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Reel life was his real love

He may be unknown to moviegoers, but retiring Crossroads School teacher Jim Hosney has had a distinct influence on what they see.

June 27, 2007|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

FOR a month now, young Hollywood has been planning a retirement party. The guest list spans the pop culture landscape -- studio executives, novelists, Academy Award winners, sitcom writers, musicians. One proposal has Martin Scorsese jumping out of a cake.

The honoree will take the bus unless he can hitch a ride with someone. A lively, bespectacled bachelor who lives alone in a rent-controlled apartment, he can't drive. Nor can he afford a limo, though some of the most successful people in show business attribute their very sensibility as artists to him.

"Where do you begin? He shaped the way I think," said Ben Cosgrove, Paramount Pictures' senior vice president of production.

"I would not be the person I am today without him, or make the films I make," said Brett Morgen, the Oscar-nominated co-director of "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

"Single biggest influence of my life," said screenwriter Alex Kurtzman ("Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers").

"I actually have a theory," said actor Zooey Deschanel, "that everything in Hollywood is directly or indirectly influenced by Jim Hosney. And if it's not the case, it should be."

Jim Hosney doesn't work in show business. He's not a critic or an emeritus studio head. In one of the sharper ironies of a field often disparaged as mindless and superficial, the most influential Hollywood player you've probably never heard of is a 63-year-old English teacher. This month, after a career that has spanned nearly four decades, he'll be taking early retirement from Santa Monica's Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, where he has taught high school film studies and literature for 25 years.

Before Crossroads, he spent a decade at the Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake), and, since 1980, he has taught graduate-level film history on the side at the American Film Institute. Over time, he has become a minor cult figure on Los Angeles' show-business-heavy Westside, not only for his singular approach to great books and popular culture, but also for the legions of tastemakers who credit their understanding of L.A.'s signature art form -- storytelling -- to him.

Hosney's pop culture proteges number in the hundreds -- writers, performers, moviemakers, film scholars at USC and UCLA. Jack Black and Maya Rudolph did some of their earliest work for him. So did producers Bryan Burk ("Lost," "Alias"), Jason Blumenthal ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), Danielle Renfrew ("Waitress") and Matthew Greenfield ("Chuck & Buck," "The Good Girl").

"There was not a single course he taught that I did not take," said filmmaker Jonathan Kasdan ("In the Land of Women"). Melissa Clark, novelist and creator of the children's TV show "Braceface," remembers being so inspired in his class that she'd turn papers in late just for the excuse to drive by his apartment. "It was like I had a brain crush," she said.

The costume designer from "Being John Malkovich" is a former student. So is the guitarist for the seminal '90s punk band Jawbreaker. So is the founder and organizer of Cinespia, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery outdoor film fest. Former Hosney students write for Vanity Fair, for this newspaper, for influential blogs such as the L.A.-based TruthDig. That's not counting the AFI graduate students or Crossroads parents who have consulted him on projects, from Dustin Hoffman, who drew from Hosney for his portrayal of a professor in "Stranger Than Fiction," to Michael Mann, who sought Hosney's opinion, among others, in putting together the Oscar montage he directed last year.

"He's one of the most important figures in contemporary film who is largely unknown," said Ron Yerxa, a producer of "Election" and "Little Children" and a longtime friend.

HOSNEY'S self-assessment is less dramatic.

"I'm a teacher," he said with a shrug. "I teach."

He was raised in Los Angeles, the younger son of Syrian immigrants, an apartment manager and a seamstress. As a child, he lived for stories -- epic novels, double features.

"I wanted life to be like a musical," he remembered, sitting in his office at Crossroads. "I was always disappointed that people didn't burst out singing on the street."

In 1961, he graduated from George Washington High School with a full scholarship to Occidental College, where he eventually entered a doctoral program in Anglo American literature.

"I wanted to teach at the college level," Hosney recalled, "but while I was at graduate school at Oxy, I took a job, like a long-term substitute teacher, at the Westridge School, a girls' school in Pasadena."

Experienced only as a university teaching assistant, Hosney treated the teenage girls as if they were college students. It taught him a lesson.

"Never underestimate your students," he says now. "Those kids were great."

By 1970, he had taken that lesson to Westlake along with another he had learned at Occidental: that the study of literature needn't be limited to books.

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