Mandel Maven's Nest: And Then There's Russell Crowe-- Gladiator



"Are you not entertained?" - "Maximus Decimus Meridias"





Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.



NB: Crowe's commentary is only on the two-disc special edition DVD that I haven’t watched yet. But I saw it in the movie theater.

I figured I'd seen three foreign movies in a row and I've been a Russell Crowe fan since the sweet little Aussie movie Proof and I vaguely remember liking him in a supporting role in Efficiency Expert so I was entitled to go Hollywood this weekend for Gladiator.
Full theater at 11 am and 3/4 male like it was for Matrix, but not very vocal throughout the violence. For all the computer graphics in Gladiator (and the mattes are obvious) the dialogue is still a bit out of Victor Mature days such that one wonders how they said the lines with straight faces (and boy does Crowe glower throughout most of the movie -- think of how he looked at the Oscars only a whole lot grubbier--and his rousing of the troops didn't quite match Shakespeare and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V).

[Here's fair use excerpts of a discussion about the script, by the way, from an interview Crowe did with Andrew Denton for Australian TV 8/03:
"We started shooting with 35 pages and, you know, your average script is 125 pages. So I'd be sitting there, you know, and Ridley's going, "We're gonna write that now." It's like, "It's not good enough. I wanna know about it. I wanna take it inside, sit with it, think about it because then I can give something better." There's a bunch of lines of dialogue in that film, like "Strength and honour", "At my signal, unleash hell". There's a bunch of stuff that had nothing to with writers — that have to do with conversations between Ridley and I. And, in fact, "Strength and honour" comes from, er… In reality it comes from the, er… motto for Sydney Boys High School… which is "veritate et virtute", you know. Um, and I went, "Oh, cool. Good idea. I'll do a little Latin tag." Right? And he said, "And what does that mean, then?" I said, "Well, basically, strength and honour." He says, "Well, say that." So this great fucking line from the movie comes from nothing more than… than, you know, just a focus that you have on it."]

The directing amidst the special effects is very Saving Private Ryan style, very much in the thick of it, the fog of battle type stuff, slo mo's, spinning (I ducked at all the decapitations and bodies split in half). The best aspect are the parallels between the opening battle for expansion of the Empire (vs the Germans - wait maybe this is Private Ryan--and like Tom Hanks' character, and as The Younger pointed out like the great Greek/Homeric legends, the hero just wants to go home to his wife after he makes the empire safe for democracy) and then battle recreations for entertainment value by the gladiators - as Crowe bellows Are you not entertained? after slaughtering his opposition in the ring.

The putative romantic implications in the misleading TV ads take up 5 seconds of 2 1/2 hours, as Crowe's Maximus has more sensual dreams about his wheat harvest than about his wife (who he describes as having hair as black as berries but sure looks light brown to me). And it's yuckily disturbing--but evidently historically accurate-- to have Joaquin Phoenix's Emperor (and hey, did he gain weight Method style for this role?) such an incestuous lecher.

But Crowe is shown to such physical advantage at these games (and one is left primarily with the overwhelming impression of his charisma, whew), and the rationalization for his participating in an early version of the WWF is shell-shock from grief is effective (I did like the scene when in this game Crowe's Maximus is "playing" the barbarian he organizes his team like the great general he is and beats the Romans turning the historical recreation on its head for the crowd).

Beautiful vocalizations by Lisa Gerrard on the soundtrack, sounding like Ofra Haza (she was robbed of an Oscar nom - but it was so sweet of The Scion to use his $10 amazon.com coupon to get the soundtrack for me as a present).

So for all its faults why am I drawn to see it again? Because building up to the last third of the movie, Crowe is astoundingly magnetic, carrying the special effects on his muscled torso, which is why he earned the Oscar. It sui generis redefines "date movie." I have gotten completely obsessed with this movie (as has a lesbian friend of mine, though my Upper West Side intellectual friends disdained it as ultra-violent and others won't even go see it) so here's excerpts or reference to OTHER WOMEN'S reviews from around the world that capture and explain my extreme fan-aticism -- why Gladiator is in fact a chick flick:

Questions for Terry Press: The Hard Sell Interview by Lynn Hirschberg in The New York Times 11/13/2005:
"Q: You figured out a way to sell "Gladiator," a swords-and-sandals epic that many felt would not succeed at the box office.
A: For Gladiator, we did a Super Bowl spot, which we rarely do. We wanted to link sports today with gladiator fighting: sports then and sports now. But after the initial rush, over 50 percent of our business came from women. Again, the stakes in the film were emotional. Russell Crowe was avenging the death of his wife and son, and he carried little wood-carved figurines of them everywhere he went. Most women are lucky if their husbands carry their pictures in their wallets."

