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Oscar Winners Crowe, Zelwegger Lauded for Powerful Perfomance in <i>Cinderella Man</i>

Actor Russell Crowe re-teams with his A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard for another drama drawn from a true story of American history. Alan Silverman has a look at Cinderella Man.

Seventy years ago, in the depths of the Great Economic Depression, almost every American within earshot of a radio listened to ... and was inspired by ... the unlikely victory of boxer James J. Braddock.

Cinderella Man is the nickname given to Braddock by renowned sports reporter Damon Runyon; in fact, the film opens with a Runyon quote: "In all the history of the boxing game, you will find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock."

The American-born son of Irish immigrants, Braddock showed promise as an amateur boxer in the 1920's; but when he turned pro, he achieved little success. Then came the Great Depression and, to feed his family, he joined the long lines waiting for work or bread or meager relief payments. Given a chance to get back in the ring, Braddock fought with a renewed vigor and boxed his way to the heavyweight championship in 1934: an up-from-the-streets saga that inspired the nation then and actor Russell Crowe now when he decided to take on the role.

"Every time I read something about Braddock ... every time I learned a little bit more, I just liked him," Crowe says. " I liked who he was before he was a champion, what he stood for when he was a champion, who he was after he was a champion. His feet didn't leave the earth; he didn't float off into the ether and become something else. He was still the same guy. His core values remained the same regardless of failure or success.

Right now, at this point in time, I think this film has a lot to say to Americans about what America truly means," he adds. " This country was built on the shoulders of Jim and Mae Braddock."

Renee Zelwegger plays Mae Braddock, a role she took on right after playing another woman from that same time: her Oscar-nominated performance as Jazz Era flapper Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago.

"They're very, very different characters," she explains. "Roxie embraced one side of what society was offering at that time; Mae Braddock is far more traditional and conservative. She was a religious woman. This is a very different kind of woman."

Director Ron Howard found the love story of Jim and Mae particularly compelling and, in large part, why he says it is more than a 'boxing movie.'

" I felt what was really exciting about this story was not its originality, but the fact that it's a true story," Howard explains. "[I wanted to] deal with that period - the period of the Depression - in a very specific way, evoking a lot of the photographs that you see from the era, particularly the ones of people living in cities. You see these skyscrapers and bridges in the background and you look at these people, who are absolutely shell-shocked. You know that they have not recovered from the rug being pulled out from under them. I thought there was a great setting. I had always been fascinated by that period in our history because I felt it was just full of drama. Then, there's the boxing. There's always great conflict, tension and suspense in good boxing, particularly if you care about the character who is in the ring; and I knew that with Russell Crowe in the ring that people would care and it was going to be powerful because when Russell is doing something physical, it's as detailed and human as a small dialog scene would be. He is really extraordinary that way.

Russell Crowe approached the boxing so vigorously, he suffered a serious shoulder injury while training and then, by his own count, '12 minor concussions and two broken teeth' during the filming. The cast also features Paul Giamatti as Braddock's longtime manager Joe Gould and Craig Bierko plays the towering Max Baer, heavyweight champion until the historic bout with the Cinderella Man.