We Bought A Zoo – San Diego Union Tribune

Cameron and Alice Crowe’s Special Bond

There’s a good reason director Cameron Crowe had his mother, Alice, do an on-screen cameo in his new movie, “We Bought a Zoo” — and, no, Mrs. Crowe doesn’t harbor any aspirations to achieve belated stardom as an actress.

“She’s an amazing collaborator, she’s so sharp,” Cameron Crowe said of his mother, who has made a cameo appearance in every movie her son has written and directed, except “Say Anything,” his first.

“My mom and (veteran film director) James L. Brooks have been my biggest influences as screenwriters, because they’re both so invested in the privilege of storytelling. Neither of them would ever say: ‘That’s good enough.’ My mom never gives up in making sure something she’s involved in is as great as it can be. She’s a person who’s always happy when something is serving humanity.”

She is also her son’s most attentive editor — and most candid critic — when it comes to reading the screenplays he has written for the films he’s directed. His screenplay for “Almost Famous” — which is set partly in San Diego and which is at least somewhat autobiographical — won Crowe his first Academy Award. The part of his mother is played in the film by Frances McDormand.

“If my mom ever reads a scene of mine in a screenplay, and it’s just filler or a joke that doesn’t serve that much of a purpose — except that somebody is embarrassed, or if it’s a harsh scene, with no real honesty — she’ll go: ‘Do you really need that? Will that elevate humanity?’ ” I’ll say: ‘No, but it’s funny.’ And she’ll say: ‘Do you really need that?’

“She gave me my love, not only of writing, but of the performing arts. And she was the first person to take me to movies and point out artists like Mike Nichols or Woody Allen. She always goes for a literate truth, and says: ‘Study this person.’ She took me to foreign films and said: ‘Here’s how you can combine laughter and tears.”

Alice Crowe, a retired San Diego City College professor and guidance counselor, plays down her role as a crucial sounding board for her son.

“I do read his scripts,” she allowed. “I tell him I’m not (like) the average audience, because I love art films. But we go over all the humor (in his scripts) together, always.”

In fact, Alice Crowe came up with one of the first lines in “Zoo,” after reading an article about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and sharing it with her son, who created and wrote an entire scene around it. And she happily takes credit for his lifelong love of music.

“Cameron always loved music, since he was two weeks old and I played him ‘The Chipmunk Song.’ He wouldn’t sleep unless I played him music.”

Cameron Crowe was introduced to rock ‘n’ roll by his older sister, Cindy. Their mother, appalled by the misogyny in some song lyrics, did not allow rock records in the Crowe family home. At least, she didn’t until her son’s album reviews started to be published in local and regional newspapers when he was barely a teenager.

“He’d send them to the Los Angeles Times and Creem (magazine),” she said. “One day, he got a note that the Times wanted to print his Alice Cooper review. He got paid $20. It was very well-written. That was his first published piece in the Times, and the Times didn’t know how old he was. Rolling Stone also didn’t know how old he was; they started asking for his reviews.”

Both mother and son laughingly recall how she had to drag him to see “Hamlet” at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, when he was 11 or 12.

“He wouldn’t walk next to me, only behind me or in front of me,” Alice Crowe said. “When we got to the theater, he didn’t want to go in and wanted to go home to the apartment we lived in, on Sixth Avenue. He finally relented. We had great seats, and he was mesmerized. We went to other Shakespeare plays at the Globe, but he still wouldn’t walk next to me!”

“It’s very true,” acknowledged Cameron Crowe, himself the father of two sons. “And then she’d want to wait around, after the plays, and congratulate the actors. I was like: ‘Mom, come on!’ She took me to many of the Shakespeare productions; I remember at last eight or nine times — something where I’d go: ‘Oh, no! Well, in two hours it will be over.’ But, at a certain point, I realized there was an elixir in the air that was the joy of acting.

“It came together pretty quickly in Balboa Park. When I talked to (actor) Campbell Scott about being in ‘Singles,’ I went back to the Globe, where he was playing Hamlet! It was amazing to ask him to be in my movie at the same spot where my mom would drag me to see ‘Hamlet’ in the first place. My mom is a real hero to me.”

The feeling is mutual.

Alice Crowe is such a big fan of her son’s films that she contacted the San Diego Union-Tribune, several months ago, to suggest and help arrange an interview with him — timed to the release of “We Bought a Zoo.”

“Cameron loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I always hoped he would be a lawyer,” she said. “That’s why we lived in Linda Vista, near the University of San Diego. But I’m I’m very proud of him.”

Courtesy of the San Diego Union-Tribune – George Varga – December 23, 2011