Even in a subpar film like Virtuosity, it was evident that Russell Crowe had the makings of a star. His intensity ranged from quiet and almost frightening, to pure, unadulterated rage, and he was able to switch between the modes with an effortless breeze. Even before Virtuosity introduced him to the masses of movie goers, Crowe displayed a cool, yet dangerous bravado in The Quick in the Dead, and it was apparent that this man would become a big time Hollywood player. That chance started to ferment in 1997’s L.A. Confidential, and it was just a matter of time before the actor from New Zealand got his big break.
With an almost animal-like magnetism and a raw, rugged masculinity that few actors at the time could compete with, Crowe dominated the turn of the century, beginning with 1999’s The Insider. Starring opposite Al Pacino, the thespian did what few actors could ever do, and that’s steal scenes from Mr. Pacino. More than that, however, he toned down his recognizable intensity and played against his type with a riveting performance as a vulnerable key witness. Step No. 1 to becoming an Oscar winner usually demands that you play against your type. Step complete.
Although he didn’t win Best Actor for that performance, The Insider was just a precursor for Step No. 2: Embellish your strengths to the max. If Crowe couldn’t take home the Oscar (he lost to a deserving Kevin Spacey for American Beauty), the next course of action was to take that rugged masculinity and endorse its power with full conviction. He did just that with his mighty turn as Maximus in 2000’s epic Gladiator.
Crowe played a betrayed soldier who seeks his revenge within the confines of a brutal, deadly contest. The Shakespearean tale weaved together fantastic performances, taut narratives, and supreme visuals to tell an amazing tale of redemption, with Crowe sporting an enhanced physique (Step No. 3: Change your look). He won that Oscar, as he should have.
For his follow up performance the next year, Crowe once again pulled out another diverse character, this time as John Nash, the embattled and troubled genius who believed he was being trailed by shadowy government types in A Beautiful Mind. Diversification is a large component of awards season (unless your name is Courtney Love, in which you receive a nomination for playing yourself).
Using shifty eyes, facial and extremity tics, and a verbal staccato that rendered him a blithering intellectual with mental instabilities, Crowe was magnificent as Nash. His performance lined him up to become the sixth actor to win back-to-back Oscars; Tom Hanks was the last to do so at the time. Step No. 4 is playing someone with an illness, which didn’t prove to be as successful as the other steps for Crowe. He lost this Best Actor race to another deserving candidate: Denzel Washington.
Crowe didn’t win the coveted and rare back-to-back Oscars, but he came close, also ripping off four Golden Globe nominations (and one win) in a six-year span. For many, one Oscar is enough. But with a man as passionate and as talented as Crowe, who’s to say that he can’t still win back-to-back awards before he’s done?