Cinderella Man recounts one of sports history’s great underdog stories: the tale of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), the scrappy Depression-era boxer who battled his way from the welfare rolls to the world heavyweight championship, buoyed by his steadfast wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and feisty manager-trainer, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). It’s Rocky meets The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Ron Howard with the same sure-footed feel for human drama he brought to his last collaboration with Crowe, 2001’s Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind — and like that movie, it has ”for your Oscar consideration” written all over it.
As with any good Cinderella story, of course, there were travails on the way to the ball. Various directors and stars (including Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon) circled the script for years before Crowe, Zellweger, and Howard signed on. Then, just weeks before shooting was to begin, Crowe dislocated his shoulder while sparring, a serious injury that required surgery and wreaked havoc on the shooting schedule. Still, Crowe refused to pull back on any of the boxing scenes. ”The doctors kept saying, ‘If he goes down again, there’s no coming back,”’ says Howard. ”It was nerve-racking as hell. But what were the options? Not do the movie?”
”Russell shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing — I’m sure of it,” says Zellweger. ”But he won’t compromise. He’s tenacious.”
Tenacious is one of the nicer words that have been applied to an actor whose supposed hair-trigger temper and penchant for barroom fisticuffs are the stuff of tabloid legend (and a classic South Park parody, ”Russell Crowe: Fightin’ Around the World”). There are rumors the 41-year-old has mellowed since marrying actress Danielle Spencer in 2003 and having a son, Charlie, who’s now 18 months old, and the warmth and gentleness in his performance as Braddock will surprise anyone expecting the volcanic Crowe of Gladiator or L.A. Confidential. But as he makes clear in a conversation that ranges from Cinderella Man to power in Hollywood, and touches on some old grievances as well, it’ll take more than domestic tranquillity to subdue him. Russell Crowe still floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.