The Rehabilitation of Russell Crowe

May 13, 2010
By | 9 Comments

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?


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9 Responses to “ The Rehabilitation of Russell Crowe ”

  1. Mary Beltrán on May 13, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’m really struck by your final points that we seem to want to buy star image rehabilitation attempts such as Crowe’s, particularly when the fix underscores the supposed healing powers of marriage and family or pursuits embraced as traditionally masculine. I would think this sort of star promotion would make viewers suspicious (as admittedly, is my response), particularly when it’s laid on as thick as we’re witnessing with Crowe. On another thought, it seems Robert Downey Jr. went through a similar, but more successful image rehabilitation a few years ago. Do you have any thoughts in comparing Crowe’s recent promotion with RDJ’s evolving star image?

    • Anne Helen Petersen on May 14, 2010 at 8:51 AM

      I’m struck by the ways in which RDJ’s rehabilitation was framed as a sort of comedic release. While the public was given pictures and info concerning Downey’s “bottom” (waking up in a random Hollywood home), there simply wasn’t extensive coverage of his rehab stint, in part because at that point he was still washed up demi-star — and certainly not the star he is today. His initial roles after recovery were still on edge: see, for example, Zodiac and A Scanner Darkly. And then there was Iron Man — and it was as if all of his past had been funneled into a certain quirky yet incredibly funny neuroses, manifested both in the character of Tony Stark and in Downey’s extra-textual life (the sunglasses, the sartorial choices, interview one-liners, etc.) Discourse about his wife also began heavily circulating during this time, pointing to her producing role on Downey’s movies and the fact that she stuck with him through thick and thin.

      So how is this different than Crowe? The lack of children sticks out — Downey doesn’t have any strollers to push. But more to the point, I think that RDJ incorporated his past into his contemporary star image. He doesn’t reference it verbally, but the root of his humor, which seems to be barely holding the manic at bay, certainly evokes it.

      In an odd way, it reminds me of Adrienne McLean’s look at the scandals that affected Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman in the ’50s: Hayworth could survive divorce and marriage to a Muslim prince because it was readily incorporable to her flexible star image, while Bergman’s star image was far too closed and inflexible to bear the burden of an illicit love affair (and child out of wedlock).

  2. Christopher Cwynar on May 13, 2010 at 9:22 PM

    I do wonder if ‘we’ have accepted this transformation as readily as the media has. Media outlets need things to write about and, though some will critique these sorts of transformations, many more will write the quick story about this or that public appearance and simply go with the angled proffered by the star, studio, and other invested parties. What this suggests to me is not that we accept the transformation story, but that we accept the rhythm of celebrity as unfolds in relation to different categories or types of famous person. In this case, we have the vaguely bad megastar actor whose poor behavior effectively dovetails with his most recognizable onscreen roles, as you adroitly point out. These off-screen transgressions seem to authenticate the public persona in a way, which facilitates audience investment in the image (admittedly, some will likely be turned off). But this can only be taken so far. At a point, the persona has to bend back the other way towards rehabilitation: family, hobbies (remember when all those stories suggested that Harrison Ford was into woodworking?), the wholesome life. As you note, Crowe’s move in this direction comes at a time when he is returning in a new edition of an epic fable; this is his family-friendly film in years and it makes this wholesome angle seem that much more appropriate.

    The question remains, do we buy it? I am not sure that we do. I think that anyone who thinks about this matter for more than a few minutes is likely to conclude that, just as there are many Russell Crowes, they are part of the same composite image. I think it is more likely that we buy the rhythm of the star cycle. That is to say that many of those who follow celebrity culture enjoy the shifts from bad to good and back again. This is a comfortable routine, particularly when the stakes are comparatively low. Crowe was never that ‘bad’ and so it can’t be that difficult for audiences to believe that he is now being governed by this good, family-oriented side.

    Ultimately, I think that the most significant challenge will be to convince people to care about Crowe during a hectic summer movie season. For that, I think that Robin Hood (and his resemblance to Maximus) will do a good bit of the heavy lifting.

