As Commodus, the ''Yards'' actor played the perfect conflicted villain

Russell Crowe may have been the one to get audiences all hot and bothered with his command to ”unleash hell!” But back in Rome, brooding away in the chilly palace shadows, a more nuanced star-making performance was in the works, replete with its own catchphrase: ”It vexes me. I’m terribly vexed.” As Gladiator‘s deliciously sinister emperor-in-waiting, Commodus, Phoenix was the anti-Crowe: the wounded foil, who says more with a whispery malevolent snarl than a throat-shredding bark. ”I thought he was complex,” says Phoenix. ”You don’t expect to find a character dealing with issues like parental neglect and paranoia in a movie like this.” It’s true, Phoenix turns what could have easily been a cartoonish villain into a richly layered study of pathology. Here’s hoping Phoenix stays terribly vexed for years to come.