[This is my entry in The House Next Door’s Close-Up Blog-a-Thon. It’s one of my favorite closeups. Some closeups illuminate the emotions of a scene. Some closeups make sure we are on one character’s side over another. Some closeups are abstract. Some are meant to objectify. And sometimes … there is the “star closeup”. This closeup in LA Confidential is a “star closeup” but what is interesting about it is that Russell Crowe wasn’t a star yet. But Curtis Hanson knew what he had. This guy was going to be HUGE. And so after the frenetic preamble of the film, the movie starts with a star closeup. Of a man most audiences had never seen before. One of my favorite categories of closeup is “star closeups of those who are not stars yet”. See The Shamus’ great piece about John Wayne in Stagecoach.]
Russell Crowe has become an enormous star in such a relatively short amount of time that it’s hard to remember what an impact he made with his performance of Bud White in LA Confidential. Romper Stomper and Proof had gotten him international buzz, it is true, but nothing like the worldwide recognition factor that came to him with his portrayal of Bud White.
One of my favorite things about his performance as Bud White is how non-verbal it is.
The way he walks.
The way he crushes the chair in his hands.
How he pushes his head down in front, leading with it.
How his shoulders are squared and blunt.
But then the gentle eloquence of his hand on Lynn Brackett’s bare back, seen through the window. He relishes the softness of her, the GIVE of her body. He doesn’t touch her like a man accustomed to touching women. He’s in awe. How can something be so soft?
Bud White is not a happy guy. He’s not happy being the muscle. Watch how excited he gets when he’s lying in bed with Kim Basinger, talking about what he really wants to do in his life. His whole body language changes. He props himself up on one elbow on the pillow, and suddenly he’s as enthusiastic and open as a little boy. But none of his colleagues will ever see that side of him. No male will ever see that side of him. Women are the only ones who will ever be allowed to see his vulnerability.
This is a throw-back to old movie stars. Humphrey Bogart, for example. His characters were loners. He may have had sidekicks, or worthy foes – but you never really saw the guy with a close male friend. He was too much of an individual, too much a loner for that. His heart, his soul, was reserved for the female sex. She had to work for it, sure, and she had better not betray his trust … but she was the one who got to see that side of him. The softness. Who he was when he kissed. The softness of his hand on her back.
But just like Bogart: for Bud White it has to be the right woman. Not all women, no … most women are careless, flirty, they would laugh at his vulnerability, scorn it, recoil. But the right woman? There was only one of those, for Bogart’s persona, for Bud White. That’s why when Bud realizes Lynn has slept with Exley he is so devastated. Intimacy is not casual for Bud White. It is never casual because it is so rare. He is the opposite of a ladies man. He is a one-woman guy. Bud White has never had a relationship with a woman before Lynn Bracken. He fucked prostitutes from time to time, a practical choice to get that release, let off a little steam, but being a “boyfriend” is a completely new sensation, and not altogether pleasant. Only people who have spent the majority of their lives alone could ever understand that intimacy – when it finally comes – may be a blessing, but it is also stressful and even painful, because a life of being a loner marks you, makes you cautious, unwilling to believe, to trust.
I love him in the very first scene when he’s doing the stakeout outside the house where the guy is beating up the woman. Bud White walks up onto the lawn. Watch how he walks: the impulse, his objective is IN the way he walks. It’s not Russell Crowe’s walk. It’s Bud White’s walk. The bulldog, moving forward, on instinct. He will stop the beating. He has no idea how, but he WILL stop it. He sees the cord leading up to the Santa on the roof, and it’s just a glance – a quick glance – a flash-quick assessment of the situation – he reaches out, gives the cord a huge yank. The Santa comes crashing off the roof. I just love that quick glance he gives before he pulls it down. This is the first scene of the film.
This is when Bud White is established.
