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Image: Proof (1991, dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse)

In 1982, an aspiring musician named Russ Le Roq released a song with the ambitious title ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando’. The song has the cheap jangle of a novelty track, but beneath its surface there is serious ambition. After all, Le Roq – the pseudonym of one Russell Crowe – did end up coming pretty close, growing to be an actor with an intensity learned, surely, from watching Brando; and indeed, in 2013, Crowe appeared in Man of Steel as Jor-El, the father of Superman, the same role Brando had played in the 1978 original. At the age Crowe is now, Brando was about to shave his head and walk onto the Philippines set of Apocalypse Now, not knowing a single one of his lines despite his million-dollar paycheck. Brando wouldn’t star in a passable film after that, and descended into an increasingly odd public persona, from which his reputation wouldn’t recover until after his death. 

Crowe seems ready for further flirtations with Brando levels of public eccentricity, given his sudden and recent promotion of ‘The Art of Divorce’, the Sotheby’s-delivered auction of his private collection of Australian art, guitars, watches, sporting memorabilia, and, most importantly, a grab bag of film props and keepsakes from his 30-year career in the screen industries. The cover of the Sotheby’s catalogue (sold for $40 as something of a keepsake in and of itself) features a photograph of Crowe, decked out in a tuxedo, cocktail in hand, toasting the prospective buyer. 

It’s a master class in high Australian camp, and it leaves no mistake that this sale was all about Crowe’s image – the woman Crowe was divorcing, Danielle Spencer, was nowhere to be seen in the insane marketing collateral and subsequent publicity blitz. Crowe, for his part, seemed to enjoy the oddity of this renewed spotlight, and the theatrics that went with such an off-kilter collection (a number of which had previously been housed in an oddball ‘Museum of Interesting Things’ in the tiny northern NSW village of Nymboida) being made into public spectacle – but was there a risk involved? Selling off one’s memorabilia like this is, if nothing else, a very strange and exposed way to test the market value of your filmography and legacy. 

Selling off one’s memorabilia like this is, if nothing else, a very strange and exposed way to test the market value of your filmography and legacy.

In the lead up to the auction, the collection was on display in a small space in Sydney’s cavernous Carriageworks. I dragged along a friend who wasn’t at all keen on the idea, and was even less so afterwards; but I was fascinated. It seemed to speak to the way that Australian actors – Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Ben Mendelsohn more recently – seem so core to the way we see ourselves culturally. Rush’s Oscar win in 1996 felt like a touchstone moment, but the peak was Hollywood’s ubiquitous embrace of Nicole Kidman and Crowe in the 2000s. So Crowe’s auction felt like a very real part of the idea of ‘Australianness’ was on sale too. That might read like something of an overstatement, but that’s how it felt in the room.

The auction’s earliest items were sourced from the earliest entries in Crowe’s filmography, and despite their prominence in the catalogue, they all tended to stay within the auctioneers’ estimates. The very first item to come under the hammer was a small collection of costumes from Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof. Released in 1991, Crowe plays a spritely dish-pig who falls in with a blind man portrayed by Hugo Weaving. Crowe is pure light in the film – his boyish giggle is effervescent, a playfulness he would use sparsely but which suited him so well. The film carries a sad edge today: Crowe would go on to allegedly undermine Moorhouse professionally on a proposed 2005 adaptation of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, demanding to rewrite the screenplay personally. 

It seems undeniable that Crowe let some of his international success go to his head, which is a shame because while it may have appeared otherwise, he was not an overnight success in America. Curtis Hanson’s razor sharp 1997 crime epic L.A. Confidential introduced both Crowe and Guy Pearce (and the kingmaking machine that is Neighbours) to the world stage, but there are a number of films on the way to Crowe becoming a legitimate player in the star system, which have been largely forgotten, but which the auction served to briefly revive. Remember Mystery Alaska, his 1999 ice hockey film directed by Jay Roach? The auction had a pair of ice skates and a jersey, souvenirs from a film that actively resists such attention. I was surprised to find there was nothing from Sam Raimi’s steamy pulp Western The Quick and The Dead (1999), but perhaps a still-green Crowe didn’t yet have the gall to pinch anything from the set.

Crowe’s auction felt like a very real part of the idea of ‘Australianness’ was on sale too.

One piece stood out in the exhibition from this era – visually, at least, it was hard to miss. Standing in a far corner of the crowded space was a blank faced mannequin adorned in a bright purple suit worn in the 1995 film Virtuosity, co-starring Denzel Washington. It was the one item that I had any interest in placing a bid on, mainly because the suit was the only individual piece that was anywhere near as campy as the exercise of the sale itself. The film, though, is wholly unwatchable now – in a rare villainous performance, Crowe is hammier than your local piggery. Conceived as a pre-Matrix VR dystopia, director Brett Leonard lit the film far too brightly for the kind of tech-noir he was going for, and the CGI has not aged well. Virtuosity forms a part of Crowe’s mid-90s American output of mostly grimy genre pictures, only sitting now on his CV as stepping-stones.

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential gave Crowe the opportunity to make full use of his trademark antipodean reticence. His brutal portrayal of hard-nosed, tight-lipped cop Wendell ‘Bud’ White – splintering a wooden chair with his bare hands – proved what great acting he had within him. (The film appeared in the auction only via a single ‘collection of ephemera’ – mainly signed promotional photographs).

