Russell Crowe Throws Hollywood a Heavyweight Hook

A fight with a British producer may have cost Russell Crowe a second Oscar, but now the irascible actor might just punch his way to another Academy Award, despite his Hollywood-hating reputation.

A slimmed down, 41-year-old Crowe hits theaters today in "Cinderella Man," the story of Depression-era boxing hero Jim Braddock. Braddock is an undersized, lion-hearted fighter who came out of retirement and shocked the sports world by taking on heavyweight champ Max Baer in a 15-round bloodbath.

"For me, 'Cinderella Man' is the story of how one family survived the Depression," says Crowe, who brought the script to Ron Howard while they were working on "A Beautiful Mind."

"Braddock went on with his life after boxing, bringing up his family, working for a living, loving his wife and watching his children grow and his grandchildren born in the house he bought with the winnings from that fight way back in 1935. I took his legacy to heart. I wanted people to hear this true American story."

Suddenly, this notorious bad boy celebrity is talking like a contender for Hollywood's ultimate heavyweight prize, the Oscar. Perhaps "Cinderella Man's" greatest challenge is that it hits theaters just a year after "Million Dollar Baby" won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

With the film generating strong buzz, movie fans are now wondering, can boxing movies win two years in a row? But perhaps the bigger question is this: Can Crowe ever get back in the good graces of Academy Award voters?

Crowe won Best Actor honors in 2001 in "Gladiator." But since then, he hasn't always put his fighting tendencies to good use. A year later, he was nominated again for "A Beautiful Mind." It was his third consecutive Oscar nomination, and he stood to join Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, in Hollywood's elite group of multiple Academy Award winners.

Howard and Crowe entered the Oscar race as heavy favorites. However, several weeks before the ceremony, at Britain's BAFTA Awards, Crowe reportedly became verbally abusive backstage, and pinned Malcolm Gerrie against a wall after the producer cut short his acceptance speech from the telecast.

The episode shocked the film industry. "A Beautiful Mind" went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. But Crowe was snubbed. Perennial nice guy Denzel Washington won top actor honors in what seemed like a not-so-subtle slap-down.

Crowe eventually apologized, and in the years since, he married, and now raves about his newfound domestic bliss. But reputations are hard to repair.

The first thing moviegoers will notice is Crowe's sleek new physique. Gone are 50 pounds from his 5-foot-11-inch frame, lost in three months of intense sparring under the tutelage of Angelo Dundee, who trained Muhammad Ali through 21 years of heavyweight glory.

Crowe -- who has changed body shape before to get into character -- had puffed up to 228 pounds for his last film, "Master and Commander." His new challenge was to assume the character of an undersized, but incredibly powerful boxer. He's not the beefcake he was in "Gladiator," but he's still mighty rugged.

The 81-year-old Dundee actually saw Braddock fight, and he whipped the star into shape with the techniques from that era. Boxers back then didn't have sculpted chests. They seldom lifted weights. Dundee had Crowe skipping rope, punching the heavy bag, and sharing ring time with real boxers, many of whom were cast as his opponents.

Real boxers, unfortunately, are seldom taught to pull punches. Filming was delayed two months when Crowe separated his shoulder. He also suffered several concussions and cracked teeth.

An accidental blow from pro boxer Mark Simmons sent Crowe reeling, and it can be seen in the film's final cut, along with the reaction from Paul Giamatti, who play's Braddock's manager.

"Everyone could hear the glove connect with Russell's head and quite honestly I don't know how he continued with the fight," Giamatti says. "I fully expected him to go down."

That's just part of boxing. Nobody expected the real-life Braddock to recover from the blows he withstood, both in and out of the ring. Once known as "The Bulldog of Bergen," he lost the power in his devastating right hand to a series of injuries, and his life savings to the stock market crash of 1929.

Like millions of Americans, he went on public assistance to feed his family and had to go hat-in-hand to Madison Square Garden, where the fans once chanted his name, to ask old friends for help.

That's about the time when his manager proposed one last bout, to cash in on fan nostalgia. His wife, played by Renée Zellweger, feared for his life. But she feared more the prospect of not being able to feed her children and heat their home.

Untrained, Braddock returned to the ring, with the crowd expecting him to be carried out before the end of the first round. But the left hand, strengthened hauling cargo on the docks of New York, developed newfound power. Suddenly, he had what every out-of-work American wanted in the throes of the Depression -- a second chance.

"In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock," wrote Damon Runyon, who dubbed him the "Cinderella Man."

Braddock would go on to compete for the heavyweight crown, an underdog each step of the way, but clearly the people's champion. He would eventually give back the money he received while on welfare, and his Cinderella tale ends with him owning a heavy equipment company on the same docks where he once worked for a pittance.

If you see the inspiration for several sports movies, don't be mistaken. The real life legend of Braddock is the comeback of all comebacks. Crowe's life story might not carry such pathos, but right now his own fortunes are riding on the ultimate underdog.