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Review: The real independent

Updated bio recounts Roger Corman's impact on movie industry

By Todd Leopold

Updated bio recounts Roger Corman's impact on movie industry

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'Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life'
• By Beverly Gray
• Thunder's Mouth Press (paperback)
• Biography
• 318 pages
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(CNN) -- You kind of expect the legendary Roger Corman, the "King of the B's," to resemble Morty Fineman, the low-budget sleazeball filmmaker portrayed by Jerry Stiller in the 2000 movie "The Independent."

But even though Corman has directed or produced movies with titles such as "Ski Troop Attack," "Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women" and "Humanoids from the Deep," the man who emerges in Beverly Gray's biography is a man of taste and depth.

It was Corman who brought Edgar Allan Poe to the screen in several well-received early '60s horror films; Corman who financed American distribution of Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" and Federico Fellini's "Amarcord" in the 1970s; Corman who gave Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron and many others big breaks in the business.

Yet Corman also has a fatal flaw: He's rarely looked past the bottom line and thus never broken out of his exploitation-filmmaker image. Making money has never been looked down upon in Hollywood, but playing it safe has.

Making the most of things

As noted in Gray's breezy biography, originally published in 2000 and recently updated, Corman was born in Detroit, Michigan, but grew up in Beverly Hills, California. His father was an engineer, and young Roger originally planned to follow suit. But the movie business is a powerful siren, and he decided to take a job in Hollywood.

By the early '50s, he was working for Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures, overseeing several films a year. He shot fast and cheap, and his movies invariably made a profit before they'd reached the drive-ins at which they were aimed.

The story of "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) was typical: Corman realized he could have two days' use of some leftover sets, had his usual writer, Charles B. Griffith, hammer out a script, brought in his acting regulars and had the whole $27,500 project out in a couple of months. It recouped its budget many times over when released.

Corman also anticipated the youth market, both with his horror/sci-fi films as well as the "Easy Rider" antecedents "The Wild Angels" and "The Trip," both starring Peter Fonda.

Speed at the expense of talent

For all of his success, however, Corman could be sloppy -- and cheap. "Little Shop" was never copyrighted, forcing the director into legal battles when it became a hit off-Broadway musical in the 1980s. He paid his associates peanuts, once telling a writer, "I get the money; you get the career."

And when the B pictures became A pictures -- when films such as "Jaws" and "Star Wars" became Hollywood's chief moneymakers -- Corman preferred to be a follower, churning out quickies such as "Piranha" and "Battle Beyond the Stars."

There was sometimes real talent involved ("Piranha" was written and directed by John Sayles and Joe Dante, respectively, and Sayles also wrote "Stars"), and the movies always made a profit, but there was something second-class about them. Indeed, Corman's productions today are often of the straight-to-video stripe.

Gray, who worked for Corman for more than a decade, acknowledges that the producer is a difficult man to understand personally. Despite his thrift, he's capable of great generosity, and almost everybody Gray interviewed praises his honesty. (The way she references her interviews may be the book's major flaw: Every quote is prefaced by the date of her interview, which makes for trustworthy reading but choppy writing.)

But the image that comes across in her book is of somebody who'd rather be comfortable than good, somebody who recognizes talent but holds back on his own.

Still, there's no questioning Corman's impact on the film industry, not to mention his love for film and storytelling. After all, if nothing else, the stories are endlessly recyclable.

As Gray recounts, when a friend noted the similarity of a work in production to a film he'd seen on TV the night before, Corman smiled.

"Oh, yes," he said, "we've made this movie before. I think we'll make it two or three more times before we're done with it."

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