Similarly, Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) was curiously represented only by a pair of ‘Louisville Slugger’ baseball bats. The Insider is not a baseball movie in the slightest, though the Sluggers were at least signed by co-star Al Pacino – but the film, which would earn Crowe his first of three Oscar nominations, continued to mine Crowe’s ability to internalise what other actors would project, and it is rightly claimed to be a contemporary masterpiece.

But the clear winner in terms of sheer sustained interest and marketplace domination was Ridley Scott’s 2000 Peplum-inspired epic Gladiator. A polyurethane breastplate from the film went $100,000 over its reserve price – Gladiator was the film that marked Crowe as a superstar, and, in a rarity for an action film, landed him the Academy Award for Best Actor. Watching the film nearly twenty years after its initial release, its pompus sense of ceremony has not aged well; it is better than the films it went on to influence, but that’s not saying much. Still, the passions it inspired, and continues to inspire, are clear, and in such a middling film, that must largely come down to Crowe’s commitment in the role. Here is an actor truly selling the film he is starring in – even while (more or less) retaining his Australian accent, he doesn’t falter from the ridiculousness that surrounds him, and so, for the most part, he successfully masks how juvenile the film really is.

Here is an actor truly selling the film he is starring in – he doesn’t falter from the ridiculousness that surrounds him.

Crowe seemingly wasted the majority of his post-Gladiator decade on a series of bland reunions with Scott (A Good Year, Body of Lies, American Gangster and the Gladiator-retread Robin Hood). In revisiting Crowe’s films since the auction, there was one film made during this decade, three years after Gladiator, that stands out as the apex of his career. Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on the nautical, Napoleonic War novels of Patrick O’Brian, is such a supreme piece of craftsmanship that it can’t help but be Crowe’s highpoint. The sound mix of the movie alone – the clear crack of wood splintering amid deafening cannon battles – is a demonstration of perfect cinematic attention to detail. The dedication to recreating at sea conditions led to several reports of cinemagoers running out of theatres to be sick.

‘The Art of Divorce’ provided ample evidence that the film holds a particularly heartfelt place in Crowe’s memory. The film seems to have influenced his own independent art and antique collecting more than any other – the auction included a number of telescopes and weaponry of ‘British naval interest’, as well as classical paintings of tall ships, most of which failed to sell. Also for sale was a violin made by Leandro Bisiach, an Italian luthier of the late 19th and early 20th century, which was used by Crowe during the musical scenes of Master and Commander. At the auction, Crowe appeared on stage briefly to introduce the violinist Bridget O’Donnell to play a selection of music from the film. The sale performance of the violin and other Master and Commander pieces in the auction seemed to confirm an ongoing interest in the film – but of course, cultural worth is a risky metric to invest in terms of an auction, conferring the power of retrospective appreciation to a limited few with excessive capital at their disposal.

Crowe’s defining acting style is all about filling and commanding space. The less ‘acting’ he does, the more he demands your attention. In a similar way, perhaps, when Crowe as a public figure offers us too much, we get turned off. In 2005, Helen Garner wrote an uncharacteristically overwrought piece for The Monthly on rewatching Crowe’s filmography, though by the end she got to the point: ‘Crowe’s public persona, noisy and humourless and strutting, is forever making rude gestures in the corner of my eye, demanding attention and cursing those who give it.’

It’s a little too easy to make fun of Russell Crowe – but he is often the first to flag that his chosen profession is faintly ridiculous.

It’s a little too easy to make fun of Russell Crowe – yes, his band was unspeakably bad, his short fuse got him into trouble on numerous occasions, and Jack Marx provided a definitive portrait of Crowe as an approval driven sycophant – but there’s much to admire in his career and he has, in fact, always had a sense of playfulness about him. He is often the first to flag that his chosen profession is faintly ridiculous. You’d hope that he would have a sense of humour about himself, as multiple items – including the much talked about ‘leather jockstrap’ from the forgotten boxing drama Cinderella Man – were bought by, it turns out, the satirist John Oliver, all as a donation to Alaska’s last remaining Blockbuster video store in an extended bit on his weekly TV show.

Throughout the auction, costumes were a reliable item to go over the estimated sale figures. It was sad to find then that a costume worn by Errol Flynn in 1948’s Adventures of Don Juan failed to sell, perhaps pointing towards a steep depreciation of the stars of yesteryear. Flynn’s career could be roughly conflated with Crowe’s own – an Australian actor dominating America, stabs at Robin Hood (one iconic, one moronic) – and one does wonder if Crowe watched that item with any particular interest. Flynn was dead at 50, having seriously over indulged in life, so he never received a potential third act.

This can’t be lost on Crowe. There is a scene in Proof, in which a character puts together a composite of Crowe’s image from photographs taken of different parts of his face. Throughout his career Crowe has, in a similar way, pieced together an image of himself to sell. In media interviews, he said it took over twelve months to put ‘The Art of Divorce’ together, and he seemed determined to explain the auction in curatorial terms – saying he matched items in a considered way, thinking not of their sale but of how they might ‘go together’. In constructing a retrospective-as-auction (and vice versa), Crowe created a rare look into what exactly constitutes the lifespan of an acting career, what culture permits a lasting reprieve, and what it lets die.