Jerry Maguire – New York Times

Inside an Agent’s Head and Heart

Five years ago Cameron Crowe saw a magazine photograph of a football player and his agent. The photograph riveted him. ”It was two guys in loud shirts standing next to each other,” Mr. Crowe said, ”one tall and one short, both trying to make it in the world, both trying to make a killing.”

From that image Mr. Crowe, a onetime music journalist who had written and directed two idiosyncratic films, ”Say Anything” and ”Singles,” began a prolonged journey with football teams, interviewing sports agents and athletes and writing as many as 20 drafts of his screenplay for ”Jerry Maguire.”

”I began calling my friends late at night and saying: ‘Should I quit this movie? It’s taking so long, and it’s so hard to get the stories right,’ ” Mr. Crowe recalled. ”My friends kept saying: ‘You’ve got all these stories. You’ve got all these scenes that you keep talking about. You’ve got to do it.’ ”

So he did it. His comedy-drama, starring Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire, a slick sports agent stripped of his job and self-respect and forced to start again, has opened to the best critical reviews of the holiday season, matched by box office success. After its first two weekends, the film had grossed an estimated $36.5 million. (It came in second over the weekend to, of all things, ”Beavis and Butt-head Do America.”)

What makes the film so appealing, most critics have said, is its quirkiness. Unlike virtually any other studio film with a marquee star like Mr. Cruise, ”Jerry Maguire” is almost impossible to characterize in one sentence. It’s about the worship of success and money, about interracial friendship and loyalty, about the ethos of professional sports and, mostly, about the unexpectedness of love.

The title character is an agent who spontaneously proposes to his colleagues that they should focus more attention on fewer clients. People are what counts, he says, not money. He’s fired, of course, loses all his clients except a second-tier wide receiver (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and is joined in his quest to renew himself by a wistful single mother (Renee Zellweger) who serves as his secretary.

”This world of sports agents was very competitive, very flashy and filled with these colorful characters,” said Mr. Crowe in his office here. ”And sports agents had much more power than the agents you see in any other form of the entertainment business. They acted like your mother, your father, your uncle, your coach, your publicist. The agent does it all.

”And, with the athletes, a lot of times the dads have left the home, and it’s just the mom and this young prince of an athlete and the agent. And then the young athlete gets hurt; he’s gone and a new one is in there. And the sharks are circling these new guys.”

Yet the film is not really about sports.

James L. Brooks, the Academy Award-winning writer and director (”Terms of Endearment”), one of the producers of ”Jerry Maguire,” said: ”Actually we wanted to take a look at the 90’s because it’s been undefined for so long. Nobody’s put a harness on the 90’s. When we began, the mission was to do something about the times we’re living in. Cameron went out and came back with sports agents. This decade is so confusing that the agent as sports hero makes a certain amount of sense.”

Two classic films provided inspiration for ”Jerry Maguire.” Mr. Cruise patterned his performance on Tony Curtis’s portrayal of Sidney Falco, the smarmy press agent in Alexander Mackendrick’s ”Sweet Smell of Success,” while the mixed cynical and sentimental tone of Billy Wilder’s ”Apartment,” in which Jack Lemmon lends his apartment key to his philandering bosses, helped shape the new film.

”The idea was those rich movies of the 50’s and 60’s, dramatic and romantic and brisk,” Mr. Crowe said. ”We used to joke about it and go, ‘This is a movie where Tony Curtis becomes Jack Lemmon.’ I’d say to Tom, ‘We’re still in the Tony Curtis mode here.’ ”

Mr. Cruise said over the telephone that he took the part of the sports agent because ”it was a great role, a difficult role, and I knew I’d go places I hadn’t been before as an actor.” He added: ”When I read the script I cried. And the structure of that script defies, really, what people think works in a movie, because you never knew where the story was going to go, and Cameron’s got so many stories being told.”