Here's A 'Gladiator' Even A Woman Could Love by Renee Graham, The Boston Globe, May 9, 2000" (excerpts)
"Three Reasons Why "Gladiator" Works As A Chick Flick. . .1) It's a Love Story. Really. . . .2) An Intelligent Female Character. . . 3) Russell Crowe. . . .He's real, accessible, and smart. And he's probably one of the few contemporary actors who could be as convincing weeping at the feet of his dead wife and child as he is lopping off the limbs of his opponents. What's not for a woman to like? "

Gals fall for 'Gladiator' Something to Crowe about by Sharon Johnson, The Harrisburg Patriot, Page E04, 5/19/2000 (excerpts)
. . ."Ordinarily, a movie like Gladiator would be going after primarily a male audience, but the spectacle and romance of it has got female moviegoers caught up in it," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks movie ticket sales. . . Proving that he's not entirely clueless, Dergarabedian went on to speculate that "that bodes well for Russell Crowe and his future." . . .What's really bringing female viewers to Gladiator? A friend of mine summarized it neatly. "Two-and-a-half hours of Russell Crowe in a leather tunic? Where's the downside to that?'"

A classics professor falls for Crowe while analyzing the movie's authenticity or not: Interview: Professor Elaine Fantham, Princeton University, talks about the historic accuracy of the movie Gladiator, on Weekend Edition, 5/13/2000, with host Susan Stamberg (It's NPR so I figure I can quote it more extensively):
Prof. FANTHAM: And I must say, you know, that if I had been Marcus Aurelius or, in fact, just myself, I would have preferred Russell Crowe.
STAMBERG: You bet. So you liked Crowe. But tell us what it is about these gladiators--now how come they fascinate us as much as they did the ancient Romans?
Prof. FANTHAM: Well, I'm inclined to think it was something to do with the fact that by the time the gladiatorial gangs became a really popular activity Romans from Rome no longer fought in the legions. They were not regarded as good fighting material. Of course, there were plenty of Roman citizens fighting in the wars, and that's why we have that perfectly splendid battle at the beginning of the movie. But the people in Rome, the ones who thronged--well, who would throng Coliseum once it was erected, around 80, didn't get to fight themselves, and they probably needed this to carry it through.
STAMBERG: Huh. Much like football today, eh?
Prof. FANTHAM: Yes.
STAMBERG: OK. So you were talking about the battle. What about it? How well was it portrayed in this film? How realistically?
Prof. FANTHAM: Well, it was an absolutely splendid battle from the point of view of the sort of horror and disorder and, of course, the way it laid waste of a perfectly respectable German forest. The one thing about the battle that was perhaps not quite, you know, authentic was that, besides all the tactics you might have used in the battle in those days, they had thrown in some of the perfectly splendid artillery siege engines which are firing off arrows that are set alight with camphor, probably, or something like that. And it's a splendid sight and very theatrical; but I doubt they'd have used them in the battle.
STAMBERG: I wonder how you felt as a scholar being able to look at Rome reconstructed through all of those fancy computer devices to look as it did in its day before it fell into ruins.
Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. Well, you know, the sad thing is that the fancy computer devices produce a very flat effect. I mean, it's not that it was inaccurate, you know. I don't want to be petty about that. As far as I know, the architecture was perfectly likely to be right. It just looked two-dimensional.
STAMBERG: Mm. What about the story that Gladiator tells? Is it historically correct?
Prof. FANTHAM: It's historically possible. What is, perhaps, extraordinary about it, they've invented Maximus the hero. And I'm very grateful to them for doing so, because it gave me a chance to watch Russell Crowe; but they have invented him.
STAMBERG: Now what about Commodus? This is not a name that leaps to mind. You know, you think about Comodeous, maybe, or Comode, but what about the reign of Commodus?
Prof. FANTHAM: Well, the name is really totally false to his nature--if only he had been. It would be like calling somebody Felix, which means happy, or Pius. Commodus should mean gracious and obliging and pleasant. And as far as I can see, he was probably the nastiest emperor of the lot, totally cruel, vicious, constantly drunk, indulging in every sexual perversion that the historian can think of; he exiled and then executed his own sister. It must be said, however, that his own sister was conspiring against him because she realized what a disaster he was.
STAMBERG: Gee. You know, this sounds as if it's a made-for-TV miniseries. I don't know how the networks and all have overlooked it for all these years.
Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. Certainly, Commodus' life has--if you want horror, you've got practically every kind of horror. And you have some fun stuff. For instance, apparently, the concubine, who ultimately killed him, he used to ask her to dress up as an Amazon, to please him. And he even--when he changed the name of the months, he called December Amazoneous after her.
STAMBERG: You see, there's nothing new under the sun.
Prof. FANTHAM: Well, right. So he left nothing unchanged. He tried to change the name of Rome, which must have pained everybody.
STAMBERG: Well, what did he want to call Rome?
Prof. FANTHAM: Carmodiana. Yeah, after me.
STAMBERG: What about the film's depiction of sort of ordinary daily life in Rome in that period, how well does it do that?
Prof. FANTHAM: Well, we didn't see an awful lot of ordinary daily life in Rome. What we did see was some very good street scenes, some extremely good scenes in the gladiatorial school--whether at Rome or in Africa. One of the amazing things about the Roman Empire that the film could have made a bit more fuss about is that it was all these different geographies and climates and cultures. In fact, all the great Roman writers, after the age of Virgil, were Romans from Africa and Romans from Spain.
STAMBERG: Huh. So what is your rating of this film Gladiator Professor, shields up or down?
Prof. FANTHAM: Definitely thumbs up, I think. And, you know, there's a nice pun implicit in the title. I don't know if it was intended by the author. We think of it as describing Russell Crowe, who, in fact, has to achieve his vengeance as a gladiator, but when Commodus was killed, everybody rejoiced. And we've got preserved a rather rabid denunciation of him by the senate. It says, `'Let Commodus, the gladiator, the parasite, the enemy of his fatherland, let him be taken to the Channel House. Let him be cast in the Tiber.' He is also the gladiator.'" (Copyright 2000 National Public Radio, Inc. )

