Auteur of the Week: Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe has directed 6 movies. I love and own on DVD 5 of those movies. His sixth film I really disliked. What I love so much about Cameron Crowe’s films, more than the great stories and characters he creates, is his use of music. There are few directors who infuse music so deeply into the stories they’re telling the way Crowe does. I’m sure this has to do with his background as a writer/editor with Rolling Stone Magazine. I owe a lot of my taste in music to the soundtracks of Crowe’s films. Crowe introduced me to Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Sigur Rós and Spiritualized, just to name a few of the bands that have graced his soundtracks.

Crowe was born on July 13, 1957 in Palm Springs, California. He skipped kindergarten and two grades in elementary school. He wrote for the school newspaper and at age 13 started contributing music reviews for the underground publication The San Diego Door. He then started corresponding with Lester Bangs, who had left the Door to become editor at the national rock magazine Creem which led to Crowe submitting articles to Creem. Crowe graduated from the University of San Diego High School in 1972 at age 15. While visiting Los Angeles Crowe met Ben Fong-Torres, the editor of Rolling Stone, who hired him to write for the magazine. He also worked as a Contributing Editor and later the Associate Editor. Crowe was and still is Rolling Stone’s youngest-ever contributor.

Although Crowe had written two previous films, 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1984’s The Wild Life, his directorial debut came in 1989 with the teen comedy Say Anything… The film is almost universally liked by audiences as well as critics and has had a lasting impact on modern pop culture.

The most iconic scene in the film and perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in film history come towards the end of the film when John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobbler holds up a boombox and blasts Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” outside the bedroom of Ione Skye’s Diane Court. This scene could easily have seemed creepy and stalkerish, but instead comes across as romantic and sweet, which I attribute to Cusack’s amazing performance as Lloyd Dobbler. Cusack took Crowe’s already great character and made him impossibly sweet and quirky without being annoying or creepy.

I don’t have anything really to say about Ione Skye’s performance because I think she is so eclipsed by the talent of the other actors in the film. As far as female performances go, Lili Taylor gives a particularly moving turn as Lloyd’s heartbroken best friend Corey Flood.

I also love John Mahoney as Diane’s father Jim Court. This role is a lot different from Marty Crane the father of Frasier Crane, for which Mahoney is best known. Sometimes he’s an asshole, other times he’s Diane’s best friend and other times he’s a vulnerable man who made bad choices and is afraid of the consequences. It’s really a great role and Mahoney played it perfectly.

1992’s Singles was actually the last of Cameron Crowe’s films that I’d seen. I think it’s often his most overlooked as well. Truth: it is very dated. It is a really great look at early 90s grunge culture in Seattle. But I guess that’s what I find so fascinating. It’s nice to have a piece of history like that preserved, you know? I also love this movie because it’s about being a twenty-something post-college adult and not knowing what to do and how to be, but pretending you do. If there’s anything I know about, it’s that feeling. The main cast includes Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott (son of Academy Award winner George C. Scott), Kyra Sedgwick and Matt Dillon, but also features cameos from Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Piven, Eric Stoltz and Tim Burton. The soundtrack features great tracks from a lot of the up-and-coming Seattle sound grunge bands and its popularity sort of eclipsed that of the movie. Apparently, though, Warner Bros. Television wanted to turn the show into a television show but Crowe was not interested. They preceded anyway, changing some elements, and the result was the long-running sitcom Friends. For the record, I really hate that show.

Arguably the films main focus is on the blooming, and often rocky, relationship between Scott’s Steve  and Sedgwick’s Linda. And although I do like these two actors and their story line, they are not my favorite part of the film.

My favorite part of the film really is Fonda’s Janet. I think she steals the film, nailing her part perfectly. I love her relationship with Dillon’s Cliff, as well. Also, Cliff’s exploits as a musician trying to make it in the world of Grunge is pretty great. But really, there’s this sweetness to Fonda’s Janet that I really love. She also goes through the most real and organic growth as a person throughout the film. It’s too bad Fonda hasn’t done much lately, she was so great in the early 90s.

1996’s Jerry Maguire is the first movie I remember seeing in the theaters and loving instantly. It’s also on the prestigious list of films that I have completely memorized and can recite line for line. I just love it so much. This was my first exposure to Cameron Crowe’s work and ever since I saw it 14 years ago he’s been a big influence in my life. The film was well received by both critics and audiences and was nominated for five Academy Awards – Best Actor – Tom Cruise, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor – Cuba Gooding Jr. (he won) and Best Picture. It also had a huge impact on pop culture. It was voted by the American Film Institute as the #10 best film in the Sports genre, the #100 best film in their 100 Years, 100 Passions lists and the quotes “Show me the money!” and “You had me at ‘hello'” were ranked by AFI on its list of 100 Movie Quotes, as #25 and #52 respectively.

Tom Cruise’s performance in this film is not only my favorite of his performances, but also one of my favorite performances of all-time. What’s so strange is this role seems as though it were written for Cruise, but actually it was originally offered to Tom Hanks and when he turned it down the producers approached John Travolta. I just cannot even imagine either of those actors in this role. I also don’t think the film would have worked half as well as it did without Cruise’s perfect performance. I also have to throw a shout-out to Jonathan Lipnicki, who gives one of the most precocious child performances of all-time. It’s too bad this is the only good film he did.

The same can almost be said for Cuba Gooding, Jr. who won an Oscar for his energetic tour-de-force turn as Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire’s sole client. Gooding is so great in this film, and has given a handful of other good performances, but mostly his post-Oscar career is full of a lot of really craptastic films. I’d like to think Gooding is not just a one-trick pony and just has a really bad agent and/or is being paid big bucks for the crappy roles he keeps choosing. Maybe someday he’ll find his integrity again, once again become a master of the Kwan and will start making good films again.

