This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe Almost Famous. To celebrate the milestone, James Andrew Miller is delivering a limited series of podcasts called Origins: Nearly Famous turns twenty, and he’s already producing some interesting facts looking back on the film.
Almost famous Patrick Fugit features as William Miller, a young aspiring journalist who is caught up in the world of rock and roll in 1969. During his touring adventures with a fictional band called Stillwater, he meets a famous band-aid (or groupie ) named Penny Lane ( Kate Hudson ) and befriends the band’s lead guitarist, Russell Hammond ( Billy Crudup ), all while her mother ( Frances McDormand ) worries at home. But Fugit almost acted against some even bigger names.
During James Andrew Miller’s Cadence13 podcast (via Radio.com), director Cameron Crowe revealed that Brad Pitt originally wanted to play Russell Hammond. The filmmaker recalled:
“BRAD PITT WAS ON MY MIND BECAUSE I HAD A VERY GOOD MEETING WITH HIM AROUND THE TIME OF DON’T SAY ANYTHING , AND HE WAS JUST GETTING STARTED, AND HE REALLY HAD SOMETHING. SO I CALLED HIM UP 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 a wave of fame after Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released, would have played the part of Penny Lane. But none of the launch opportunities worked, and losing Pitt was something that really put Crowe down. The director said:
“I CRIED. I KNEW IT [BRAD PITT] HAD NEVER COMPLETELY FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THE CHARACTER. SHE HAD FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THE IDEA OF THE CHARACTER. BUT MAYBE THERE JUST WASN’T ENOUGH ON THE PAGE. HE SAID [MONEY] WAS NOT 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.”
Penny Lane’s presence in Almost Famous has been somewhat problematic, especially since it’s unclear how old the character is. During an exchange with William, Penny seems to admit that she is 16 years old, but is believed to be just one of the many lies that counts as part of her personality. It’s also possible that she only lied for William to admit his real age. Either way, the relationship is at least about to be morally and ethically questionable, making Pitt’s doubt understandable.
Finally, Meryl Streep was once thought to be playing William’s overprotective and eccentric mother. The role was played fantastically by Frances McDormand, but it’s not hard to imagine Streep removing her performance from the park, as she can do almost anything.
Personally, I’m glad that the cast of the movie is what Crowed finished. Having a lesser-known name as Crudup on paper allows the character to feel more discreet as the band jumps to fame. If Brad Pitt was in the lead, I think part of the mystique behind Russell Hammond. It also ended up being a great role for Crudup, and it’s still one of the best. As for Portman, he ended up playing a character who had a similar purpose and characterization in Garden State, so he still ticked off that manic pixie dream box in his career.