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The Internet Will Never Let Russell Crowe Forget Les Miserables

Director Tom Hooper had just won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech” and now he had his sights set on an even more technically ambitious undertaking, a big-screen, live-singing version of the beloved musical war horse “Les Misérables.” Casting Broadway veteran Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the show’s tortured, noble reformed criminal, was a no-brainer. But who would play Javert, the man obsessed with bringing Prisoner 24601 to justice? Hooper had an idea.

“I thought, for this story to work, you need a guy who could get the better of [Jackman],” Hooper told Time. “It had to be a very formidable actor, and Russell immediately sprung to mind. I mean, in Wolverine versus Gladiator, I’d probably put my bet on Gladiator! I knew vaguely that he had a band, but then I discovered he started in musical theater, in Sydney, in things like ‘Rocky Horror.’ So I met him and he couldn’t have been more excited about being in it. And he worked harder than anyone to get vocally fit for this.”

But then audiences saw the movie and wondered why Russell Crowe’s voice sounded so terrible.

The quality of a person’s singing can be fiercely debated. Is Bob Dylan a terrible singer because he has a “whiny” voice? Is Mariah Carey’s voice bad because it’s “showy”? What we consider “good” singing varies from listener to listener — like a voice itself, our response is unique to us, revealing something ineffable about ourselves. 

But even if such judgments are highly subjective, most critics agreed that Crowe was all wrong for “Les Mis.” The Austin Chronicle’s Kimberley Jones was especially scathing, noting, “When ‘Les Misérables’ is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it’s usually because Russell Crowe has opened his mouth. … Crowe, whose professional singing career topped out with vanity band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, is a sorry (and toady) simulacrum for the raging Javert; he sings standout solo ‘Stars’ like it’s a lullaby, the words ‘I will never rest’ coming off not like the mission statement of an obsessed lawman, but rather the peevish sulk of an insomniac.”

Opening on Christmas Day in 2012, “Les Misérables” divided critics and audiences alike, with some appreciating the intimate, amped-up intensity Hooper lent the story, while others finding it garish, loud and hyperbolic. I thought both arguments were valid, but I ultimately got swept away by its sheer too-much-ness, happily run over by its freight-train lack of dramatic subtlety or emotional nuance. But even I couldn’t defend Crowe, although it wasn’t necessarily his singing — it was his overall one-note glumness, which seemed to suggest he didn’t feel comfortable in the role. 

But despite mixed reviews, the film was a blockbuster — this was back when studios weren’t ashamed to advertise the fact that their musicals were, in fact, musicals — and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway. Nonetheless, all through that awards season, a running joke was how horrible Crowe was in “Les Mis.” The public mocking got so bad that journalists asked Hooper about his decision to cast the “Gladiator” star for the iconic role. His response wasn’t entirely persuasive.

“We auditioned hundreds of hundreds of people — opera singers, musical actors, film actors, actors who couldn’t sing or could sing,” Hooper said in early 2013. “The truth is, you need people who can hold a movie camera. To find brilliant film actors who are brilliant singers — there are so few choices. I ultimately stand by what Russell did. I love him in the film. I embraced a kind of raw attitude to the vocals that is unusual in the modern age. I tried Auto-Tune, composites of different takes. But I ended up using only the original live take. Otherwise, there was a loss of realism, integrity and emotional vulnerability.”

In a sense, Hooper was acknowledging that, yes, Crowe was not a great singer in the traditional sense — especially being onscreen opposite Jackman, who is. But Hooper’s answer also seemed to suggest that he did his best to work around Crowe’s limitations. Crowe himself responded to some of the online criticism, replying to a Twitter follower who asked him if he’d seen Adam Lambert’s knocks on the film. (“Les Mis: Visually impressive w great Emotional performances. But the score suffered massively with great actors PRETENDING to be singers. … And I do think it was cool they were singing live- but with that cast, they should have studio recorded and sweetened the vocals.”) “I don’t disagree with Adam,” Crowe tweeted back, “sure it could have been sweetened, Hooper wanted it raw and real, that’s how it is.” 

But negativity from Lambert is one thing — having one of your own co-stars rip you on national television is quite another. At the Golden Globes in January of 2013, Sacha Baron Cohen (who played Thénardier) joked from the stage, “Russell Crowe had four months of singing lessons — that was money well spent.” He then grimaced, drawing huge laughs from the crowd. Clearly, it was open season on Crowe.

His indignity carried over to the actual Oscars that year, when he joined many of his “Les Mis” cast members, including Baron Cohen, to perform “One Day More.” Crowe didn’t embarrass himself, but it was clear that he was struggling mightily, his low, booming voice lacking the power or beauty of his colleagues’. The quality of this YouTube video isn’t great, but it sufficiently captures Crowe’s level of strain.

