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The Cinderella Man (alias Russell Crowe) wins the Venice popularity bout in the first round and confirms the primary role of family in his own life – and that of “99.9% of every man on this planet” at his sole media meeting, attended by your reporter, Helen Barlow. Plus: Turning into Cinderella Man.

Russell Crowe is in a good mood as he hits Venice to promote his latest movie, Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, playing at the Festival - and the reception has been fabulous. A standing ovation from the crowd, screaming fans outside the premiere chanting "Russell, Russell", and his beloved wife and infant son accompanying him.

"It's been a lot of fun walking down the Venetian streets holding my wife's hand"

"It's been a lot of fun walking down the Venetian streets holding my wife's hand. We have not been on a gondola ride but we've been on the powerboat, going backwards and forwards. Actually the captain, Freddie, let Jack Aubrey take the wheel as soon as we came in from the airport. He said, 'Captain Jack [swashbuckling voice] right, not a problem'. So I took the wheel and my son fell asleep in my arms while I was doing it. So it was a great way to start the trip in Venice."

Crowe likes to take control of most situations he finds himself in, and characters like Aubrey from Peter Weir's Master and Commander : Far Side of the World and his Maximus from Ridley Scott's Gladiator seem to come naturally to him. Actors who can play such men of force are badly needed in Hollywood at the moment, and while Crowe's latest character, the real-life Depression era boxer, Jim Braddock, is very much a fighter, he is a lover too. The devoted husband wrote his wife (played by Renee Zellweger) a letter each day when they were apart. He in fact came back into the ring, after being washed up and humiliated, because he had no other means of supporting his family. His determination was so great that he ultimately staged a huge
comeback, and was nicknamed Cinderella Man by the media. His contesting the world championship provides the film's powerful climax.

"I think Braddock is a simple, decent man who, like 99.9 per cent of every man on this planet, wants their children and family to take precedent," says Crowe. "He was a guy who had lost all his investments and lost his money, and through the simple focus on the needs of his family, he survived, and prospered to become the heavyweight champion of the world at a point in his career where from an injury and boxing record point of view, that was no longer a possibility. That story was real and to me that was important. You can't make the stuff up."

There's no doubting that Howard, Crowe's friend and director on his previous movie, A Beautiful Mind, knew the milieu well. His grandfather had been part of an extreme rural depression in Oklahoma, while his mother's father had been a shopkeeper who had been forced to board up his shop to protect the goods every night. At 16 Howard even made a documentary about the Depression. A fan of baseball and a good basketball player himself, the director was not so keen at first to take on the Cinderella Man story, but as usual Crowe proved very persuasive.

"I felt he was the right director for the material to elevate boxing in a feature film to another level, so I gave the screenplay to him expecting an immediate positive answer. He told me, 'I can see why you want to be in the movie, but I can't see why I'd want to direct it.' Key to his accepting it was when I suggested he think of the fights like the fires on his earlier movie, Backdraft, where he gave each of the fires a different personality. After chewing it over for seven months--I never said that Ronnie was quick--he was the captain aboard the ship and all I had to do was chill out, lay back and get my head punched in," Crowe explains in his inimitable fashion.

The only problem is, as per Howard's warm and fuzzy approach, Braddock is presented as a little too saintly and heroic in the movie. Maybe that's the reason American audiences stayed away, but Crowe has his own rationale.

"It's a time in the world when a tale of such simple courage seems to be hard to get through to people without a level of cynicism being applied, particularly in America. They're not really looking for heroes at the moment.

"Crowe is confident the film will do better overseas"

Cinderella Man was released at the height of the US summer when blockbusters like Batman Begins ruled the box office. Now, particularly given the positive Venice reception, Crowe is confident the film will do better overseas.

"All the international markets have chosen dates that are specific to the quality of the film, whereas in America there was a touch of arrogance about trying to carve out a piece of the summer with a film that was traditionally not a summer film. It was under the guise of counter-programming, which I can understand, and it was a valid choice that they made, but it proved to be a bad choice."

Crowe was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia when he was young. He now lives in Sydney and at his country property, where he can live a quieter life and escape the media gaze.

For the moment though he is in the south of France, re-teaming with his
Gladiator director, Ridley Scott, for of all things, a comedy. At a special small press conference conducted for Cinderella Man in Venice, Crowe, in a buoyant mood, lets the Australian humour fly. When I refer to Scott as "the only celebrity" who attended Crowe's wedding, the actor takes me to task.

"The language of the magazines! The only celebrity! One of the finest auteur filmmakers ever to walk the planet was the only celebrity at my wedding. What about Shane Warne, the bowler? He was there."

While I reply that I meant the only famous film colleague, I figure this is a bad moment to mention the cricket and thankfully our illustrious star proceeds to explain his bonding with the British director without any more fuss.

"It's been the same experience I had with Ron on Cinderella Man, starting from this deeply resonant point of friendship where we don't tiptoe around each other. I just tell him, 'Mate, that sucks'. It's about the shorthand you achieve because you respect each other and you tend to work really hard, do really long days. After five days of shooting the French crew went to the producer and said [Crowe adopts a silly Clouseau-style accent] 'This is crazy, how can they do this? In five days they did 55 set ups and it's a f..king comedy. Nobody works like this. By the third week the motherf..kers will kills us'."

He says that his character named Max (after Maximus) is a lot of fun to play.

