What the Hell Happened to Cameron Crowe?
Cameron Crowe started writing for Rolling Stone magazine at age 15. At 24 he went back to high school undercover and wrote a book about teen mores in the early 80s. He then adapted that book into a script for a high school comedy that helped define the genre. From there it was a short step to directing. Crowe went on to write and direct a series of character-driven films that were popular with critics and audiences. Then he began to fall off. His most recent film was one of the year’s biggest flops and was widely derided for a crucial piece of miscasting.
What the hell happened?
Cameron Crowe was born on July 13 1957 in Palm Springs. He spent most of his childhood in San Diego. Crowe skipped kindergarten and two grades in elementary school so he ended up graduating from high school at 15. He’d already begun writing about music for his school newspaper and for a few underground papers in the San Diego area. Not long after graduating, he met Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres. Fong-Torres hired him to write for the magazine. He soon became a contributing editor. Crowe became the youngest ever contributor to Rolling Stone. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Crowe’s Almost Famous was highly autobiographical.
In 1977, Rolling Stone relocated its offices from the West Coast to New York prompting Crowe to move on from music journalism. He would continue to contribute articles to the magazine over the years, but his interests were starting to lay elsewhere.
Specifically, Crowe was interested in going back to high school. He decided to, at the age of 22, pose undercover as a high school student to see what typical high school life was like in the 70s-early 80s. Taking the name “Dave Cameron” (a good way of keeping his actual first name and mixing it with a common first name) he enrolled at Clairemont High in San Diego.
Crowe used his experiences as the basis of a book titled Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Even before the book was published in 1981, Hollywood was interested in adapting it into a movie. Crowe was asked to write a screenplay based on his book. He agreed.
The resulting film was Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut, Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The cast included Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Forrest Whittaker, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage. Like the book it was based on, the movie chronicled the lives of a handful of high school students. The movie depicted the teens engaging in sex and drug use much to the horror of the parents in the audience.
At the time, critics didn’t care for Fast Times. In a one-star review, Roger Ebert compared the movie to Porky’s and complained that it was “so raunchy” that “the audience can’t quite believe it”.
But Fast Times had more meat on its bones than other raunchy comedies of the day. There was some real substance to the story and characters as opposed to the mindless horniness of Porky’s. So while critics may not have been able to tell the difference, Fast Times has proven to have more staying power over the years. While Porky’s is stuck in 82, Fast Times is still relevant. It’s edgier than many of the John Hughes teen films of the same era.
While Fast Times and Ridgemont High wasn’t as big of a hit at the box office as Porky’s, it ended up grossing about six times its budget over the course of its theatrical run. Four years after its release, it was adapted into a short-lived TV series. Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprised their roles but everyone else was recast. Heckerling returned to write and direct, but Fast Times was cancelled after only seven episodes.
Crowe’s first effort as a director was the video for the Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s song, “Change of Heart” in 1983.
Next, Crowe wrote the script for another film about young people: 1984’s The Wild Life.
The Wild Life was another look at youth in the eighties. Only this time, the characters are recent high school graduates. Instead of starring Sean Penn, The Wild Life starred his brother, Chris Penn. So obviously, it’s a totally different movie. Eric Stoltz, who had a bit part in Fast Times, played Penn’s roommate and Lea Thompson co-starred as Stolt’z ex-girlfriend. The cast also included Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Jenny Wright, Rick Moranis and Randy Quaid.
If critics didn’t like Fast Times, you can imagine how they felt about an obvious knock off. The first movie overcame bad reviews, but audiences didn’t want to live Crowe’s idea of The Wild Life. Despite a promising second-place opening, the movie quickly dropped out of theaters grossing less than half what Fast Times made.
Next: Say Anything and Singles
Posted on February 1, 2016, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Director and tagged Almost Famous, cameron crowe, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Grunge, jerry maguire, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Say Anything, Tom Cruise. Bookmark the permalink. 83 Comments.