Will Russell Crowe (left) or Leonardo DiCaprio emerge as the Paul Newman of their generation?
BODY OF LIES Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan from the novel by David Ignatius, with Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Strong. A Warner Bros release. 138 minutes. Opens Friday (October 10). For venues and times, see Movies.
Los Angeles - A few hours before the death of Paul Newman, I'm in a Beverly Hills hotel room with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, co-stars in the high-tension terrorist thriller Body Of Lies.
The events are unrelated, but they've got me thinking about the state of the Hollywood leading man.
Newman - actor, Oscar winner, idol and icon - was unparalleled in these regards. He also demonstrated remarkable career longevity: 55 films that bridged old Hollywood and new.
So I wonder, if Tom Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart and George Clooney is our Cary Grant, who is our Paul Newman?
It's easy to see Crowe and DiCaprio as this era's Butch and Sundance. Body Of Lies reunites them for the first time since they were handpicked by Sharon Stone ("la Stone," Crowe calls her) for the Old West shoot-'em-up The Quick And The Dead (Crowe was the former, DiCaprio the latter). In Body Of Lies, Crowe plays a CIA chess master pushing around DiCaprio's pawn in the hunt for an al Qaeda leader responsible for a series of bombings in western Europe.
"There's this great conflict where he's consistently asked to do things he doesn't believe in for the betterment of his country and the war on terror," DiCaprio says of his character. "Besides being a great political piece that's pertinent to these times, it's a fantastic cat-and-mouse espionage thriller that works on its own."
DiCaprio, like Newman, is lean and lanky, with an immense physical beauty that can get in the way of the work. That might explain why Body Of Lies has him hiding under a beard and a face full of cuts and bruises.
In real life he embraces his looks. Today he's sharply dressed in a charcoal shirt, sweater and pants, his blond hair parted neatly and swooped to one side, a hint of 5-o'clock shadow to scratch away some of his boyish softness. And he fields questions - ranging from character motivation to reuniting with Titanic co-star Kate Winslet on the upcoming Revolutionary Road - with ease and charm.
Crowe is the opposite, a rugged, beefy man's man (except for the ponytail he's wearing today), quick to crack jokes at anyone's expense, including the media's. He sees interviews as an inconvenience at best and a pain in the ass at worst, and it's probably a good thing there aren't any telephones nearby. Gladiator made him a sword-swinging stud, but he's never played on or against his looks. His turns as fat men with bad hair in The Insider and Body Of Lies are no actorly bids to be taken seriously but merely service the characters.
"I got a phone call from Ridley saying, ‘How would you like to put on a large amount of weight?' and that always appeals to me," Crowe says of his family-man CIA agent, whom director Ridley Scott wanted "to feel like an ex-football player with bad knees who still has some grace about him."
Just as DiCaprio is Martin Scorsese's go-to guy (they've made three films together, with two more on the way), replacing De Niro, Body Of Lies marks the fourth teaming of Crowe and Scott. (A fifth, a revisionist Robin Hood story with Crowe possibly playing both Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham, is in the works.)
"I went through a period where, even after the great relationship we had on Gladiator, I didn't fully realize that was a unique situation," says Crowe.
"He asked me to do Black Hawk Down, but I'd just done a movie where there was a helicopter in the background, so I wasn't interested. Then he wanted me to do Kingdom Of Heaven, but I was in the middle of doing something else and said he'd have to wait a year, and he said, ‘Fuck off, who are you?' With the last three things we've done together, I say yes first and work out why I want to do it after."
DiCaprio says working on the adrenaline-fuelled actioner was "difficult, challenging, interesting."
As Crowe puts it, "When you work on a Ridley Scott film, you have to be prepared to bleed." But DiCaprio embraced the challenge coming off Revolutionary Road, which "was like doing a 1950s play where we're talking about our feelings for months at a time in a small room, and then I wound up in Morocco with missiles being shot at me."
If DiCaprio struggled as he dodged bullets, Crowe was having the time of his life.
"I knew ultimately I was going to be out of there in five weeks, somebody else was going to be blown up this time, and I was perfectly happy with that."
Still, it's hard to imagine Crowe, who in many ways is larger than life and larger even than his blockbuster roles, stepping into Newman's substantial if subdued shoes.
Then DiCaprio offers this about his co-star.
"I remember hearing these clichés of what movie stars are," he says. "They're egomaniacal pricks and they're tyrants. To tell you the truth, he couldn't be more professional, couldn't be a more normal guy to hang out with."
DiCaprio could almost be talking about Newman.
Leo DiCaprio on working on a Ridley Scott action movie:
Leo and Russell Crowe on their memories of making the Quick and the Dead:
Leo on working with Kate Winslet again:
Russell Crowe and Leo DiCaprio on working in a real location and not on a soundstage:
Leo on the environment: