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Reel life was his real love

COLUMN ONE

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

"I remember the first day I came to his class, we were watching 'The 400 Blows,' and Jim saying, 'What does this mean?' " said Kurtzman's screenwriting partner, Roberto Orci, the son of an advertising executive who moved to L.A. from Texas. "And the really smart kids going, 'It's the illusion of freedom, but the character is trapped by the ocean, so the illusion of freedom is actually enslavement.' I mean, we were, like, 16 or 17 years old."

Dustin Hoffman, who had four children in Hosney's classes, said his lectures "were like great performances. It was theater, and you were there to be part of it."

And to do your homework.

"I had this big project in 1987, my senior year, that I was flaking on," Jack Black remembered, half-joking. "And I thought from, like, buttering him up all year I'd have an extension? But he turned out to be kind of a hard-ass. And I think I cried."

Hosney's records indicate that Black ended that year with an overall C+. Black said the blown final was such a source of discomfort that he initially avoided returning The Times' phone calls for this story.

"All roads led to me flunking," he confessed. "But it's a testament to the power of Hosney that I do not hold it against him. I really respect the man."

His most avid students dubbed themselves "Hosneyites," sneaking into his evening AFI classes and competing for the privilege of driving him there after school. (Traumatized by a high school accident in which he wrecked a friend's car, Hosney never earned a license.) Rare, however, is the Crossroads student with a memory of him anywhere but a theater, passenger seat or classroom.

"He was such an enigma," recalled actor Simon Helberg ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), who as a teen studied Hosney so closely that he can still perfectly impersonate the teacher's big, wheezing laugh and signature exclamation -- "amaaaaazing!"

"We were always trying to figure him out."

"I don't think they were missing anything," Hosney said, laughing. "I think when you become your job, then that, in a sense, becomes your life."

His brother, he says, lives nearby; he has three nephews and a goddaughter. ("She has a beautiful voice, and I used to give her musicals," he said. "Vincente Minnelli musicals. You know, he was called the Oscar Wilde of Hollywood.")

He teaches a monthly film seminar for Crossroads parents and alumni in his off-hours. For several years he went regularly to the movies with a group of fellow educators. ("We called ourselves the Westside Film Critics Association," Crossroads headmaster Roger Weaver said with a laugh.)

And some students have become friends in adulthood. Hosney moderates a book club for Eve Gerber, a former student who is married to a Brentwood producer. He officiated in a civil capacity at the 2002 marriage of documentary filmmaker Samantha Counter to her former classmate Kurtzman.

With all his contacts, however, he says he has been tempted only once or twice by show business. "I wrote a screenplay once with a friend, and it was disastrous," he said.

"I'm a teacher," he reiterated. The choice has had both rewards and drawbacks. According to court records, Hosney has declared bankruptcy twice in the last decade, most recently this year.

"It's my fault," he replied when questioned about it. "I wish it weren't there, but I'm just a bad person with credit cards -- clothes, travel, electronic equipment, the opera." His court file shows his debt to be roughly equivalent to a year's tuition at Crossroads.

"It's a real tragedy of our culture that teachers get paid so little," said the 34-year-old Dahlgren, who, with several other Hosneyites, is exploring ways to help their mentor as part of the retirement party they're planning. "Because if this were a meritocracy, this guy would be a jillionaire."

ON a recent afternoon, Hosney sat in a darkened theater, long fingers rummaging through his buttered popcorn, waiting to see "28 Weeks Later," the zombie flick. A string of action movie trailers blared from the screen, clip after clip of the human race being threatened with annihilation.

"Do you notice," he whispered, "that in almost all of these, a superhero is needed to save us? There is no idea that people en masse might do anything about it. Isn't that interesting?"

Hosney said he "was never, never interested in Hollywood as a form of business." As art, however, he can discuss it for hours.

He thinks the film "Zodiac" was underrated by critics and that "Fight Club" was a kind of practical joke "in which a studio paid millions of dollars to make a film that attacks everything Hollywood stands for." The Desert Storm movie "Jarhead," he said, "is 'Waiting for Godot' set in the desert." The first of the final episodes of "The Sopranos" -- the one involving the drunken weekend in the Adirondacks -- he compares to Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

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