Raising Famous – An Interview with Alice Crowe


Cameron Crowe has been in public eye since he was in his mid-teens. At the age of fifteen he became a rock writer for Rolling Stone magazine and began experiencing the fast paced life of Rock & Roll. Several years later, he wrote the book as well as the screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In addition to screenwriting he also directed the highly praised Jerry Maguire. Last year, his semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous was released. A triumph in every sense of the word. One of the central characters is that of his mother – Alice Crowe.

Included with the DVD release of Almost Famous: Untitled: The Bootleg Cut is a sensational commentary with Cameron Crowe and his mother taking center stage. To herald the debut of this 2-disc set I had an opportunity to interview Alice. During the time we spent talking I discovered just how fascinating she is. Her opinions are honest and her words are trustworthy. What follows is the conversation between myself and Alice. It will help shed even more light on her influence on Cameron’s life…and in turn Almost Famous.


DVD Angle: Before I get started I need to tell you that I think Almost Famous is one of the greatest movies in history.

Alice: Oh thank you! That’s so rewarding because [Cameron] didn’t want to do this movie for ten years. I can’t tell you how many time’s he would put it in a drawer and forget about it for months and months and months and said, “It’s too personal” you know, “it sounds like I’m patting myself on the back. How can I write a film about me?” And he resisted – he ran away from this film, but his wife Nancy [Wilson] and I just kept saying, “You gotta do it. You gotta do it.” And Lawrence Kasdan, a friend of his, told him “who else can describe 1973, or the early 70’s. Who else can do it better, Cameron?” Finally he did it.

And he did it very well. The story, which most people mistake as simply a Rock & Roll story, is so much more.

It is, and I think he got it all. Mostly, I’m very proud that he was able to put on the screen that 1973 as it really was. Not so much as it has been portrayed in the media, as just a wild period of sex and drugs. He saw it as a fan, and he loved the music and as he says, “the innocence.”

[The music] has a fortuitous honesty and reality to it.

Before it became jaded and clean and became a corporate scene. It changed…it changed. He saw it just before it changed, and he put it up on the screen.

Based on your personal viewpoints pertaining to Rock & Roll, especially back in 1973, how difficult was it for you to encourage Cameron to pursue his hobby as a rock writer?

As you said, he’d been working on this for a very long time and kept putting it off and putting it off.

How did you feel about it? Did you have any trepidation’s about having your persona portrayed on-screen?

No, because I was supposed to be just a side character. I read somewhere that writer’s sometimes feel a presence, particularly if it’s a biography, of the person that they’re writing about and that the subject writes itself. That’s the way this film went because [the] original form was concentrated on the rock band. I was just someone on the phone in a few little scenes – remember ten years…ten drafts. I have so many scripts for Almost Famous, except Cameron always called it Untitled as is the bootleg edition that just came out. Cameron loves the title Untitled. I love Almost Famous and I’m glad that the studio prevailed and called it Almost Famous. In Cameron’s mind it was always Untitled.

Based on your personal viewpoints pertaining to Rock & Roll, especially back in 1973, how difficult was it for you to encourage Cameron to pursue his hobby as a rock writer?

Well, I didn’t have a lot of say in it in that Cameron was doing what he loved. It was agreed he would go to law school and that this would be a hobby. So, when you have a child that has a hobby that’s an okay hobby then you’re going to let him do it. It just sort of grew and grew and grew, and the next thing I knew he had slipped away and was traveling with rock stars, and that’s pretty incredible when you’re fifteen. I encouraged him because I knew he loved to write and because the people that were with him assured me that he was okay and not into drugs. They were taking care of him. They would call me, or write notes…people that I trusted, that he was traveling with. He always said, “Mom, it’s just a hobby. I’m gonna come back. I’m finishing my classes – I’m going onto college, I’m going onto law school.” And that didn’t happen. I guess I’m still waiting. He was doing what he loved, and he was doing it so well you can’t just step in and say, “You’re gonna do it my way,” because then the child would turn against you.

And that’s one of the things the movie brings forward with your daughter.

My daughter wanted a very conservative, mainstream, conventional mother that didn’t embarrass her by being different. I didn’t feel that I was different. I was very interested in the politics of the time. I saw that Vietnam was going to be very unsuccessful endeavor, early on, which wasn’t easy in a Navy town. My family later on said, “Mom, you were right.” So these were the things that concerned me, and my daughter wanted a more Betty Crocker/Martha Stewart type of mom, but now she has children and she understands this – that not all mom’s are the conventional cliché of staying home and cooking – and that’s fine. There are many women who do this, and I congratulate them, but it just wasn’t my style. Indeed, my daughter wanted that type of a mother, and so she finally realized that I’m okay – thanks to the film. We reunited, reconciled at the premiere of Almost Famous.