    • Anne Helen Petersen on May 13, 2010 at 9:32 PM

      You make a really great point about the definition of ‘we,’ Christopher. When it comes to star studies, I often use a collective ‘we’ when referring to the audience, but such generalizations have benefits (it emphasizes the fact that even star scholars are subject to the manipulations of star production) and drawbacks, as it obviously lacks specificity. In this case, I’d say that you, along with many media scholars, belong to a particular ‘we’ that Joshua Gamson would call ‘game players.’ In Gamson’s most excellent Claims to Fame, he breaks down those who consume/follow celebrity into five categories, ranging from those with all-out belief in what they’re being sold to those take genuine pleasure in working out the puzzles and machinations of star production. Even pointing to the fact that you’re aware of a ‘star cycle’ and its various rhythms puts you (and me) in this category.

      Which is all to say that I certainly think that some people are aware that this is a dramatic change — but others probably just enjoy Crowe’s jovial self when they happen upon him on Access Hollywood, Oprah, Regis & Kelly, whatever. But as is always the question when it comes to stars, just because people respond positively to Crowe in interviews does not guarantee that they’ll want to go see his movie. But again, the similarity of this role to that of Maximus — the very groundnote of his stardom — will certainly help.

  3. Diane Negra on May 14, 2010 at 1:39 AM

    I enjoyed this post and the thoughtful follow-up commentary. Saw Crowe’s appearance on Leno and was disconcerted by his geniality but it made me think about affective performance and stardom. Interesting to set your piece alongside Martin Fradley’s “Maximus Melodramaticus: Masculinity, Masochism and White Male Paranoia in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema” published in Yvonne Tasker’s The Action and Adventure Cinema. European roll-out of Robin Hood seems not to feature the new “friendly” Crowe (or not as much) — he’s been widely attributed here with a set of disdainful comments about the prospect of wearing green tights seemingly insisting that his Robin Hood is a “manlier” verion than previous.

  4. Phil on May 14, 2010 at 2:53 AM

    Good article, Annie. Crowe certainly does appear to be making that extra effort to appear personable in the press tour for Robin Hood, but he can’t seem to stop his less appealing side from slipping out occasionally. Did you see this article?

  5. Mimi on May 14, 2010 at 6:49 AM

    I’m sorry, but two points [at least] need to be made. I have followed Crowe’s career and image with interest for years, so as an observer, some truth’s need illumination. He has not made a dramatic about face just for the publicity machine. Crowe is not his characters.

    One, Crowe’s gossip column image has often been at odds with truth and reality. Too many writers buy into the gruff, angry, constantly fighting persona that has grown around him. Yet, for one example, as Crowe himself has tried to get across, there are numerous stories about him punching photographers and the like… but you can’t name one instance, why? Because he has never hit one. He’s thrown verbal barbs, but given the way he’s hounded, I think that’s a pretty mild response. Crowe is one of a kind, yet when you examine the record, his few misdeeds are minuscule compared to many other celebrities. He is not an angry man, and he’s never undertaken “anger control” counseling.

    Two, Crowe is truthfully a dedicated family man. He married his first love after years of friendship, and from all accounts, is happily domesticated. He got quite a rap from the press for the short lived Meg Ryan affair [and lets not forget she was the married one], but he has never been, despite the gossip stories, a womanizer. Why does someone like George Clooney always get a pass from the press? Because he smiles charmingly. Also on the personal front, Crowe has many loyal friends, but mostly out of the spotlight.

    Let’s not forget the one big reality here. For the past month, Crowe has been one part of a big publicity push for a major film project. What did you really expect him to do, go on TV talk shows and be rude and bluff? He’s been fulfilling his professional responsibilities. Prior to this, he was just living his life quietly in Australia.

  6. Layne on May 14, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    My take on the whole thing has long been that the media itself took a couple of isolated incidents and manufactured it’s own ‘angry’ image of Russell Crowe’s persona. And since then, the media has refused to let that image go. It seems as though that image image is dragged up by the media again and again. Whereas, with Robert Downey, Jr. (since that example was used here), the media seemed to ‘forgive’ him him and almost never mentions his past problems with drugs, etc., Crowe’s phone-throwing incident is incessantly and almost inevitably cited. It is not Crowe’s image which needs rehabilitation, but the media’s obsession with the ‘monster’ that they, themselves, created long ago.