Into the Known World
Usually when I dig into the Movieline archives, I will omit some of the blurbs that the magazine published because they just aren’t meaty enough to stand alone. This time, however, I took two short pieces about Australian imports Russel Crowe and Guy Pearce who were being discovered by American audiences in L.A. Confidential when the September 1997 issue hit the shelves.
Making a film from James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential was risky business–there were so many ways to fail. The book itself is a dark, complex, violent tale of corrupt L.A. cops in the ’50s, with enough plot twists and characters to fill three movies. The movie was bound to be just the kind of mid-range project Hollywood seems unable to bring off these days–neither indie cheapy nor big-budget event.
As if to expand the initial improbability, Curtis Hanson signed on to direct the project. Hanson’s sure, economical lensing of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild did nothing to suggest that he could successfully bring Confidential‘s uncompromising vision of L.A. to the big screen. To top everything off, Hanson chose two barely known Australians to join Kevin Spacey in portraying the three flawed, dangerous L.A. cops at the heart of L.A. Confidential‘s tale. One Aussie, OK, but two?
“I think it’s coincidental,” says the better-known Australian, Russell Crowe, who took on the role of LAPD detective Bud White. “I don’t think that when Curtis approached me he realized I was Australian. He’d seen my American work.”
The 33-year-old Crowe had won the Australian version of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s startling 1991 drama Proof, and the Best Actor award for his portrayal of a neo-Nazi skinhead in the controversial 1992 film Romper Stomper. But to the extent he was known in the United States, it was for his Hollywood films, Sharon Stone’s western The Quick and the Dead and Denzel Washington’s sci-fi Virtuosity, both of which were bombs.
One has to think Hanson had some firm ideas about casting to have chosen Crowe and the even more unknown Guy Pearce. “Either that, or [the producers] were looking for something cheap,” Crowe laughs. “Guy and I felt a bond with Curtis because he’d taken a big risk. Actually, risk is the wrong word. We may be unknown, but we both have substantial careers. Certainly, he’d taken a punt.”
Whatever Hanson was thinking, he was right. Crowe is completely convincing as L.A. Confidential‘s Bud White, a man who, though ruled by obsessions, is the dark knight of novelist James Ellroy’s brutal LAPD. Crowe credits Ellroy with helping him get inside White’s tortured psyche. “Ellroy’s a gold mine. My initial conversation with him was the basis for the Bud I created. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Bud’s achievement was based on a brilliantly sustained rage.’ That’s a line from the book. Later he told me, ‘In my world of tarnished people, Bud’s the only one I consider a hero.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute–he’s got to assassinate people, and he’s a hero?’ I had to find the ways in which you might like Bud–because you have to.”
Crowe knows that L.A. Confidential is his first worthy Hollywood effort, but he’s remarkably upbeat on the subject of his previous Tinseltown films. Virtuosity may have been a loathsome film in which Crowe played a distasteful computer-generated killer, but he insists, “The director was a wonderful bloke. [But] no matter what I wanted to bring to my character, he was living in a cartoon world.” Of Sharon Stone, who handpicked Crowe to be her leading gunslinger in the misfired The Quick and the Dead, he says, “A great lady–very talented. But it’s the same thing there–you’re dealing with an extreme fantasy world.”
Crowe doesn’t have to reach to sound genuinely affected by L.A. Confidential. “It’s maybe the first real adult film I’ve made,” he says earnestly. “Man–this was definitely a journey to go on.” So where to next? Crowe lives in Australia, where he’s been a star since Proof, and where he’s been paying the price for success for some time now.
“When you’re young in Australia, you learn about the Tall Poppy Syndrome,” Crowe explains. “If you stick your head above the rest of the flowers, you get it lopped off.” Still, Crowe is decidedly wary of Hollywood as an alternative. “People in this town will ‘nice’ you to death–say what they feel you need to hear. I’ve watched young Australians come over and simply implode because they believe everything they hear.”
Off the heat for L.A. Confidential, Crowe has had several American film offers. “One for a ridiculous amount of money,” he says. “It would solve a lot of problems. But I don’t operate like that.
“Sometimes the route to the top is not the obvious trail, if, in fact, you’re aiming for the mythical whatever,” he adds. And for those who may have missed that particular point, Crowe ends by saying, “I’m a great burner of any pedestal someone tries to put me on.”
Guy Pearce is a celebrity in Australia, a swoon-inducing soap opera hunk and the star of several feature films. But in Hollywood, the reaction is a bit different. “A lot of people here know they’ve seen me in something,” Pearce says, “but they just can’t place me.” Something indeed: Pearce was the bitchiest and most flamboyant drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the 1994 indie import hit.
His Hollywood debut is more than a slight change of pace. In director Curtis Hanson’s hard-hitting version of James Ellroy’s scorching crime novel L.A. Confidential, Pearce plays Ed Exley, an obsessively moral, career-climbing cop. Director Hanson never even saw Priscilla. “But that’s the great thing,” says Pearce. “Getting L.A. Confidential was very much based on what I brought to the audition.” The fact is, he nails the lead role of Exley. No chance you’ll suffer distracting flashbacks to his diva in long flowing gown atop a lavender bus in the Australian Outback. “That’s good,” Pearce says dryly. Though his Hollywood profile is on the rise, Pearce doesn’t plan to leave his home Down Under any time soon. “Coming here and doing this made me want to try hard to get involved in some really good Australian film next. Besides, if I’m gonna be out of work, I’d rather be in Melbourne than L.A.”
Joshua Mooney interviewed Robert Wisdom for the August issue of Movieline.