Gladiator at 20: Russell Crowe's Best Roles
This year Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR turns 20, which means that Russell Crowe's status as one of the world's biggest movie stars is also entering its third decade. Crowe was a great actor from the beginning, and, following a few early years on Australian television, roles in notable indies quickly led to bigger parts in more prominent movies — and, within a decade, to GLADIATOR, which turned the muscular actor into a global superstar.
The anniversary isn't merely a good reason to revisit GLADIATOR; it's also a starting point to look at Crowe's career as a whole. You'll see an actor who layers kindness and fairness into even his most hard-hitting roles, which make Crowe's best roles more inspirational than the work of most other actors. Ridley Scott saw that potential when he cast GLADIATOR, and the filmmakers who created the movies listed below understood the star's potential, too. Here are five of Russell Crowe's best roles.
[Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
Russell Crowe had made an impression in indie movies like PROOF (1991) and ROMPER STOMPER (1992), and moved up to Sam Raimi's wild b-movie Western, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD in 1995, but none of these were big hits. Then Crowe landed the role of Bud White in Curtis Hanson's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which adapted James Ellroy's novel of the same name. The daylight noir was a hit and won two Oscars. More importantly, Crowe's portrayal of Bud White, a hot-tempered and violent cop who wants to be more than dumb muscle, demonstrated the actor's power and range to a wide audience. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is as good now as it was over 20 years ago, due in large part to Crowe's acting.
[Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
Director Michael Mann (HEAT, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS) turned the story of a tobacco industry whistleblower into one of the most gripping thrillers of the 1990s. Crowe stars as Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco exec who possesses damning information about the addictiveness of cigarettes. Crowe projects frightened defiance as Wigand negotiates with a 60 Minutes producer (Al Pacino) and host Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to air an interview in which Wigand reveals what he knows. Corporate malfeasance, even at a high level, can be pretty dry, but Mann and Crowe turn the story into a frightening warning against bowing to control.
[Image Credit: Dreamworks Pictures]
When it comes to resisting control, GLADIATOR is Crowe's gold standard. His Best Actor-winning lead performance in Ridley Scott's blockbuster, released just six months after THE INSIDER, locked the actor as the go-to guy for principled rebellion. Crowe slashes his way across the sands of Rome's Coliseum as Maximus, a betrayed general who is consigned to slavery and almost certain death by the corrupt Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, who took home his own Best Actor Oscar for JOKER). Crowe builds on the duality he revealed in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Maximus is brutally violent but defined by unshakeable principles and a deep, sometimes even warm sense of humanity.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
[Image Credit: 20th Century Studios]
Seafaring movies have not been in fashion for a long time and, frankly, MASTER AND COMMANDER is pretty much the sole major example of the genre in the last 20 years. Fortunately, it's a really good movie. Based on the 20-novel "Aubrey-Maturin" series by Patrick O'Brien, this naval battle story casts Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany as his extraordinarily competent and science-minded surgeon. The story and characters are liberally adapted from O'Brien's novels, but so much incredible detail about life at sea is embedded into this film that you might just be able to deep-sea fish and operate a cannon after it is over, even if you've got no sea legs. Director Peter Weir understands exactly how Crowe can portray the image of a capable yet headstrong captain, and he guides the actor to deliver what might be the best work of his career. MASTER AND COMMANDER was nominated for ten Oscars and, in a different year, would very likely have won most of them. Unfortunately, it was up against THE RETURN OF THE KING, which all but swept the major awards; Crowe's movie did take home two statuettes, including the Best Cinematography award.
The Nice Guys
[Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
Nearly 20 years after playing a heart-of-gold heavy in the Los Angeles noir L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, writer/director Shane Black (KISS KISS BANG BANG) cast Crowe as an aging bruiser who makes his living protecting young women from older men. THE NICE GUYS isn't a sequel to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL by any means, but it is certainly spiritually related. This time, Crowe's tough guy partners with a hard-drinking private eye played by Ryan Gosling to find a missing young woman, which leads the two men into a conspiracy with roots deep in the American auto industry. Did we mention that THE NICE GUYS is riotously, violently funny? Because it is.