Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Stealth Oscars

Shhhh. Be vewy, vewy quiet. We're giving out Oscars.

What's the biggest, noisiest, splashiest event in Hollywood every year? I mean besides Chi Chi LaRue's birthday bash. The Oscars, aka, The Gay Superbowl. "One billion people around the world are watching!" they are always trumpeting at the ceremony each year, the day before announcing that this year the ratings were at their lowest ever, out-rated by golf! Not that I ever believed that there were a lot of African Bushmen or Australian Aborigines getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Oscars on their wood-burning TVs because they wanted to make sure that Kate Winslet wasn't robbed this year. Frankly, I doubt there are many Oscar-betting-pools in Buddhist Tibetian Monasteries, although the one I overnighted in on my way to Club Med Shangri-La had one. (Club Med Shrangri-La took centuries off my face! When I left, I didn't look a day over 90.)

But the point is, Oscars are given out with pomp, circumstance, hoopla, and publicity, loud publicity, and on TV! They want everyone who will talk about them to be talking about them. So why, this past weekend, did they give out three Oscars in a ceremony so secret, they used Tom Hanks, the with-it, hot comic Oscar host of, say, 14 years ago, to emcee? Why were they keeping it secret, so secret, they were handed out before all the movies to be considered for nominations have even been released?

Embarrassment perhaps? Well, let's see who was honored.

Gordon Willis, the genius cinematographer who shot all three Godfather movies, Annie Hall, All the President's Men, Interiors, Manhattan, Pennies From Heaven, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Presumed Innocent, and many others. The only shame here is that he's never won an Oscar before.

Lauren Becall, a screen legend, almost as beautiful as me. She should receive honors daily.

Roger Corman. Wait a minute. Roger Corman? Is that why they kept it so quiet?

Understand, I adore Roger Corman, and enjoy many of his wonderfully silly, sleazy movies, but one doesn't think of him as Oscar-bait. One thinks of him as the former king of American-International Pictures. (They also gave out an Irving Thalberg Award, but so what? It's the "Lovely Parting Gift" of the Oscars.)

Roger wrote a fun, entertaining memoir a decade or so back: How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. In it, he entertainingly chronicles his career in the movie business, which for Roger, is a business, not art. Roger makes movies because it's an enjoyable way for him to make money. He's not about art. That's okay. He's honest about what he does, and once in a while, he makes art in spite of himself. He always tries his best to give value for money. He just doesn't understand the meaning of the phrase "Take 2." And he's never made a film one would associate with the word "Oscar." (Although he did play a senator in Godfather II, which was covered in Oscars!)

Roger himself has no illusions about this. He told the Los Angeles Times (It's a"newspaper," an archaic form of information-dispersal. You can read about them in History Blogs.), "I’m delighted, and surprised, I knew I’d been nominated [to receive an honorary Oscar], and I predicted flatly that I had no chance of getting the award, because I make low-budget films. I thought the Academy will not give an award to someone who makes low budget films."

Well, in this economy, they did.

For many people of a certain age (Little Dougie's age), two names are associated most strongly with Roger's: Vincent Price, and Edgar Allen Poe.

In the 1960s, Roger convinced AIP to up his budget and production schedule (to a staggering 3 weeks), so he could make some films in Panavision and Eastmancolor to compete with the color Gothics that England's Hammer films were minting money with around the world. Roger put Price and Poe together, and turned out House of Usher, one of the top three highest-grossing movies of 1960, and began a classic series of movies, all but one starring Vincent Price. Here's Vinnie in my favorite of the series, the hilarious spoof, The Raven, with Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Hazel Court, and some young guy named Jack Nicholson.

Roger, Vinnie, and I did one film in the series together, Edgar Allen Poe's The Premature Climax, a film so scary that Roger pretends to have utterly forgotten he ever made it. Here's what I wrote about it in my award-adjacent autobiography My Lush Life:

"I eventually appeared with Vincent, Peter Lorre, little Debra Paget, and a very young Jack Nicholson in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Climax. Poe had apparently been a very neurotic gentleman, and this story, considered by literary critics to be his Most Frightening, explored the deepest terrors a man can know. The film we made from it was a terrifying exploration of the most horrific aspects of human sexuality, especially when practiced while buried alive. I played the chilling female specter that Vincent summoned up every time he made love to Debra (As if anyone would want that drab little mouse of a girl when I was around) in order to attempt to ward off the titular horror. (Not the first nor the last time I've been called a "Titular Horror.")

The biggest problem with the picture was trying to make a feature film out of a five page short story. Poe’s original tale came to a sudden, messy end just as it seemed to be getting started. At the very point where it began to really penetrate it’s subject deeply, it was all over. We had to be sure that our movie of
The Premature Climax didn’t end too quickly also, leaving the audience unsatisfied. Roger Corman and his screenwriter, Richard Matheson, solved the problem by grafting the plot of Les Miserables into the Poe story. This expanded the running time from ten minutes to four hours, so, ironically, they ended up having to make radical cuts in the picture, to bring The Premature Climax to a head more quickly.

In the picture, honeymooning Vincent and Debra had to keep the love-making short, so that Inspector Javert, played by Peter Lorre, didn’t catch up with him. My character had been Vincent’s first wife, whom never ceased complaining about Vincent’s sexual inadequacy, until Vincent had me buried alive. Then my ghost haunts Vincent whenever he has sex. The irony is that my attempts to terrify him actually cure him of the problem I was upset with him for in the first place. Unfortunately, most of what got cut were my best scenes. All the material that explained who the hell I was, was gone, so, in the final picture, I’m really just a minor role, playing a howling ghost that materializes for no explained reason in all the love/horror scenes.

The picture made a hefty profit in spite of the butchery. Part of the reason was Roger’s notorious economic approach to filmmaking. He didn’t waste time. We shot most of the picture before lunch. A few location shots required a day on the cliffs of Palos Verdes, acting around paintings of castles, but the whole movie took only a week to shoot. With Roger, there was no such thing as "Take Two".

The critics even seemed to enjoy the picture, despite the narrative holes, and I received some of my best notices in years.
The New York Times raved, "Tallulah Morehead is also in this movie.", while Variety gushed "Others in the cast include Tallulah Morehead." Needless to say, I was flying high with reviews like that. It was as though I had been rediscovered. In France I was a genius. In America I was "Also in the cast". At last I was getting the kind of recognition I deserved.

So much fun did we have on the picture together, that I even allowed Roger and Vinnie to read an advance copy of My Lush Life, even though I was still more than three decades away from writing it, and much of the last quarter of the book hadn't even occurred yet. Why Roger denies to this day the very existence of me or this movie I can not fathom. Roger is almost always a cordial, approachable, charming, and remarkably ego-free man.

The Corman Poe series also included The Pit and The Pendulum, Poe's Tales of Terror, The Raven, Poe's The Haunted Palace (which was really H. P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward with Poe's name stuck on it), The Premature Burial (The only one without Vincent Price, substituting Ray Milland. I know, what were they thinking? Milland was a good enough actor, what with his earned Oscar and all, but he had not an ounce of Vincent Price's charisma and magic!), The Masque of the Red Death, and Tomb of Ligeia. But before Roger launched himself into American Gothic, he made movies that made these films look like Ben-Hur and Lord of the Rings.

No one watching Teenage Caveman in a drive-in 50 years ago ever thought that the man who made it would one day win an Oscar, or that Robert Vaughn, who starred in it (Hey, it's a more respect-worthy entry on his resume than Superman III) would ever be a respected actor, and then, even later, a formerly-respected actor, and finally, a what-did-we-ever-see-in-him actor. In fact, no one "watching" Teenage Caveman in a drive-in actually noticed the movie at all. They were busy in the backseat, making the next generation of movie-goers. Roger understood that the content of his 1950s, grade Z drive-in fare was utterly unimportant and irrelevant. As long as it had a title and a poster that got the kids to roll into the theater, he was going to make money.

