian Flynn) in Entertainment Weekly’s fall movie preview:
Unless you spent last summer blindfolded in a cellar, you pretty much know the plot of Proof of Life, right? It’s about this adorable blond movie star who’s got a happy Hollywood marriage to a hunky fellow actor. She flies to Ecuador to shoot a movie and winds up having a fling with this macho Richard Burtonish bloke. It wreaks havoc on her marriage. The tabloids go bonkers. The drama!
Proof of Life failed to earn back its budget, a fate that Hackford blamed on his stars’ unwillingness to sit for most interviews but that the industry, and many moviegoers, blamed on Ryan. She’s referred to the affair as the moment she became “a scarlet woman.” Her career was never the same. Meanwhile, Crowe won the Oscar for Best Actor for Gladiator and filmed the project that would generate his third consecutive Oscar nomination, A Beautiful Mind.
Like his rise to fame, Crowe’s descent to the margins took a while to develop, but then happened all at once. For a decade and a half after A Beautiful Mind’s Best Picture win, he starred in movies cut from the same grown-up drama cloth. Some of them were as good as, or better than, the ones that made his name. (Even today viewers are rediscovering the joys of 2003’s Master and Commander.) Some of them were the kinds of middlebrow duds that misjudge what audiences want out of a movie, the way Proof of Life once did. Three of them reconnected Crowe with Ridley Scott, though they never quite recaptured their Gladiator magic.
But what they all had in common was that they were the kinds of movies that studios have had less and less interest in making every year. You might consider Crowe a kind of standard-bearer for non-franchise, mid-budget adult drama, and even as his fortunes were waning, he had a better track record than many leading men trying to drag these 20th-century studio beasts to success. American Gangster, Body of Lies, Noah—none of these movies set the box office on fire, but they all made solid money. Les Misérables and Robin Hood even each made a few hundred million. But every year, in a sea of familiar and increasingly superhero-driven IP, there were fewer and fewer such opportunities to make use of Crowe’s particular talents.
It surely didn’t help that, though his career didn’t crater as Ryan’s did after Proof of Life, his public persona suffered—in part, I think, because for years Crowe so feared the press that his reluctance to play the game became obvious. He’d seen what the media could do. He tried to manipulate Australian journalists, even offering one prominent writer a salary to try to get others to publish positive coverage of Crowe’s sideline singing dull rock music. (The writer, Jack Marx, later told the tale in a remarkable Sydney Morning Herald article headlined “I Was Russell Crowe’s Stooge.”) When, in 2005, he was arrested and perp-walked in New York City for throwing a phone at a hotel concierge, Crowe blamed the concierge, and the police, but also the media for making him a target. He felt like he was walking around, he complained to Marx, with a dartboard on his ass. When a fan asked Crowe to sign a copy of a book about the actor for the fan’s mother, he replied, in one of my all-time favorite celebrity tweets, “Sorry to tell you, unauthorized bullshit biography full of rubbish, assumption, and shit from newspapers. Say hey to your mum.”
The past eight or nine years have been brutal for moviegoers who once loved Russell Crowe. He’s released one really good movie (the buddy comedy The Nice Guys—Crowe’s an underrated comedian), which flopped. He’s made one attempt to hop aboard the IP train (Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, supposedly Crowe’s entrée into the “dark universe”), which tanked. He was decent in the Showtime series The Loudest Voice, playing a reptilian Roger Ailes. He’s directed two films of his own, both seemingly passion projects but neither particularly great. In a recent poll asking moviegoers which actors they would be most likely to see in theaters, he didn’t even make the Top 20.
The Pope’s Exorcist is one of the only kinds of films for adults that audiences are still willing to go to—horror movies—and in many ways, Crowe’s role is one that plays to his strengths.
Father Gabriele Amorth is funny, brave, and bold. His sly cleverness makes itself apparent when he outsmarts the demons (whatever they are) possessing his patients. Crowe even gets to speak Italian, and his overripe accent fondly reminds me of him trying to convince Ridley Scott to let him go the full Barthelona. Crowe also seems to have warmed to the effort of publicizing the film. The promotional campaign has been full of perfectly charming appearances, most of them conducted by Crowe from his house in Australia—like this random-ass podcast, or this spot on Dan Le Batard’s radio show in which he cheerfully busts Le Batard’s balls for asking questions that go on forever.
At 21, Russell Crowe sang that he wanted to be like Marlon Brando. For two years at the turn of the millennium, he was. Even when he took the role of Superman’s dad, he was taking a walk in Brando’s shoes. But at the end of Brando’s career, the legendary actor chomped his way through movies like The Island of Dr. Moreau and Don Juan DeMarco. As much fun as I had watching The Pope’s Exorcist, I think Russell Crowe still has more to offer than that.
Because Crowe is overacting, late-Brando style, in The Pope’s Exorcist—overacting delightfully at times, but overacting nonetheless. The same was true of Crowe’s funny but stupid performance in Thor. Look, I’m glad he’s having fun on a movie set. (It seems way healthier than being demanding and temperamental.) But after rewatching the movies of Crowe’s brief imperial period, with their dedicated, intensely naturalistic performances, I’m hoping that some great director will yet find a way to use Crowe the way Michael Mann and Ridley Scott and even Taylor Hackford did. Jeffrey Wigand and Maximus and hostage negotiator Terry Thorne, despite the differences in their cinematic settings, were men whose impulses competed thrillingly with their fiercely held beliefs, and who made their way through their stories with physical grace and a questing, searching intellect. What a thrill it would be if Hollywood made the kinds of movies that require those talents once again.