Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and “Making It”

by Sonny Bunch on April 11, 2012

Last night on Twitter, Peter Suderman noted  that “It’s actually kind of mysterious that [Guy] Pearce didn’t become huge after LA Confidential and Memento” after claiming that “It’s a damn shame that Guy Pearce isn’t a bigger star.” I happen to agree with his second Tweet—Pearce is usually the best part of anything he’s in—but I don’t think there’s any real mystery about the first.

Let’s compare Pearce’s and fellow Australian Russell Crowe’s careers, which intersected at LA Confidential. After that film—which was nominated for a raft of Oscars (including best picture) and grossed a respectable $64 million (not bad for a R-rated neo-noir)—Crowe followed up with an Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider (1999), Michael Mann’s epic look at the shenanigans during the congressional tobacco hearings of the early ’90s, and Gladiator (2000), for which he won an Oscar. Both were critical and commercial smashes; he was trending upwards and able to avoid taking any real fire over Proof of Life (2000), his first real stumble post-L.A. Confidential.* He followed up this string of hits with a pair of excellent, big budget prestige features: A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Master and Commander (2003), nabbing another Oscar nom for the former and getting shafted out of one for the latter.

It’s fair to say that his career has been somewhat uneven since then, but that seven year run between L.A. Confidential and Master and Commander firmly entrenched him in Hollywood’s A-list: He’s proven that he’s one of the few actors in the game who can a.) carry a picture pretty much all on his own, and b.) is a constant threat to turn in an Oscar-worthy performance. Audiences and critics alike love him because he’s made good career choices and avoided paycheck-driven missteps.

Contrast that to Pearce, whose post-L.A. Confidential career has been far more uneven. Yes, he was in Memento. Like Peter, I love the picture, but it’s one that didn’t exactly blow the doors off the box office at $25 million** or rack up Oscar nominations—in other words, it didn’t show that he could carry a picture over the finish line. What did he follow up Memento with? The Time Machine and The Count of MOnte Cristo, both in 2002. Yikes. Bombs, critically and financially, both of them. Hollywood wouldn’t touch him for a big picture after that; fair or not, he was deemed box office poison. This isn’t to say he went hungry; he has turned in good work in several features since then, including in Factory Girl, Traitor, and, briefly, The Hurt Locker. He wasn’t bad in Mildred Pierce, either. We’ll see if his latest, Lockout—described as Die Hard in space—can put him back in sniffing distance of the stardom he deserves.

The lesson, if there is one, is that talent only takes you so far—deciding what kind of work you do is just as important as how well you do it. We’ve all got to get paid, but chasing paychecks isn’t a surefire path to success.

*For the record, I think Proof of Life is a little underrated, but that’s a blog post for another day.

**Not bad for its budget, which was only $9M, but still.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Judith April 11, 2012 at 11:34 am

I’m gratified to read another fan of Guy Pearce’s acting and it’s completely true that talent only takes you so far. But, I’m wondering about that “chasing paychecks” point as it applies to Pearce.

Some thoughts:
– Memento, as you note, low budget, middling box office, can’t have been a chasing the paycheck motivation;
– Pearce’s Ed Exley had about as much screen time as Crowe’s Bud, but the Exley character was ridiculed (the glasses) and was not the likable one of the two, despite Bud’s violence. Bud came off as the underdog. Exley was a prig, a self-serving manipulator – somehow Pearce kept him likable, which I’m sure you’d agree was good acting work on his part – I think he had the harder job than Crowe did, but also easier to overlook. I’d argue that Crowe was much more set up for stardom, based on his role in the movie, than Pearce was.
– Of course, Pearce was still in a good spot and I wish he’d chosen better, but I don’t think it’s paycheck chasing. There are some quotes from interviews on imdb that suggest that he’s in some sense actively avoided leading man success either out of a) good taste or b) misguided artsy-fartsy taste reacting to the pap Hollywood offers. Here’s part of one 2003 quote (unfortunately, imdb doesn’t say who interviewed him) “I certainly got offered all sorts of big studio movies, but I found most of them pretty stupid and predictable. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t do something interesting with this. This is not really interesting on the page’. I’m sure there are actors out there who can turn something dull into something really interesting, but I can’t do that.” (there are a lot more quotes like that from Pearce.)
– Also, this is a guy who came to Hollywood’s attention after starring in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I think to some extent he really likes/feels more comfortable with the offbeat.
– Most likely, his taste is not that great, further distorted by his desire to avoid what he sees as “predictable.” He wouldn’t be the first actor to be good at his job but have poor judgment when it comes to an overall project.
– Or, maybe he talks up the unconventional and talks down the leading man thing because he blew it.

I’m just hoping that Lockout has some merit even as a B-type action movie because I would really like to go see a Guy Pearce movie…but Rotten Tomatoes has it at 31% right now…not looking so good.


