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.

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