June 06, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

The sun’s going down as Russell Crowe strides out onto the patio of a hotel in Beverly Hills, still buzzing from last night’s premiere. ”It was an extremely late night,” he says, pulling a pick-me-up from a pack of smokes. ”There was an after-party, and then there was an after-after-party. But the one to really be at was the after-after-after-party.” He has reason to celebrate. It’s been a tough eight-year slog getting his new movie, Cinderella Man, to the screen, and at this point, just days away from its opening, Crowe can practically taste the fairy-tale ending. Cinderella Man recounts one of sports history’s great underdog stories: the tale of James J. Braddock, 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. Still, in a summer already bursting with lightsaber duels, comic-book superheroes, the Tom and Katie show, and other assorted diversions, Crowe knows a period drama about people surviving hard times, no matter how rousing, isn’t the easiest sell. ”There’s no utility belt, no cape,” he says. ”There will be a lot of people that will take a bit of convincing to go see this film. They won’t know its power until they’ve seen it.”

Hollywood has known the power of the Braddock story for years. An early draft of Cinderella Man by Cliff Hollingsworth started making the rounds in 1997, and Crowe and Zellweger both zeroed in on it. Various directors circled around the project — Penny Marshall, Billy Bob Thornton, Lasse Hallström — and various actors were attached to the role of Braddock: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon. Still, Crowe and Zellweger never took their eyes off the prize. ”I’d always ask my manager about it, to the point where I’m sure I annoyed him,” says Zellweger. ”It’s rare to come across something you can connect with on an emotional level. The trend has been for everything to be big and splashy, but this was just a pared-down story about the human spirit and unconditional love.”

The project came Crowe’s way again while he was making A Beautiful Mind, and he lobbied Howard to take it on. Together with A Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, they set to work fleshing out what had always been a rather bare-bones script. ”We wanted to dramatize what it’s really like to live inside a fairy tale when you don’t know there’s a happy ending,” says Howard, who had grown up hearing tales of the folk hero Braddock from his boxing-aficionado father. ”That became the guiding principle.”

As with any good Cinderella story, of course, there were travails on the way to the ball. 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?”

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