Late in Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Alex Stapleton's new documentary about the life and work of Roger Corman, there's a moment of startling tenderness and emotion from Jack Nicholson, a man noted for his cool, even ironic pose.
Eyes hidden by dark sun glasses, interviewed sitting down and back lit, Nicholson is the portrait of a certain kind of Hollywood royalty, holding court with the (unseen) filmmakers, a mad 'Joker' grin fixed on his face most of the time.
Throughout Stapleton's film the famously acerbic star tells often-unflattering stories about his old pal Corman. Nicholson, like Robert de Niro, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and Pam Grier, got his start with Corman, working for short-end money on movies with next-to-nothing production values. At the time, the early '60s, Corman was the only filmmaker who would give Nicholson a gig.
But talking to Stapleton, Nicholson's veneer cracks; his sentiments come flooding out in a rush of gratitude for a man who did so much for so many careers in the last 50 years. Nicholson is so moved he chokes.
“I was very touched and surprised when I saw that,” Corman told SBS, interviewed via phone from his production office. “I was moved too, and it was because it reminded me of my closeness to Jack.”
Notorious for his prolific output, tiny budgets, and often lurid and sleazy treatment of sensational material, Corman's movies – with titles like The Wild Angels (1966), The St Valentines Day Massacre (1967) and The Trip (1967) – made him one of film history's most successful producers, ever. Born in 1926, Corman entered the business in early 1950s, a moment of great upheaval for Hollywood studios. Corman made a lot of money quickly with monster movies and horror flicks. He says teenagers love them, even if the critics scorned him as a B-movie maker, a title Corman rejects. For years he says he's been misquoted on this issue, with writers saying he “hated” being branded as “king of the Bs”. It's not because of the implications of tastelessness, it's simply because he explains in his gentlemanly way, it's not accurate: ”I was once on a national TV program and the host asked me about B-movies and I told I never made a B-picture,” he says. “And then there was this dead silence. He couldn't think of what to say.”
Corman defines the B-picture in its true historical context. He explains that in the '30s, during the Depression, studios started to run double features; two movies for the price of one. The top of the bill was the A-movie; it had a good budget and real stars. The bottom of the bill was the B-feature; it had second-rate stars and a small budget. “When TV came in the double-feature disappeared from theatres, pretty much. I came into the business when B-pictures ended, so I can truly say I have never made a B picture.”
Corman concedes that a lot of fans and critics of B-movies and 'exploitation' films are interchangeable. “The truth is I was never really bothered by either term.”
Softly spoken, diplomatic, and unfailingly polite, Corman offers gentle praise for Stapleton's film, calling it, “a fair and accurate picture” of his life and work, even if there are things in it that seem odd to him, like the fact that more than one interviewee in the film describes him as “hard to know”.
“Well, I've always been quiet,” he says, “but I don't think I was ever 'enigmatic'… but I suppose if I came off that way for some people, that's how it was.”
Corman stopped directing in 1971, aged 46, after maintaining a frantic pace for over nearly two decades (sometimes shooting 3 or 4 movies in less a year). “I simply got tired,” he says. At the time he was in Ireland shooting a WWI flying picture about The Red Baron, Von Richthofen and Brown (1971).
“We shot in Ireland,” he says, “and each morning you drove out to the location by this intersection and if you turned left you ended up at the studio and if you turned right you ended up in Galway. And every morning on that shoot I was so tempted to turn right and sit on all on the shores of Galway Bay.”
By the early '70s, Corman had set up New World Pictures. “Its success caught me by surprise,” he says, “and I always intended to return to directing but I never did.” (In fact, he directed Frankenstein Unbound in 1990.)
Despite Corman's dedication to exploitation staples like 'blood and breasts', he has a reputation as a liberal and a progressive and was for years a registered Democrat. He made one of the first films to attack race issues head on with The Intruder (1962). Shot in the South, it was a frightening experience; police in several different towns ran off Corman's crew and there were repeated death threats. “I was branded a communist, though what the integration of black children into all-white schools had to do with communism I don't know,” he says now. He admits that friends, like Ron Howard and others, encouraged him to return to “more serious filmmaking” that was closer to his politics but he says The Intruder, which bombed at the box office, "made an impression on me… so I returned to exploitation films and tried to put a little something in them that reflected my views.”
Corman is still working; he's recently made a couple of successful monster movies for the Syfy cable channel with what he calls “crazy names”, like Piranhaconda. And he still sees Jack Nicholson. “He was over for dinner just a little while ago.”