Russell Crowe took on the role of the legendary boxer mentally and physically.
A little more than six months from now, Russell Crowe likely will hear his name called when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its picks for the top performances of 2005.
Crowe's stirring portrayal of heavyweight champion Jim Braddock in Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" is sure to score big with Academy voters who previously honored him for his work in "Gladiator."
But, if by some fluke Crowe doesn't get nominated for Best Actor, he should at least get a nod for Most Inspired Performance by an Actor with Multiple Injuries.
Prior to making the film, which opens Friday, Crowe already was struggling with a series of aches and pains including two bad Achilles tendons, sore ribs and a bum shoulder. During the shoot, he suffered through 12 minor concussions and a couple of loosened teeth. He also had to have surgery on his other shoulder after dislocating it.
Most actors collecting $20 million paychecks probably wouldn't allow some minimum-wage thespian or extra to throw jabs at their flawless mugs and bods, but Crowe was willing to take a beating to keep it real.
"I knew what the job was when I took it on," Crowe said. "And making it look as visually real as possible was really important to me. If you don't think that I went home with headaches, looked at myself in the mirror going 'what have you gotten yourself into' every day, then you're wrong because I did.
"And you know, when you get these 235-, 240-pound heavyweight guys banging you in the head, it doesn't make for a pleasant afternoon."
Oddly enough, Crowe says the injuries helped him channel Braddock, who was a promising heavyweight fighter in the 1920s before being forced into early (and temporary) retirement after a string of losses and untreated injuries.
"He never gave up," Crowe said. "When I dislocated the shoulder, I got back up and did two more rounds much to the horror of everyone else who was standing around the ring. I got in the car, and I was driving across to the north shore of Sydney to go to the hospital where I needed to do the MRI, and I got Ron on the phone and told him what it was like fighting with a dislocated shoulder. I said, 'Please remind me about this in rehearsal.'"
Jim and Mae Braddock (Crowe and Zellweger) make the Great Depression's ideal couple.
Crowe also was impressed with Braddock's humility and valor. During the Great Depression, Braddock struggled to find work to provide for his wife, Mae, and their three children. The New York native revived his boxing career in 1934 when another fighter backed out of a bout against John "Corn" Griffin, who at the time was the No. 2 heavyweight in the country.
Braddock knocked out Griffin in the third round and then went on to beat two other worthy opponents, John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky, before taking on the seemingly invincible Max Baer.
Baer, the world heavyweight champion, was four years younger and much bigger than Braddock and his punches were so lethal he already had killed two opponents in the ring. But, in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, Braddock beat Baer in 15 rounds and became the new heavyweight champ. Two years later, Braddock lost the title to Joe Louis. He retired in 1938, but the "Cinderella Man" remained a winner in the hearts of many, a hero for the common man.
"Braddock was a different thing for me," said Crowe, who first read the script in 1997. "It became a personal quest for me that his legacy be respected. ... I liked him before he was a champion. I liked who he was when he was a champion. And I liked who he was and what he did after he was a champion. His feet didn't leave the earth.
"To me, it was a wonderful successful American life, and that's why it was so important for me to do it. He was on the positive side of boxing, the true side of boxing and not the underhand side or the dark side."
For Crowe, a native New Zealander, one of the perks of doing "Cinderella Man" was having legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee serve as a consultant on the film. Crowe said all of his pain and suffering dissipated with Dundee around because there was "amusement, and there was education going on, and a transference of knowledge, which was extremely generous of him."
Dundee was so impressed with Crowe's boxing ability that he said, "He would have definitely been a fighter if I had grabbed him earlier. I wasn't training an actor, I was training an athlete."
At heart, Jim Braddock was the quintessential family man.
That's high praise for Crowe, who had no ring experience prior to training for this film. In preparation for the role, Crowe looked at old footage of Braddock and did some old-school training. There was no Nautilus equipment used to sculpt the body of an aging fighter. Instead Crowe chopped wood, climbed mountains and did 90-kilometer bike rides.
"We did simple stuff," Crowe said. "Speed bag, heavy bag, skipping, running, boxing
day in and day out. And that's what it came out like."
He also did everything Dundee told him to do.
"Right from the beginning," Crowe explained," Angelo said, 'Look, there are a couple of things I rule out.' And with the shoulder the way it was, you know, weights wouldn't have been a good idea anyway. And in the ring, he could see the things I couldn't necessarily see. He could show me how to see them."
Several critics have already proclaimed "Cinderella Man" one of the best films of the year. Others have said it's the best boxing flick ever made. Similar praise was heaped upon "Million Dollar Baby," and it was named Best Picture in February. Crowe, however, hopes that this story about a humble fighter who went on to do great things in life outside of the ring (he helped build New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) will resonate with audiences worldwide for other reasons.
"I think it's a timely reminder that it wasn't very long ago generationally that America wasn't a place of abundance," Crowe said. "And I think that's very important at this time in the world for people to have a clearer view of. I also think it's important to acknowledge that America and the greatness of America is built on the shoulders of Jim and Mae Braddock, simple, hardworking people who put their kids' needs first.
"There are a lot of things in this movie that will speak to people now."
Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in L.A. She can be reached at Miki.P.Turner.-ND@espn.com.