- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

NEW YORK CITY - “Is Jack Aubrey conservative?” Russell Crowe asks rhetorically. “Yes, in the sense that he’s a naval captain. But this captain is protecting a Catholic onboard in the Royal Navy of 1805. He shouldn’t be doing that. He’s absolutely a rebel when regulations don’t match up with his own ideas of loyalty and prudence.”

If, as Hamlet surmised, readiness is all, Russell Crowe would appear to be one ready movie star. His newest vehicle, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” a seafaring adventure derived from the popular historical novels of the late Patrick O’Brian, showcases him as an exemplary man of action against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. While pursuing a French frigate into South American waters, Mr. Crowe’s Capt. Jack Aubrey gets more than he bargained for.

Caught off-guard in an opening engagement, Aubrey contrives to outfox and outbattle a powerful and elusive adversary. His zest and resilience provide Mr. Crowe with an enviable challenge, and he hasn’t wasted the opportunity. His heroic Aubrey should become the latest highlight of a surging career.

In recent years, Mr. Crowe, 39, has been the leading man in two Academy Award-winning features, “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind,” and a key element in two strong contenders, “L.A. Confidential” and “The Insider.” Individually, he was nominated for Oscars for “The Insider” and “A Beautiful Mind” and won as best actor for “Gladiator.” “Master and Commander,” directed with exceptional skill and finesse by Peter Weir, is likely to contend for this year’s awards.

Both colleagues and spectators seem to respond to Mr. Crowe as a welcome throwback, a reincarnation of the old breed, or dying breed, of man’s man. Promoting “Master” in New York recently, the actor was asked if he thought commanders as brave and enterprising as Aubrey had vanished from the face of the earth. Referring to the bonds of male fellowship between Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and resident intellectual, Mr. Crowe begged to differ.

“I don’t think anything on display in this movie is necessarily lost,” Mr. Crowe replied. “You can still find the kind of camaraderie that links Aubrey and Maturin. It may have become lost to movie theaters, because the vast majority of films can’t seem to keep track of two possibilities in one conversation. Or one shot. Usually one bloke talks, and the other listens and nods. Then the nodding bloke gets to talk while the other listens and nods. Here’s a movie in which strong men with different opinions can have an argument, without their central core of deep affection being changed.”

Encountering Russell Crowe in person, you’re impressed with the straight-from-the-shoulder attitude common to many film people from Australia and New Zealand. Clad in a gray suit with a pink shirt and no tie, his collar open to reveal a small crucifix, Mr. Crowe establishes an all-business command of the setting as soon as he enters. He has no “focus” problems.

“There are plenty of lazy actors,” Mr. Crowe observes at one point. “Give me a script, and I’ll be ready in the morning. I’ve been doing it all my life, basically. I was 6 when I got my first acting job … It’s a director’s medium, and I’m there to work for him. The directors who hire me know I fully understand what the gig’s about. They also know I’ll take a certain amount of pressure off their hands. It’s a privilege to do all the research required for a film like Peter’s: to take time with your decisions and fill yourself with the role.”

The work ethic encompasses intangibles as well as research, rehearsal and performance. Mr. Crowe arranged to become the temporary guardian for one of the young actors cast as a midshipman in “Master and Commander.” Circumstances prevented the boy’s mother and then another relative from staying with him during the movie’s extended production at 20th Century Fox’s oceanfront studio complex near Ensenada, Mexico. Loathe to let a professional chaperone interfere with the “energy” he wanted to create and sustain for the cast, Mr. Crowe proposed himself as a replacement.

“A very intelligent boy,” he reflects, “but [he] had never read a book. I found that unbelievable. So it was like, ‘Very sorry, mate, but you’re reading now. Here’s your first book. You’ve got three days to finish.’”

Russell Crowe is a walking, talking advertisement for preparation, dedication and clarity. Maybe once he has put Napoleon’s navy in its place, he could take a look at the problem of the declining test scores of American students.

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