"I'm portraying an English banker who is an absolute asshole and who inherits a vineyard in Provence. His principal mentor throughout his life was his Uncle Henry and he taught him the difference between a good and bad red wine and the difference between a good and bad cigar and the importance of a blue suit. Unfortunately he taught him all that around the age of 11, and things have changed. All the things that his uncle put inside him as a young man are still there but they've just been reconfigured by life. By going back to Provence he becomes revitalized."

A Spanish journalist inquires after Scott's winemaking activities. "He makes wine 55,000 cases a year," Crowe notes.

Does Crowe like wine? Is he interested in other industries besides the movies? the journalist bravely continues.

"Well, I do. You just don't know about it, do you? Why would I tell you? You'll just screw up the rest of my f.ing life, won't you?"

"Australian wine is very good", the journalist offers, figuring a compliment is in order.

"Australian wine is wonderful, so is New Zealand wine," Crowe adds.

"I never have and I don't live in Hollywood."

So how does he deal with his career while living in Australia? "I deal with it by not camping out in the office. I never have and I don't live in Hollywood. I never have and I don't live in America. I have a home in Sydney and a home 560 kilometers north of Sydney, where I run Angus cattle and my life is centred between those two places. I think the reason certain types of directors want to work with me is that I'm not imbued with the business. I still think in terms of what I do as art and that might be pretentious but it's really important to me. The only time I do a film is when I read something that touches my heart and that's one of the major thematics of the movie I'm working on now--that people never die as long as you keep them in your heart. For me that's a cool place to be telling a story from, and the fact that Ridley and I would get together again and do a low budget comedy instead of what people would expect-some $150million bloodfest - I'm enjoying that part of it as well.

"I do movies that I have some kind of emotional connection to. All I'm trying to do when I do my job is not to be elevated in your mind, but that when you sit in a cinema to watch a movie you get goose bumps, maybe even shed a tear."

Crowe began the process by immersing himself in the archives of photographs and film reels that still exist of Braddock in his fighting heyday. He spent hours meticulously analysing the fighter’s every movement and facial expression in the ring, dissecting his character’s drive and persistence from the outside in. At the same time, Crowe began to study the art of boxing - the sport known as “the sweet science” for its multifaceted mix of grace, grit and strategy - with trainer Angelo Dundee, who for 21 years trained the greatest champion of them all, Muhammad Ali.

The next task was to whip Crowe into the highly conditioned shape of a hungry pro boxer. But because Crowe was devoted to absolute authenticity, he didn’t want to use today’s far more sophisticated training methods; rather, he wanted to use the same bare-bones methods Jim Braddock would have used. From research, Crowe learned that boxers in the 1930s rarely trained with weights, giving them a less cut physique than current boxers, so his program studiously avoided pumping iron. Instead, the emphasis was put on cardio and endless days and nights of sparring, sparring and more sparring in the ring - which eventually transformed the actor from 228 pounds of Master and Commander’s Captain Jack Aubrey to Braddock’s fighting weight of 178.

Taking advantage of the actor’s natural athleticism, Dundee brought in trainer Wayne Gordon, himself a former Olympic boxer, to design a regimen that included kayaking, swimming, running, biking, hiking mountains, skipping rope and working a bag – all designed to build a naturally strong (but not overly muscular) body built for power and endurance. Crowe trained with typical intensity, dropping numerous pounds to better emulate Braddock’s physique—the physique some said was too light and too battered to ever even hope for a regional win, let alone a heavyweight championship.

To better capture Braddock’s unique pugilistic style, Crowe also worked on choreography with Angelo Dundee, who was lucky enough to have witnessed Braddock fight in person on several occasions. The trainer taught Russell to use the left hook that Braddock developed to overcome the weakness of his right hand and even how to carry his body as if he were several inches taller, as Braddock was.

Crowe’s complete transformation took Dundee aback. “I would go so far as to say Russell is Jim Braddock,” says the venerable trainer. “I’m amazed the way Russell picked up his mannerisms, his smoothness, the legs, the way he slides, that slip, slide, block, slide, jab - boom! Like Jim, he has just about the greatest left hook I’ve ever seen. He’s got the speed, the rhythm, the determination and especially the will. Best of all, he has learned to think like a fighter. One thing about Braddock is that he was a smart fighter, and Russell uses his noodle just like Braddock did. I do think if he wasn’t an actor, Russell could have been a great fighter.”

"I’ve simply never seen anyone dedicate themselves to a part with more intensity than Russell Crowe"

Despite having worked with Crowe before, Ron Howard was also surprised by how Crowe used his physical changes to demonstrate Braddock’s transformation as a man. “What Russell has done so well is to let Braddock evolve during the course of the movie - as both a fighter and as a person. Russell draws from what he discerns and then reflects that back in a very detailed way. It’s the root of his immense talent. He has great instincts about what makes his character tick and how to express it. The fights needed to be a reflection of Braddock’s character and Russell was able to do that. Once again as an artist he proved himself to be superb.”

Adds producer Brian Grazer: “I’ve simply never seen anyone dedicate themselves to a part with more intensity than Russell Crowe.”

Boxing also tends to reveal human frailty, and like Jim Braddock, Crowe was not immune to injury. Just one week before shooting was to begin, Crowe dislocated his shoulder while sparring aggressively. The shoulder would require surgery, necessitating a seven-week delay in production.

Undeterred, Crowe used his recuperation time to devote himself to further refining his footwork and ring craft. He was back in the gym just a week out of the operating room, working to strengthen the injured shoulder back to fighting level. Meanwhile, the production team also used the period to design more complex ring choreography. Ultimately, Crowe saw the delay as a blessing in disguise, providing him, the filmmakers, everyone involved more time to ensure an authentic portrayal.

Published September 22, 2005

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