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Russell Crowe: Chairman of the Sword

Crowe conquers the spectacular arena of “Gladiator” — but shooting this big-budget epic was anything but a Roman holiday

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Sometimes even the most inspired ideas sound ridiculous at first.

At least that’s the way Ridley Scott saw it one June day in 1998, when DreamWorks’ production head Walter Parkes and producer Douglas Wick paid a visit to his West Hollywood office and pitched him on directing a Roman gladiator epic set in A.D. 180.

A gladiator movie! Had his career come to this? Hadn’t gladiator movies been used as a Peter Graves punchline in Airplane!?

Scott was well within his rights to laugh the pair out the door. After all, it had been 35 years since the decline and fall of those old-fashioned sandal-and-toga Roman spectaculars. And for good reason. For every Spartacus, Hollywood had cranked out a dozen fiscal sinkholes like Cleopatra or embarrassments like Barabbas. Horrifying images of a loincloth-clad Victor Mature sucking in his gut must have flashed through Scott’s head.

Then Parkes pulled out the one thing he knew might sway the visually minded director behind Blade Runner and Alien. ”It was a reproduction of a 19th-century painting [Pollice Verso, by Jean-León Gérôme],” says Scott. ”It depicted a gladiator standing over another gladiator who he was about to kill. And he was looking up to a crowd that was giving the full thumbs-down.” At that moment, the ridiculous was transformed into the inspired.

”They really had me,” laughs Scott. ”I hadn’t even read the script and I was sitting there begging and thinking ‘S—, why hadn’t I thought of that?”’

Now, nearly two years after Scott and DreamWorks tapdanced on the fine line between clever and stupid, the advance buzz on Gladiator—and especially on Russell Crowe as its badass warrior-hero Maximus—is so overwhelming that the only question seems to be how big a blockbuster it’s going to be. But getting to this point has been one of the bumpiest chariot rides since Ben-Hur. For starters, at $103 million, Gladiator is the six-year-old studio’s most expensive movie ever—and it wasn’t even directed by in-house sure thing Steven Spielberg. Also, there was Scott’s track record: It’s been a rocky decade for the 62-year-old British auteur, who followed his last critical hit, 1991’s Thelma & Louise, with potholes like White Squall and G.I. Jane. Then there was the script…or lack of one. Scott began shooting without a finished screenplay to meet a summer deadline, while last-minute writers were brought in to hash out a completely new second act. There was the shock when one of the film’s stars, British actor Oliver Reed, died suddenly on location in Malta last spring. And finally, there was the movie’s star: With brilliant performances in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, Crowe was definitely an actor on the rise. But whether he was ready to carry a summer action movie on his shoulders was another question entirely.

It’s two weeks before Oscar night, and Russell Crowe seems the exact opposite of the tuxedoed sourpuss that the TV cameras caught in the audience of the Shrine. That night, Crowe looked like a guy who was weaned on a pickle. And in reality, on the set and off, the 36-year-old actor is a notorious bad boy—combative, hard-living, but most importantly, he insists, dead serious about his work. Today, though, over a couple of beers at a dude-ranch-themed bar on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, Crowe seems more laid-back and funny than brooding and hard-boiled.