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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Russell Crowe in eclipse: How Hollywood celebrity has changed

Ruseel_croweRussell Crowe’s new film, “The Next Three Days,” is a box-office stinker. A thriller released by Lionsgate, the movie did a paltry $6.8 million over the weekend, accompanied by a raft of mediocre reviewsone of the worst starts for any picture in nationwide release this year.

Why has the public largely given the Oscar-winner the cold shoulder in recent years? Sure, unlike Will Smith, Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks, who manage to stay affable despite the attention that comes to them as movie stars, Crowe has become better known for throwing a phone at a hotel clerk, constantly sniping with the media and refusing to show any easy affability or vulnerability. When Crowe sat down to talk with my colleague Steven Zeitchik recently, he was as prickly as ever, complaining about the burden of celebrity, challenging the premise of the reporter’s questions and mocking the whole idea of a film junket, even as he was about to do one himself. “If I were ever going to torture somebody,” he said, “I’d put them in a room where they can’t leave and have someone new come in every three minutes and ask the same question.”

But Crowe is hardly the only celeb to bristle in the glare of today’s 24/7 news cycle. When Kanye West was being interviewed by “Today’s” Matt Lauer this month, the hop-hop star went ballistic when Lauer aired a clip of West interrupting Taylor Swift’s MTV acceptance speech, in itself another one of West’s media missteps. Unhappy about constantly being grilled about his steroid use, former Dodgers star Manny Ramirez stopped talking to the media entirely. When sportswriters asked Lakers star Kobe Bryant on Friday about his appearance in an ad for a new ultra-violent video game, Bryant snapped: “That’s a silly question,” he said, raising his voice. “Next question.”

Nor has Crowe broken new ground when it comes to bad behavior. I was reminded of this over the weekend when I read the newly released “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon.” Like Crowe in his heyday, McQueen was the epitome of masculine cool, a virile, sometimes surly, often inscrutable alpha male action hero.

McQueen clashed with his costars and bullied his directors. He was so insecure that when he was starring opposite Paul Newman in “The Towering Inferno” and discovered that Newman had 12 more lines in the script, McQueen insisted that the screenwriter insert more dialogue so as to even things up with his costar. The similarities between McQueen and Crowe are striking. McQueen’s friends recall him as being chilly one minute, unbelievably warm the next. As for Crowe, “A Beautiful Mind” filmmaker Ron Howard said that directing the actor was like “shooting on a tropical island — the weather is going to change several times a day.”

In his personal life, McQueen was perhaps even more reckless than Crowe. The married McQueen had innumerable affairs and one-night flings, even keeping a rented office for his trysts. He drank and used drugs to excess.

Yet for all McQueen’s flaws, the public adored him. When he died at age 50 of cancer in 1980, there was a huge outpouring of grief.

“Steve was a charmer,” recalls producer David Foster, who was McQueen’s press agent for most of the 1960s. “He could do whatever he wanted [messing] around in his private life, but he really watched himself in public. He’d never get caught throwing a phone. He knew how to enchant the media. He’d ask who the reporter was, what they liked or didn’t like, and then when he did the interview, he’d charm the hell out of ’em.”

Of course, the public adored McQueen because relatively little was known about his peccadilloes. In the ’60s, at the peak of his stardom, a compliant press still largely only printed the legend when it came to America’s royalty, whether it was JFK and his extramarital affairs, Mickey Mantle and his boozy womanizing or McQueen and his escapades.

When making “Le Mans” in 1970s, McQueen got behind the wheel in the midst of an all-night coke binge, took a curve too fast and crashed a sports car into a cement bunker, sending the actor and his companion, a Swedish soap-opera star he was sleeping with, through the windshield. All McQueen had to do was call his agent, Stan Kamen, who as Marshall Terrill’s new McQueen biography recounts, “magically appeared” the next day to clean up the mess. It never made the papers.

If that sort of accident happened today, it would be instant headline fodder, since the modern-day news cycle has an immediacy and repeatability that didn’t exist in McQueen’s day. When McQueen got into trouble, his press agents had time to strategize and decide how to get the news out, if at all, and if so, whom to give it to. In today’s universe, stars are in the public eye every step of the way, whether it’s on the film set, in a taxi or at the grocery store. Everyone they meet is a potential paparazzo, armed with a cellphone camera whose pictures can show up on TMZ in the flash of an eye.

But Crowe has also run up against something that McQueen never had to contend with: Our culture’s attitude toward masculinity has radically changed in the decades following McQueen’s box-office reign. In mid-20th century America, our heroes had a swagger to their step, a drink in their hands and were allowed, even encouraged, to live outside the bounds of responsible behavior. When Mickey Mantle and his teammates got into an epic brawl at the Copacabana nightclub, it only enhanced his reputation. When Norman Mailer got into fistfights with other writers and stabbed one of his wives, his literary stock only went up.