That is 1950s Corman regular leading lady Beverly Garland being menaced by the most evil giant cucumber ever to waddle out of Bronson Canyon, in Corman's It Conquered the World, although, in the film, It only conquered one small cave, and Lee Van Cleef. Peter Graves saved the rest of the world, I think using a hand-operated salad-shooter.

Little Dougie, at the age of 6, saw the previews for a double feature of It Conquered the World and The She Creature (a movie for which Roger Corman is entirely innocent) before some Disney movie, and had nightmares for a week. He didn't know what "conquered" meant, but it sounded very bad, and while creatures were bad enough as they were, a creature that was a "she" had to be even worse. (Whether that trailer for The She Creature was what turned Dougie gay is still being debated in the higher halls of learning.) Say what you will about these two pathetic turkeys, but they were perfect for scaring the crap out of 6 year olds. However, most 7 year olds were too sophisticated to fall for them.

This poster for Roger's Attack of the Crab Monsters is of considerably higher quality than the film itself. How can you be frightened of monsters that can be wiped out by a simple creme available at any corner drugstore? Coincidentally enough, many of the teenagers "watching" this movie in drive-ins suffered actual crab attacks while the film was unreeling, although they usually didn't find this out until they got home and took a shower. Now that is a truly unique form of 3-D movie. William Castle, king of film gimmicks, must have been drooling with envy. (Bill Castle was often called "The poor man's Roger Corman," although Corman was of the opinion that he himself was the poor man's Roger Corman!)

Here's a fairly typical Corman double feature. Roger didn't direct either of these two movies. In fact, Francis Ford Coppola directed Dementia 13, which is not the 12th sequel to Dementia, like it sounds, and is actually not a half-bad film (More like two-thirds bad), but Roger and his brother Gene produced both of them. Although Dementia 13 is actually a watchable film, The Giant Leeches, a terrifying account of oversized brothers-in-law, is terrible enough for any two movies. (Yes, I've actually seen both movies.)

Two of Roger's most enjoyable extreme cheapies were Bucket of Blood, with Dick Miller, and Little Shop of Horrors with Jonathon Haze, Jackie Joseph, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller again, both hilarious black comedy horror spoofs. Little Shop of Horrors was famously shot in three days. Roger must have had the flu or something, to be working at such a pokey pace. It happens that Jonathon Haze mentioned to me not long ago his having read and loved My Lush Life, so we know that he's more than a great actor. He has literary taste too.

One of the scariest of Roger's Poe films was The Pit and the Pendulum. I know that I've frightened many men into fits of terror by simply saying, "If you've got the pendulum, I've got the pit for it." Why that sends men running from the room screaming I have no idea.

As with The Premature Climax, horror master-writer Richard Matheson (you can not have a better creepy time for yourself than by reading one of his great novels, like Hell House, or I Am Legend. Do NOT judge it by the Will Smith film version.) was faced with turning a five-page story into a 90 minute film, and did so by "borrowing" certain plot elements from the classic French thriller, Clouzot's Diabolique. The climax, when Price goes very, very over-the-top mad in his torture chamber, is still scary stuff.

The lad under the swinging knife in The Pit and the Pendulum was John Kerr. Here's a bit of horror history trivia: John Kerr's grandfather was Frederick Kerr, who played old Baron Frankenstein, father of Colin Clive's Dr. Henry Frankenstein, way back in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), which I guess makes John The Nephew of Frankenstein, a sequel they neglected ever to make.

Here's Roger on the set, making horror magic.

So iconic was The Pit and the Pendulum that a couple years later, Vincent Price himself spoofed it in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, using the same sets, costumes, pendulum, and stock shots, though Roger had nothing to do with it. This time it was Dwayne Hickman under the knife. In his autobiography, Dwayne speaks slightingly of this film, as though he didn't respect it. Okay, it's cheap, and extremely silly, and wasn't any any Cat Ballou, but it is also funny, unpretentious, and Price is a delight in it.

