When Russell Crowe starred in 1992 skinhead tale Romper Stomper, American critics talked about his animal magnetism, "powerful and terrifying" performance, and compared him to Marlon Brando. The rave reviews for Crowe's acting work have not abated since, and he's collected in his swag an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe on the way.
Though he spent his first four years and some of his high school period in New Zealand, Crowe's "formative years" were in Australia. In 2000 he told Juice magazine he didn't differentiate between the two countries, and that he carries a Southern Cross, "something that covers both".
Movie sets were part of Crowe's upbringing. His grandfather was cinematographer Stan Wemyss; his parents did catering for film and television. Thanks to them, he made his acting debut at age six in Spyforce, a TV show created by Kiwi expat Roger Mirams.
Around the age of 14, Crowe transferred from Sydney Boys' High School to Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. Within three years he had left school to continue working as a nightclub DJ. While already keen on acting, Crowe initially chased a music career, forming pop-rock band Roman Antix (later to morph into 30 Odd Foot of Grunts), and singing 'I Wanna be like Marlon Brando' under the stage name Russ le Roq (to differentiate himself from his then-more famous cricketing cousins, Martin and Jeff). He performed on teen show Shazam, auditioned unsuccessfully to play a musician on series Heroes, and can be seen as a fresh-faced youth club promoter in this 1984 Radio with Pictures special. Crowe moved back to Australia after winning a part in a touring Australasian production of The Rocky Horror Show, the first of a number of musical roles.
Based initially in an Australian $50 a week room in King's Cross, Crowe waited tables and busked in Kings Cross between auditions, but refused to do advertisements, believing "acting is not all about the money".
"I've never been to acting school, I learned on my feet," he told Juice. By the early 90s opportunities to learn about screen acting were increasing in frequency. Aged 25 he got his first big-screen leading role with romance The Crossing, opposite future partner Danielle Spencer. He impressed in Spotswood with Bruno Lawrence, and having rejected advice not to do the movie, won his first Australian Film Institute award for Proof.
But the film which really won attention for Crowe was controversial hit Romper Stomper. He played Hando, charismatic leader of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. New York Times critic Stephen Holden was among those worried that the film's attitude to its main characters was disturbingly ambivalent. Holden partly blamed Crowe's performance. He wrote that Crowe's "mixture of menace and animal magnetism suggests a post-punk answer to Marlon Brando in The Wild One ... in Mr Crowe's portrayal he exudes an antiheroic charisma that could persuade more forgiving audience members to take him as a role model, a sexy rebel with the wrong cause."
After playing gay son to Jack Thompson in The Sum of Us and co-starring in Canadian bomber pilot drama For the Moment, Crowe made his American debut in 1995, with Sam Raimi Western The Quick and the Dead.
Impressed by Crowe's "captivating" work in Romper Stomper, director Curtis Hanson later cast him as hardboiled cop Bud White in film noir LA Confidential. The film won near universal acclaim, 70 plus awards, and Oscar and Bafta nominations for best picture. Offered a plethora of cop roles, Crowe chose instead a couple of smaller films, before the triple punch that would turn him into an international star: The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind.
Two of the films showed that Crowe could do more than tough guys; the other showed that gladiators didn't have to be passe. For Michael Mann's The Insider, he aged 20 years and added 35 pounds to play real-life whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Crowe was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role. The following year won the Oscar for Ridley Scott blockbuster Gladiator.
Though the script had not been finalised when Crowe got involved, he signed on because of a few key elements: "It's Ridley Scott, it's 185 AD, and you begin the movie as a Roman general." He described the shoot as "an unrelenting physical experience". Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture, as did 2001's A Beautiful Mind, in which Crowe portrayed maths genius and schizophrenia sufferer John Nash. Although warned by other directors that Crowe could be "kind of difficult", Beautiful Mind helmer Ron Howard found Crowe was perfect at portraying the brilliance of the real life Nash, thanks to an inviting performance "so that you feel you're sharing the journey with him". Crowe won a number of awards for the role, including a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild gong.
Since then the actor has collaborated with Ridley Scott another four times: on Italian romance A Good Year, drug drama American Gangster (which won raves for Crowe and co-star Denzel Washington), spy thriller Body of Lies (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and as Robin Hood, with fellow Australian Cate Blanchett playing Marion.
In 2003 he won further acclaim for Peter Weir-directed seafaring adventure Master and Commander, based on the books by Patrick O'Brian. New York Times critic AO Scott praised the "stupendously entertaining" film as "a study of male camaraderie under duress", with Crowe's character commanding the ship as "an ideal personification" of modern executive authority.
Crowe was nominated for multiple awards — including a Golden Globe — for based on a true story boxing tale Cinderella Man (2005) directed by Beautiful Mind's Ron Howard. With the 2007 release of Western 3:10 to Yuma, he was again compared to Marlon Brando. Describing his performance as cultivated gangster Ben Wade, New Yorker critic David Denby called Crowe "an acting genius".
Fresh from singing in the big-budget adaptation of musical Les Miserables, Crowe played Superman's father in Man of Steel, then starred as Noah ("his strongest performance in years", said Time's Richard Corliss) in biblical epic Noah, from director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler).
Crowe again became an awards show regular after he starred as disgraced Fox News boss Roger Ailes in 2019 miniseries The Loudest Voice. He scored a Golden Globe and American Screen Actors Guild Award for his work. He went on to star as the villain in road rage thriller Unhinged, one of the first movies to get a big screen release after the Covid-19 virus closed cinemas around the globe.
Crowe made his big screen directing debut back in December 2014 with The Water Diviner. Within six days of its release in Australia, the film had become the most successful Aussiel release of 2014. The WWI-era drama sees Crowe playing a man who sets off for Turkey to find renewal in the aftermath of Gallipoli. Hollywood Reporter critic Megan Lehmann praised Crowe's "affecting, understated performance", adding that as a director, he "underplays the allegories" so that they "seep through the narrative organically".
Profile updated on 9 May 2020
Richard Corliss, 'REVIEW: Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Better Than the Book' - Time Magazine, 27 March 2014
David Denby, 'Eastern, Western' (Review of 3:10 to Yuma) - The New Yorker, 3 September 2007
Paul Ham, 'A star is brawn' - The Sunday Times, 16 June 2002
Stephen Holden, 'Review/Film; Of Skinheads High on Hate And Violence' (Review of Romper Stomper) - The New York Times, 9 June 1993
Megan Lehmann, ''The Water Diviner': Film Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 9 December 2014
Michele Manelis, 'Mad Maximus' (Interview) - Juice Magazine, May 2000, page 60
John Millar, 'Blade Runner' - Film Review, June 2000
Shari Roan, 'Q & A Russell Crowe' (Interview) - The Face, June 2000, Page 138"
Desmond Sampson, 'Russell Crowe's Chaos Theory' (Interview) - Pavement, number 52, April 2002, page 112
AO Scott, 'Master of the Sea (and the French)' (Review of Master and Commander) The New York Times, 14 November 2003
'Romper Stomper' (Review) TV Guide website. Accessed 14 January 2013