You’re familiar with the Crowe image: he’s a big, swarthy, angry dude with quite a temper — both on- and off-screen. Onscreen, that temper is funneled into revenging the honor of his slain wife and son (or boxing, or solving math equations, or stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, whatever) but off-screen, his temper has resulted in a very public court case (and conviction) in 2005 for throwing a “fourth degree weapon” (e.g. a cell phone) at a hotel employee when Crowe was unable to get the phone to work. The infamous cell phone incident was compounded by reports of several additional public spats; the image of Crowe as a real-life “bar-brawler” aligned nicely with his established picture personality as stubborn rebel against authority.
But Angry Russell Crowe is no more. The transformation and rehabilitation of his image has occurred just in time for a massive publicity tour for Robin Hood, which opens tomorrow. He’s traded in his haughty airs and generalized angry-man-syndrome for genial chats and endearing, innocuous flirtations. It’s as if the tough, muscle-bound guy from L.A. Confidential suddenly switched movies and became the relaxed, contented Provence-dweller at the end of A Good Year.
In the gossip universe, image rehabilitation is usually accomplished vis-a-vis public confession/apology or, even more effectively, through marriage and children. (See: Angelina Jolie, Katherine Heigl, Nicole Richie, McSteamy and the Noxema Girl). But Crowe was married in 2003; his two sons were born in 2003 and 2006. While he doesn’t hide his family, they’re certainly not the subject of People Magazine cover stories. In other words, he’s not using cute pictures of his loving family to make him look like a nicer guy.
Instead, Crowe’s using good old fashioned charisma. Over the course of his month long press tour, he’s joked about “the continuous death battle” with his aging body; he’s related a hilarious anecdote about taking his easily-bored sons to pre-screen Robin Hood (“Dad, when are you going to get a horse?); he’s used all types of bows and arrows, some of the Nerf variety, to jovially demonstrate his Robin Hood archery skill, including a ‘surprise’ visit (in casual hoodie) on Ellen. He makes fun of the Australian accent at length on Letterman; perhaps best of all, he VERY SERIOUSLY GIFTS OPRAH WITH A SWORD AND LONG BOW.
Now, this type of promotional activity is by no means anomalous in Hollywood, but such hokum is usually reserved for the likes of Tom Cruise. And while I do think that Crowe is consciously attempting to rebrand his image – illuminating the ‘softer,’ emotional side of the hard body – I’d also venture something else is motivating his best behavior. Specifically, fear. Robin Hood has been built up as a savior of sorts: first and foremost, for Universal, which has recently endured a string of dismal big-budget failures. And after the relative disappointments of Body of Lies and State of Play, Crowe himself needs a hit. This role – in a heavily presold property, directed by long-time creative partner Ridley Scott, playing a version of the Maximus role that authenticated his stardom – should be the answer. But if it fails to win the box office this weekend, it will undoubtedly get lost in the sea of forthcoming blockbusters.
What’s more, Universal, Ridley Scott, and Crowe all know that they’re staring down a sexy, enormously attractive beast, and that beast’s name is Iron Man 2. Ultimately, it’s not just a showdown between two distinct types/styles of action movies, but two types of rehabilitated bad boy stars. Yet Aaccording to Anne Thompson’s Tweets from Cannes (where Robin Hood is opening the festival), Crowe is back to his old ‘arrogant’ ways, perhaps realizing that the fate of the movie, whatever it may be, is sealed. His actions likewise underline the fact that the soft, family-friendly Crowe was, in fact, just as much of a construction as medieval sets used on Robin Hood.
Crowe may have indeed softened with age; he may have taken anger management classes. What the ‘real’ Crowe has done doesn’t really matter. What does matter, then, is the ease with which we, and the media at large, have accepted the narrative of his transformation. A star image resonates when it seemingly embodies ideologies that are unattainable or contradictory in practice; in this case, Crowe’s image bespeaks the notion that anger — and bad boy-ness — can indeed by ‘fixed’; and that that fix corresponds with 1.) attention to family and 2.) a return to jobs (roles) in which traditional masculinity (bow hunting, horse riding) is cultivated and valued. Ultimately, the rehabilitated Crowe image is likable because we so want to like, and believe, in what it represents. So does the transformation work for you? Do you buy it?