Roger was good at spoofs though. I've already mentioned Bucket of Blood and the almost legendary Little Shop of Horrors, which is so beloved, it was redone as a musical, and was a huge success both on stage and on film. For the fourth film in the Poe series, Roger was getting bored with recycling the same tropes with a straight face (Damn! I broke my vow never to use the word "tropes" in an essay!), that he felt a need to find a new approach. In Tales of Terror, an anthology of short horror stories, he had done one story as a comedy, and it was such a hit, that for The Raven, he went full-tilt into a hilarious parody of his previous Poe films. With Price joined by Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Jack Nicholson (whom I hear has done well since), and especially the invaluable Peter Lorre, a master of comedy improvisation, he made this film a spooky romp that was a big hit. Mind you, you'd never know from the posters that this was a tongue-in-cheek mass of silliness.

Three or four years ago, Little Dougie and I attended a screening of The Raven, in a nice, new print, at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, at which Corman spoke, telling stories of making the film, and expressing the affection he's always had for this particular movie. It was the first time Little Dougie ever got to meet Roger Corman, and he found him as charming, warm, and friendly as everyone else does.

One of the most famous stories associated with The Raven also illustrates Roger's unique approach to efficient film-making, and getting every penny's worth out of his investment.

The Raven was shot so quickly that Roger ended up, at the end of the shoot, with three filming days left over on Boris Karloff's contract. Not one to just throw away three days of Karloff (speaking as one of Boris's ex-wives, I might have re-thought that myself), Roger had actor/writer Leo Gordon knock out a script overnight, that was every bit as good as you would expect from a script written in about 9 hours. Then he took Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, and Boris, and shot every shot of Boris the film required, on the sets from The Raven sort of shuffled around and re-dressed.

Once Karloff was done, Roger turned the film over to Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill, some months later, to shoot various fairly unrelated scenes. Eventually the mess was cobbled toegther into the deleriously incoherent movie
The Terror. I've seen it. If you can detect the slightest trace of sense in it, you're more perceptive than I. Note how the poster tries to equate it with Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Wax, and The Pit and the Pendulum. It is like them in that, they are horror movies, and it is a horror. It's not unlike what you might get if you tossed those classic films into a blender, and pureed them.

Here's my favorite thing about The Terror. All the Poe pictures had ended up to then with conflagrations. Actually, I should say conflagration, singular. Roger burned down a barn, and used the exact same fire footage in every single Poe picture. Time and again, you wondered why all these stone castles suddenly had wooden roofs.

So Roger decided that The Terror would end with a flood, just to be different, as though being completely incoherent, and having no trace of a plot wasn't different enough. So the film climaxes with a flood in a stone crypt. The crypt collapses as it floods, and great chunks of stone fall into the rushing water --- and float! Did you know that stone floats? It does in The Terror!

Frankly, watching The Terror, you would never think: these people will win Oscars, yet Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola have, and now, Roger Corman can put "Oscar Winner" on his lengthy resume as well.

But Roger did approach art with his next Poe picture, the superb film, The Masque of the Red Death, with Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher (who was then famously dating Sir Paul McCartney), and Patrick Magee. Heavily influenced by Ingrid Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Where did lovely Ingrid get the time to spare from being a Hollywood movie goddess, to also direct masterpieces of Swedish cinema? Talk about multi-tasking!), and based on one of Poe's most allegorical stories, this is a wonderful movie.

Roger uprooted himself from Producer's Studio in Hollywood (Now called Raleigh Studios. They shot
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? there at the same time Pit and the Pendulum was shooting. Imagine the commissary during lunch that week!), and went to England (where, in those days, you could shoot more cheaply), where he used lavish sets recently made for the big budget movie Becket, with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. Thus he gave his film a big expensive look while spending nothing on set contruction.

Poe's Masque of the Red Death also inspired the famous masked ball scene in Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. As a result, dear, sexy Lon Chaney appeared in Red Death drag in his famous silent classic, in a scene that was shot in early, two-color Technicolor. Here's Lon's and Vinnie's Red Deaths. Oh death, where is thy color sense?

After he tired of Poe, Roger went into all sorts of exploitation areas, psychedelic movies, biker films, all sorts of low budget topics.