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times June 11, 2000 in Liberties: Freud Was Way Wrong : "Women's liberation now means being liberated from stereotypes about what women want. Consider this: Hollywood, which is always rediscovering the obvious, is shocked that female moviegoers prefer Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House to chick flicks like the Natalie Portman-Ashley Judd movie Where the Heart Is or Kim Basinger's I Dreamed of Africa. . .Girls have always gone for the cute guys slaying the dragon, or in the case of Gladiator, the tiger. And they always will."

Dowd's not making this stupidity up: here's an excerpt from Catherine Applefield Olson's 4/22/2000 "Soundtracks and Films Score News" column in Billboard, the trade magazine of the recording industry:
"[Lisa Altman, senior VP of crossover music for Universal Classics] notes that Gladiator is poised to attract an audience similar to what Braveheart did--males ages 24-40--although Gladiator undoubtedly will bring in the younger set as well. [ Did no one tell her about the R rating?] DreamWorks began addressing that target audience in January with a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and has subsequently showed during selected televised auto racing, NHL, and NBA events. . . The film studio may be putting its money on the most obvious audience, but [film score composer Hans] Zimmer had a different aesthetic in mind when he composed the music. 'You hear Gladiator, and it's such a boys' movie,' he says. 'My ambition was, I didn't want a single woman to leave the theater. I wanted to get everyone involved in the emotional aspect. Even the battle sequences are very much a part of the emotional texture of the movie.'"

Ah, so the creative people knew what they were doing even if the marketing executives didn't. Here's the view of Brits:

Keegan must look to his laurels by Rachel Cooke in Daily Telegraph (London), June 14, 2000
"It is now more than a month since Gladiator opened at the cinema, yet the spell it has cast on almost every woman of my acquaintance shows no sign of being broken just yet. Only yesterday, a colleague arrived at work with a glow about her that I have come to recognise - a kind of joyous incandescence born of blood and breastplates, tyrants and togas. . . .Not since the heyday of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr have so many women been so in love with one so unattainable - or, in the case of Crowe, so unlikely. For the Australian actor is an unusual sex symbol. His face is soggy and yellowish and, in Gladiator, he wears a horrible beard throughout. Then, of course, there are the costumes. Although, thankfully, Crowe's Maximus never scampers about in a tiny loincloth the way Kirk Douglas did in Spartacus, he must still stride hither and thither in a skirt and sandals - and we all know what that did for David Beckham's image. "

Glad to be a gladiator by Barbara Ellen
in The Observer (London), May 21, 2000:
"I had the best time at a gay porn movie the other day, or at least what I took to be a gay porn movie. Before people start writing in, ranting about impressionable young minds, maybe I should explain that I'm referring to Gladiator, the new Roman blockbuster, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe as Maximus. Considering men are supposed to think about sex every few seconds, you can't help but wonder just whom they're supposed to be ogling in this overwhelmingly male epic. . . .Maximus emerges as cinema's most potent symbol of male physicality and integrity since Marlon Brando's T-shirt-splitting turn in Streetcar. All of which testosterone conversely helps to make Gladiator one of the gayest movies of recent times."