In today’s culture, when you throw a phone at a desk clerk, your stock plummets. Is this all for the good? In some ways yes, since the alpha males of the past often ended up ruining their lives, along with most of their marriages, with all their womanizing and boozy excess. Yet we’ve lost something too, since many of today’s best-known actors and athletes are cautious and dull, fearful of jeopardizing their careers with any intemperate behavior.

Perhaps that’s why we still secretly swoon over bad-boy behavior, at least as long as it’s set in the gauzy past. Why else would we so adore Don Draper, who gets to booze it up and sleep around on “Mad Men” every week? Yet we can’t accept it in modern life, and especially not when it is accompanied by a whiff of arrogance or a sense of privilege, not to mention the moaning and groaning we get from Crowe, West and a variety of sports stars about the price of fame.

Steve McQueen came from a school whose motto was: Never complain, never explain. Maybe that’s why even today, long after his death, McQueen is still the epitome of cool, his name and likeness used to sell more than 50 products, from Gap jeans and Absolut vodka to Ford Mustangs, while Russell Crowe still can’t figure out how to sell himself, much less his latest movie.
 

Here's a look at the McQueen mystique in action:

 

Photo: Russell Crowe at a special screening of "The Next Three Days" in West Hollywood.

Credit: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

 
Comments () | Archives (42)

The comments to this entry are closed.

What does this article have to do with the headline, much less Russell Crowe???
A movie fails to open big, so the star is a loser, and let me write about Hollywood past, and my sense of history???? Get a life Goldstein, at least an intellectual one.
Comparisons are odious. I expect more from LA Times film critics. And I grew up with McQueen too. Love him. Love Hollywood history. And Love Russell Crowe. He's done great work. You: go write about your "feelings" somewhere else. Maybe for a "Fox News Extra."

I don't mind an arrogant actor, or one who shows shabby behaviour here and there, But Crowe's problem in selling himself seems to be that he cares too much about what the media and public thinks about him. He pretends not too be, but he's obsessed with it. To me he comes across as dishonest.

I remember reading somewhere not long before his infamous phone throwing incident some entertainment biz pundit told this guy you better be careful or you're gonna be the next Mickey Rourke. Then the phone was hurled, connecting with some poor hotel employee's head, and Russell Crowe jumped the shark. A lot of people in the biz can get away with being horrible as long as the hits keep coming, but there comes a point where even the most talented in the business can wind up in the "life's too short" category. The key to being a successful movie star is the public has to like you, and if it's common knowledge what a jerk you are, people won't pay their hard earned money to see you.

There are also two other major differences between Russell Crowe and the late Steve McQueen. Not to be mean, but the obvious difference is talent. McQueen was a fantastic actor, with very few misfires. Meanwhile, Crowe's career has been uneven at best. More importantly, what also cannot be dismissed or forgotten is that McQueen starred in a hit American TV series, "Wanted: Dead Or Alive" before he was asked to carry even one theatrical film. For over 100 episodes, and then for many years in reruns, McQueen's character was seen as "a good guy", despite portraying a bounty hunter. This allowed McQueen to develop a built-in domestic fan base before he starred in a major motion picture. When McQueen's films made him seem even cooler to audiences, he might have actually had to have committed murder, or publicly humiliated some innocent woman, to seem at all less than the image he had built.