For Mr. Crowe, a boyish 39-year-old whose easy, outgoing style seems to mask a complex blend of stubbornness and artistic torment, the 2-hour, 15-minute movie is, like all his previous work, deeply personal. Mr. Crowe’s first script, ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” in 1982, was a witty and melancholy look at Southern California high school students and was based on his own factual book. His later films were generally endorsed by critics, but were treated as offbeat by studios, which never quite knew how to market them.

”When we began,” Mr. Crowe said, ”the one bit of advice that Jim Brooks gave me was, ‘Don’t settle for anything less than the best version of each line, the way you heard it in your head when you wrote it.’ That got me through, because I wouldn’t give up. I would not give up. Even when people said, ‘We have to move on; we’re running behind; we’re overshooting,’ I would not give up.”

Mr. Crowe’s research resulted in some of the film’s best moments and lines. Early on in his research, he interviewed Tim McDonald, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals in the player’s hotel room.

”He had CNN ”Money Line” going on in the background,” Mr. Crowe said, ”and he was at an owners’ meeting to be paraded through the lobby to get his price up. And he was saying: ‘I’ve got a wife and kids. I’ve been beaten up for five years in Phoenix. Show me the money.’

”I went, ‘Whoa.’ That turned out to be the key line for Cuba Gooding.”

Numerous other lines in the film came from real life. For example, Mr. Crowe heard a sports agent, who had just been dismissed by his client, tell the football player: ”You don’t understand. I’ve got to have someplace to go in the morning.” Another real line was used by Tom Cruise about a deal, ”It looks good, but it doesn’t taste good.”

Mr. Crowe admitted that he was a little intimidated at first about directing Mr. Cruise, who has given what several critics termed the best performance of his career. ”He would just go all night long until I was happy,” Mr. Crowe said. ”He kept asking, ‘What’s in your mind?’ and I would say, ‘Well, it’s late and everything, can you go a little more, do you have another one in you?’ And he said: ‘Another one? I got 100 more in me. I’ll go as long as you want me to go.’ ”

Mr. Crowe made some unusual casting choices. He selected Ms. Zellweger, a virtual unknown who had previously acted in some independent films, as the female lead. (”She came into the room and I thought, whoa, that’s someone fresh.”) He also chose, as her son, Jonathan Lipnicki, a 6-year-old who is a far cry from the ultra-cute children who frequently populate holiday movies. Jonathan, who had previously made some McDonald’s commercials, was found at the last minute by the producer, Laurence Mark, after another child failed to work out.

”In the casting area Cameron alway seemed to go for the unpredictable, the surprising and the real,” Mr. Mark said. ”He also liked to reveal colors that an actor might not have shown before. Cuba Gooding, for instance, had previously given off major fireworks on screen, but we hadn’t yet really seen the depth of emotion and the warmth he gets to show here.”

Mr. Crowe is married to Nancy Wilson, the film’s composer and a guitarist who spent 20 years with her band, Heart. He began writing about music for Rolling Stone while he was a San Diego high school student.

”I began submitting these articles to Ben Fong-Torres and I was getting published, and he called one day, and my older sister, Cindy, answered the phone and told him, ‘It’s so great my 15-year-old brother can be in Rolling Stone, and he said, ‘What! He’s 15?’ ” Mr. Crowe never went to college.

One of Mr. Crowe’s more humiliating experiences was being told by studio executives that his movie ”Singles,” would not be released around the country unless the rock band Pearl Jam, which had a bit part in the film, would promote it on MTV.

”I went hat in hand and begged them to do the show,” Mr. Crowe said. ”It’s so vivid just the way my stomach ached begging those guys who were friends of mine and who had been struggling six months earlier and were now the biggest band in the world. They eventually said yes, and we got the movie released. But it was so painful. I begged and, to tell you the truth, I put a lot of it into ‘Jerry Maguire.’ ”

Courtesy of the NY Times – Bernard Weinraub – December 23, 1996