Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Roger Corman, and Roger Ebert, and Russ Meyer: An Unholy Trinity

Today’s a special day here in Movieland: my chance to salute three memorable men whose names begin with the letter R. The first is my former boss, Roger Corman, who plucked me from a doctoral program in English literature at UCLA and made a dishonest woman out of me. By which I mean, of course, that at New World Pictures he taught me the fine art of making and distributing exploitation films, saving a buck by any means necessary. For instance, in order to drum up free publicity, he asked me to invent bogus news items involving major Hollywood stars who were supposedly appearing in our cinematic versions of public-domain literary works. That’s why you can find, in a long-ago issue of the Hollywood Reporter, an announcement that Roger Corman has signed Orson Welles to star in New World’s adaptation of Melville’s The Confidence Man.

In the late 1950s, while Roger was coming of age as a filmmaker, another World War II veteran was directing his first films. Russ Meyer, like Roger Corman, made low-budget movies with a high quotient of sex and violence. Especially sex. Meyer began as a photographer, and big-busted women were his specialty. If they talked -- and acted -- tough, he liked them all the better. One of his 1965 movies epitomizes his tastes: it’s called Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Before I was hired by Roger Corman, a friend named Stan Berkowitz applied for the same job. It’s no surprise that I beat him out. Roger is impressed by advanced academic degrees like mine, and he prefers that his assistants be female. It’s not simply that he’s looking for young ladies to fetch him coffee. Several generations of women in Hollywood (including Gale Anne Hurd of Terminator fame) can attest he believes women work harder, work cheaper, and are more loyal. That’s why he entrusts them with technical positions as well as office jobs, pioneering their ascent into the ranks of producers and directors.

My friend Stan ended up working on a Russ Meyer film, Supervixens. On the set he saw plenty of women, most of them flaunting the audacious “Guns of Navarone” bazooms that were Meyer's stock in trade. But on Meyer’s production team there was not a female to be found, and the pneumatic starlets were strictly off-limits. Meyer made movies to feed his personal obsessions. He wanted his crews, like himself, in a permanent state of arousal.

Today Corman, at eighty-seven, is still churning out monster movies. Meyer passed away in 2004, at age eighty-two, though his mind had abandoned him a decade earlier. He might have been his own most perceptive critic when, in a 1978 interview, he told a young reporter, “If I wasn't so into tits, I probably could've been a great filmmaker.”

And as for Roger Ebert, whose death we all recently mourned, where does he fit in? We knew Ebert as a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, as well as a man who was courageous in the face of his own mortality. To his credit, Ebert was no snob, and he freely admitted to enjoying Russ Meyer’s tawdry but energetic brand of filmmaking. In 1970, when big studios were desperately trying to be hip, Meyer was actually hired by Twentieth Century-Fox to direct a sequel of sorts to Valley of the Dolls. For Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer concocted a baroque spoof chockfull of drugs, porn, nudity, gender-bending, and a final burst of mayhem reminiscent of the 1969 Manson murders. And yes, Roger Ebert wrote the screenplay. It was not exactly his finest hour.

To celebrate Roger Corman’s 87th birthday (a few weeks late), I’m hereby announcing a big sale on my Corman Kindle ebook, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, for the bargain price of $2.99. This was the book that just got a rave in last week’s Wall Street Journal, as one of reviewer Carl Rollyson's five favorite Hollywood biographies. The sale price should show up on the Kindle site by April 21, and the last day of the sale will be May 4, so come one, come all! 


  1. Three men who have made a difference in my life - and I'm not ashamed to admit it about any of them! My fondness for Mr. Corman knows no bounds - I can appreciate the best of Mr. Meyer's wild cinematic outings - and I went from being angry with Mr. Ebert (when in the late 70's and early 80's he would slam the latest slasher hackathon on his Sneak Previews show with his partner Gene Siskel) to fully appreciating his talents in the intervening years and yes, his contributions to cinema. Tawdry it may be - but I don't think anyone can say his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls script was boring!

  2. To be completely honest, I had a beef with Roger Eberts. If you happened to read his print review BEFORE you saw the film, you'd discovered that he'd given away a key end-of-first-act plot twist, thus depriving you of the pleasure of making a discovery. That's why I was careful to read him only AFTER I saw the movie, when his plot run-down was sometimes helpful as a reminder.