Russell Crowe in eclipse: How Hollywood celebrity has changed

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Russell 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: