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Sgt. Friday Was Never Like This

'Romper Stomper' made Russell Crowe a star in Australia, and 'L.A. Confidential' could do it for him here. Yes, this is one persistent farm boy.

September 21, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Australian actor Russell Crowe is not unlike Bud White, the obsessive, brutal cop he plays in the Curtis Hanson film "L.A. Confidential," which opened Friday. This isn't to suggest Crowe's a violent person, because he's not. In fact, by all accounts he's an uncommonly sensitive, kind man who refers to the livestock on his farm in Australia as "my friends." (Crowe's cows were unavailable for comment). What we're talking about here is vigilance.

Take Crowe's approach to interviews. Most movie star chat sessions boil down to one carefully measured hour of conversation in a controlled setting--a publicist's office, say, or a discreet public place. With Crowe, you go to the house of his buddy who's putting him up while he's in L.A., and he spends hours with you. He pulls out CDs and plays favorite cuts. He tells you about his girlfriend. He calls the next day to clarify a point he felt he hadn't adequately communicated, then calls again and invites you to come and see his girlfriend's band--he's doing the lights for the show and he'll put you on the guest list.

He calls again and asks if a lunch meeting could be arranged to tie up some conversational threads he feels are still hanging. You meet for lunch, and here's the amazing part--he tries to pay! This is highly unusual, as within the industry it's generally assumed a star's mere presence is their contribution to whatever bill has been run up.

Maybe they do things differently in Australia. However you slice it, the 33-year-old actor is thorough, and he's been a big star in his homeland since 1992, when he turned in a searing performance as a white supremacist in "Romper Stomper," a terrifying film about Australian skinheads. "L.A. Confidential," which also stars Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger, is expected to confer comparable star status on Crowe in America.

Hailed by early reviewers as the first great period film about Southern California since the 1974 masterpiece "Chinatown," "L.A. Confidential" is an adaptation of James Ellroy's 1990 novel chronicling the misadventures of three cops afflicted with different kinds of corruption. Spacey's Jack Vincennes is simply in it for the money, while Pearce's Ed Exley is a craven opportunist desperate to prove himself to his father. Crowe's Bud White--perhaps the most complex of the three--witnessed the murder of his mother by his father when he was a boy, and that experience turned him into a walking time bomb driven to rescue damsels in distress.

White explodes with blind rage at the mere idea of a woman being subjected to physical violence--and it was Crowe's capacity for telegraphing violence onscreen that brought him to Hanson's attention.

"I saw Russell in 'Romper Stomper' and just thought, 'Wow! Who is this guy?' " he recalls. "I knew from that picture that he had the stuff to hold the screen, and that he was able to play violence and still keep a character interesting. I love Russell in 'L.A. Confidential,' too, because he understood the duality of this character. Bud White appears to be a mindless thug, and Russell handled that well, but he also brought a courtliness to Bud that lets women know there's more to him than that.

"Bud is the noblest character in the film, and of all the characters Ellroy's created, I think Bud is the closest to him," Hanson adds. "Both their mothers died violent deaths, and I think the demons they struggle with are similar." (In 1958, when Ellroy was 10, his mother was found strangled; the writer explored his feelings about this unsolved crime in his book of last year, "My Dark Places.")

Crowe agrees with Hanson on this point, and recalls, "Ellroy told me that of all the damaged characters who populate this story, Bud White is the only one with the potential to be a hero. James is fond of Bud, and I think it's fairly obvious that there's a lot of James' own story in Bud, and that both are on a quest for self-redemption."

Surprisingly enough, Ellroy sees things differently. "I'd say there's an equal amount of Ed Exley in me--I'm just that calculating and ambitious, and in a sense, Exley represents my worst vision of myself," Ellroy confesses. "As Russell said, self-redemption is one of my central themes, and there is the trauma of Bud's murdered mother and my own, but Bud White's a violent man and I never have been."

Bud White is indeed a violent man, and "L.A. Confidential" is a violent movie. Crowe is quick to point out, however, that "it's not violent in Hollywood terms, nor is the violence gratuitous. This is a story about policemen during a particularly ugly period of the '50s, and the LAPD had a totally different relationship with society then than it has now. The audience must be made to understand that these aren't the easiest streets to deal with."

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