At last, something burly for us girlies by Zoe Williams, The Evening Standard (London), June 2, 2000:
"It's good to be reminded every now and then that there is such a thing as All Man. Yes, that's All Man, not two parts man and one part bloke, chap or fellow. You won't find him in a Bond film - in fact, you won't usually find him in a film at all. His job is not jokes or wearing eyeliner. His job is not to have tidy hair or persuasive dialogue. He is not there to outwit, to dupe, to seduce, to escape, to chuckle, to charm, to grin, to frolic or to have a shower. He is there to win, not with cunning nor well-placed pals - with nothing on his side but the love of God and the muscles of the very devil." Yes, obviously I'm talking about Gladiator. Of course I'm talking about Russell Crowe. And I'm talking from the standpoint of one who had precisely no interest in seeing an epic film about a curiously uninteresting period of Roman history where all they did was wrangle, kill one another and belch. I hate long films, I don't think much of random nastiness to tigers and I used to weep into my French homework at the sight of Elizabeth Taylor ruining my Sunday afternoons with her silly headgear and improbable breasts. I went to see it, against all odds and a fortnight too late, because every woman I've ever met is in love with this man. And they're right to be. No red-blooded anything could possibly not be. "

Generation Angst (by ?) in The Express (London), 5/15/2000
When my girlfriends suggested that we should go to the cinema last Saturday night I thought it was a good idea. When they suggested that we should see Gladiator I thought it wasn't such a good idea. . . The main reason was that, being a girl, I don't much enjoy spending two and a half hours watching a load of blokes beat each other up in a testosterone-fuelled frenzy. . .And actually, I loved Gladiator. We all loved Gladiator. Every woman in that darn cinema loved Gladiator. . . The tragedy is, though, that while women grow up and out of pretty boys, men - whatever their age - never grow out of pretty girls.

And on into the next generation (and they sound a whole lot like me too – am I channeling my inner 15 year old or are they growing up fast?): Young hearts aflutter on the wings of Crowe by Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun, July 1, 2001 (fair use excerpts):
. . . "[M]y 15-year-old daughter and her 15-year-old friends think Russell Crowe is, like, seriously hot. Gladiator has made it to HBO, where no one checks IDs, and it has been playing in my family room like it is on a video loop. . . .These friends recently celebrated the birthday of one of them, and Russell Crowe was the character-theme, the way Barbie or Winnie the Pooh used to be. Instead of a big purple dinosaur, it was a blood- and mud-streaked warrior in a tunic that showed to great advantage his thighs and biceps. The gifts included a copy of the Gladiator video, a Russell Crowe poster and the soundtrack to the movie. When the girls departed, I found a Russell Crowe screen saver had been installed on the computer. . .
Someone acquired a copy of L.A. Confidential, which also has adult content, adult language and graphic violence and also features Russell Crowe. One of the girls previewed it to the other by saying: "You have to get used to his hair, because it is really short." "Is his shirt off?" the other asked in reply, and when she was informed that yes, his shirt was off in at least one scene, that appeared to compensate for the fact that his hair was short in this movie, and he had no beard and no sexy accent. In addition, these friends waited outside Blockbuster for the release of Proof of Life, and they were as eager as they would have been six months ago if tickets to an 'N Sync concert were about to go on sale. They did everything but camp overnight on the sidewalk. . . .
One night, a celebrity-driven cable channel was featuring a Russell Crowe retrospective - I imagine it was brief - and there was so much squealing in my house that you'd think the Beatles had deplaned in the front yard. And the delirium renewed itself when People magazine arrived with Crowe on the cover as one of its most eligible bachelors. . .
There is a scene in the promotions for Sex and the City where Sarah Jessica Parker emits that signature gal-pal squeal after she and her friend respond simultaneously to another woman's question: "Who are you fantasizing about these days?" Their answer is "Russell Crowe." My daughter and her friends think this trailer is a hilarious coincidence - what we adults would call "art imitating life." I didn't like it. The trailer made me squirm. Probably because "Russell Crowe" would have been my answer, too."

A masculine insight noting the link between Crowe's performance and his Australian-ness, from fellow Ozzie Thespian Simon Baker (in The Age, Fallin on his feet by Debi Enker, May 22 2003, ):
"I love the stoic nature. Growing up in Australia, I saw so many of those people. You watch a football game in Australia and someone scores a try under the post and you don't see too much self-congratulatory behaviour. It's sort of, well, OK, put your head down, try not to smile.
"You're playing pool and you sink the black after sinking seven balls, and the other guy hasn't sunk a ball yet, and you put the black down with a tremendous shot, you don't go 'Yeah!' and Tom Cruise-ify it. That, to me, is interesting. I think Russell Crowe played a South Sydney footballer in Gladiator [and this before he bought the Rabbitohs]. You know that shot where he runs on to the field? He was a bloody footballer going out for the Grand Final. For me, it was fantastic. I loved to see that. It's so Australian. I mean, c'mon, high-fives and all that crap? It's not our way."

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