Almost Famous is a favorite among many of the /Film staff members (both present and past), but the movie hasn’t been beyond criticism despite being loved by many entertainment journalists since its release nearly 20 years ago. In the years since, contemporary views have called out the movie for being one of many in the 21st century to utilize what has come to be called the “manic pixie dream girl,” a cliche female character often used in films to teach broodingly soulful young male characters to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. But director Cameron Crowe doesn’t see the character Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, as fitting into that criticized trope.
Cameron Crowe recently spoke with The Los Angeles Times about the forthcoming stage musical adaptation of Almost Famous that’s debuting in San Diego later this month. The conversation eventually turned to the depiction of Penny Lane in the original movie and how the character has been updated somewhat for the more contemporary and progressive audience that exists today. Crowe doesn’t buy into the criticism about Penny Lane as a manic pixie dream girl for one very specific reason. He explained:
“I don’t think she’s like a cipher, I never did. She was never a manic pixie dream girl to me. She’s based on a real person who is definitely not a manic pixie dream girl, in the best way. I always thought she was just a soulful, selfless, loving person who was super into community and kept herself a little bit hidden. She lit up a room by knowing everything about everybody.”
It would be easy to discount Cameron Crowe’s perspective simply because the manic pixie dream girl trope inherently comes from a man, and they’re usually the ones who build up these female characters in such a superficial way. But Almost Famous is inspired by Crowe’s real life experiences as a rock journalist while touring with bands like Poco, the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd when he was only 15 and 16 years old, and the fact that Penny Lane is based on a real person does excuse him somewhat in that regard.
For what it’s worth, I think there are many movies who have a clear manic pixie dream girl trope problem, like Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (and plenty of other movies) and Natalie Portman in Garden State, but Almost Famous never felt like it fit into that criticism. Penny Lane is obviously a character who opens up the world of Cameron Crowe’s proxy William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) and does exactly what a manic pixie dream girl does in other movies. But William’s perspective of her is no different than that of his rose-colored view of the band Stillwater or the rest of the rock and roll scene he gets caught up in. So while there’s criticism to be made about Penny Lane, I don’t think it’s quite as egregious as those other examples. Then again, I’m also a dude, so my perspective may be a little more skewed.
The good news is that any worry about the portrayal of Penny Lane in this new stage musical adaptation of Almost Famous is being addressed by Crowe and actress Solea Pfeiffer, who is playing the character on stage. Pfeiffer discussed the issues that some have with Almost Famous:
“There are issues with the way women are portrayed and viewed in the movie, but that’s what was happening at the time. Is it accurate, yes. Is it problematic, yes! Cameron has been more than willing and enthusiastic to shape these scripts to fit the actors now doing it, and with complete and utter respect toward women.”
One of those changes includes removing the non-consensual kiss that William gives Penny while she’s passed out after over-dosing on quaaludes. The scene is not predatory, but it’s certainly inappropriate, no matter how innocent the character might see the moment based on his inexperience.
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