The thrills are few in tiny Nana Glen, a bushland hamlet six hours north of Sydney. So locals attending a "campdrafting carnival" (that's Australian for rodeo) on Sept. 17 were delighted to spy through the billowing dust not one but two genuine movie stars in their midst. Seeing Gladiator
's Russell Crowe perched on the wooden grandstand wasn't exactly a shock: the owner of a nearby 560-acre farm, the New Zealand-born, Aussie-bred actor is a regular at cattle-herding events and even donates a $2,000 prize. But the woman sitting close in front of him—her sunglasses and broad-brimmed hat doing little to disguise a telltale mop of blonde hair—set the Bush Telegraph, as they call the gossip grapevine in these parts, buzzing.
By Monday, the news that Crowe was back home with Hollywood golden girl Meg Ryan had folks in the larger coastal town of Coffs Harbour, 20 miles away, all aflutter. "I was shopping right next to them," one excited caller told the local Hot FM radio station. "She's about three times more gorgeous than she is in the films!" Over at the Ridgey Didge pie shop, where the two stopped in for Crowe's favorite variety (sweet chili) of the meat-filled Aussie staple, one customer couldn't maintain her country composure. "You're Meg Ryan!" she gasped. "Yes," replied the star, accurately, "I'm Meg Ryan."
Indeed, if there was any doubt that Ryan, 38, and Crowe, 36, were still very much an item, it has disintegrated Down Under, where the pair spent a couple of weeks last month touring Crowe's stomping grounds and soaking up the atmosphere of the Sydney Olympic Games. Since Ryan and actor Dennis Quaid announced an end to their nine-year marriage on June 28, the willowy actress and her brawny new boyfriend had kept a relatively low profile. But on Sept. 6, three days before heading to Australia, the pair were photographed on a Santa Monica, Calif., sidewalk cuddling and kissing among shoppers and tourists. By the time they hit Coffs, notes Ridgey Didge owner Terry Brown, Ryan, for one, "didn't seem to be holding anything back."
So much for all those tabloid reports of a reconciliation between Ryan and Quaid. "They're tabloids!" exclaims Dennis's half-brother Buddy Quaid, 25, who insists the rumors of rapprochement were always unfounded. In fact, Ryan wasted no time in responding to Quaid's July 11 divorce filing with a court petition of her own, citing, as he had, "irreconcilable differences" and seeking joint custody of their 8-year-old son, Jack. Meanwhile, Quaid, who did some dating of his own during a recent promotional trip to Europe, "has made a good rebound," says his close friend Beau Holden. "He's the kind of guy who makes the best of what's dealt. It's not like he had a choice in this."
Or, at first, any idea it was even happening. Friends say Quaid was blindsided in June when word came out of London—where Ryan spent several weeks filming the romantic drama Proof of Life
(due Dec. 8)—that his wife had taken up with costar Crowe, who plays a hostage negotiator who falls in love with Ryan while trying to free her husband. Having warmed to each other on the Proof
set in Ecuador in March, the pair were now sharing candlelit dinners, late-night strolls and an invitation-only David Bowie concert, where they were "touchy-feely in a nice way," according to one source. "He's obviously pretty fond of her," a close friend says of Crowe, a blunt-spoken high school dropout who oozes contempt for the niceties of Hollywood culture. "He wouldn't be doing what he's doing if he weren't."
Neither, one assumes, would Ryan, who built her career playing the sweet-natured Everywoman next door. Movie producer Irwin Winkler, for one, doesn't think the current drama will affect her box office potential. "The public has always been interested in seeing Meg Ryan," says Winkler (Goodfellas
, The Right Stuff
), who hopes to sign the actress for two of his future films. "That has not been diminished by any kind of marital difficulties." Returning to the U.S. in early August, Ryan moved out of the Brentwood house she shared with Quaid and into another house nearby. The couple put up a united front for Jack's sake, taking their son to an Aug. 6 showing of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
in Santa Monica and later attending the Agape Church in Culver City, Calif., as a family. (Friends say the couple hope to maintain their longstanding system of arranging their work schedules so one will always be home with the boy.) Still, any illusion of togetherness was just that. By summer's end, it was clear that Quaid and Ryan were living very separate lives. In early September, Crowe, who had spent the preceding weeks in Austin, Texas, playing sold-out gigs with his band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, and recording at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio, was reunited with Ryan in Santa Monica, where he checked into a plush hotel and she visited often. At the hip Yangtze restaurant nearby, the actress, wearing a short tank top and loose pants, munched on a California roll and sipped Diet Coke one afternoon while her beau chowed down on spiced sesame beef and a Coke. Though there were no mid-meal displays of affection, "he was protecting her," says a waitress, who noticed Crowe physically blocking Ryan from the stares of other patrons. Outside, on the Third Street Promenade, the pair weren't so cautious, holding hands, kissing and hugging as they walked, and taking a good 25 minutes to select an educational toy from the Discovery Channel store. "He had his arm around her waist," says a store employee. "They seemed really romantic."
