Very few actors are ever able to find a signature role that will help define their career, but Russell Crowe is one of those fortunate few. In 2000, he took on the now-iconic role of Maximus in “Gladiator,” which put his career into overdrive after many lean years in his native Australia. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the part, which made him an instant movie superstar. Despite the fame it brought him, fans of the versatile actor know that he had carved out a hard-fought career full of fantastic performances long before he became Maximus.
One of his earliest roles was in Australia, where he started in theater and sometimes resorted to street performances when he couldn’t find work. One of his biggest breakthroughs there was in a somewhat controversial film called “The Sum of Us,” where he portrayed a gay man named Jeff who is coming to terms with his sexuality. His father, portrayed by Jack Thompson, has too much of an interest in his son’s romantic life, to the point that it becomes almost invasive. In a neat bit of trivia, Thompson was in the series “Skyforce,” which was the first show Crowe ever got a speaking part on, when he was just five years of age.
A year after “The Sum of Us,” Crowe made the move to the U.S. and found big success with steady work in critically acclaimed movies years before “Gladiator” went into production. One of the most famous was in “LA Confidential,” where he played the part of Wendell “Bud” White opposite Kevin Spacey and fellow Aussie Guy Pearce. It was a part that led to better roles for him, including his turn opposite Al Pacino in “The Insider.” As whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, Crowe had to wear aging makeup and was almost unrecognizable.
After “Gladiator” came several more big parts, though few of them would get him recognition on the same level as his role in the Ridley Scott epic would. Just a year later, he would portray real-life mathematician John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” which was such a nuanced performance that many thought he deserved the Oscar that year more than eventual winner Denzel Washington of “Training Day.” It’s a role that required no physicality like “Gladiator” did, forcing Crowe to show layers that he hadn’t been able to do in previous films.
Audiences were so used to seeing Crowe in action films or thrillers that they were surprised to see him in the romantic drama/comedy “A Good Year” with Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish. The film was based on a book about a British man who falls in love with the Provence region of France and decides to move there. It was a complete departure from the roles that made him famous, and showed that he had acting range beyond high drama.
Despite his willingness to take risks like “A Good Year,” Crowe returned to the type of movie that made him famous in 2007 with the western “3:10 to Yuma” costarring Christian Bale and Peter Fonda. The same year he also starred in “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington, who was his costar in one of his earliest American films, “Virtuosity.”
In 2012, Crowe took what could arguably be the biggest risk of his career, singing in the film adaptation of “Les Miserables.” Not only did he sing some very famous songs in the film opposite more seasoned singers like Hugh Jackman but also he did all the singing live on the set. In most filmed musicals, the cast will lip synch or sing live during filming, but the sound will be replaced in post production with studio versions of the same song. This gives the actors an infinite amount of chances to nail the song and make it sound pitch perfect. In this particular version, director Tom Hooper wanted the cast to sing live because he felt it would capture the emotion of the moment, since the script is full of highly dramatic moments captured in song. There would be no studio versions recorded, so each song had to be sung live dozens of times, which can be very taxing on the actors. Crowe, never one to shy away from a challenge, was game for the difficult part of Javert, the foil for Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean.
Crowe is still very much in demand as an actor, so there are likely to be more excellent parts in the future for which he will be known. Though he will probably always be known first and foremost as Maximus, he has done so many great portrayals that one day, perhaps, he will be better known for his entire body of work rather than the one iconic role.