This summer we’re bringing back our series of posts dedicated to great directors, starting with Cameron Crowe whose first screenwriting effort, the cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, grew out of a book he wrote while posing for one year undercover as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California. Since the film’s release in 1982, Crowe has written and directed several hit features and rock documentaries.
While best known for his character-driven narratives, centering on couples in love, Crowe’s style has proven successful in creating a variety of roles and narratives. His journalistic background gives Crowe’s storytelling a unique perspective and heightened sense of realism that make all of his films worth watching, but here is a list of the five we’ve chosen to highlight his talent as both a writer and filmmaker. With the exception of Vanilla Sky (Crowe adapted the original story into the screenplay version) each film originally written and directed by Crowe.
Say Anything… – 1989
Crowe’s directorial debut Say Anything is a story about two recent high school grads: the beautiful class valedictorian (Ione Skye) who is often overlooked because of her brains, and the quirky drifter (John Cusack) who wins her heart despite objections from her protective father. Except it’s not really that simple. As in real life, people are seldom two-dimensional, and one of Crowe’s many fortes as a writer and filmmaker is his ability to create complex, multi-layered characters. This is no exception, Crowe will have you laughing, crying, and rooting for this unlikely couple all the way to the end. Simply put, Say Anything is a romantic comedy that actually has something to say about life, and that’s what makes it one of the best in the genre to date. Oh – and the soundtrack doesn’t suck either.
Jerry Maguire – 1996
This 90s classic about a high-powered sports agent, who is Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), and an accountant named Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), his sole supporter after he’s fired for writing and distributing a memo title, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business,” is the film that made Crowe a household name in the movie business. It’s also the film that coined the phrase “You had me at hello,” as well as one that rang through the hallways of every junior high and high school (and likely fraternity house, though I can’t say for sure from experience) for the remainder of the 90s – “Show me the money,” via actor Cuba Gooding Jr. For his role, Gooding won an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor.” Cruse was nominated for “Best Actor,” and the film received several other Oscar nominations including “Best Picture,” “Best Screenplay,” “Best Editing.”
Almost Famous – 2000
Crowe’s newly gained notoriety gave him the ability to go ahead with this pet project, an autobiographical piece inspired by his life as a 15-year-old writer for Rolling Stone that centers on an intelligent if naïve, teenage music journalist named William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he joins the up-and-coming 1970’s rock band, Stillwater, on their road tour. It’s a coming-of-age story about an intelligent, if naïve, kid whose over protective mother (Frances McDormand) and idealistic nature collides with the world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Fugit was a newcomer at the time and plays the part perfectly.
Everyone is phenomenal – from Kate Hudson in her portrayal of the epic Penny Lane (arguably her best role to date) to Phillip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, whose insightful one-liners top the long list of fabulous movie quotes within the film. Almost Famous is somewhat of an enigma, having earned Crowe an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as four other Oscar nominations, and a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media – yet was unsuccessful at the box office. It was initially categorized as a “cult classic,” but its later critical acclaim likely disqualifies it as such. It seems more accurate to call it one of the most successful sleeper-hits of the 90s, and one of the best, most realistic, recreations of the world of rock in the 70s.
Vanilla Sky – 2001
The psychological thriller, Vanilla Sky is probably Crowe’s furthest departure in terms of genre involves speculative or science fiction, though the romantic elements still remain intertwined within the plot. You really have to see this film twice to “get it,” and even then people disagree on what it all means. Many theories exist – is it some kind of alternate reality, a conspiracy, a psychological experiment, or is it simply all just a dream? Similar to films like Memento, It’s true that the more times you watch Vanilla Sky, the more it feels as though it’s come together, and yet the “answer” still somehow seems ever out of reach. Crowe says the film was purposely constructed “to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there.”
Elizabethtown – 2005
At first Elizabethtown might feel like a recycled version of Jerry Maguire, where a high-powered executive named Drew (Orlando Bloom), loses his job and girlfriend all in one fail swoop, only to be “saved” by an eccentric, fun-loving flight attendant, Claire, (Kirsten Dunst). Perhaps this is part of the reason critical perception has been less than positive, but that seems an unfair comparison. Despite having the characters deal with real issues – Drew is stopped mid-suicide attempt with a call from his sister informing him that his father has died suddenly – the tone is lighter than in Crowe’s other films, and that’s OK. If you don’t go into it trying to make it something that it’s not, then you might just enjoy yourself.
This tone is partly set by Claire’s personality and the fact that she’s either unaware of or purposely ignores laws of personal boundaries which gives the narrative an almost absurdist quality. At the same time, everyone knows someone like Claire. The overzealous, but good intended soul you love to hate, but ultimately sort of can’t help but love in spite of yourself. This appears to be what happens with Drew, and it’s just kind of fun to watch – even if Claire’s actions sometime cause feelings of second-hand embarrassment. Plus the music rocks. Of course this is true of all Crowe’s films, but when Drew makes a map for Claire that includes CD’s for a road trip playlist, the music becomes like another lead character in the film, and the compilation creates a soundtrack that is just magical.