But he also had begun what became known as the University of Corman. At A.I.P. and later at his own founded studio, New World, he was the entry-level studio where ambitious filmmakers and actors got their starts and learned their crafts, before going on to stellar careers elsewhere. Some producers might have felt agrieved that they had trained young talents only to be deserted by them, but not Roger. He expected them to leave, before they got too expensive. He knew his place on the ladder, and accepted his role with pleasure and his usual good grace.

You've already noticed the names of some famous Corman graduates, Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola. In this movie below, Bloody Mama, with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, a little nobody named Robert DeNiro got his screen start.

Other University of Corman graduates include Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Sylvester Stallone (well, they can't all be gems), Jonathon Demme, Joe Dante (who wouldn't dream of making a movie without Dick Miller in it, and who can blame him?), John Sayles, Ron Howard (All right, Ronnie already had a career as an actor, but Corman was the first to let him direct, at which he has done well since. Who would have expected Grand Theft Auto would ever lead to Frost/Nixon?), Bill Shatner, Penelope Spheeris, and still others.

Take this tale: a young writer who had worked on some of Corman's film crews, wanted to direct. Once again, Roger had three days of work owed to him by Boris Karloff, who was just too speedy an actor in his 80s. So Corman offered the three days of Karloff work to this young man, along with the raw footage of the abominable The Terror, telling him he could shoot 20 minutes of Karloff in those 3 days, and use 20 minutes of Karloff from The Terror, giving him 40 minutes of Boris Karloff. He then gave him a small sum, something like $100,000, to shoot another 40 minutes with other actors.

This young writer went home and wrote a very smart script, shot his scenes, including a climax filmed at the quintessential Roger Corman location, a drive-in theater. In fact, the drive-in was the Reseda Drive-In. Though gone now, like most other drive-ins, it was located not one mile from where Little Dougie now resides, when not rattling around here at Morehead Heights. The movie was sold to Paramount, for twice what Roger Corman put up for it, so Roger was happy at a 100% profit. Paramount didn't do as well with it, and it made little money. But this most-excellent low-budget film, Targets, went on to cult glory, and this young director, Peter Bogdanovich, went right on next to direct The Last Picture Show, and that film won two Oscars, and was nominated for 6 more, two of those nominations being for Bogdanovich.

So perhaps, after all, Roger Corman does deserve an Oscar, not for directing and/or producing great classic movies, though he has made many, many very entertaining, beloved films, but for finding, discovering, and nurturing so many Oscar-winning talents who have vastly enriched the industry. So congratulations Roger. Well done. You deserve to have your Oscar awarded in a real Oscar show, not in this back-alley presentation.

For shame, Oscar producers, and Adam Shankman, if you can tear your eyes away from Ryan's and Legacy's abs on So You Think You Can Dance? (They are eye-catching!), I'm talking to you!

On another topic altogether, about the tween sensation Twilight: New Moon. No, I haven't seen that movie, nor it's prequel. I'm not 13, and I don't like un-sexually-threatening men. Still, there's a lot to say in favor of hunky, shirtless werewolves, which is why I am here with a whole pack of them.

There's a wild irony involved with these movies. Stephenie Meyer, who wrote this crap, is a Mormon. Okay, gay boys, every time you buy a ticket to one of these movies, or buy one of her Godawful books, some portion of your money goes to her, and then, some portion of that money gets tithed by her to the evil Mormon Church, which in turn, uses some of it to fund fights against gay marriage rights across America. So anytime you spend a cent on these films, you're helping fund the fight for anti-gay intolerance.

Okay, that's bad enough. But where's the irony? Simple. These Twilight movies are almost indistinguishable from soft-core gay porn.

So spend no money on these movies or books.

I must admit though, I find it's new taste in what werewolves look like intriguing.

If only they didn't fund Mormons, I'd slather myself in wolfbane, and go a-howling.

On to minor matters. This Saturday marks the third anniversary of this flog. This, my 171st flogging, is the last one of my third year, though I will be continuing on. To all who have enjoyed all or part of this three year journey, my thanks. Who knows where we will travel on to as we sail into our fourth year?

