A Beautiful Time

updated 04/21/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/21/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The setting was just as he had planned: The afternoon sun streaming through his custom-renovated chapel's stained-glass windows—dappling a 3rd-century Roman floor mosaic depicting two fish caught on the same hook. But at his April 7 wedding to Danielle Spencer, Russell Crowe was hardly a man in complete control. "Halfway through saying his vows, he nearly started crying," says his friend John McGrath. "He started choking up, then he shook his head and took a deep breath and started again. He's a rugged sort of guy, but he's also got a very soft center."

Both sides of Crowe were on abundant display in his four-day nuptial extravaganza, which brought nearly 100 guests to his 560-acre cattle ranch in the tiny bush hamlet of Nana Glen, Australia, for festivities ranging from a cricket match to an ABBA sing-along. The traditional Anglican ceremony marked a very happy 39th birthday for Crowe, who began his on-again, off-again 13-year romance with Sydney-bred actress and singer Spencer, 32, when they played lovers in the 1990 movie The Crossing. Their long-distance bond withstood his mid-'90s move to Hollywood, his soaring fame and his tumultuous six-month affair in 2000 with Meg Ryan. Crowe and Spencer stepped out again at the 2001 Oscars and, by all accounts, never looked back. "I've been thinking about it for a long, long time," says Crowe of his decision to tie the knot. "They've known each other since they were really young," adds his longtime friend Nicole Kidman (who couldn't attend because of duties on the New York City set of Birth). "That's lovely, to grow full circle. I'm very glad it's Dani because I think Dani really knows him and loves him and he adores her."

And as moviegoers (and the occasional bar-brawl opponent) know, Crowe isn't one to do anything halfway. On April 4 he and Spencer welcomed family and friends—including Gladiator director Ridley Scott and Texas governor Rick Perry, a pal from Crowe's recent stint recording in Austin with his band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts—with a dinner on his property's tennis court. (Despite earlier rumors that the likes of Tom Cruise and Naomi Watts might attend, "it wasn't meant to be a star-studded event," says McGrath.) That night Crowe assigned guests to two 11-player cricket teams—the "Crowe XI," captained by his cricket-pro cousin Jeff Crowe, and the "Spencer XI," led by Spencer's father, Don, a former host of a British kids' TV show. The groom's side handily won the next day's match on Crowe's private pitch as Spencer cheered from the sidelines. "Russell loved winning cricket," says McGrath, a Sydney real estate businessman. "That's his competitive streak coming out."

Later Saturday evening it was Spencer's turn to play. She and about 50 female friends headed to the restaurant Bentley's on Elizabeth in nearby Coffs Harbour for a "hens' night" (that's Aussie for bachelorette bash). After dining on Tasmanian crayfish and garlic king prawns, the women whooped it up for a trio of male strippers dressed as a policeman, a soldier and a cowboy, calling it a night at 2 a.m. after an impromptu conga line. The blushing Spencer—who has starred in several TV series Down Under and released a pop album—"was having fun," says restaurant owner Friedy Meinel. "It was very low-key, actually."

Or so they might have told the guys, who spent a more sedate "bucks' night" at the house of Crowe's parents, Alex and Jocelyn, on his Nana Glen compound. Chowing on steak and salad, the men served up a steady stream of toasts—but still turned in earlier than the women. "There were 40 speeches!" marvels McGrath, who says Crowe spoke movingly that day. "He said, 'I knew the day I met her I was going to marry her.' "

Crowe told guests that Sunday was "a day of rest," which for many meant a bleary-eyed brunch at the Pacific Bay Resort—where Crowe had paid to put up visitors—or a round of golf as the couple attended to last-minute wedding details. And there were plenty. "Russell," notes McGrath, "is a perfectionist." As the wedding day dawned, workers floated large helium balloons on the ranch's grounds to deter low-flying news helicopters (his petition to create a no-fly zone had been rejected by Australian authorities). Also that morning, Crowe's custom Armani tuxedo arrived back from a final round of alterations in Sydney. (The groom had dropped a few pounds since flying to Milan in February to consult with Giorgio Armani.)

Meanwhile, Spencer—who stayed at Pacific Bay—"was not nervous at all," says a friend. At 4:15 p.m., the bride took off in a police-escorted motorcade—led by three riders on Harley-Davidsons—to the wedding chapel. Crowe had spent months adding a dome, stained-glass windows and the floor mosaic to the structure, built last year for the wedding of his brother Terry. Nicknamed "Sacre Crowe" by Spencer, the chapel "was the most romantic thing," says her father. "That was just remarkable."

After a solo violinist played Mendelssohn's wedding march, George Ogilvie, who directed the couple in The Crossing, kicked off the 20-minute ceremony with a poem by Wendell Berry and Aussie pop singer Wendy Matthews followed with the traditional ballad "The Water Is Wide." Melbourne priest Phillip Huggins led the vows. The couple exchanged Cartier wedding bands and a "very passionate" smooch, says McGrath. "That's Russell."

Then it was time for revelers to let their hair down—at least figuratively. (Crowe used a black ribbon to tie back his long tresses, grown out for his role as a 19th-century sea captain in the movie Master and Commander, due this fall.) Under a tent, guests tucked into dinner and two wedding cakes—one a traditional four-tier number, the other made from profiteroles—to the strains of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Groomsman Robert Mammone read out messages from absent friends, including Catherine ZetaJones, Sting, Elton John and President George W. Bush, whom Crowe met through Texas governor Perry. Then Crowe took the mike to address his new bride. "He said, 'What I'd like to do is sing you three songs that I wrote about you, and I'm going to sing them with your favorite band,' " recalls a guest. A curtain rose to reveal the other members of 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. "Danielle had her fingers in her mouth wolf-whistling," says a guest. Soon after, the bride, an ABBA fan, hit the dance floor to BjÖrn Again, a tribute band that performed hits such as "Dancing Queen" as the party went on until dawn.

The new Mr. and Mrs. Crowe—who plan to spend at least three weeks honeymooning at an undisclosed location—spent the next day recovering on his farm. Crowe has said they hope to start a family. "I think there may be small Crowes running around soon," says Kidman. For now, friends find joy enough in seeing the two cement their love at long last. "People that know Russell well know that she's always been the girl for him," says a friend. "I've never seen him happier," adds McGrath. "He was just blossoming, and so was she."

Samantha Miller
Kevin Airs, Kellie Hush, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard and Dennis Passa in Coffs Harbour

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