Pop Pedestal: Elaine Miller

Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

this is a photo of Frances McDormond as Elaine Miller, shown talking on the phone to her son and looking stressed out

It's time for another Pop Pedestal, and today I've got one for all the parents out there. I don't know about you, but when I'm in a parenting jam—and granted, my kid's only two, but even two-year-olds can be total assholes—I like to channel my favorite pop-culture parents for psychic assistance. Clair and Cliff Huxtable, Florida Evans, Red and Kitty Foreman, Peggy Hill: All have the right stuff in place for raising their kids—heart, humor, smarts, respect, and the occasional needfully deployed "dumbass." But in portraying how simultaneously selfish and selfless are the realities of raising a person, Almost Famous's single mom, Elaine Miller, deserves a place in the pantheon.

The Pedestal Profile: Elaine Miller is the stern, solo parent of William Miller, the 15-year-old aspiring rock journalist whose serendipitous Rolling Stone assignment lands him on the tour bus and in the self-serious dramas and egos of a middling cock-rock band, Stillwater, and its entourage. A college professor, Elaine wants her two children to experience the world with intellect and not just hedonism—but against the rock 'n' roll backdrop of 1973 California, she knows that giving them "the Cliff's notes on how to live in this world" isn't going to be nearly enough.

Admirable qualities: Elaine's intellectual badassery and razor-sharp tongue combine with her soft heart and general faith in humanity for some of the movie's most poignant/hilarious moments. Take her ego-annhiliating smackdown of Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, delivered to him via hotel pay phone—a tirade that's profound enough (or at least unexpected enough) to stun Hammond into uncharacteristic silence:

EM: Listen to me, mister. Your charm doen't work on me—I'm onto you. Of course you like [William].… He worships you people. And that's fine by you as long as he helps make you rich.

RH: Rich? I don't think so...

Listen to me. He's a smart, good-hearted 15-year-old kid with infinite potential. This is not some apron-wearing mother you're speaking with. I know all about your Valhalla of decadence and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly?

Yes, yes, ma'am...

If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession, which is law—something you may not value, but I do—you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone, and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?

Uh, yes, ma'am...

I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell. Please get my son home safely. You know, I'm glad we spoke.

Boom! Don't you just want to hand her a long list of people to call right now? "Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I'm onto you!" "Ed Schultz, your charm doesn't work on me, mister!"

Then there's her humility: One scene finds Elaine struggling to keep her mind on lecturing a classroom full of college students who are scrambling to write down her every word. Soon enough, though, she sighs, gives up, and announces, in one of the film's most memorable lines, "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!"

Finally, there's her obvious pride in and love for her children, and her vivid belief that, while William and his older sister may have different goals for themselves than she has for them, she must regardless teach them to be honest, respectful, and loving people. It should be said, too, that while her daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel) accuses Elaine of overprotectiveness and negativity ("Darryl says that you use knowledge to keep me down. He says that I'm a 'yes' person and you are trying to raise us in a 'no' environment."), this mother is emphatically of the if-you-love-someone-set-them-free school of parenting, recognizing Anita's need to achieve personhood on her own terms, away from an authority figure. Yes, she makes them celebrate Christmas in September, and yes, she thinks Simon and Garfunkel is "the poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex" — but she also fully expects her children to rebel and keeps her perspective when they do.

this is a photo of Frances MdDormand as Elaine Miller, swiveling around in the front seat of her car to talk with her children in the back seat

"Keep the small bills on the outside and call me if anyone gets drunk."

Her influence: She's regularly name-checked on the fave-movie-moms lists that tend to circulate every year around Mother's Day. But Elaine Miller's is not so much an influence on as an influence from. Much of her indelible filmic presence is due to the wonderful Frances McDormand's portrayal, but the character is based on Almost Famous writer/director Cameron Crowe's own mother, Alice Marie Crowe—a characterization that, as Slate's Sarah Hepola pointed out in a 2005 piece titled "Cameron Crowe's Mothering Instinct," extends to many of the single mothers who populate his most enduring films, including Say Anything and Jerry Maguire

That's not all: It's easy to imagine Elaine Miller being exactly the kind of proud-but-nonplussed parent of an adult child that Alice Marie Crowe seems to be. It's actually sort of endearing that mama Crowe thinks her wildly successful son still has room for improvement, if not a career change: As the director noted in an interview after Almost Famous was released: "I really found I couldn't write a character as great as my own mother. She still thinks that I'm going to study law. We moved to this house in San Diego so that we would be close to this law school. And every time I go home, she still says: 'Let's go walk up there'. And we do. Every time she says: 'Isn't this a wonderful campus?' And I keep saying: 'Mom, I'm too old!'"

Think of her when: You're wondering how best to raise a child—or be an adult, for that matter—in our current world of compromised values and diminished brain cells. Or when you're dropping your kid off at her or his first arena-rock show with a loud, embarassing admonishment not to take drugs. They'll thank you later!

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