Due to the critical and commercial success of his previous film, Crowe was able to getting backing for his pet project – an semi-autobiographical film about his days as a young journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine on the road with a rock band. I remember when I first rented this film I watched it with my father and absolutely LOVED it. Then I went in my room and watched it again and then the next morning I watched it a third time before we had to return it. It’s one of those movies that I can watch over and over and will still enjoy as much as I did that first time. The film received great critical acclaim and went on to be nominated for and win numerous awards, including Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (it should have been). It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress – Kate Hudson (in, really, her only truly great performance), Best Supporting Actress – Frances McDormand and Best Film Editing. It also ended up on numerous “Best of the Decade” lists, including Entertainment Weekly, who put it as the #10 Best Film of the Decade, writing:

Every Cameron Crowe film is, in one way or another, about romance, rock & roll, and his romance with rock & roll. This power ballad of a movie, from 2000, also happens to be Crowe’s greatest (and most personal) film thanks to the golden gods of Stillwater and their biggest fan, Kate Hudson’s incomparable Penny Lane.

Although the film is not my favorite of Crowe’s films (it’s so hard to pick a favorite!), I definitely think it is his best.

Although the film is about William Miller’s exploits with the fictional 70s rock band Stillwater, it is the women in his life – two of whom are played by Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand – that really make the film so great. McDormand is always great, so her giving a great performance in a Cameron Crowe film is no surprise. But Hudson, before and after this film, is not really anything great and yet in this film she is so perfectly sublime. I think this is really a case of the perfect player for the perfect part and she has been unable – or, if you look at her choices in the last ten years, unwilling – to find the same kind of magic again.

That being said, I really love Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as the oft-arguing up-and-coming 70s rockstars. They both look the part, with the help of some perfectly floppy hair. They are both consistently hilarious throughout the film, also.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a scene stealing performance as Lester Bangs and Patrick Fugit is wonderfully naive as William Miller, Cameron Crowe’s fictionalized self. My favorite line in the film comes from their first meeting,

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.

Absolute perfection. I am told that the Bootleg Extended DVD version of the movie is even better than the original theatrical cut. Sadly, I still have yet to see that version.

I absolutely adore 2001’s Vanilla Sky. It is perhaps his least well-received films and I think it is his most misunderstood, as well as his most ambitious. I saw the Spanish film on which it is based, Abre los ojos, and, although it is based on that film, I really don’t think the two are comparable. The stylization of the two films is just so different. But if I had to choose one, I would go with Crowe’s version in a heartbeat. Although the film received mixed reviews, a few critics really loved it, including Richard Roeper who named the film his second favorite film of the year. I cannot stress enough how much better this film continues to get upon each repeat viewing.

The very first scene in the film is a breathtaking dream sequence that takes place in New York’s Times Square. The scene was shot on November 12, 2000, all before 10AM. In order to shoot the scene large section of blocks around Times Square were closed off. This is another role that seems to be written for Cruise and in the film we see a lot of range from the actor. Cruise plays David Aames, a play-boy and socialite, who in the course of 24 hours meets the love of his life and gets into a disfiguring car accident. Both events impact his life greatly and the rest of the film is a surreal mixture of romance, fantasy, thriller and science fiction.

Like all of Crowe’s films, Vanilla Sky is filled with great supporting performances and cameos, and Kurt Russell gives one of my favorite of those as Aames’ court-ordered psychologist and much-needed father figure, Dr. Curtis McCabe.

Penélope Cruz reprises her role from the Spanish version, although I think in this film she is given more room to really shine. Her performance as the love of Aames’ life, Sofia, is positively heartbreaking. She is luminous and charming and incredibly sexy throughout the film. She also features prominently in my favorite scene in the film. Actually, I think this scene might be my favorite scene in any of Crowe’s film. I don’t really want to spoil the ending of the film for those of you who haven’t seen it, so all I’m going to say is what I love about the scene is the perfect combination of Cruz’s forlorn face and the melancholic beauty of the Spiritualized song “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.” It is a perfect scene if there ever was one.

Which brings me to the crap-fest that is 2005’s Elizabethtown. This is Crowe’s most widely hated film. It received the lowest critical ratings of his career. I for one, really, really did not life this film. It looked so bad in the trailers that I didn’t even see it in theaters. I waited to rent it and I am so glad that I did, because if I’d paid $10 to see this piece of crap in theaters I’d have been really angry. Mostly I am just disappointed in Crowe, because clearly I love his other films. Part of why I don’t like this film is its cast. I’m not sure I have ever liked Kirsten Dunst in a film and Orlando Bloom really only works in historical films. It does, however, have a great soundtrack including tracks from Tom Petty and My Morning Jacket.

In summation, you should see Crowe’s first five films because they are all equally wonderful. Skip Elizabethtown, unless you want to see it out of some sort of morbid curiosity. You can buy all of Crowe’s films here.

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About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 13, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Oh, Cameron Crowe. I’d still drop everything if you’d hire me to fetch your coffee for you.

  2. Cameron Crowe is my favorite director. I totally agree with all of this.

  3. Mixed feelings. Vanilla sky confused me, I loved Jerry McGuire, Almost Famous is wonderful, I didn’t know he wrote Fast times – loved it a lot. But this was interesting to read. I might try Vanilla Sky again – at home with subtitles it might be better for little old hard-of-hearing me. 🙂

  1. Pingback: Oscar Vault Monday – Jerry Maguire, 1996 (dir. Cameron Crowe) « the diary of a film awards fanatic

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