This Week in Cinema
Week 25: Roger Corman's The Terror, Jane Russell and Judy Holliday plus Basic Instinct

David Parkinson 17th June 2013

The Outlaw

Three thrilling tales from cinema's past - Roger Corman's The Terror (with an extraordinary range of uncredited directors), two actresses who share the same birthday - Jane Russell and Judy Holliday - plus the controversy behind Basic Instinct.

17 June

The Terror

One of the most curious pictures in the highly idiosyncratic career of Roger Corman went on general release in the United States today in 1963. Unfairly dismissed as incomprehensible by genre snobs, The Terror was started on a whim and completed as an afterthought. But, while it may not bear comparison with the entries in Corman's celebrated Edgar Allan Poe cycle, this unique blend of period horror and hard-boiled detection afforded Jack Nicholson his first leading role and saw him collaborate for the first and only time with Francis Ford Coppola. Moreover, it has the distinction of having the most uncredited directors of any Corman outing.

Realising that he was going to finish The Raven ahead of schedule, Corman contacted Leo Gordon (the hulkingly prolific character actor who had scripted such early Cormans as The Wasp Woman, 1959) and offered him $1600 to whip up a Gothic scenario that could exploit Daniel Haller's atmospheric sets. Corman was also aware that Boris Karloff would still have two days left on his contract and asked if he would be willing to shoot scenes that could be used in the provisionally titled The Lady of the Shadows. Having read the 60-page treatment, Karloff agreed to participate for a nominal fee and the promise that he would receive $15,000 when the box-office takings exceeded $150,000.

Unable to coax Karloff's Raven co-star Vincent Price into delaying a lecture tour, Corman decided to promote the 25 year-old Jack Nicholson, who had acquitted himself well in The Cry Baby Killer (1958) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). What's more, he dressed him in the uniform that Marlon Brando had worn as Napoleon Bonaparte in Henry Koster's Désirée (1954) in order to play a French soldier who becomes detached from the Grand Army somewhere on the Baltic coastline and stumbles into the castle of a reclusive baron (Karloff), who is haunted by the spirit of the bride he had murdered on discovering her infidelity.

The latter role was taken by Nicholson's then-wife, Shirley Knight, whose burgeoning pregnancy became something of a problem as the protracted shoot dragged on. By contrast, the first few days were fraught with activity, as Corman tried to make the most of Karloff's presence and risked the ire of the ailing actor by rushing him through numerous set-ups and pursuing him along corridors and up staircases before submerging him in a water tank for the deluge denouement.

Ultimately, Peter Bogdanovich would borrow some of these images for what turned out to be Karloff's final feature, Targets (1968), which was entirely apt, as Corman himself had padded out Gordon's sketchy storyline with clips from The House of Usher (1960) and the stock footage library.

But Corman still needed a number of linking and background scenes to create a vaguely coherent narrative and, with the start date of The Haunted Palace looming, he started looking for volunteers. Production designer Daniel Haller turned down the opportunity to make his directorial bow, but Nicholson offered to handle a couple of scenes, while Dennis Jakob took a second unit crew to the Hoover Dam to film gushing water for the flood finale. Already acting as associate producer, Coppola was persuaded to accompany Nicholson to Big Sur and the Palos Verdes peninsula for the opening scenes in which he loses his way. Jack Hill and Monte Hellman - who would go on to make the respective cult gems Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) - also took the reins before Corman brought Nicholson back to shoot a couple of stand-offs with Dick Miller on the Haunted Palace sets before they were dismantled. Several years would pass before Karloff saw his money and The Terror passed into disrepute. But, 50 years on, it is long overdue reappraisal.

21 June

Born Yesterday

Two actresses who have never quite been given their due were born today in 1921. Ironically, Jane Russell and Judy Holliday started out behind desks, with the former being a chiropodist's receptionist in California and the latter being a switchboard operator for the Mercury Theatre company run by Orson Welles and John Houseman. Away from work, Russell modelled, while Holliday (who was still using her original name, Judith Tuvim) honed her comic talents with a troupe called The Revuers that also included future screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The sidelines paid off handsomely, however, with Russell being offered an exclusive contract by movie mogul Howard Hughes in 1940 and Holliday being cast as airman Edmond O'Brien's wife in Twentieth Century-Fox's 1944 flagwaver, Winged Victory.

Russell's experiences on the set of The Outlaw, Hughes's retelling of the Billy the Kid saga, have passed into movie folklore. Determined to exploit her 38D-24-36 figure, Hughes kept Gregg Toland's Technicolor camera trained on Russell's chest and even designed a special brassiere to emphasise it. However, this proved so uncomfortable that Russell refused to wear it and simply shortened the straps on her own bra and padded it slightly with tissue paper to create the effect that Hughes so desired. The Breen Office was less impressed, however, and demanded cuts that saw the picture delayed for two years and then withdrawn from distribution shortly after its 1943 premiere. Yet, even though Russell had only made one more picture, The Young Widow (1946), the promotional tour for The Outlaw and a series of cheesecake poses had made her a firm favourite with service personnel and she was already a household name by the time she resumed her acting career in 1948.

