Friday, May 31, 2013

Doomed: Teasing Out the Story Behind Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four

 Well, it’s time to start working on your superhero costume for the San Diego Comic-Con. And it’s time to support a super-project that’s just been launched by my buddy, Mark Sikes, along with filmmaker Marty Langford. Back when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, Mark served as Roger’s casting honcho. One of his most challenging gigs was finding the cast, on a hurry-up basis, for a little superhero flick called The Fantastic Four, based on the Marvel Comics characters, that was being co-produced on the cheap by Concorde and a German company, Neue Constantin. 

A lot of us know what happened next. The film was shot, the cast and crew were ecstatic, and a big publicity push was under way, much of it funded by the actors themselves. Then came word that Constantin’s Bernd Eichinger had just paid big bucks for Roger’s share of The Fantastic Four. Eichinger promptly shelved the finished movie, presumably to make way for a lavish studio version that finally appeared in 2005. The original prints of the Concorde quickie were supposedly destroyed, but pirated copies have been circulating ever since. Now Mark and Marty are out to satisfy our craving to know exactly what happened. They’re planning a full-length documentary called Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.  To finance this labor of love, they’re calling on the film’s many fans to cough up some dough. (This crowdfunding idea is really taking off: I’m told that even Roger – who’s richer than God -- is using it to help pay for a shoestring remake of Munchies. But I digress.)

Here’s the scoop: Mark and Marty have set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $52,000 they need to make their movie happen. Naturally, donors get some very cool perks. But the deadline is June 20, so time is flying. (You might also check out the official Doomed Facebook site.)

What makes Doomed sound so promising is that most of the creative forces behind Concorde’s Fantastic Four are already on board. One of them is Carl Ciarfalio, stuntman extraordinaire, who impersonates The Thing in the movie. Carl has been part of some much more elaborate projects, like The Amazing Spider Man. But he relished the chance to work with director Oley Sassone and a talented cast, despite the privations everyone faced on set. For instance, “The suit that they made for me was really spot-on. But they didn’t have the budget to put a cool suit on underneath it. So I was wearing 15 pounds of rubber every day,” without a cooling system to provide basic comfort. Ouch!

Nonetheless, Carl sees the film’s awkward special effects (like Dr. Reed Richards’ impossibly stretchy limbs) as part of its charm. When watching today’s big-budget superhero movies, the audience knows it’s “just a bunch of guys on green-screen, with stuff goin’ on behind ‘em.” By contrast,  Concorde’s Fantastic Four plays like an homage to the mid-twentieth-century world of Marvel Comics. Says Carl, “That’s what makes this film cult-like, because it’s kind of a throwback to the Fifties and Sixties films that they used to make before special effects were a big deal.” 

Even at the time, Carl didn’t assume The Fantastic Four would lead him to fame and fortune. But the movie’s cast thought they were participating in something special. “And it was. It was something special. I knew out of the gate.” That’s why it hurts to have been part of a film that will never officially be seen. Doomed  is guaranteed to bring us a lot of great stories about that.

 Thanks, Carl, for supplying me with some of your own snapshots from the Fantastic Four shoot. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rance and Ron Howard: Oklahoma’s Resilient Native Sons

Oscar Hammerstein had it right: Oklahoma’s a place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. We’ve all seen the photos coming out of Moore, Oklahoma. It was flattened last week by a EF5 tornado, which sent winds of 210 mph barreling across a stretch of prairie three miles wide and seventeen miles long. Twenty-four people died, including ten children.

But we’ve also been hearing about the resilient folk who make Oklahoma their home. They’re hard-working and plain-spoken. They may not be as picturesque as the farmers and the cowhands in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, but their can-do spirit helps them survive disasters without hysteria. Which makes it fitting indeed that Ron Howard is Oklahoma-born.

Ron Howard seems to have led a charmed life. He made his professional acting debut at age five. When he was six, The Andy Griffith Show made him a star. He passed through his awkward teen years without much harm done, and at twenty he starred in his second hit TV series, Happy Days. When he was twenty-three he fulfilled a lifelong dream by directing his first film, Grand Theft Auto. Quickly leaving B-movies behind, he helmed such Hollywood hits as Splash, Cocoon¸ and Parenthood. Apollo 13 brought him critical respect, and A Beautiful Mind brought him two Oscars. Today, as both director and producer, he has a full slate. Most recently, he’s continued his involvement with Arrested Development, for which he serves as executive producer, while also reprising his deadpan narrator’s role and playing himself on-camera. Great careers don’t just happen. Sure, there’s luck involved, but also hard work, as well as an ability to shrug off disappointments and keep moving forward.  

Everyone who has worked with Ron Howard speaks of his common sense and his ability to remain down-to-earth while wielding serious show biz clout. And everyone credits his parents, Rance and Jean, for molding him into the man he has become. The effervescent Jean Speegle was a star in Duncan, Oklahoma, population 22,000. She served as editor-in-chief of her high school yearbook and was elected student council president. After graduating, she was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. On February 10, 1947, Jean left a dance class and stepped into the path of a speeding truck. The result: a brain concussion, a broken arm and shoulder, and a pelvis shattered in three places. She lay unconscious for ten days in a New York hospital. At last she was put on a train for Oklahoma, where doctors warned her worried family she might never walk again. But Jean, always a fighter, beat the odds.

Studying drama at the University of Oklahoma, she met a country boy who had walked off the family farm with the dream of becoming an actor. Their courtship took place during a bus-and-truck tour with a children’s theatre troupe. (Rance would get down on his knees and add a fake beard to play one of Snow White’s dwarves.) Not long after the birth of Ronald William Howard, they moved to New York and then Southern California, in pursuit of acting careers. Their young son would far outstrip them both in terms of Hollywood fame and fortune. But they lived on Rance’s earnings as a character actor and worked hard to keep their small star a regular boy. Heart disease claimed Jean far too soon, but Rance continues to take on small but meaty roles at age eighty-five. He’s a survivor, and a credit to his Oklahoma roots, those roots that hold fast even when life seems to be blowing in the wind.   

Friday, May 24, 2013

Three in the Basement: Is it GIRLS Who’ve Gone Wild?

Two weeks ago, America was shocked by horrific news from Cleveland, Ohio. It seems a school-bus driver named Ariel Castro had apparently been holding three young women in his basement for nearly a decade. They had endured sexual abuse, and one had borne a child while in captivity. The women had vanished separately from this tidy working-class neighborhood between 2002 and 2004. At the time of their abduction, they were 20, 16, and 14 years old. According to his lawyer, Castro plans to plead not guilty.

In Wednesday’s Hollywood Reporter, I read Stephen Galloway’s exclusive interview with Joe Francis, founder of Girls Gone Wild. Francis has just been convicted by a Los Angeles jury of assault and false imprisonment for his brutish behavior toward three young women he met in a local nightclub. He talked them into his limousine, whisked them to his Bel-Air home, and went wild when they wanted to leave. Now Francis, hotly proclaiming his innocence, insists that his jury was “mentally fucking retarded” and “should all be lined up and shot.”

I don’t know what’s going on with the number three, but naturally I’m appalled by the idea of men holding women against their will. I’m also peeved that these terrible news items have brought to mind one of the most annoying movies of all time. I’m talking about a so-called comedy called Three in the Attic.

Picture me in 1968. I was a UCLA grad student varying my academic routine by covering film for the school paper. Because Three in the Attic was meant to appeal to hip young Baby Boomers with an open attitude toward sex, AIP  invited me to the sneak preview. I couldn’t believe what awaited me.

The leading man, Paxton Quigley, is played by Christopher Jones. In an instant cult classic called Wild in the Streets (also AIP, also 1968), Jones portrayed a handsome twenty-two-year-old rock ‘n’ roller who got himself elected president of the United States. Three in the Attic casts him as a campus lothario who succeeds in romancing (and sleeping with) three different co-eds. The first is a sweet and beautiful blonde, Yvette Mimieux. The second is a sassy black art student, played by Judy Pace. (The idea of a white guy enjoying an on-screen fling with a black girl was regarded as the height of hip in the late Sixties.) The third is a hippie chick (Maggie Thrett) who has traded in her bagels-and-lox upbringing for flower power. They consume some magic brownies; she covers him with body paint; he claims he’s an abused homosexual, then gets her in the sack.

Soon Paxton, while pledging fidelity to each of his conquests, is screwing them all, until they discover his secret and vow revenge. Trapping him in the attic of a campus dormitory, they demand non-stop sex. Oh puh-lease! At base, this is another of those male fantasy flicks, in which women are so desperate for a man’s special touch that they’ll do anything -- anything, do you hear me? -- to avail themselves of his sexual powers. And, this being a Hollywood movie, it winds up with a happy ending. A female dean at the college (the usually estimable Nan Martin) shows her sympathy for the girls’ situation by letting them off scot-free. And then Jones belatedly discovers that Mimieux is his own true love, so we’re assured they’ll live happily ever after. 

Forced sex: one man being serviced by three women. AIP thought back in 1968 that this was a fresh and larky idea. In Cleveland, in 2013, it doesn’t seem so funny.           

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Light My (Funeral) Pyre: Ray Manzarek’s Long, Strange Movie Trip

Some people are meant to die young. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, entered into myth when he died in Paris at age 27, having overdosed on drugs and fame. But I thought Ray Manzarek was capable of living forever. Ray, whose keyboard artistry dominated the great Doors hit, “Light My Fire,” seemed well and fit when we spoke at length in 2008. He was then living in Napa Valley with his wife of forty years, growing vegetables and regularly working out. He spoke candidly and with roaring enthusiasm about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, of how LSD had opened the doors of perception and helped him find his way. It was totally clear to me that his was a life well lived. Now, alas, he’s dead of cancer at the age of 74.