Really! I didn’t know that.

So thank you Cameron! She calls a lot, and she has twin daughters, identical twin daughters, and another daughter, and we’re very close now, but it took a long time for her to realize there are many types of moms. Though I seemed very unconventional in the 70’s, time caught up with me. Now people are either vegetarian, or [are on] macrobiotic diets. People are much more interested in politics and a global perspective, not just what’s happening in their neighborhood. So it took some time for her to realize that I’m okay.

As was talked about in the wonderful commentary on the Untitled DVD, you were always no-nonsense. You said exactly what you felt.

That’s right. Cameron says he’s never known anyone who small-talked worse than I did. I said, “I don’t know how to small-talk. If we’re not discussing World War III I’m not interested.”

That I can relate to. That’s pretty much how I grew up. It took me many years to realize that’s the best way to be – to have somebody who is loving, but let’s you do your own thing.

But in the intervening years it’s kind of rough on the parents. Because [the children] want very conventional parents.

Now looking at the movie…Frances McDormand, who was robbed of the Oscar®…

And Kate Hudson. That broke my heart. I’m still feeling anxiety over that one. Kate Hudson – those scenes! How about the OD scene?

We did an interview with Jason Lee when the first DVD came out and he said it best, “no “Best Picture” nomination. Those bastards.”

That’s right. That’s absolutely right.

When it came to casting, did you have any say in who could portray you?

No I didn’t. Cameron sent me some videos of possibilities and I said, “Cameron, yeah, yeah, I think this is one’s alright” or maybe “That one I don’t think really would do it.” He always loved Frances McDormand’s performance in Fargo, but we didn’t think we could get her because the budget, and she’s an Oscar® actress, and she mostly does her husband’s [Joel Coen] films. We just didn’t think that we could get her, but he persisted, and our family motto is “we never give up.” He kept after the studio and after Frances. When I met Frances [at the premier] I asked her, “Out of all the scripts that come to you, why did you pick this one?” She said, “Are you kidding? I get mother scripts and character scripts all the time, but a mother that quotes Gerta? I just had to do it!”

You said in the commentary the only thing she didn’t get right is the fact that you always wore shoes in the house.

Yes, it’s not a snob thing. I don’t like the feel of stuff on my feet…tile on my feet. I looked and said, “Cameron, why did you let Frances play me barefoot? You’ve never seen me go barefoot around the house.” and he said, “Mom, nobody noticed. You’re the only one that noticed.” But her portrayal was so great.

How did she research the character?

You’re the only one who has asked me that, and it dawned on me later… Cameron said, “Don’t talk to Frances.” I wasn’t on the set all the time. Once and a while I would go on the set and I happened to be on the set the day Frances was doing a big scene. It was a large studio where they were filming, and I was on one side and Cameron came to me and said, “Don’t go near Frances. Don’t talk to Frances. I want her to portray you as she wants to do the character, not you – the character as I wrote it. Don’t talk to Frances.” I said, “Okay, alright.” He left, and shortly after that someone was walking towards me and I said, “Oh my goodness, it’s Frances.” She came up to me and said, “I’m Frances McDormand.” I said, “Yes, I recognize you from Fargo. I’m Elaine Miller,” which was the name in the film and she laughed. I said, “I’m Cameron’s mom.” She said, “How do you want me to portray you?” which I wasn’t supposed to answer. I said, “Please don’t play me shrill.” And then I realized…I looked over at Cameron and, oh, we was looking so upset across the set, so I immediately changed the subject. She had her little boy there, and I asked about the little boy, and so the conversation changed completely to parenting. We talking about twenty minutes…and she’s lovely, really lovely. Then she left and Cameron came storming over. Cameron’s really laid back – he very seldom gets angry, but he was angry and he said, “Mom I told you…” and I said, “She came to me. All I responded was ‘please don’t play me shrill,’ and we talked about parenting.” He seemed relieved.

Then afterwards I thought, of course, she was studying me. We talked a long time about parenting, her background, my background. I told her how much I loved her husband’s films, particularly Miller’s Crossing, and the music in the Coen brother’s films, particularly in O Brother, Where Art Thou?…I love them. They do a lot of research for the music. A lot of it’s folk music, very authentic…from the Smithsonian…that’s what we discussed…things like that. But all the time…when she left I thought, “Whew, we didn’t discuss the film. Cameron won’t be angry,” but she was studying me. She was, because my husband says she nailed my mannerisms and my speech patterns. She studied me.

Do you feel she got it very accurate?