Meanwhile, I continue flogging Survivor: Samoa over on The Huffington Post. Last week's was From Russell With Love, and this week's is Lord of the Gnats. Enjoy.

Now grab a Roger Corman movie and stick it in your DVD player and think, this guy's got an Oscar. There's hope for me yet.

Cheers darlings.


lizinsr said...

While I was interested in the Roger Corman aspects the article in the paper, That wasn't what I reacted to when I read it. When I read that they weren't presenting these honorary Oscars at the broadcast ceremony, all I could think was "Damn - Lauren Bacall must be pissed!".

Tallulah Morehead said...

I think all three of them should be pissed. It's insulting to all of them.

Matt Patton said...

Frankly, Roger Corman looks younger, at least in attitude, than Martin Scorcese ever did. I would say that was because he didn't take the business of making pictures so seriously, but frankly, even as he toddled towards death, Ingmar Bergman seemed to be having more fun. And he made THE SEVENTH SEAL (which is, incidentally, a lot easier to sit through than NEW YORK, NEW YORK).

Nice to see they issued a fixed-up print of THE RAVEN -- it's one of the better fantasy films made, and Corman probably made it for less than the box-lunch budget for one of the HARRY POTTER films.

It's not only insulting that Corman, Bacall, and Willis aren't getting their bowling trophies--it sad. The only people who would have shown up well-dressed have been cast into exile . . .

Tallulah Morehead said...

I wondered about The Seventh Seal, as they only had six balls for them to balance on their noses. You'd think Ingrid could have found another ball.

I never play Chess with Death. We just do drinking games. Every time someone dies, we do a shot.

New York, New York, three hours of people shouting at each other, periodically interrupted by songs. The gay people who were watching it to hear Liza sing couldn't understand why anyone would put up with all that hollering from DeNiro. He's not hot enough to be worth it.

Matt Patton said...

Somebody should have explained that to Bernardo Bertolucci before he made that endless whatver-it-was called 1900. He had DeNiro naked in it . . . Of course, there were a lot of things that somebody should have explained to Bertolucci before he made that movie--like "It's a lousy script." "You're not a very good director."

On the other hand, at least he left the butter home on that occassion.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I remember when 1900 was a science fiction movie about the future. I'm afraid I have only sat through one Bertolucci movie, the one with Brando and the butter. Recently I attempted to watch it a second time, but turned it off after about 20 minutes, which I had thought was the first hour.

Tim Willis said... your writing...just came across all your insight and commentary. I hear where you are coming from and I agree to a certain extent. I just have to add that I was at the November award Dad, Gordon Willis, was one of the recipients. Though I can't speak for everyone I can say that the evening was greater than anything that could have been pulled off at the Oscar show. The academy may be onto something here. The evening was a solid 2-3 hour event and gave the deserving tribute that everyone earned. Lifetime achievements within this industry deserve a night of their own...their own pedestal of recognition that rises above Oscar night. The November awards show was balanced and relaxed(non televised events have a very positive effect on everyone) and you had plenty of A list celebrities atttending. Oscar winner Jeff Bridges gave my dad his award after a teriffic introduction....fantastic! Caleb toasted my dad's career and contribution with a one of a kind speech that was followed by a standing ovation. Other award winenrs were given the same personalized recognition. Let's face it the entire landscape of Hollywood has changed and not for the better...but I have to applaud the academy's efforts for the Lifetime achievement awards in was grand! P.S...based on what I saw in the media this event wasn't much of a secret..and quite honestly do you really think these legendary recipients care at this point?

Tallulah Morehead said...

Tim, thanks for your comments. They are well-taken, yet they only make me feel even more keenly deprived of more than a 30 second look at an event worthy of full coverage.

That the fact that these awards had been handed out at all was news to so many millions when the big show was telecats only shows that they were still too stealthy.

and I'd still rather listen to what Roger Corman has to say more than the combined reading-other-people's-words-off-a-teleprompter remarks of a dozen Taylor Lautners and Mylie Cyruses.

Your Dad is a great artist, and deserves full recognition.