Mother Superior

Cameron Crowe puts his Mom in all his movies. That may be a bad thing.


On the commentary track for the director’s cut of Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film Almost Famous, Crowe is joined by an unusual guest—his mother. Over the course of two and a half hours, she reminisces about their life in San Diego, gushes about her son’s talent, and, occasionally, scolds him. At one point, when Crowe starts rhapsodizing about a scene in which Kate Hudson lets one aching tear slip down her cheek, his mother interrupts him. “Let’s just let it stand, Cameron, without comment.” Like a dutiful son, he does.

Mothers have always served as cinematic fodder—from Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film literally screaming with mommy issues, to Almodóvar’s rose-tinted paean All About My Mother. But few American filmmakers have paid tribute to their mother so often, or so baldly, as Cameron Crowe. Alice Marie Crowe more or less co-chairs the Almost Famous director’s commentary, and she also has cameos in each of her son’s six films.

This, in itself, isn’t strange: The Zucker Brothers slip their mother, Charlotte, into most of their films, and Rob Reiner’s mother delivered the classic When Harry Met Sally one-liner that followed Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm: “I’ll have what she’s having.” Alice Marie’s appearances have been less remarkable. A tall, dark-haired older woman with a twinkling smile, she has appeared as a teacher (twice), a plastic-surgeon’s assistant, and as a member of the divorced-women’s group in Jerry Maguire. That’s where she speaks her most memorable line: “So, I finally got in touch with my anger!”

But Alice Marie’s imprimatur on her son’s career doesn’t end with cameos. A strong-willed widow who raised Cameron and his older sister, Cindy, Alice Marie has influenced Crowe’s most memorable female characters—from the deflated single mom Constance, played by Joan Cusack in Say Anything, to the plucky widow Dorothy Boyd, played by Renée Zellweger, in Jerry Maguire. And then, of course, there was Alice Marie’s fictional counterpart in Almost Famous, Elaine Miller, played by the divine Frances McDormand as a no-nonsense mama bear. (A lifelong teacher, Alice Marie can’t resist scolding McDormand, either. “I don’t go barefoot!” she laments in the commentary. “Oh, Frances, please.”)

Crowe’s latest film is Elizabethtown, a romantic comedy about an entrepreneur (Orlando Bloom) who returns to small-town Kentucky after his father’s sudden death and the biggest flop of his career. His mother, Holly Baylor, is played by Susan Sarandon, and regardless of what details Alice Marie might nitpick here, it can’t be the casting. She has been played by some of Hollywood’s most talented actresses. But despite Sarandon’s charm, Holly is easily the weakest of the characters Alice Marie has inspired. There is a moment when we catch a glimpse of the baffling pain a widow must face. “I kept waiting for life to start,” she says in a daze, “and now it’s … over?” But soon after this delicate aside, the character morphs into a scattered self-help nightmare. “I want to learn to cook!” she says to her grieving daughter. “I want to learn to laugh! And I want to learn to tap dance!” At her husband’s memorial, she does just that—tap dancing to “Moon River” and launching into a raucous stand-up routine about a randy neighbor. In that audience is Alice Marie herself, playing a minor role as an aunt, guffawing along with everyone else. For those of us watching the movie, the sequence induces sighs and embarrassment. That’s not Alice Marie’s fault—she’s just here for the ride, and who can blame her? But I wonder if Crowe might have a little more perspective on the women in his films if he weren’t so reverent toward those women in real life.

It seems unjust to complain about a filmmaker who, in his best work (Jerry Maguire, Say Anything), shows a refreshing optimism about womanhood, even an unabashed sentimentalism, tempered by cutting dialogue and unforgettable characterization. Consider Jerry Maguire’s Dorothy Boyd, a young, beautiful widow without a shred of self-pity. She was a scrappy Gal Friday with a modern twist, in the form of her precocious son. As played by Zellweger, Dorothy also had a dippy self-deprecation that made her incredibly likable and all too human. But that hasn’t been the case with later Crowe heroines, who often seem more like magical beings sent to earth to save our aching hero, armed with fistfuls of quirk, humor, and (usually) blond highlights. While the male protagonists wallow in confusion, tripping in the hallway and scrambling around for a rudder, the women (Almost Famous’ Hudson, Vanilla Sky’s Penélope Cruz, Elizabethtown’s Kirsten Dunst) glow with warmth and humor.

As for the mothers, they’re fierce, unstoppable survivors. “A single mother, that’s a sacred thing,” says Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in Jerry Maguire—and you get the sense Crowe couldn’t agree more. But by treating these women as sacred, he also makes them less than human. At least Elaine Miller had a few moments of frailty, alone and frightened about her son on the road. Holly Baylor doesn’t even grieve; it’s as if her husband’s death is the most fabulous thing that has ever happened to her.

Now, to what extent all this idealization derives from Crowe’s relationship with his mother (or his sister, or his wife, Heart’s Nancy Wilson) is for the armchair therapists to decide. It’s certainly no surprise that Crowe—a filmmaker with such generosity of spirit that he made cranked-up rock critic Lester Bangs seem like a softie—would want to pay tribute to the woman who raised him. And it’s no surprise that a kid who famously left home at 13 to tour the country with the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin might have a little guilt to burn. But this reverence is turning his female characters, mothers and love interests alike, into movie-land clichés. That’s a shame for a director who has created such breathlessly frail and human moments on screen.

At the beginning of the Almost Famous DVD, Crowe announces, after introducing his mother, “We’re gonna go for the embarrassingly personal approach. Because that was the thing about the music I loved, and the movies I loved.” But as a confessionalist, he’s too protective, always willing to embarrass himself while lionizing everyone else, whether it be a rock band, a mentor, or his mother. The thing about personal art is that it can’t just be embarrassing to you. Sometimes it has to be embarrassing to everybody—even, as hard as it may seem, to your mother.