Friday, February 10, 2012

Cameron Crowe Got Wilder

One of my favorite films of 2000 which became one of my favorite films of the previous decade is Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe.  That warm, witty, sophisticated comedy is a valentine to the more innocent, less corporate-influenced rock music scene of the 1970s.
Inside this valentine were Patrick Fugit and Billy Crudup as two guys involved with the same girl.  Kate Hudson was golden as the girl, Penny Lane.
With that relationship at the heart of Almost Famous, it's like a classic film that won the Best Picture of 1960 Academy Award.  It's a movie dear to Cameron Crowe's heart -- Billy Wilder's The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.
In The Apartment, one of the two guys involved with the same girl is an ambitious young male, one must learn to become a mensch (look it up).  The girl will need to have her stomach pumped.
In Almost Famous, one of the two guys involved with the same girl is an ambitious young male, one must learn to become a mensch.  The girl will need to have her stomach pumped.  It's Christmastime in The Apartment and in Almost Famous.
In both films there's deceit and "love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love" as wise Lester Bangs (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) says in Crowe's Almost Famous.  A personal highlight for me in 2000 was the opportunity to be Crowe's interviewer for a one hour live national broadcast in New York City.  The audience was packed with New York University students who'd just seen the film in a special preview before it opened.  Just as Steven Spielberg did to the American Film Institute in a video interview on YouTube, Crowe told the audience full of future screenwriters and directors that they must study the film classics, especially the black and white ones made before the 1980s.  In our interview, the students learned that Crowe's paramount inspiration when writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous was Hollywood's master writer and director, Billy Wilder.  Crowe was lucky enough to spend time with the man who invited us up to The Apartment, parked us on Sunset Blvd., taught us about the Double Indemnity clause, showed us an Ace in the Hole, proved that Some Like It Hot and gave us a taste of The Fortune Cookie.  He got to know Billy Wilder.
I highly recommend adding Cameron Crowe's book, Conversations with Wilder, to your classic film library.  This would be a sweet Valentine's Day gift for a classic film lover.
In a way, Almost Famous is also a valentine to Billy Wilder's The Apartment.  Before we took to the stage for the interview, Crowe and I met and chatted briefly outside the theatre.  I had seen the film twice.  I loved it that much.  I paid to see it again when it opened.  I commented to him, knowing of his Wilder appreciation, "Penny Lane had a quality that reminded me of Fran Kubelik."  Man, did he break a smile at that one!  My reference to Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment delighted him.
Not only was he delighted, he was complimented.  He response to my expressed feeling about Kate Hudson's character in Almost Famous was "That just what I was going for."
In the interview, I asked Cameron Crowe questions and I took some from the students in the audience.  More than once, he was asked for advice on screenwriting.  His immediate answer was always, "Watch the films of Billy Wilder."  I'm blogging this to, once again, remind young aspiring filmmakers and actors that watching those old Hollywood classics is part of your homework.  If you wanted to be a Broadway musical star, you couldn't just pay attention to musicals starting with and coming after A Chorus Line.  You'd have to know Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, Cole Porter shows, Pal Joey, Porgy and Bess and Showboat.  And not just you future actors, directors and writers.  That goes for you entertainment reporters too.  Director Sydney Pollack remade the sophisticated comedy, Sabrina. There was a New York City press junket for the 1995 release that starred Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.
A buddy of mine who worked on the press junket production crew told me she was shocked at how many of the TV entertainment reporters had not done their homework before taping the interviews.  They hadn't even read the movie's press kit.  She said that many of them didn't know that Pollack's film was a remake of a 1954 Billy Wilder hit.
A hit starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden.  In fact, Billy Wilder guided Hepburn to another Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance as Sabrina.  Trust me on this -- professionals in the entertainment industry can always tell who's done some homework.  There's nothing wrong with being young and cute on camera when you sit opposite a star to conduct an interview.  But you need something else to back it up.  Cuteness will carry you only so far.  Do your homework. About Almost Famous...I have a great affection for that film.  It felt so real to me.  I had my first professional broadcast job at a rock radio station in the 1970s.  I was the new "uncool" guy, like the dedicated young Rolling Stone magazine journalist on the road with a rock band in Crowe's movie.  I also lost my heart to a girl as radiant to me as Penny Lane was to the the journalist and to Russell, the very cool guitarist ("I am a golden god!"). I related to William, the Rolling Stone writer.  I also related to Ed, the quiet drummer usually seated alone on the bus.  Kate Hudson was rightfully Oscar-nominated for the performance.  It's still her best work.  Frances McDormand was also a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for her fabulous, funny work as the outspoken widowed high school teacher mom of the traveling journalist ("Rock stars have kidnapped my son."). I had a teacher just like that in high school.  McDormand wore the same kind of floral print earthy clothing that Mrs. Ogren did in history class.  McDormand had the same strong presence and attitude.  Even the same hairdo. Wow.  That really took me back.
There was an actor who stood out to me in a hotel lobby scene.  His character was the harried front desk clerk and the actor had less than five lines:  "You have a message from Elaine, your mother.  She's a handful."  But the actor made his bit part shine.  Ten years later, I watched the premiere of a new ABC sitcom because I recognized his face in the commercials.  The actor playing the hotel clerk -- Eric Stonestreet, now the award-winning star of Modern Family.
Almost Famous brought Crowe an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I still feel the movie should've been up for Best Picture.  About Billy Wilder's The Apartment...if you've never seen it.  That classic is very dear to my heart too.  Billy Wilder got to see Almost Famous.  Cameron Crowe told me about the legendary director's reaction to it.
If you've never seen Almost should rent that too.

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