Monday, June 28, 2010

Honoring Roger Corman

When we were kids, my sister and I spent most Saturdays at the Cornell, a big ol’ barn of a theater that showed 50-cent double-bills of every Jerry Lewis, Elvis and “Beach Blanket” movie ever made. Even though the Cornell was dank and reaked of stale popcorn, I adored it and fell passionately in love with motion pictures.

One of the most prolific filmmakers of that period was Roger Corman, a master at creating cheap, schlocky fare that entertained a young but growing baby-boomer audience. Among his better known works are Death Race 2000, The Trip, The Raven starring Vincent Price, the original black-and-white Little Shop of Horrors, which was famously made in two days, and, yes, The Wasp Woman. Corman was quickly crowned the “king of the B movies.” But his influence was ultimately far more far-reaching as he inevitably had a hand in training many of my generation’s most renowned actors and directors, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather trilogy), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), and Joe Dante (Gremlins). In recognition of his accomplishments, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Corman an honorary Oscar as part of this year’s awards festivities. He was also feted on Friday as part of last week’s L.A. Film Festival (LAFF).

The LAFF event took place at the intimate 200-seat Grammy Museum theater. As usual, we were early and so sat where we could easily watch everyone enter. Our eyes were especially peeled for Jack Nicholson, whom we hoped would show-up to pay homage to his mentor.

Tim was the first to spot someone famous. “There’s Peter Bogdanovich!,” he whispered. He then noticed Peter Fonda standing in the far doorway with Roger Corman.

After a brief film chronicling Corman’s career, all three men took the stage, along with horrormeister Joe Dante and Roger’s business partner and wife Julie Corman. Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Curtis Hanson moderated the conversation.

All four protégés told how they came to work for Corman. Dante started as an editor, creating two-minute trailers for Corman’s vast library of films. This eventually led to him direct Piranha, a low-budget Jaws-type film that was hugely popular on the drive-in circuit in the 1970s. Hanson started as a screenwriter and under Corman’s tutelage went on to direct Sweet Kill about a man who literally loves women to death. Bogdanovich, too, started as a screenwriter after Corman read a couple of his articles in Esquire magazine. He was soon co-directing the motorcycle gang movie The Wild Angels, one of Corman’s biggest hits. Julie Corman told how she reluctantly became Roger’s producer. ("You can manage the money," he told her!) But it was Fonda who really stole the show. Not wanting to become another Disney contract player, he auditioned for Wild Angels and got the lead role when it was discovered his competition, George Chakiris, couldn’t ride a motorcycle. Three years alter, Fonda and Dennis Hopper made the iconic film Easy Rider.

Some of the anecdotes they told were recycled from the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which we rewatched a couple of weeks ago after Hopper died. Still, it was wonderful seeing the interaction among the panelists and hearing their stories in-person, all while Corman sat there smiling broadly. Jack Nicholson never did appear, but we had a great time anyway.

No comments: