Thursday, April 05, 2012

Culture Shock 04.05.12: Roger Corman is modern Hollywood's unlikely father

Jack Nicholson hiding behind his hands as he struggles to stay composed is the most emotionally honest sight I've seen in a movie this year.

That moment of truth comes in Alex Stapleton's heartfelt new documentary "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel."

For the first decade of Nicholson's career, producer/director Roger Corman was the future star's one source of steady work, both as an actor and as a screenwriter. And despite taking a few good-natured jabs at the films they made together — Nicholson says Corman occasionally made a good movie "by mistake," but he wasn't in any of them — Jack clearly has a lot of love and respect for his old mentor.

The rest of Hollywood has rarely felt the same, forcing the soft-spoken Corman to become its most unlikely rebel, forging a successful career that is even more notable for the other careers it launched.

Stapleton's film doesn't make the — admittedly grandiose — comparison, but Corman comes across as a Moses-like figure: He led others to the Promised Land but couldn't enter himself.

"Corman's World" is that story.

When he didn't get the credit he thought was his due for helping bring 20th Century Fox's "The Gunfighter" to the screen — he was an uncredited story editor on the picture, which was a hit for Fox — Corman decided he would produce and direct his own movies. He developed a method that included shooting fast, shooting cheap and avoiding hassles like getting the proper permits.

From outward appearances, Corman is the least likely guerrilla filmmaker ever, yet he became the most successful.

He produced films on his own and, when he needed larger budgets, with American International Pictures, which released Corman's best works.

Corman has never been a darling of critics. Some of his earliest films even he will admit aren't very good. But the Edgar Allan Poe movies he made with Vincent Price stand with the best horror movies of their day, and Martin Scorsese, who got his start directing "Boxcar Bertha" for Corman, holds up the 1967 LSD film "The Trip," starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, has a worthy effort.

Corman's reputation today is largely the product of the directors, screenwriters and actors who learned their craft on Corman's sets.

Many in the generation that reinvented the movies in the late '60s and early '70s — Scorsese, Fonda, Hopper, Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola — got their start with Corman.

But Corman himself could never make the leap to mainstream respectability.

His one stab at it was 1962's "The Intruder" — William Shatner's first lead film role. Unfortunately, this blunt look at race relations in the South was too controversial. "The Intruder" became Corman's one flop.

He'd never make that mistake again.

Despite once saying he was "almost" a communist, Corman succeeded as the ultimate movie-making capitalist. His audience — his customers — were always right.

The judgment of the market is the only authority Corman really respects. All other authorities are oppressors to be challenged or at least circumvented.

Today, despite finally receiving an honorary Oscar, Corman still works on the fringes, producing a somewhat lower class of B movies to sell to what used to be called the Sci-Fi Channel.

Meanwhile, the movies that fill the multiplexes are the kind of movies Corman used to make — only with bigger budgets.

It's Corman's world after all.

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