The romance continued in Australia, where they arrived on separate flights (he on Sept. 9; she three days later). Crowe wasted no time before whisking Ryan up the coast to the farm at Nana Glen that he bought in 1997 as an oasis for himself and his parents—Alex and Jocelyn—and older brother Terry, all of whom live and work there. Once a ramshackle affair, the place now boasts a landscaped pool, a spa, a full gym in a converted barn and, of course, plenty of cattle, horses, dogs and chickens. "I'm just a big softie when it comes to my farm," the actor said in 1998. "These animals are my friends."
So, for the most part, are the townsfolk of Coffs Harbour (pop. 55,000), where locals, says Bruce Partridge, an advertising salesman at The Coffs Harbour Advocate, "try not to make a big issue" of Crowe's visits. "We respect his privacy and we protect him." Still, it's tough not to stare when two movie stars—one of whom made a spectacle of himself by getting caught up in a brawl last November at a nightclub just down the street—are canoodling by the bar at the local pub, the Coffs Hotel, as Crowe and Ryan were on Sept. 15 while watching the Olympics opening ceremonies on the big screen.
Four days later, after the campdrafting carnival, the pair drove 150 miles to Byron Bay, where they stayed at Rae's, a $425-a-night seven-suite beach resort on Watego's Beach, for a couple of days-"just hanging out, just cruising," says local florist Sue Flynn-before returning to Nana Glen. After two days, it was off to Sydney in Crowe's black BMW convertible.
There the couple checked into the exclusive Park Hyatt Hotel, which offers views of Sydney Harbor and the Opera House, where they took in the local Bell Shakespeare Company's performance of Troilus and Cressida
on Sept. 22. The following night, the pair were reportedly among the crowd at Stadium Australia to watch Marion Jones sprint to Olympic victory in the women's 100-meter final. Much of their sunny weekend was spent cruising the harbor aboard Alibi, the luxury yacht belonging to Tom Cruise
and Nicole Kidman
, who calls Crowe "one of my dearest friends." Last month she told The Australian Women's Weekly
magazine, "He is loyal beyond belief. We've spent almost every New Year's Eve together for the past few years: Tom, Russell and me."
If his estranged wife's new life bothers Quaid, it doesn't show—at least not anymore. "It was no secret it was really tough for him at first," says close friend Holden, who like other pals feared that Quaid, a veteran of alcohol and cocaine addictions who went sober in 1990, might fall off the wagon under the strain. "I asked him that," says Holden. "And I'll never forget, he looked me in the eye and said, 'You know, why would I want to make it hurt any more and make it worse?'"
Why indeed? On a trip to Italy and Spain last month to promote. his movie Frequency
, Quaid gave every appearance of a man having a good time. The actor's itinerary—which according to local press included making friends with a former Italian flight attendant, a Spanish TV personality and an aspiring model, Jenifer Solano, 22, whom he met at a Madrid disco—seemed worthy of Don Juan.
Back home, says Holden, Quaid is finding comfort in his son, with whom "he spends an enormous amount of time." For now, Crowe, who was scheduled for an operation on a shoulder injury he sustained while rehearsing for his role as a circus performer in Jodie Foster's movie Flora Plum
, will remain in Sydney. Ryan returned to L.A. early last week. But friends don't expect the pair to stay apart for long. "They're both bright, talented, intelligent people," says a friend of Crowe's. "If they enjoy each other's company, then all power to them."
Shelley Gare in Sydney, Michelle Caruso, Michael Fleeman, Elizabeth Leonard and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles, Nina Biddle in Madrid and Alec Marr in Milan
- Shelley Gare,
- Michelle Caruso,
- Michael Fleeman,
- Elizabeth Leonard,
- Paula Yoo,
- Nina Biddle,
- Alec Marr.