Saturday, November 21, 2009

Roger Corman Cops an Academy Award

By Steve Evans

One of the great entertainers in Hollywood finally gets his due.

B-movie maestro Roger Corman, 83, received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement during a special ceremony this month hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Corman bragged in his 1990 autobiography how he made “100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.” Although the claim is as redolent with hyperbole as the overripe posters for his films, truth is, the man directed and produced scores of profitable pictures on wee budgets for exploitation studios like American International Pictures. The famed AIP logo at the start of a picture was a guarantee that low-budget drivel was about to unspool.

My own misspent youth included hours squandered in front of the television watching Corman movies with irresistible titles like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, made the same year as Crab Monsters and, incredibly, the seven other films that Corman directed in ’57.

Think about that. How does a man direct nine movies in a year? By knocking them out in a matter of weeks, including writing the script, casting and pre-production, shooting principal photography, cutting, scoring the film with public-domain music from the local library, making prints and distributing the finished product.

Corman could go from an idea to a premiere in less than a month.

This is not to say the films he made were particularly good. Sure, there were a few notable films of exceptional quality. The Fall of the House of Usher comes to mind. Ray Milland in X: the Man with the X-Ray Eyes (right) is another. But most of Corman’s oeuvre consists of exploitation schlock. His movies are the cinematic equivalent of a microwavable burrito from a convenience store; not good for you, but filling and maybe even tasty ’round midnight when your mood is just right.

So why does a man with a mediocre movie resume get an Academy Award?

I suspect the honorary Oscar Corman received was more for his magnanimous nature than for any innate talent he ever demonstrated as a filmmaker. Corman gave everybody a shot at the movie bidness. The list of individuals who got their break working on a Corman film is positively staggering. What this legendary producer-director developed early in his career – aside from an uncanny knack for tapping into the public unconscious to determine what would lure teenagers to drive-in theaters – was his ability to identify undiscovered talent and hire it on the cheap. When you’re working with a budget that barely covers the film stock, you’ve gotta find good people who are hungry and willing to work for nothing. Corman excelled at finding those people.

Francis Ford Coppola was shooting naughty sex movies before he made one of his earliest films for Corman, a psycho-killer flick set in Ireland with the lurid title Dementia 13. This was a rip-off of William Castle’s Homicidal, which in turn was a blatant copy of Hitchcock’s Psycho, so you see how far Corman’s productions ranked along the food chain.

The story of Coppola's first "serious film" is apocryphal, but fascinating. His boss, Corman, was filming The Young Racers in Ireland. Corman's 24-year-old second-unit director, who simply called himself Francis back then, banged out a story on a typewriter one night and handed Corman a script the next morning about an axe-wielding maniac.

Coppola asked for feedback.

Corman said, “Fine, Francis, you direct it.” Corman gave Coppola $30,000 and let him use the stars of The Young Racers. Coppola shot his horror movie around Corman’s production schedule, which meant filming mostly at night, and got his first legit directing credit. Critical success and Oscars would follow within a decade, beginning with The Godfather (1972) and continuing with the first sequel to the Corleone gangster saga. Look fast during the Senate committee hearings in The Godfather Part II (1974) to see Corman, in a cameo as a U.S. Senator, on the panel investigating Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) for criminal conspiracies. Coppola honored his mentor with a bit part in what is now routinely acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made.

Coppola's Dementia 13 was originally to be titled simply Dementia, but an earlier picture already held that name. (No one seems to know what happened to Dementias 1 through 12, ho, ho.)

Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) made his first film for Corman, a sniper thriller (with shades of Lee Harvey Oswald) called Targets, starring Boris Karloff in one of his last films.

Martin Scorsese’s freshman effort, Boxcar Bertha, was a Corman production. Corman even offered to finance and produce Scorsese's follow-up effort, Mean Streets (1973), provided that the young director jettison the Italian-American mafioso plot in favor of a blaxploitation picture featuring black gangsters. Corman was undoubtedly considering the success of recent hits like Shaft and Superfly. Scorsese declined.

James “Titanic” Cameron got his start making spaceship models for Star Wars rip-offs produced by Corman. Cameron’s directorial debut, Piranha Part 2: The Spawning, featured Corman’s name in the production credits. Little of the talent Cameron would later bring to The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies or Best Picture winner Titanic is on display in his first effort, but he got his Director’s Guild card and that was a start.

Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) made the sleazy women-in-prison flick Caged Heat for Corman.

Long before he won an Oscar for directing Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard directed his first movie, Grand Theft Auto, for Corman’s Concord Productions while Howard was still starring in the television sitcom Happy Days.

Before he made The Howling and Gremlins, the latter for Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante was editing trailers for Roger Corman. Dante got his big break a few years before James Cameron by directing the first Piranha movie, which was a carbon copy of Spielberg’s Jaws, right down to the promotional poster.

Legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for writing Chinatown, launched his career as an actor and the scribe of Corman‘s The Last Woman on Earth.

Famed actors who jump-started their careers in Corman pictures include Charles Bronson, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

It is said that successful men stand on the shoulders of giants. Corman’s legacy proves that the opposite is true. Corman didn’t make great movies, but he supplied a successful training ground for those who would.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Salieri's Humble Origins in Underwear Sales

By Steve Evans

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." ~ Thomas Edison.

The next time life gets you down and the brass ring seems just out of reach, think about F. Murray Abraham (below), the actor who played Mozart's nemesis Antonio Salieri in Best Picture winner Amadeus (1984). His performance is so note-perfect that Abraham's presence overshadows every other actor in the film. Here is a character drawn from history (Salieri's life spanned 1750-1825) whose jealous obsession with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ultimately defined his tortured life and eventual descent into madness. Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a court composer in 18th century Venice whose desperate desire for success is undone by his own mediocrity and futile competition with Mozart, a man-child genius.

Not long before director MiloŇ° Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) cast the actor in the crucial role of Salieri, Abraham toiled in television advertising as a talking leaf in a series of Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials. Only a churlish malcontent unencumbered by deep thought could fail to see how these humble beginnings informed Abraham's flawless performance as a modestly talented musician whose principal misfortune was to be a contemporary of one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music. No matter how talented we may be, there will always be someone better. And even when we are at the top of our game, a virtuoso like Mozart will surpass our greatest efforts with ridiculous ease, laughing like a child all the while.

As a struggling actor, Abraham shilled underwear to pay the bills while he honed his craft. The Pittsburgh native also appeared in at least one commercial for Listerine mouthwash. His caustic performance was an early indication of the suppressed rage Abraham could muster in films such as Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), as a foul-tempered drug dealer who is more than he appears to be.

Abraham never gave up in the pursuit of his dreams. Nor should we.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Ghost of Kubrick Loiters in Times Square

By Steve Evans

Stanley Kubrick was on to something.

When the late director filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he had the brilliant idea to use a shiny, black monolith as the medium for triggering an evolutionary advance in the intelligence of Primitive Man. The awestruck apes encountered the monolith, touched it, and the next morning were seen using bones as rudimentary tools. The monolith sparked enlightenment in their little monkey brains, causing neurons to fire and bridge the connection between synapses heretofore unused.

I was reminded of this while exploring Times Square on Halloween with my wife and infant daughter, who got her mind blown by the animated billboards for which this “Crossroads of the world” is justly famous. Annabelle stared, mouth agape, at the illuminated Spectaculars, as the billboards are known, towering hundreds of feet overhead on the skyscrapers. At one point she seemed to go cross-eyed, just like astronaut Dave Bowman during the climactic stargate sequence in 2001.

The next morning, Annabelle began to crawl, used a spoon to feed herself for the first time and said “daa-daa-daaaa...da-da” whenever I entered the room. Not exactly "Thus Spake Zarathustra," but it caught my attention.

While the child may not be ready for interstellar flight, she unquestionably changed overnight, perhaps as a result of seeing one of the most famous landmarks in the world pulsating with light like a forest of gargantuan Christmas trees. Something clicked in her baby brain, which became open for the first time to … possibilities.

Yup, and Manhattan is a lovely place to be in late fall, with the wind whistling through the concrete canyons and the trees in Central Park glowing orange, amber, burnt sienna and golden brown, like Gordon Willis’ memorable cinematography in The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall (1977), The Godfather Part II (1974) and III (1990)... and….

Right. That’s enough.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.