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Roger Corman: “Hectic, Maddening, but Fun”

Roger Corman

Roger Corman made movies for audiences, not critics, but the director of more than fifty films about mutant monsters, women behind bars, wandering gunslingers, outlaw bikers, student nurses, and rabble-rousing rock-and-rollers scored plaudits for The Intruder (1962), starring William Shatner as an outsider who arrives in a small southern town with a racist agenda, and a cycle of films based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. As a producer, Corman launched the careers of several filmmakers who would go on to reshape Hollywood: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, John Sayles, Joe Dante, and Stephanie Rothman. And as a distributor, Corman brought to American theaters—and drive-ins!—films by Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers), Federico Fellini (Amarcord), and Akira Kurosawa (Dersu Uzala).

Who could possibly sum up such a wide-ranging and impactful career? The answer, it turns out, is Corman himself. Announcing that he had passed away on Thursday at the age of ninety-eight, Corman’s wife, Julie, and his daughters, Catherine and Mary, noted that when he was asked “how he would like to be remembered, he said, ‘I was a filmmaker, just that.’”

He originally intended, though, to become an engineer. While studying at Stanford, he saw that the movie reviewers for the student newspaper got free passes to all the theaters in town, so he wrote up a few samples and landed his first gig. “I tried to analyze as a conscientious critic what I was seeing,” he told critic Joe Morgenstern in 2017, “and the more I analyzed the films, the more I examined them, the more I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Even so, in 1948, he started working at U.S. Electrical Motors in Los Angeles, and after four days, he told his boss he’d “made a terrible mistake.” He soon landed a job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and began working his way up.

In 1954, he wrote and sold his first screenplay, Highway Dragnet, and used the money to produce his first feature, Monster from the Ocean Floor. He plowed his earnings into The Fast and the Furious, the first film to be distributed by Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson’s newly founded American Releasing Corporation, which later became American International Pictures (AIP). Decades later, producer Neal H. Moritz really wanted that title and made a deal with Corman that allowed him to launch the Fast & Furious franchise in 2001.

Dorothy Malone and John Lund star in the first feature Corman directed, Five Guns West (1955), which was swiftly followed by Apache Woman (1955). “Corman’s ceaselessly moving camera grabbed his audience by the scruff of their collective necks and dragged them into the action, willing or not,” wrote Wheeler Winston Dixon for Senses of Cinema in 2006. “Alone among his ’50s contemporaries, with the exceptions of Ida Lupino and Don Siegel, Corman’s vision was raw, uncompromising, and defiantly unpolished . . . In his early, 1950s films, Corman revamped various worn-down genres with a strong streak of feminism.” Writing for Bright Lights Film Journal in 2019, Catherine Essinger noted that women “decide their own destiny in nearly all of Corman’s output, most notably in the 1950s in Apache Woman, She-Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Paradise, and The Undead, where the plots hinge on women’s self-determination.”

Apache Woman was Dick Miller’s first movie, and in 2004, he told NPR that he was playing “an Indian” and “about halfway through,” Corman asked him, “Would you like to play a cowboy?” Miller asked, “‘Doing another movie already?’ He says, ‘No, in the same movie.’ So I ended up playing a cowboy and an Indian in my first movie.”

Corman’s cost-cutting measures were legendary, and according to the Guardian’s Ronald Bergan, he “once joked he could make an epic about the fall of the Roman empire with two extras and a sagebrush.” He shot The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in two days and one night on the sets he’d used for A Bucket of Blood (1959). Both are horror comedies, the latter an art-world satire featuring Dick Miller in his first lead role (Miller and Corman made more than forty movies together) and the former offering Jack Nicholson in an early scene-stealing role as a masochist in a dentist’s chair.

As Corman told Damien Love in Bright Lights in 2004, he had spotted Nicholson in an acting class and observed that “he had a unique ability to play a dramatic scene with great intensity and at the same time bring humor to it, without undercutting the drama. That’s very difficult, and very unusual, and particularly when you consider that Jack was only about nineteen or twenty at the time.” Corman gave Nicholson his first movie role in The Cry Baby Killer (1958). “When I got the lead,” Nicholson told Chris Nashawaty, the author of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses, “I thought, ‘This is it! I’m here! I’m gonna be big!’ Then I didn’t get an interview for the next year. Roger’s the only guy who hired me for ten years.”

