Ca’ Foscari University of Venice awards the title of Ca’ Foscari Honorary Fellow to distinguished academics in the arts and sciences, in society or to outstanding personalities who have contributed to increase the University its international prestige.
On the occasion of the eighth edition of the Ca’ Foscari Short Film Festival, the prestigious award will be bestowed to filmmaker and producer Roger Corman, one of the main figures in the history of cinema worldwide.
Roger Corman was born in Detroit in 1926. He graduated in engineering at Stanford, and took his first steps in cinema as a twentieth century-Fox delivery man, then as an appreciated story analyst, and finally as a scriptwriter (FBI Operation Las Vegas, 1954).
In the mid-fifties he began to devote himself to film production, with titles such as The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954) by Wyott Ordung and The Fast and the Furious (1955) by John Ireland, and he set up a profitable professional association with the American Releasing Company by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (soon to be named American International Pictures), destined to last more than three decades.
He decided to support his work as a producer director, debuting behind the camera with the western Five Guns West (1955), which was followed, in the fifties, by other twenty-two films. They were low budget movies, shot in a short time and with little known actors; but some of them are quite distant from their uncomfortable production context. In approaching these films Corman almost always adheres to a common line of conduct: superficially they deal with issues of sure appeal to the public; on a deeper level he charges these themes with surprising political, psychological and social implications.
After some good works, he directed his first masterpiece: Gunslinger (1956), a melancholy love story which presents some fascinating tragic points. Great is his interest in science fiction, which in the ’50s can be found in at least two major titles: Not of this Earth (1957), a fanta-horror movie, and Teenage Cave Man (1957), a clear reflection on dogmatism and xenophobia. His dramas on the condition of youth are also important: Teenage Doll (1957), notable for its vibrant sense of atmosphere, and Sorority Girl (1957), a rigorous study of its characters.
His interest in Stanislavskij’s method led him to attend an acting class, where he met a young Jack Nicholson, to whom he entrusted the lead role in The Cry Baby Killer (1958), a film he produced although the direction was entrusted to Joe Addis. Nicholson is only one of a long series of famous actors, directors or screenwriters who have come out of the legendary Corman factory, a true creative construction site destined to influence the New Hollywood in a decisive way.
The decade ends with two of his best works: Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), admirable for its clear film syntax, and I Mobster (1959), a film of great and fascinating clarity, with a figurative quality that refers to John Ford. It is more or less in these years that the French critics began to notice his work, starting a fertile critical path that in 1964 will lead the Cinémathèque Française, to dedicate an important retrospective to Corman.
His two most famous black comedies: A Bucket of Blood (1959), a scratchy satire on the beat world, and the funny but overrated The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) stem from his interest in the existing relationship between horror and comedy
In the meantime, Corman entered in contact with the world of psychoanalysis and started to read Freud assiduously. Horror to him is no longer just terror, it is also a lively terrain for the exploration of the unconscious, of the eros, of the most hidden fears. It was with this spirit that he directed for AIP (-Nicholson-Arkoff) the House of Husher (1960) based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. This was the film that paved the way to a long standing collaboration with Vincent Price. He was the ideal choice to project a sense of seriousness and class to the movie, and Price already had a reputation for horror films. The success of Usher guaranteed that Price and Corman would work together on more Poe inspired films. The Poe Cycle made by Roger Corman includes works such as sPremature Burial (1962), a rigorous and geometric film, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), in which a great sense of pathos is accompanied by an accurate scenographic work, and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), full of grace and freshness. More discontinuous, but equally interesting, are The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). From the same period The Intruder (1962), an extraordinary indictment of segregationist policies, presented at the information section of the Venice Film Festival, and X (1963), surprising for its brevity and sense of functionality.
Corman also begins to work with the majors: first with The Secret Invasion (1964), delicate and compelling, followed by The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), a largely fictional gangster film retelling of the infamous 1929 mass murder, and by Von Richthofen and Brown (1971).
Rebellious by vocation, Corman felt the need to further exploit the youth counter-culture and directed The Trip (1967), a fascinating visual interpretation of a LSD trip of the protagonist who dives into the world of drugs. He shot two confused road-movies, The Wild Angels (1966) and Gas (1970). Corman’s last masterpiece was Bloody Mama (1970), a grandiose modern tragedy full of acute social and psychoanalytic notations.
With the new decade Corman founded the New World Pictures and decided to devote himself exclusively to production, starting a long creative silence. In addition to producing and distributing genre films (including the box office Death Race 2000, 1975), New World Pictures played a fundamental role in the distribution of auteur films, making Fellini’s, Truffaut’s, Bergman’s and Kurosawa’s works known in the United States, many of which Oscar winners.
Corman continued to discover and launch new talents: after producing Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) by Monte Hellman, Dementia 13 (1963) by Francis Ford Coppola, Targets (1968) by Peter Bogdanovich and Boxcar Bertha (1972) by Martin Scorsese, Caged Heat, 1974 by Jonathan Demme, . He then produced Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard, 1976, Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto, 1977, and James Cameron, to whom he offered a job in the special effects department in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). But there are also actors (from Robert De Niro to Talia Shire), screenwriters (from Robert Wright Campbell to Robert Towne), and future successful producers (Menahem Golan).
In 1983 he founded the New Horizons, a production company still active, and two years later the distribution company Concorde Pictures. At the beginning of the nineties he returned to directing Roger Corman’s Frankstein Unbound (1990), an unresolved, discontinuous work, but not without effective moments.
The awards and prizes are numerous, from the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1991) to the Career Achievement Award of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (1996). In 2009 the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar, in an exclusive ceremony in which many of his “students” were present. In 2009 he produced and co-directed the web series Splatter by Joe Dante for Netflix.
Roger Corman still continues to produce films. Among the most recent is Death Race 2050 (2017) by G.J. Echternkamp.
A more extensive version of this biography is published in: Giulio Laroni, Il cinema secondo Corman (Cinema according to Corman), Biblion, Milan 2016