Though Manzarek made his mark in the world of music, I discovered that he’d been a movie buff all along. In fact, he first met Jim Morrison when both were students in UCLA’s graduate film program, which they favored because of its “European sensibilities,” at a time when Hollywood had dedicated itself to Rock Hudson’s on-screen flirtations with Doris Day. Actually, Ray rather liked Pillow Talk, which he described to me as a guilty pleasure. But by the time he entered film school, he had discovered The Virgin Spring and The Four Hundred Blows. For him, “Black Orpheus just totally sealed the deal. . . . You can have samba and an adaptation of a classical Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice and Death and the underworld, and it all takes place at Carnaval in Brazil. And I said, fuck it, that’s it, that’s what I want to do.”

At UCLA, where instructor Josef von Sternberg of The Blue Angel fame praised his student film, Manzarek had no clear-cut career plan: “You know, I was a pothead. I was trying to do as little as possible.” He toyed with making documentaries, then joined with Morrison, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore to form a rock group that hit it big in 1967. But always he remained fascinated by the contrast between music and movies. For him, “Music is close-your-eyes-and-have-an-orgasm. . . . Cinema, on the other hand, is our contemporary church. You walk into the darkened auditorium, and there on a large screen the gods dance for you, tell a story.” Referring to the Javanese tradition of using shadow puppets to convey religious teachings, he noted that today’s moviegoers “are not watching the gods, but we make those people on the screen our gods. Those are our contemporary gods and goddesses.”   

Ray passionately described for me his favorite Sixties films, including Bonnie and Clyde, Blow-Up, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The Doors first watched 2001 while stoned, sitting in the very first row, mesmerized by Kubrick’s long, strange trip.) To him such films, edited like rock videos, struck a chord with America’s youth because they were “just going at the intensity that WE were going at. Everybody in America or all the young people in America, all the stoners in America, were operating at a high level of INTENSITY. And those movies were made at that level of intensity. And it was like TOO MUCH TOO MUCH TOO FAST TOO HARD TOO BRIGHT TOO COLORFUL. TOO LOUD, MAN, TOO LOUD. TOO VIOLENT. And that’s what we said – Yeahhhhh! That’s the way movies are supposed to be.”

Well, Ray, you’ve just swung open the doors of perception for the last time. I do hope you’re enjoying this chance to break on through to the other side.

Friday, May 17, 2013

New York Literati Go Hollywood: Parker, Kerouac, Mailer

It’s a fact of American life: every major literary figure ends up writing for the movies. Or at least fantasizes about making movies. For a conference sponsored by BIO (the Biographers International Organization), I’ve been exploring the lives of three very different American writers: Dorothy Parker, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer. All three were New York City writers who went Hollywood, either literally or emotionally. So, at any rate, it seems to me.

 Dorothy Parker, known for her acerbic stories and light verse (“Men seldom make passes/
At girls who wear glasses”) was a mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table, that collection of Manhattan wits who lunched together in the 1920s, hoisting many a glass before lurching off to their desks to pen magazine pieces, novels, and plays we still remember. When I survey the list of Parker’s cronies, I realize how many of them made their mark on the movie industry. Edna Ferber’s big western novel, Cimarron, became a film that won a best picture Oscar in 1931. Other Ferber sagas, like Showboat, So Big, and Giant, also got the Hollywood treatment. Humorist Robert Benchley, who stumbled onto a new career while performing a goofy original monologue called “The Treasurer’s Report,” ended up writing more than fifty films (mostly comic shorts) and acting in almost twice that many. Playwright Charles MacArthur, who had a romantic fling with Parker before marrying theatrical grande dame Helen Hayes, wrote such brilliant film scripts as His Girl Friday. George S. Kaufman partnered with other playwrights to write enduring Broadway comedies, including You Can’t Take It With You, but he also collaborated on the screenplay for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. And Parker herself was nominated for an Oscar for the 1938 screenplay of A Star is Born.

By age five, Jack Kerouac was calling his childhood fantasies “movies,” and he never stopped thinking of his life as a movie with himself as the hero. His biographer, Joyce Johnson, explains how during high school he’d head for 42nd Street, “to gorge himself on movies, going straight from a French classic like The Lower Depths with Jean Gabin at the Apollo Theater to an Alice Faye film at the Paramount.” An older Kerouac deeply admired Citizen Kane, but never lost his fondness for B-movies and melodrama. Before he became well known he did some scriptreading for the east coast offices of Columbia Pictures, and at one point pounded out a rather grim script called Christmas in New York.  Though he found no success as a screenwriter, out of his “mind movies” came On the Road, which sealed his literary reputation. (The 2012 film version didn’t have nearly the impact of the Kerouac novel, which galvanized young America in 1957.)

The multifaceted Norman Mailer found success as a novelist (The Naked and the Dead), a journalist (The Armies of the Night), and a biographer (Marilyn). That didn’t stop him from wanting to make movies too. He shot several experimental films, including Maidstone, in which he also played the central figure. (Because he urged his cast to immerse themselves fully in their roles, on the last day of filming he was brutally attacked by actor Rip Torn, who—playing an ominous character—struck him in the head with a hammer.) Mailer’s screenplay for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America was ultimately rejected, but he credibly played architect Stanford White in MiloŇ° Forman’s Ragtime. For a man of letters, he was a pretty good Hollywood actor. But an attempt to play King Lear under the direction of Jean-Luc Godard was an understandable flop.