And not just as an actor. Corman had a story to tell Love about the making of The Terror (1963): “Francis Coppola directed part of it, Monte Hellman directed part of it, Jack Hill did part of it, and the last day of shooting, there was nobody available, and so Jack said, ‘Roger, every idiot in town has directed part of this film; lemme direct the last day.’ So I said, ‘Fine, Jack, go ahead.’ And the work he did was good.”

A few years later, Nicholson and Hellman approached Corman with an abortion drama, but Corman told them to head out to Utah and make a western instead, and while they were at it, make two. As a pair, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both released in 1966, are “where the antiwestern, as a modernist commentary on and inversion of this most simplistic of all-American genres, was truly born,” writes Michael Atkinson.

From House of Usher (1960) through The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the eight films in Corman’s Poe cycle “have a quality of singularly focused intent that sets them apart as an oeuvre within an oeuvre in Corman’s abundant filmography,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien. “What Corman found in Poe above all was an emotional climate and a few persistent psychological archetypes that made possible a different kind of horror movie, less about storyline and more about the creation of an all-encompassing environment.”

These films, “shot in scope with luscious colors and crystalline compositions that belie their small budgets, are not literal adaptations,” writes Greg Cwik at Reverse Shot, “but amalgamations mingling different stories with the typical Corman touches and the elegant and unnerving elocution of recurring star Vincent Price.” For Reverse Shot coeditor Michael Koresky, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), shot by Nicolas Roeg, “may be the most technically beautiful, The Raven [1963] the most wonderfully inexplicable, but The Pit and the Pendulum [1961] is the scariest: a tale well told that luxuriates in its sinister gothic trappings and delights in constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer.”

Corman was “my first boss, task-master, teacher, mentor, and role model,” writes Francis Ford Coppola at Instagram. “There is nothing about the practical matter of making movies I didn’t learn by being his assistant.” He applied those lessons when Corman produced his debut feature, Dementia 13 (1963). Peter Bogdanovich was Corman’s assistant on The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern as bikers and Nancy Sinatra and Diane Ladd as their girls. Bogdanovich’s reward was his debut feature, for which he was obliged to use the two days Boris Karloff owed Corman and footage from The Terror. The result was Targets (1968), “a thriller whose terse, nightmarish qualities would not be repeated across his wide-ranging and influential filmography,” as Adam Nayman describes it.

The Wild Angels, made three years before Easy Rider turned Hollywood on its head, was one of a string of films Corman consciously aimed at younger viewers. “Something I noticed with major studios is that you had a fifty-year-old leading man with a forty-year-old leading lady,” Corman told Nick Pinkerton in a 2016 Film Comment interview. “They were stars . . . but the audience was young and the people playing the leads were the age of their parents. So I made a specific attempt to appeal to a young audience. I had a choice, particularly with actors, of going with older actors who weren’t really stars because I really couldn’t afford them, or go with young actors who were unknown because I thought they would appeal to the audience.”

The Trip (1967), written by Nicholson, stars Fonda, Dern, Dennis Hopper, and Susan Strasberg, and to prepare to direct it, Corman dropped acid for the first—and last—time. Corman “encouraged us to improvise,” Dern told Damien Love, “he encouraged us to make a script better, he encouraged us to do two jobs instead of one—meaning you’d act, and you’d also do a job behind the camera, like you’d help with the grips, or this or that—and he was very interested in the Actors Studio and its effect on actors. He loved Actors Studio actors. So he was really quite extraordinary in the growth of a lot of people. And his movies were fun. Hectic, maddening, but fun.”

