[played by Billy Crudup]: [swigging Miller Lite in front of groupies, then grabbing the phone away from William Miller] “Hey, mom! It's Russell Hammond. I play guitar in Stillwater. Hey, how does it feel to be the mother of the greatest rock journalist we've met? Hello? Hello...? Look, you've got a really great kid here. There's nothing to worry about. We're taking good care of him, and you should come to the show sometime—join the circus...”
Elaine Miller [played by Frances McDormand]: “Hey, hey, listen to me, mister. Your charm doesn't work on me—I'm on to you. Of course you like him...”
Russell: “Well, yeah...”
Elaine: “He worships you people. And that's fine by you as long as he helps make you rich.”
Russell: “Rich? I don't think so...”
Elaine: “Listen to me. He's a smart, good-hearted, fifteen-year-old kid with infinite potential.”
[Russell listens, stunned]
Elaine: “This is not some apron-wearing mother you're speaking with—I know all about your Valhalla of decadence and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly?”
Russell: “Yes—yes, ma'am...”
Elaine: “If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession which is law—something you may not value, but I do—you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?”
Russell: “Uh, yes, ma'am...”
Elaine: “I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell. Please get my son home safely. You know, I'm glad we spoke.”
[Elaine hangs up]
[Russell stands holding phone in stunned silence.]— Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe (1995)
Twenty years ago this month, the dramedy Almost Famous premiered in American theaters. As with other films by Cameron Crowe, the soundtrack represents a source of nostalgic joy for baby boomers like me who entered adolescence in the early 1970s listening to hits like Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," The Raspberries “Go All the Way,” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”
But the heart of the film is Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay, a semi-autobiographical account of his time as a teenaged journalist traveling on the road interviewing acts such as The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell.
Years later, fans can still recall great scenes such as acid-tripping Russell shouting “I am a golden god!” as he dives into a pool (an incident based on an exploit of Robert Plant’s); a terrifying plane ride that climaxes with a string of hilarious near-death confessions; or William’s encounter with the nubile females who trail the rising rock ‘n’ roll band Stillwater. (As explained by one of these ladies, Penny Lane: “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music—we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.”)
I don’t think that Kate Hudson has ever been sweeter, funnier or more moving om film than as the warm-hearted Penny. It’s not surprising that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance—or, in a case of art imitating life, that Patrick Fugit, much like his Crowe stand-in William, fell for her.
And, in one of the few cases in which he played a real-life person, the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in one of his nicely nuanced turns as cynical but compassionate rock journalist Lester Bangs.
Yet, for me, the actor who stands out (and, like Ms. Hudson, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the movie) is Frances McDormand (pictured) as William’s psychology prof mom Elaine—fiercely protective (yes, overly so) of her son (as seen in the above ferociously funny tongue-lashing) but also, in a sense, the moral center of the film.
(Yes, Elaine is based on Crowe’s mother—who, despite the filmmaker’s concern that she would bother McDormand during filming, ended up getting on very well with the actress.) It is a far cry from the libertine musician she would play two years after the release of Almost Famous in Laurel Canyon.
Maggie Lange’s GQ analysis of the “aggressively, stunningly, transcendently uncool” Elaine captures perfectly both the character’s hilarious Mother Bear instincts (though I suspect that at least a few mothers I know have been tempted to use some variation of Elaine’s “family whistle”) and her belief in her son’s promise and goodness—a belief that Russell, for all his instincts towards that “Valhalla of decadence,” ultimately shares and honors.
It is in keeping with McDormand’s view about other mothers she’s played, expressed in a 2003 New York Times interview with Karen Durbin: “Those roles weren't just mothers in a story about a male protagonist. First they were specific, three-dimensional people."
Almost Famous also reflects Crowe’s ongoing fascination with Billy Wilder. Crowe had conducted lengthy, intense interviews with the Sunset Boulevard filmmaker about his techniques and themes (later collected, like a volume that Francois Truffaut did based on talks with Alfred Hitchcock, into Conversations With Wilder). Crowe had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Wilder to play a character in his hit Jerry Maguire, and a late scene in Almost Famous pays homage to Jack Lemmon’s desperate floor-walking with a suicidal Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment.
I was stunned to read that, despite all of its critical acclaim, Almost Famous underperformed at the box office, clobbered by a re-release of The Exorcist. But over the years, it has found its audience—not just the musicians who inspired and appreciated it, but the millions of fans who had their heads blown away by a piece of music (as William is by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds classic LP) and seek every moment they can from then on to re-experience that sense of youthful transcendence. It has reached cult status, even inspiring its own podcast.
Moreover, as with Crowe’s best other works (Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire), it celebrates the necessity of idealism and openness to love amid the “compromised values” that Elaine Miller fears, battles, and girds her decent son to withstand.