There’s a lot going on in that first scene, a lot of information comes at us: we see that obviously something about domestic violence drives this guy nuts. He’s FIXATED on it. This is important to know. It is Bud White’s entire raison d’etre: it isn’t just what he does, it is who he is. We also see that his partner treats him with bemused tolerance. We see how Bud White beats the crap out of the violent husband. This is more information. Bud White will not play by the rules when it comes to wife-beaters. And THEN, when the wife comes out onto the porch, trembling, we see how gently Bud White treats her, with deference, and a formality and respect. He calls her “Ma’am.” He lifts up the fallen cord so that she can pass beneath it, and his action in THAT moment, unlike the bulldog stalking across the yard, is full of grace. It’s a dance move on a dance floor, courtly and gentle, totally different from the violence he displayed two seconds earlier. He lifts up the cord unconsciously. He does it instinctively. This is who Bud White is with women.
Bud White is a product of his time. And Russell Crowe, in those little moments, how he lifts up the cord for the beaten lady, isn’t “acting like” he is back 50 years in time. He actually seems to just live there. This is so much harder than maybe it would seem. You can do all the research in the world, and look at old fashion magazines, and immerse yourself in the newspapers of that day, whatever … but then … after all the research … there’s got to be that moment of magic. The magic of transformation. Of belief. Some people can pull it off. Others can’t. Russell Crowe obviously did a ton of research, but at the end of the day, he just had to get up and DO it. I never for one second lose trust in him. He is not an actor in the late 20th century wearing old-timey clothes. He’s a bulldog cop with a buzzcut in the 1940s.
I remember the buzz in my little world of actors about this new guy – Russell Crowe – and how incredible he was in LA Confidential. People talked about him differently than they did about other new actors. The only guy who “came up” during my lifetime who generated the same amount of “actor excitement” was Mickey Rourke. It was almost like the second Crowe arrived (at least in America, he had been doing great work in New Zealand for a while) we couldn’t imagine what it was like before he got there.
He seemed inevitable.
And the inevitability was the result of Russell Crowe’s enormous talent, sure, but also because of the ROLE of Bud White. If it had been any other role, it might not have happened. It was Bud White that made him a star.
I would say that – even with all the great moments in the performance (especially breaking the chair, the moment my actor-friends all referenced most of all) – it is the first moment we see him in the film, in close-up, that made him a star. All it took was that one moment.
The movie’s energetic prologue, narrated by Danny DeVito, tells us about the tabloids, how it all works, the dirtiness beneath the surface of Los Angeles, the connection between sleaze and Hollywood and crime. The prologue is light, funny, flashy, the music swings, we see the grainy photographs, the nightclubs, the drug busts.
Then, the screen goes to black.
The next thing we see is a huge close-up of Russell Crowe. There isn’t a slow fade-in to the close-up. We aren’t “eased into it.” The screen goes to black, and then BOOM, we’re in the close-up. This is rare, in the world of close-ups. It’s very rare to start a film with one. To start a film with a close-up, providing no surrounding context, is rare. Usually we get something else to establish where we are, who the person is. Here, we have no warning.
Curtis Hanson is blunt, fearless, confident.
We see a man. Staring at something. We don’t know what yet. We don’t know who this man is – the character OR the actor. He was a total stranger to us. (Let’s pretend we hadn’t seen Romper Stomper and Proof and The Sum of Us. I had seen all of them, but let’s pretend that the majority of American audiences hadn’t.) Russell Crowe was unknown then, he didn’t have “brand-name” recognition yet. A closeup of Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford automatically carries a bunch of weight, past assocations, past roles, we know their faces, it’s what they DO with the face that is interesting. We bring a lot to such closeups, those of us sitting out there in the dark. But in this particular case, with LA Confidential, we were learning him, his contours, his look. Who was this man?
He is totally still. He doesn’t blink. He just stares. He seems like a snake, or some kind of predator. He’s looking out the window, but there is a coiled violence in him, a potential for action that vibrates in his expression. He is waiting. For what, we don’t know. But he does.
But the main reason why the close-up is so arresting, so startling … is that beneath all of that … the waiting, the coiled-up anger, the potential for violence … underneath all of that is … somehow … sadness.
What this man is looking at makes him sad. The sadness is not overdone, in fact it’s barely played, and you might even miss it. But it’s there. Beneath the held-back brutality, beneath the still focus of his gaze, is sadness. The man’s gaze does not have just one thing in it. The gaze has an entire world in it.
The man’s entire life is in his eyes.