Dern appeared in Bloody Mama (1970), starring Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, the matriarch of a notorious gang in Depression-era Arkansas. For the role of one of her sons, Winters recommended a fellow Actors Studio alum, a young Robert De Niro. Corman told Love that “it has become a cliché to say it, but he was and is one of the most dedicated, most intense actors I have ever seen. We were shooting in Arkansas, and he went to Arkansas on his own a week or so before shooting, and just hung around, wandering through small towns, picking up accents, learning how people moved, what their opinions were. He was a very, very intense actor; it was clear, from the beginning, that he was brilliant.”

In 1970, Corman and his brother, Gene, founded New World Pictures, an independent studio and distributor that burst out of the gate with two hits, Angels Die Hard (1970), another biker movie, and Stephanie Rothman’s The Student Nurses (1970). “Most intriguing was the company’s bizarre melding of feminist politics, anticapitalist rhetoric, and parody with quasi-softcore sexploitation,” writes Bright Lights founding editor Gary Morris, the author of a 1985 monograph on Corman. “Women held key positions at New World both behind and in front of the camera.” Corman “inaugurated new genres (the nurse film, the matriarchal rural chase film à la Big Bad Mama [released in 1974 and starring Angie Dickinson]) and revived some old ones (the women-in-prison film, biker movies), and pioneered the use of cheap foreign location shooting in places like the Philippines.”

The Big Doll House (1971), for example, directed by Jack Hill, was shot in the Philippines, and it made Pam Grier a star. New World also gave us Jonathan Demme’s debut feature, Caged Heat (1974), which, as Scott Tobias writes in the New York Times, “ticks the usual women-in-prison boxes, with sexy convicts fighting (and showering) among themselves before turning their attention to an abusive warden (Barbara Steele). But Demme and his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, keep the camera active, and the tone is rambunctious and fun, with a genuine warmth and esprit de corps that develops among the cast. These little differences matter.”

Corman produced one last film at AIP, Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), starring Barbara Hershey. Corman “was like a great professor,” Scorsese told Nashawaty. “From him, I learned how to put a picture together. He taught you about the realities of the marketplace: There had to be a chase scene here; there has to be a touch of nudity there. He didn’t apologize for that. You had to embrace that if you were going to make a movie for him. I didn’t mind embracing the Corman formula.”

New World, in the meantime, was scoring more hits with car-chase movies such as Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), starring David Carradine as Frankenstein, a champion driver in the murderous Transcontinental Road Race, and Ron Howard’s directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto (1978). Joe Dante and Alan Arkush pasted together outtakes from New World productions to create the satirical Hollywood Boulevard (1976), and for their trouble, Corman gave Dante Piranha (1978), written by John Sayles, and Arkush directed Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979), featuring the Ramones.

Corman carried on launching careers through the 1980s. James Cameron, a production assistant on Rock ’n’ Roll High School, worked his way up from model maker to art director on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Gale Ann Hurd, who would later cowrite and produce Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), first worked on Smokey Bites the Dust (1981). “It repurposed footage from previous car chase films that he’d made,” Hurd tweets, “and was directed by Corman regular, Chuck Griffith. I learned everything I know about producing from Roger.” Carl Franklin directed a young Todd Field in his first feature, Eye of the Eagle 2: Inside the Enemy (1989).

As gestures of appreciation, several graduates of Corman’s informal, hands-on film school have given him cameos in their later work. He’s a senator in Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), a man in a phone booth in Dante’s The Howling (1981), the FBI director in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and a congressman in Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995). In 2022, Corman told Todd Gilchrist at the A.V. Club that someone from the Screen Actors Guild once called him up “and said, ‘You have to join the Guild.’ I said, ‘It’s just a joke between the directors and me.’ And the guy from the Guild said, ‘The joke has gone on too long. You’re working more than half of our actors.’ So I joined Screen Actors Guild and it turned out it was a good move, because now I get residuals as a director and I also get residuals as an actor.”

In 2009, the Academy presented an honorary Oscar to Corman at the Governors Awards. “It’s very easy,” said Corman in his acceptance speech, “for a major studio or somebody else to repeat their successes, to spend vast amounts of money on remakes, on special effects-driven tentpole franchise films. But I believe the finest films being done today are done by the original, innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you: Keep gambling, keep taking chances.”

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