This year marks the 20th anniversary of Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical movie Almost Famous. To celebrate the milestone, James Andrew Miller is delivering a limited podcast series called Origins: Almost Famous Turns Twenty, and it’s already yielding some interesting tidbits looking back at the film.
Almost Famous features Patrick Fugit as William Miller, a young aspiring journalist who gets caught up in the world of rock and roll in 1969. During his adventures on tour with a fictional band called Stillwater, he encounters a famous band-aid (or groupie) named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), and sparks a friendship with the band’s lead guitartist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), all while his mother (Frances McDormand) worries back home. But Fugit almost acted opposite some even bigger names.
During the Cadence13 podcast from James Andrew Miller (via Radio.com), director Cameron Crowe revealed that Brad Pitt was originally wanted to play Russell Hammond. The filmmaker recalled:
“Brad Pitt was on my mind because I had a really good meeting with him around the time of Say Anything, and he was just starting out, and he just really had something. So I called him with this to play Russell Hammond, and we spent about four months working on it. He read with Natalie Portman.”
Natalie Portman, who was riding quite the wave of fame after being cast in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace would have played the part of Penny Lane. But neither of the casting opportunities worked out, and losing Pitt was something that really bummed out Crowe. The director said:
“I wept. I knew that [Brad Pitt] had never fully fallen in love with the character. He had fallen in love with the idea of the character. But maybe there just wasn’t enough on the page. He told me [money] wasn’t the case. I think it was probably half and half. I think he was also uncomfortable with the age difference between Russell and Penny Lane.”
The presence of Penny Lane in Almost Famous has been a bit problematic, especially since it’s not clear how old the character is. During an exchange with William, Penny seems to admit that she’s 16, but it is believed that it’s just one of many lies she tells as part of her persona. It’s also possible that she only lied to get William to admit his real age. Either way, the relationship is at the very least on the cusp of being morally and ethically questionable, so Pitt’s hesitation is understandable.
Finally, Meryl Streep was once thought of to play William’s overprotective, eccentric mother. The role was played fantastically by Frances McDormand, but it’s not hard to imagine Streep knocking her performance out of the park, since she can pretty much do anything.
Personally, I’m glad the cast in the movie is what Crowed ended up with. Having a lesser known name like Crudup in the role allows the character to feel more low key as the band rises to fame. If Brad Pitt was in the lead, I think some of mystique behind Russell Hammond. It also ended up being a big role for Crudup, and it’s still one of his best. As for Portman, she ended up playing a character that served a similar purpose and characterization in Garden State, so she still checked off that manic pixie dream girl box in her career.
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