Sonny Bunch April 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm

“Paycheck-chasing” was probably unduly harsh, BUT…”Time Machine” and “Count of Monte Cristo”? Ugh.


SkinsFanPG April 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Part of the problem is that Pearce’s best work is reserved for Aussie audiences. His two best films since Memento are The Proposition and Animal Kingdom. Both are excellent movies, but far too violent to be garner mainstream US success.


Will April 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I was just about to mention Animal Kingdom and The Proposition. After watching both movies, I wonder if Pearce’s acting trajectory was more of a conscious choice than a result of his failings at the box office.


BF April 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

I’ve always loved Bruce Campbell’s explanation as to how actors wind up in bad movies. Sure it’s a little self-serving, but it can be hard to predict how a movie will turn out at the time you make your decision:

“All right, you think you’re all so smart?” said Campbell. Then he challenged them to play studio exec as he pitched one of his past projects. “I’m Frank Marshall,” he began. “I’ve produced all of Steven Spielberg’s movies. Interested? Okay, I’ve got a book written by Michael Crichton. I’m going to get John Patrick Shanley, the Academy Award-winning writer of Moonstruck, to adapt it. It’ll be shot by Allen Daviau, who did E.T. Will you make this movie? Well, congratulations! You just made Congo.”


Sonny Bunch April 12, 2012 at 9:36 am

The only problem with that example is that Congo is AWESOME.


Dr. Jonathan Crane April 13, 2012 at 3:30 am

He’ll have a pretty large role in Prometheus this summer, too, so that might give his career a boost.

Fun fact: Christopher Nolan initially wanted Pearce to play my good friend Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins, but they mutually decided that Pearce was too young for the role.


Sonny Bunch April 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm
Dr. Jonathan Crane April 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Wow. I actually hadn’t seen that until you linked to it. Great stuff.


Vic Matus April 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm

And let’s not forget his role as the Duke of Windsor in “The King’s Speech.” I thought he was awesome in that. Turns out he really plays well a sort of hapless dick (can I use that language on your blog?).


cherrycuhk June 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm

I think Mr. Pearce just want the balance of fame and normal life. He still leave in Melbourne with his wife Kate who is also his childhood sweetheart for a 15-year marriage.

Here is the quote from the director of The Proposition and Lawless, John Hillcoat:

“Guy actively chose not to pursue the leading-man movie star in the same way that Russell actively pursued it in a major way. Guy does not play that game.”

But did Pearce do himself a disservice?

“No, because that’s a very conscious decision,” Hillcoat says. “Because to do what Russell did, you invite the press into your life, you are playing another part the whole time to a lot of people, and Guy’s very private. For an actor as acclaimed as he is, he has managed remarkably to maintain a very discreet, normal life compared to other actors.

“Personally, I wish that he would have been given more opportunities.”

As a fan of Guy, I wish to see him as leading roles in big movies or cooperate with fantastic directors and cast, but I still respect his choice. Maybe that’s why I like him.

But next year he got Iron Man 3, the real big. I am looking forward it and hope he would enjoy the work.

Different personalities lead to different careers. And also, talent, opportunities are both essential for a SUCCESSFUL career which is judged by others not by oneselves.


cherrycuhk June 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Moreover, Guy has done many good Australian products. Animal Kingdom, one of his best performance in my opinion, and also The Proposition, his favorate job.
He seems quite enjoy working at home, Till human voices wake us, The Hard Word, In Her Skin, 33 Postcards are all Aussie films and Dont be afraid of Dark was filmed in Australia, Death Defying Acts was produced by Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC).

BTW, I cant agree with the “Paycheck-chasing” point but I dont know why he appeared in Bedtime Stories^_^


abstractblonde September 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Interesting piece and I too wish Pearce had some bigger roles, but I think you are wrong about why his career went the direction it did. Guy has actually turned down big budget roles since his work in ’02. For instance, he turned down “Daredevil” (very wisely, imo). Also, Count of Monte Cristo was not a critical failure, it’s in the high 70s on Rotten Tomatoes right now and it is also quite popular with fans.

The worst thing he did is the “Time Machine” and I find I don’t hate that as much as I used to. I guess the string of awful sci-fi adventures films I’ve seen since like “John Carter” have made me soften.

Guy has explained multiple times that he took some time off after 2002 because he found he no longer loved his work, or even began to doubt his talent. Luckily for us he decided to return to acting work but he has taken quite different roles since that time as you can see. I think Guy has offers for some big stuff on occasion but doesn’t always take it. He said in one interview that he felt like many of the bigger parts being offered to him came to him because Brad Pitt or Matt Damon turned them down. So I guess you could say his failures in ’02 led to him being more of a “budget Brad Pitt” in Hollywood’s eyes but he has always been on their minds. No small feat in a very crowded, competitive industry.


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