Comeback Maximus? Too Soon to Tell.
Date of Assessment: May 14, 2010
Positive Buzzwords: Versatile, intense, Ridley Scott
Negative Buzzwords: Volatile, past his prime, Ridley Scott
The Case: Although my DVD collection is embarrassingly large and I generally purchase more movie tickets than common sense would dictate, the year 2000 was largely a cinematic vacuum as far as I was concerned. As a new mother, I was virtually inseparable from my child, and a loud movie theater just wasn't an opportunity that presented itself at the time. So, I missed out on the big-screen experience of Gladiator, but a few years later, I was greeted one Saturday afternoon by my significant other, who returned from a rental store not only brandishing a video game for himself but also a triumphant declaration: "And I got Gladiator for you."
Oh, really? Gladiator... for me.
To be honest, I wasn't entirely thrilled about his selection because, in my mind, it was fairly evident that Gladiator was just some macho guy movie that he wanted to see under the guise of "C'mon, women think Russell Crowe is hot, right?" I certainly didn't think so but concededly watched Gladiator anyway. And then I realized -- even though it's a film that now, thanks to the everlasting maturity of Joaquin Phoenix, shall forever bring "Glad He Ate Her" to mind -- that Russell Crowe tore a damn hole in my television screen. He was nothing short of electrifying, and I suddenly remembered this was the same guy from L.A. Confidential, which I absolutely loved both for the film and his performance. In fact, the guy was already known for his acting versatility and, to this day, continues to convince in everything from action to western to playing an academic in a carefully nuanced performance. Naturally, Crowe is something of an Oscar darling. Not only has he won the Best Actor award for his lead performance in Gladiator (his first collaboration with director Ridley Scott), but he's also been nominated for his turns in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind. That's three consecutive years of recognition by the Academy, which makes one wonder how such a seasoned actor like Russell Crowe would have anything to worry about.
Undoubtedly, Crowe is indeed quite worried about the box-office reception for his latest would-be blockbuster, Robin Hood. A sure signal of this anxiety (either on his part or the studio's publicity team) can be witnessed by Crowe actually ponying up the requisite $15,000 fee and attending a schmaltzy ceremony for a conveniently-timed star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In fact, rumor has it that Crowe had turned down several previous "opportunities" for a star, so why now?
Let's go back to 2001, when Crowe was considered to be "one of the hottest properties in the film-making world." Yet, in the decade since Gladiator (which saw $188 million at the box office) and A Beautiful Mind (which added another cool $171 million), he's had a series of lukewarm box-office receptions and some outright flops. Hell, even during his Gladiator/Beautiful heyday, Crowe should have seen the signs of a possible lull in his appeal. In between these two highly successful films, Crowe starred with Meg Ryan in the unremarkable Proof of Life, which was panned by critics and brought in only $32 million (on a $65 million budget). This experience should have taught him that, as a Hollywood star, he wasn't invincible, nor was he immune to audience indifference as a result of certain bad career choices. Yet, Crowe was still considered a smart investment at that point, and an Oscar award can notoriously produce temporary blindness in both actors and filmmakers, as well as an abundance of false optimism about exactly how much audiences care about that damn statuette.
After some time off, Crowe returned to the Hollywood scene with a couple of critically acclaimed performances that just didn't measure up to his previous twin successes at the box office. In 2003, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World underperformed by bringing in just $93 million (on a $150 million budget); in 2005, Cinderella Man brought in $66 million (on an $88 million budget). Things only went downhill from there with U.S. audiences only pitching in $7 million for A Good Year, which ironically made 2006 a bloody awful awful year for both Crowe and Ridley Scott. (Seriously, whatever made Crowe think that audiences would love to watch him play a snoozeworthy role as a London financier?) Then, Crowe began a return to form with 2007's 3:10 to Yuma remake that brought in $54 million (on a $55 mill budget), but he quickly squandered his goodwill once again with a pair of dreadfully dull efforts: 2008's Body of Lies only brought in $39 million (on a $70 million budget), despite the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio and Scott in the director's seat; and, in 2009, Crowe took an even more abysmal turn with the politically-tinged State of Play, which only saw $37 million worth of interest from theatergoers. In the past several years, only 2007's American Gangster could be considered an unmitigated success by raking in $130 million domestically. Still, it's rather undeniable that this success can largely be attributed to the participation of Denzel Washington and had little to do with the mere afterthought that this was yet another team-up for Crowe and director Ridley Scott. Without Denzel, Gangster would probably have been quite the dismal situation, whereas Denzel's co-stars and directors are rather interchangeable. As a result, Crowe remains a cinematic wild card in 2010, and his collaborations with Ridley Scott (this will be their fifth joint effort) aren't necessarily any more reliable at predicting success or failure.
Obviously, this weekend's Robin Hood is intended as a comeback vehicle for both Crowe and Scott. The duo have returned with what is probably geared as more of a Gladiator II than a true remake of Robin Hood. It's the hopeful reincarnation of Crowe and Scott in their previous formula for success -- an action movie in which the costumes bear an uncanny resemblance to Gladiator. The question remains whether audiences still care enough about Crowe (and that director guy) to pass on the opportunity to catch Iron Man 2 again. Of course, it's theoretically possible that Robin Hood could be a raging success, but it's also high on the list of predicted list of box-office flops and stands a good chance to "forever be known as The Fat Robin Hood." And that could mark a bittersweet ending for the career of Russell Crowe, who once famously sang lead for a rockabilly band with a debut single called "I Want to Be Like Marlon Brando."
Prognosis: Russell Crowe possesses undeniable acting chops and the singular intensity required to pull off so many captivating roles. However, his decision-making skills could use some serious sharpening. If Robin Hood proves to be even a moderate financial success, Crowe could stage an enduring comeback in Hollywood. For now, however, we shall wait to see just how much of a bloodbath occurs at the box office this weekend.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.