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AT THE MOVIES

Oscars give Roger Corman and Gordon Willis a golden glow

They will be honored for their achievements behind the camera.

November 12, 2009|Susan King

At first glance, it seemed like a slight.

Just two days after the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced in June that it was expanding the best picture category from five to 10 nominees, it dropped another bombshell on awards-season purists. Winners of the honorary Oscars, also known as the testimonial awards, would be presented their golden statues at a dinner in November instead of during the televised event in March, when they will be merely "acknowledged."

But the academy has maintained all along that this new event, taking place Saturday at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, is the best way to honor the talented men and women whose distinguished careers and contributions to the craft of moviemaking have set themselves apart from their peers.

"You are able to take the time to properly celebrate these people," says Bruce Cohen ("Milk"), who is producing the intimate and un-televised honorary awards show. "One of our early inspirations was the early Oscars that used to be at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and not televised, with dinner and people sitting around tables. One of the themes of the evening is toasts. People who have had a long relationship with the honorees are going to stand up from the table and give a toast to the room celebrating the person. We are hoping that it's going to be a very warm, old-friendly Hollywood feel to it."

This year's honorees -- actress Lauren Bacall, 85; producer-director-writer Roger Corman, 83; and "The Godfather" cinematographer Gordon Willis, 78 -- will be in attendance. Producer and former studio executive John Calley, 79 ("Remains of the Day"), the recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, will be unable to attend due to health issues.

Cinematic luminaries such as Annette Bening, Jonathan Demme, Caleb Deschanel, Kirk Douglas, Tom Hanks, Anjelica Huston and Quentin Tarantino will be on hand. It has to be especially exciting for Corman and Willis, two industry legends who have spent their careers behind the camera and now find themselves in the spotlight, receiving their industry's highest honors.

Roger Corman

The best film schools are well known -- USC, UCLA and New York University to name just a few. But for many working in Hollywood today, the greatest film institution is actually Roger Corman.

Not only did Corman turn independent film on its ear over the last five decades, making entertaining, low-budget horror films, comedies and dramas often in less than two weeks, he also gave such Oscar-winning and nominated directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Peter Bogdanovich their big breaks.

"Roger Corman is responsible for the 'New Hollywood,' " says Bogdanovich, who directed his first film, 1968's acclaimed "Targets," for Corman. "He has made a tremendous impact as a director himself and made very stylish horror films and made them fast and cheap and made them look good. If it wasn't for Roger you wouldn't have Jack Nicholson or Francis Coppola or Marty or Jonathan Demme.

"Roger was fiercely independent," adds Joe Dante ("Gremlins"), who began cutting trailers for Corman in the 1970s before making the 1978 hit "Piranha" for him. "He mostly worked with American International Pictures, which was essentially an independent company. I like the way he made his pictures. I liked the speed, the economy, the style."

At his peak in the early 1960s, Corman was making as many as seven movies a year, including the classic horror comedy "Little Shop of Horrors," which he, as the story goes, shot in just two days. He also made stylish adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe thrillers.

Corman says that his degree in engineering from Stanford helped him make movies economically by knowing how to plan. "I started as a writer," he says, relaxing on a recent morning in his office in Brentwood. "When I started directing possibly because of the engineering or maybe because the way the brain is wired, I understood editing and all the technical elements of making films. I learned that on the job quickly."

But he felt unsure working with actors, so he enrolled in an acting class. It was in that class he met a young Nicholson, whom he cast in 1958's "The Cry Baby Killer." "I simply felt he was not only the best actor in the class and although he never made a film he was better than most of the actors I had been working with."

Corman began to give young filmmakers their chance after some financial success. "I had made a little bit of money and the normal way people would invest was in the stock market or real estate," he says. "I said to myself 'I don't really know anything about the stock market or real estate, but I think I know something about motion pictures.' As a young guy around Hollywood, I knew the other guys around Hollywood. I thought the thing to do is back somebody in a low-budget film."

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