I went to Crowe's latest picture Sunday night. We had fun mocking it. There were holes in the script of course and all kinds of red herrings thrown egregiously at the audience. There were only six people in the 9:40 p.m. showing. The group of four way down in front began their own discussion of the movie's obvious pecadilloes soon after we started picking it apart. Crowe's biggest problem is that he looks ten years older than he is. He's 46 but looks 60. He insists on wearing a scruffy beard and remaining overweight in nearly every film he makes these days. He's not that many pounds under Alec Baldwin's corpulence. He thus does not seem right for the part. The Next Three Days is about a disconcerted college prof attempting to get his unjustly accused wife out of prison, for the murder she didn't commit. Crowe is forced to wear the same concerned husband under serious stress look throughout the film. The look is designed to evince sympathy from the audience, but what it succeeds in doing instead is to pigeonhole Crowe as a Johnny One Note, One Face actor. Its hard too to generate sympathy for Crowe from the audience when he looks like such a crumbum on the screen. He refuses to diet down to the slim hero of our expectations or shave off the scruffy beard he's been wearing in nearly every film he's made in recent years. The overweightedness gives Crowe a jowly look that he shouldn't have at his age and makes the audience wonder why wife Elizabeth Banks married this overweight old man. Crowe raised enormously high expectations for himself when he wowed audiences in the mid 90s as a take no prisoners detective in LA confidential, an old style cops and crooks genre picture given a new and different spin by its creators. Since then respect for him as a character has gradually ebbed away. Crowe has allied himself with big time directors like Ron Howard and Ridley Scott for several films, succeeding in eroding their reputations in the process. Scott's Robin Hood with him as Robin didn't burn up the box office when it came out. Despite being the most nuanced Robin Hood story ever told onscreen. It was sort of the Anti-Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood, when Errol Flynn, or someone somewhat like him is the character called for. The film, despite its large budget, didn't exactly excite. I wonder whether Howard and Scott will continue to work with Crowe any longer. The article below is about Crowe and others like Mel Gibson being square pegs in round holes in the modern film environment. Film marketing too has put a simple simon edge on characterization necessary to sell different audience demos and lifestyles. What I've written about here is Crowe's serious violation of audience expectations. But the press too is becoming too critical, covering every square inch of Hollywood offscreen behavior, hounding Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, along with Paris Hilton and a host of others into jails, the Courts and sanitariums. There are too many Francis Farmers brewing in modern Hollywood, when the burr under the saddle is really the ramped up paparazzi, who make former Seventies Jackie stalker Ron Galella look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by comparison. I saw articles in the LA and NYTimes both yesterday (Mon) suggesting Mel Gibson is on the career ropes because of his offscreen antics. I'm not crazy about Gibson's offscreen antics either but it won't prevent me from giving him credit for a good performance as an actor or director. The moralizing by the press viz all public figures has gone way too far. It probably has something to do with an America gripped with fear since the 1970s, those fears given a booster shot after 9/11, to the point where reporters make it hard for viewers and readers to watch or read while Oil Spills plague the Gulf and TSA agents pat down and make porn pics of airline passengers. The news environment is such these days that the press has become a cheerleader for the crowd's gathering storm of rising fears.

To sort of follow Michael Weber's above comment.

Crowe: Will continue to be one of the finest actors of his or any other generation and will be superb in many more movies.

You: Will be lucky to keep your job if you continue to write garbage and fill up your columns with white noise.

@ mikex, perhaps you should start your own blog about all of what you wrote. I got lost about halfway reading your comments, I couldn't figure out what you were writing about anymore. And this article would have been more aptly named " I love Steve McQueen, and here is Why". I think the bottom line with celebrities, is that our culture treats them as royalty, forgetting that they are people just like us with thoughts, feelings, and bad days. I'm not saying that how Russell Crowe behaves at times is okay, celebrities also need to know about self control and keeping their tempers in check when they are in the public eye, which is nowadays ALL the time...

This is what happens when you have to get a story out every day. You start reaching too far. Crowe's last picture, released a mere five months ago, grossed over $300M worldwide. Could it be that this new one just looked like a stinker and nobody went to see it? Is that not reason enough, or does a complicated meta-narrative have to be spun encompassing the pop culture history of the American male, Steve McQueen, super agents and press reps of the 60s, JFK, Kanye West, and Kobe Bryant? My head is spinning.

And to Alan Grossman: Rusell Crowe is about ten times the actor McQueen was. You're lost in a fog of nostalgia. McQueen was cool and that's about it. Crowe? Jerk, maybe, worse with the press, definitely, but much more range as an actor.

I think what this article is sayin is that Russell Crowe is an @ss!!! so we should not support him!

Goldstein's obsession with Russell Crowe just goes on and on. The Steve McQueen comparison is intellectually unsound but hey that is part of the contemporary media scene.Trying to jam square pegs into round holes is what constitutes a viable argument.Especially for movie business. That phone throwing incident happened well over five years ago and still Goldstein brings it up.It must have been a life altering experience for the guy. Given the collective and ongoing bad girl bad boy behavior of Hollywood over the last 80 or so years, including murders, drug jail time, etc;that was minor and it's old,but Goldstein cannot no wait will not move on.As for bad boxoffice starts and finishes how about The Assassination of Jesse James with Brad Pitt,it made about 4 millions total ,domestic boxoffice, how about Clooney and Soderburgh's The Good German, which made $1,308,696 domestic total or Daniel Day-Lewis, a two time Academy award winner in Nine,with other assorted Oscar winners,now that was supposed to be an Oscar contenderand it opened last year $5,452,513 and lousy reviews.So it happens to lots of successful,talented people in the movie business all the time. Goldstein really is overlooking that fact and applying a different standard to Crowe.

 
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