Holliday had also blossomed away from the cameras and her Broadway triumphs in Kiss Them for Me (1945) and Born Yesterday (1946) led to her being signed by Columbia. Yet, studio boss Harry Cohn was set against her reprising her latter role of Billie Dawn, the ditzy gangster's moll with a thirst for knowledge and a genius for gin rummy, and it took director George Cukor conspiring with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to give Holliday a key part in their legal comedy Adam's Rib (1949) for Cohn to recognise that he had a major talent on his hands.

Holliday rewarded his begrudging faith by winning the Academy Award for Best Actress (beating Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve in the process). Moreover, she also helped Jack Lemmon find his screen feet in It Should Happen to You and Phffft! (both 1954). But she struggled to overcome an appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee that resulted in her being blacklisted from radio and television. Thus, while she delivered delightful performances in The Marrying Kind (1952), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Bells Are Ringing (1960), Holliday never became a major star and died far too young, from breast cancer, in June 1965.

Despite notable teamings with Bob Hope on The Paleface (1948) and Son of Paleface (1952) and with Robert Mitchum in His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952), as well as a stellar turn opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Russell never quite made the front rank, either. This was partly due to Hughes, who kept trying to exploit her physique (most contemptibly boosting a 1954 3D musical with the tagline: 'See Jane Russell in The French Line - she'll knock BOTH your eyes out!'). But Russell made some poor creative choices in selecting starring vehicles for the Russ-Field Productions company that she ran between 1955-57 with husband Bob Waterfield. Thus, interesting items like the Clark Gable Western The Tall Men (1955) were outweighed by flops like The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957) and Russell began devoting more time in later life to adoption charities and singing in a gospel choir, on disc and in cabaret shows. She also famously promoted Playtex's Cross Your Heart bras and wrote a fine autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours, before passing away as a self-confessed 'teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot' in February 2011.

22 June

Basic Instinct

Following a protracted bidding war, Carolco Pictures paid a record $3 million to Joe Eszterhas on 22 June 1990 for his screenplay for the erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. By contrast, Sharon Stone - whose infamous leg cross helped Paul Verhoeven's film gross $117.7 million on a $49 million budget - commanded a mere $500,000 after accepting the role of murder suspect Catherine Tramell that had been declined by peers such as Kim Basinger, Greta Scacchi, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore and Kathleen Turner.

József Eszterhas was born in the Hungarian village of Csákánydoroszló in 1944, but spent part of his childhood in an Austrian refugee camp before his father, Count István Esterházy (who was later proved to be a Nazi collaborator), relocated to the United States. Having grown up in a rundown part of Cleveland, Ohio, Eszterhas followed István's example by becoming a journalist on the local paper, The Plain Dealer, where he helped break the news of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam with photographer Ronald Haeberle. Eventually, however, he alienated the senior management and found a berth at Rolling Stone magazine between 1971-75, where a National Book Award nomination for his novel Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse led to a chance to break into films.

Despite basing the screenplay for Norman Jewison's F.I.S.T. (1978) on his own reports of labour unrest, Eszterhas was obliged to share his credit with star Sylvester Stallone. He scored his first success with the Adrian Lyne musical Flashdance (1983), which transformed the fortunes of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and he followed the Richard Marquand thriller Jagged Edge (1985) with two liaisons with the Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras, on Betrayed (1988) and Music Box (1989). But it was Basic Instinct that established Eszterhas as that rare bird in the Hollywood firmament, a writer-auteur, and he was clearly convinced he was worth every dime: 'I've always felt that the script was at the heart of the movie. If you're going to pay actors and directors high salaries, there's nothing wrong with paying the writer, too.'

However, Paul Verhoeven felt the story was missing something and demanded the inclusion of a steamy lesbian love scene. Eszterhas defended his corner and said there was no need to show Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn in bed together. But rumours soon began to spread about the film's sexuality and its reliance on graphic violence and the San Francisco Police Department had riot officers present throughout the location shoot after pressure groups like the National Organisation for Women, Community United Against Violence, Queer Nation and Act-Up attempted to disrupt proceedings by carrying placards, chanting slogans and blowing whistles. Numerous arrests were made, yet activists like Rick Ruvulo continued to demonstrate. 'The script, as it is written now, is dishonest, dangerous, and it's trash', he told the New York Times. 'It is anti-gay and anti-women. One of the local women reporters here read the script and she said she was so disgusted she had to go home and take a long bath.'

Eventually, Eszterhas conceded that 'the things they were saying made a great deal of sense' and agreed to amend several sequences to 'reflect the sensitivities expressed by the gay community leaders'. However, Verhoeven rejected the changes and Queer Nation retaliated by launching a campaign to picket theatres and reveal the identity of the killer. 'My position is any film has a right to be made and shown,' said Baltimore protester Mark Shaw, 'but then it has to take the consequences for that. The bottom line with Basic Instinct is a straight white man wrote the script and a straight white man directed it. It's their sexual fantasy. Hollywood is terrified of women, and they want to control them.' Nearly a quarter of a century later, the debate continues to rumble.

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Roger Corman, 1963

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The Terror (Corman, 1963)

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Paul Verhoeven, 1992

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Basic Instinct

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