Movie Review: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)
Roger Corman was responsible for helping launch the careers of some of the best and most beloved actors and directors of the last 50 years: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron.
He also made hundreds of shitty exploitation movies.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood rebel,” directed by Alex Stapleton, honors both of these achievements but there’s something disingenuous about it. It focuses on the “rebel” rather than the “exploits.” It continually pits Corman against the Hollywood studios (where he’s an underdog) rather than other exploitation filmmakers (where he’s just trying to make a buck in a crowded field).
Corman got into the biz in the early ‘50s going through the script slush pile at 20th Century Fox. Ironically, the man with no taste rejected most scripts as not being good enough. One he liked, and gave notes on, became “The Gunfighter” starring Gregory Peck, and his notes were used, but he received no on-screen credit. So he said “Screw that” and struck out on his own. He made low-budget, guerilla flicks that fit the times: teen rebel and dorky monster movies in the ’50s; Hammerish horror films with Vincent Price in the ’60s, followed by the biker flicks with Peter Fonda that prefigured “Easy Rider.” In the ’70s, it was dusty “Bonnie and Clyde” wannabes (“Big Bad Mama”), along with women-in-prison films.
His one stab at legitimacy, according to the doc, was the 1962 film, “The Intruder,” starring William Shatner as a northerner who goes South to stir up trouble against integration. When it died at the box office, that was that. Corman never tried to be hifalutin again.
I think that’s what he’s trying to get at with the “Star Wars” analogy. Here’s the quote:
When I saw “Star Wars,” I said, “This is a threat to me.” Because it means the major studios are beginning to understand what we’ve been doing for $100,000 or so, and they’re now doing it for multi-millions of dollars. And it’s going to be very difficult for us to compete.
Bigwigs like Peter Bogdanovich back him up:
He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures, which he did for no money, and, you know, quickly and unpretentiously. ... I miss the Roger Corman versions.
Corman’s low-budget genre flicks, in other words, became the studios high-budget genre flicks. He had his niche and they took it away from him.
Except ... Bogdanovich’s comment about “He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures”? What science fiction? In the ’50s, Corman directed rubber-monster movies, like everybody, and in 1968 Bogdanovich directed the Corman-produced “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women,” in which astronauts land on a planet of dinosaurs and Swedish girls, and in ’75 Corman directed “Death Race 2000” with David Carradine and an unknown Sylvester Stallone. That’s it. He really didn’t do much with the genre. While George Lucas was innovating in the science fiction realm, Corman was hip deep in things like “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Caged Heat,” “Jackson County Jail” and “Eat My Dust.”
Yet the talking heads, and the doc itself, seem to give Corman credit for doing low-budget “Star Wars” even as they dismiss “Star Wars” as The Thing That Ruined Hollywood.
It certainly ruined it for Corman. Scorsese mentions meeting Corman in the early 1980s and having the following conversation: “I said, ‘Aren’t you going to do any more? Aren’t you going to direct a few more?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think so. The whole scene is changing ... I don’t belong there.’” Indeed, Corman directed only one movie after that conversation: “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound” with John Hurt and Raul Julia in 1990.
Except ... he kept producing. How many movies? After 1980, a mere two hundred and eighty nine. But the doc glosses over this period. Why? I suppose because none of it matters. Corman didn’t give any new Nicholsons or Scorseses a leg up in the business, while most of his movies went straight to video or straight overseas. That might’ve been an interesting angle for Stapleton to pursue, actually. With drive-ins dying, where did Corman’s post-1980 movies show? In theaters? If no, was it really “Star Wars” that got to Corman or was it competition from fellow schlockmeisters Golan and Globus, whose company, Canon Entertainment, ruled the schlock-film realm during the 1980s?
The B movie of it
This might’ve been a good question to ask, too: What’s the difference between Corman’s grindhouse flicks of the early 1970s, which are celebrated, and the post-1980 straight-to-video flicks, which don’t rate a mention? What did Corman think of Golan and Globus? Russ Meyer? Was there a time when he got disgusted with humanity and its low desires? With himself and his low desires? When he thought “Enough already”?
Are any of these films worth making?
None of it is asked. Instead, we see Corman receiving an honorary Oscar in 2009. All of the talking heads say he deserved it, and Jack Nicholson, on his comfortable couch in his comfortable mansion, cries at the end, thinking how much he owes Corman. That scene almost makes the doc worth watching, but it never lays to rest my thought that Corman spent a lifetime titilating us to no good end.
“Oh, how we longed for the B movie of it,” wrote George W.S. Trow in “My Pilgrim's Progress.” That's where you begin.