Almost Famous – USA Today

Crowe’s Cool with Being Uncool

TORONTO — If success is the ultimate cool, then why is Cameron Crowe such a geek?

Take the premiere party for Almost Famous, his autobiographical ’70s rock epic that opens today in New York and Los Angeles. The post-gala soiree celebrating his follow-up to 1996’s multi-Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire, a hit that made it OK for even Tom Cruise to be uncool, is one of the hottest tickets of the 10-day Toronto International Film Festival. Crowe, 43, may be decked out in an impeccable suit instead of his usual rumpled roadie chic, but if he were cool, the guy would be air-kissing celebs in the roped-off VIP area with his totally cool wife of 14 years, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, at his side.

Instead, the mop-topped director is hunkered down with a sycophantic bunch of free-drink-sipping film journalists, the cool-party counterpart of being stuck at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving.

He exuberantly relates how his mentor, crusty ninetysomething auteur Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), enjoyed the movie based on Crowe’s experiences covering rock bands as a teen reporter for Rolling Stone. But the living legend thought the film’s harrowing sequence aboard a storm-tossed plane dragged on too long.

“But there’s TURBULENCE,” shouts Crowe, recounting his defense a little too loudly (a geek trait to be sure). His audience, like most of the audiences for his so-true-they-hurt comedies like 1989’s Say Anything … or his teen-angst script for 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, laughs in fond appreciation of his humiliation.

Yes, the king of uncool cinema is a geek. But he’s one who is savvy enough to disarm those in the media who can best launch his most personal effort yet. Although Almost Famous boasts the usual Crowe cast of fresh faces (Billy Crudup as the rock star, Kate Hudson as the groupie, Patrick Fugit as Crowe’s alter ego) in what are sure to be career-defining roles, it lacks a star of Cruise’s magnitude to provide instant liftoff.

Even though he’s able to hold a table of jaded reporters spellbound, “I feel awkward most of the time,” says the affable Crowe, chatting before the party. ” I have to pinch myself sometimes and just go, ‘Here is a moment you must enjoy.’ I just did it in a press conference. ‘You must not think of how you’re not fitting in some way.’ As soon as you raise the question, you’re not cool. I feel awkward a lot of the time, and I feel awkward talking about how I feel awkward.”

Crowe has at least one person fooled, however. “Cameron is definitely cool,” says Fugit . “He is the cool of cool.” Fugit is only 17. Cool is getting your first car. He’ll learn.

The secret is making discomfort work to your advantage, and no one does that better than Crowe. He doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve. He wears it on the screen. It’s beating loud and clear in such scenes as when Fugit’s William steals a kiss from Hudson’s drugged-out Penny Lane, moments before he calls for a doctor who graphically pumps her stomach — an act William observes adoringly while Stevie Wonder’s My Cheri Amour plays on the soundtrack.

“What I like to do is hopefully write about the things that happen when people don’t feel like they’re James Dean,” he says. “That’s most of us. And that is what is interesting to me. There are many more uncool people than cool, and they live with the question of cool a lot of the time.”

Almost Famous wasn’t almost called The Uncool for nothing. Fugit’s wide-eyed William uses his inexperience and awkwardness on the job to charm the film’s on-the-rise rock band Stillwater into exposing their innermost secrets.

It was a combination of arcane knowledge, writing talent and unbridled enthusiasm that got Crowe to Rolling Stone in the first place. Says Ben Fong-Torres, the editor who assigned Crowe his first story for the magazine — a cover story on Poco — in 1973: “We had been around for six years and were looking for young energy. A number of artists hated us for giving them negative record reviews. We liked the idea of sending a fresh-faced, buoyant, positive kid out there to get doors open.”

For seven years, Crowe the kid was given a backstage pass to the lives of such major and often elusive acts as Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and David Bowie. In a way, it was a rehearsal for the next stage of his career: movies.

Says Fong-Torres, “From the beginning he had a grasp of the truth of human emotions and language.”

If it isn’t intimate, Crowe tends to tune out.

“The records that I always loved the most were the personal ones. In interviewing people, I would ask them about this album, and they would say, ‘That’s my heartbreak-over-my-marriage-breaking-up album. I much more prefer the big band thing I did later.’ I would be like, ‘No no. I like the embarrassingly personal one.’ That is what Almost Famous is. I’m sure I’ll be making the big band album next.”

Crowe also has the knack for finding the right co-conspirators for his missions.

After years of great work in little-seen films like Jesus’ Son and Without Limits, Crudup, 32, might just break through as Almost Famous’ enigmatic lead guitarist, a role originally offered to Brad Pitt.

Crudup, for one, thinks Crowe’s geekiness works just fine. “To be down-to-earth, self-effacing and a dork sometimes. That’s cool to me because I’m a dork. Everyone I know and appreciate is a dork in some sense. What is so admirable about him is his diligence. He was relentless in his pursuit in finding what he thought resembled the truth and did so in a way that had some artistry, some craft. And he had such respect for me.”

Hudson, 21 , the bubbly sprite who is Goldie Hawn’s daughter, seconds that emotion .

“Cameron is so uncool that he’s the coolest guy you’ll ever meet. The biggest geeks in the world are the coolest people. When I met him, he was so genuine and so honest. We sat down and spilled our guts out. I was telling him things I never told anyone, and vice versa.”

She also got a glimpse of his inner geek child. “The real Penny Lane came to the set a week before we were finished. It was incredible because she had this kind of grandeur. Cameron really nailed that essence. Then he walked up to her and she said, ‘I am so proud of you.’ And his whole body language changed. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Patrick and me.'”

Crowe, who spent nearly a decade writing and revising the script for Almost Famous, realizes that he is putting himself more on the line than usual by doing a movie that’s about “97% true.”

“You’re at ground zero with the anxiety issue. That was always the struggle. The problem was when it became more personal, the script got better.”

One reward from doing an autobiographical story goes beyond mere box office. The happy family reunion that ends Almost Famous inspired a real-life reconciliation between his mother ( portrayed by Frances McDormand) and older sister (Zooey Deschanel).

“They were together at our screening last week. It was very painful. When it came to the part where Frances says, ‘You are rebellious and ungrateful of my love,’ my mom leans over and says to my sister, ‘I never said that.’ No, she didn’t say that line exactly. But she said many versions of that, never realizing the barb was quite so spiked. But they’re coming together, that was the big thing.”

Crowe’s next big thing will be a movie with Cruise called Vanilla Sky (“It’s a trippy title”) that starts shooting at the end of October.

“It’s a very contemporary love story set in New York. No ’70s music in this one.”

He’s angling for Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. That means a marquee could read “Cruise, Cruz, Cameron and Cameron,” which delights the filmmaker. “I was trying to get Russell Crowe just to really make it strange.”

Suddenly, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, Crowe shares a revelation:

“I was just checking myself in the bathroom, and I realize that the look that I give myself in the mirror I never have in life. I never look that way in life.”

For the sake of lovers of uncool cinema, let’s hope we never, ever see the face in the mirror.

Courtesy of USA Today – Susan Wloszczyna – September 14, 2000