He may be moody, rude, prone to outbursts of temper and a drink too many -- after the cameras have stopped rolling. But there is no question that Russell Crowe sure can act, not just act up.
Crowe, the Australian-raised actor barely known to world audiences four years ago, could be on the brink of joining Hollywood's most beloved next Sunday by winning two best actor Oscars in a row -- an honor bestowed only on Tom "Mr. Nice Guy" Hanks, and curmudgeonly 1940s and 50s leading man Spencer Tracy.
Three stellar performances in three years -- from the whistle-blowing tobacco executive in "The Insider" to the noble Roman soldier in "Gladiator" and now his riveting performance as schizophrenic math genius John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind" -- have brought Crowe his third consecutive Oscar nomination.
Which should leave voters of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science with a clear choice if, in a perfect world, the Oscars were only about top performances and best movies.
But ever since the Academy Awards were invented in 1929 as a way of promoting the new talkies to a worldwide audience, the Oscars have been as much about image as talent.
"The movies and the performances are just part of what the Academy voters are looking at here. This is an award that decides who's in and who's out, who's cool and who's not," said Tom O'Neil, host of the goldderby.com Web site.
And many industry experts are wondering if Crowe, 37, may have blown his chance to join that elite club because of an angry confrontation last month, seen by only a handful of people but reported round the world, with a BBC producer who cut a poem from Crowe's acceptance speech at a British Academy of Film and Television Awards broadcast.
The ugly outburst seemed to confirm long-standing industry gossip about Crowe as a man with a reputation for loutish behavior and was reported just as ballots landed in the mail boxes of Academy voters.
Crowe both apologized to the producer and testily dismissed the incident. "The Oscars are supposed to be about the performance you've given. I'm not nominated for a Worst Argument with an English TV Executive," he told reporters at the Sydney premiere of "A Beautiful Mind."
Others are not so sure.
"It is possible he committed Oscar suicide -- the gladiator literally falling on his sword of hubris -- because your performance off the screen is as important as your performance on screen," said O'Neil.
But as Time magazine critic Richard Schickel notes, the incident didn't affect his chances with the Screen Actor's Guild last week, where Crowe carried off a best actor award to add to those he has already garnered from the British Academy and the Golden Globes.
"It's a pretty damn good performance," said Schickel of Crowe's portrayal of the quirky, mentally ill Nobel laureate.
"At some point it may well be that they (the Academy) will just vote for the performance. I think people have already discounted the fact that he's hot-tempered and slightly vulgar fellow in his own self, and say okay, but he's still an awful good actor," Schickel said.