Crowe has admitted he “wasn’t really prepared” for such a demanding role. (Before he signed on to “Les Misérables,” his biggest hesitation was not really connecting with the character.) But, in retrospect, the world’s appalled reaction to his singing wasn’t occurring in a vacuum. A backlash against Crowe had been brewing for a while. 

After winning an Oscar for “Gladiator,” a period in which he’d become one of cinema’s most celebrated rising stars thanks to acclaimed films such as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Insider,” Crowe began to experience a commercial slump. Subsequent movies like “Body of Lies” and “Robin Hood” failed to be sizable hits, and then there were off-screen incidents — such as a 2005 altercation in which he threw a phone at a hotel concierge — that made him seem like another out-of-control Hollywood hothead. In addition, as mentioned in Jones’ review, he was also involved in the mediocre rock group 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, which only added to the impression that Crowe was a self-indulgent movie star. 

So as audiences got ready for “Les Misérables,” they brought plenty of negative baggage with them into the theater. If you listen to 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, you’ll notice that Crowe has a perfectly serviceable, tender voice. But it doesn’t suggest he has the pipes to portray Javert. To illustrate the point, let’s look at two YouTube videos, the first put together by Thomas H. Smith, who collects a group of different performers playing Javert over the years, mashing up their version of the character’s indelible “Stars.”

And, now, let’s look at Crowe’s rendition:

A different take, to be sure, and not necessarily a horrendous one. But although Crowe tapped into the character’s misery, his whispery rendition felt one-note. The stiffness that had started to permeate his other performances at the time — what once seemed heroically stoic about him now hardening into a granite inexpressiveness — was all too prominent in “Les Mis.” There’s a case to be made that Crowe’s far-from-majestic singing helped add pathos and humanity to Javert but, ultimately, it wasn’t the quality of his singing as much as it was the sameness of the performance that ultimately doomed it.

Occasionally, Crowe would show the spark that initially made him such an exciting actor — he’s the ideal straight man to Ryan Gosling in “The Nice Guys” — but its appearance was dispiritingly less evident going forward. Still, he continued to defend his turn in “Les Misérables.” In 2021, he said, “The whole aspect of singing live, which is very different from any other musical ever made... the fact that every single person is singing every take live on this, the benefit that that brings is that you’re not restricted emotionally.”

If you need proof that Crowe’s performance remains a punchline, look no further than the amount of articles that have sprung up in subsequent years arguing that, actually, it’s really great. One of the most persuasive was written in 2020 by Angie Han in Polygon, arguing that his voice’s imperfections gave the portrayal its poignance. 

“[A] strange choice doesn’t mean a bad choice,” she wrote. “The rugged quality of Crowe’s voice makes Javert a little more vulnerable from the start of the film — he’s intimidating more because he’s a big guy with rough edges, and less because he possesses the kind of laser precision that [Broadway actor Terrence] Mann brings to the part. It makes Javert’s eventual crisis and breakdown particularly compelling. Crowe acquits himself best in ‘Javert’s Suicide,’ as the tremulous quality of his voice when he’s pushed to the edges of his range works in harmony with his character’s uncertainty — and to his credit, he nails his high notes.”

As someone who appreciates all kinds of singers, I do love a voice that’s a little less polished. Give me Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Costello — the humanness of their emoting connects with me on a visceral level. But Crowe’s monochromatic turn — both in terms of his acting and his singing — didn’t suggest authenticity as much as it did someone in over their head. I applaud stars who take big risks — and Crowe was most certainly risking a lot — but sometimes, the gambit doesn’t pay off. He wasn’t worth mocking, but I don’t think he’s worth cheering, either.

“Les Misérables” returns to theaters this weekend, and no doubt multiplexes will be filled with theater kids, musical nerds and everybody else who’s been dying to see that flawed, impassioned film on the big screen again — or for the first time. And I bet a lot of those viewers will insist that Crowe got a bad rap for his singing. 

I’m down with that assessment. Hardly wretched, he has perhaps never been so naked on screen as he was in “Les Misérables,” his Javert a man consumed with a sense of duty, his faulty larynx an indication of the deep emotional scars underneath the character’s gruff exterior. It’s not a great performance, but it’s a brave, honest one. Russell Crowe has rarely done anything so bold since, mostly signing up for bloated franchises and forgettable B-movies. I don’t love him in “Les Mis,” but I admire the attempt — in the film, you see him giving it his all. I wish he did so more often.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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