Very accurate. I do – and that’s scary because we don’t perceive ourselves as others perceive us. So I looked and said, “That’s the way I am! That’s interesting…that’s the person I am…” because I perceive myself as a different person, don’t you?

Absolutely, when you look at a picture or a video you’re not seeing the same person.

Now when I see the film…as an English teacher it’s not “I”, anyway…I say, “That’s an actress, that’s a role.” I forget that she’s portraying me.

What was it like the first time you saw the movie on the silver screen?

Scary, scary…I sat in the audience and thought, “those are my words verbatim. How did he remember?” Particularly the scene in the car where he finds out how old he is. I remember saying, “Go to your chemists.” And him saying, “But I’m so young! I’m three years younger than anybody else. They’re laughing at me.” And I said, “Well Cameron, who cares? You don’t want to be conventional – you’re unique. That’s fine.” I remember clearly saying, “Look, you’re two or three years ahead. Go to Europe, look around, see what you want to do. Follow your dreams.” I used those exact words, and now there they are up on the screen. And I thought, “Oh my god, what else has he remembered?”

Do you have children?

I have one little baby…

Remember what you tell them because that baby will remember. The baby will definitely remember. And they don’t like ambiguity. [I saw] my little grandson – Cameron has twin sons – last week, and I said to Curtis, “Meet me at the door, we’re going to go bye-bye.” When he ran to the door…he’s only two, not even quite two…ran to the door and was hanging on the door and there was something on the video that Cameron wanted me to see. He said, “Mom, I want you to see this…” and I said, “Come on Curtis, we’re going to see the video.” Curtis, who’s so sweet tempered, he got furious. He had a temper tantrum right there because my last words to him were “we’re going bye-bye, go to the door,” which is where he was. Then I changed it to the video and he couldn’t handle that ambiguity. It’s a very important lesson that a lot of parents don’t get, and I wish I had gotten it sooner. They listen and they trust the letter of your word. Don’t be ambiguous and don’t divert them, don’t change it. Don’t double blind them. If tell them one thing then do another it’s very frightening to children. It makes them schizoid.

That’s actually a very good point.

I guess I should be talking about Almost Famous… [breaking out in to laughter]

Hey…interviews are supposed to be fun and educational…

I did try to be straight-arrow with Cameron and stick right to the letter to what I said. Obviously, he put it right up on the screen. And there are a lot of scenes in Untitled that are Cameron’s favorites that because the film had to be cut to two hours, originally it was four-and-a-half hours, it’s like cutting your children out of your life. He’s so attached to some of the scenes. The Quincy Allen scene is in the Untitled. He loves that. It was never my favorite scene, but Cameron just loves that scene, and he got it in and several other scenes that he just adored that were cut. And also that scene where Kate Hudson is dancing in ballroom – Cameron loved that scene so much he paid for that scene. They had pretty much spent their budget and there wasn’t money for…I don’t know if Cameron wants me to say this, but I’ll say it…he wanted the scene of Kate Hudson dancing after the concert. That’s his favorite scene and mine.

It’s beautiful.

She’s dancing on the paper towels on the floor and bulletins and the flyers. He loved that scene so much he paid for that scene. And the entire scene is in the Untitled.

That’s right. As Cameron said, “That sums up the movie.” And it does.

Yes, and it should have been in the theatrical version – that entire scene should not have been cut because it wasn’t that long, and it’s so beautiful, and you’re right, that optimizes the whole theme of the film.

Cameron was able to put back about thirty-five minutes. One of the parts that you were very happy about, you didn’t even know until you saw it for the first time [during the commentary session] was the scene having to do with merry “Xmas.

Yes, yes! One of my favorite scenes. There were two scenes that were cut that I felt should not have been cut. One was that, cause I think it establishes our rapport, every time I saw “Xmas” I thought what does “X” mean? It’s either Christmas or Happy Holidays. And of my Christmas gripe, he heard me say it all my life and he put it up there and they cut it. And the other scene was when he’s in the shower, and he’s too young, and he hasn’t developed. The kids are very cruel, and they make fun of him. That was cut to practically nothing. And that one should have played out…what was it one minute or so?

Just over…

And that’s in the Untitled. Those three scenes – the ballroom scene, the Xmas scene, and the shower – and also Cameron is too young…up on the marquee, I won’t say the f-word…but that actually happened and it was up on the marquee – it’s in the Untitled, but they took it out of the [theatrical cut of the] film.

As far as you know, is this the definitive cut that Cameron’s going to make, or will there be another longer cut?

I think this is it. This is it…he got all his favorite [scenes] in – and mine too, we got it in there.

Courtesy of DVD Angle – Paul Russell – November 30, 2001