The house of the “insane” must be fascinating to the relatively sane. After all, an asylum is a world alien to the average Joe, who must obtain any form of information or understanding of a psychiatric hospital and its inmates primarily through mainstream media. However, the practice of institutionalization has suffered a significant decline since the midpoint of the 20th century when the first wave of deinstitutionalization movements came to the fore. In the late 1960s, the contemporary reactions to mental illness had generally fallen between two polarized attitudes: a romanticism of the subject as an altered state of consciousness that was teeming with artistic and creative inspiration, and a misunderstood and feared condemnation of mental illness as a fatal flaw in the sufferer. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden seems to address both attitudes, suggesting that the road to recovery is unglamorous and laced with doubt and fear. However, perhaps the most important relationship lies between patient and doctor, Deborah Blake and Dr. Fried. The latter’s strategy is sincere empathy, which requires emotional sensitivity and intuition on top of all the clinical training. A strong relationship depends on the acknowledgment of the inexplicable or illusory facets of the illness as a stepping stone for recovery; in fact, Dr. Fried values Deborah’s imaginary kingdom of Yr as an interpretive map that can guide her to recovery. The logic, or lack thereof, in Yr serves as a stark contrast to the confusing and irrational laws of reality, from which Deborah initially recoiled. The legacy that the film leaves us with essentially rests in the importance of empathy, respect, sympathy toward patients of mental illness. Certainly the criticisms of public hospitals, government funding, and antiquated public opinion about mental illnesses are resonant in I Never Promised You a Rose a Garden, paving the way towards greater deinstitutionalization and more humane alternatives.
From Life to Literature to Cinema
Upon the astonishing success of Milo Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Roger Corman achieved funding for a film adaptation of Joanne Greenberg’s semi-autobiographical novel. Both are fictionalized accounts of the author’s three-year battle with schizophrenia, which at the time was a trashcan diagnosis that could have covered any mental illness from anxiety to depression. In fact, a 1981 New York Times article cites two psychiatrists who examined her self-description of the schizophrenic symptoms and concluded that she rather suffered from extreme depression and somatization disorder. Nevertheless, the film succeeds in exploring not only the life of mental illness, but also the conditions of a psychiatric ward, with gritty realism. The stale air and the dimmed lighting only augment the harsh ruthlessness of Greenberg’s experiences, and undermine the mere flickers of hope that seem to infrequently penetrate the desperation of recovery.
The Famous Few
Certainly a significant advantage in the film’s positive reception comes from the studded cast. The Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who was already well-known for her important work with Ingmar Bergman in films like Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, plays the empathic Dr. Fried and serves as the crucial point in Deborah Blake’s recovery. Deborah’s parents, Jay and Ester Blake, are played respectively by Ben Piazza and Lorraine Gary, the latter of which became most famous as Ellen Brody in the Jaws series.
Nevertheless, the most acclaimed performance came from a then-unknown actress named Kathleen Quinlan. It was an early role for Quinlan who, like many of the alumni in the Corman School of Film, earned an immense leap in her career. She achieved her film debut in George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973 at the age of 19, and subsequently appeared in various supporting roles, mostly in television. However, her portrayal of Deborah Blake in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden placed her name on the Hollywood map especially after earning a Golden Globe nomination. In fact, the film garnered additional nominations for “Best Motion Picture – Drama” at the Golden Globes, “Best Adapted Screenplay” at the Oscars, and “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium” at the Writer’s Guild Awards. Indeed, Quinlan’s embodiment of a schizophrenic with multiple personalities trained her for the variegated roles that she would come to portray. Arguably her best-known work includes Marilyn Lovell in Ron Howard’s (another Corman alum) Apollo 13, for which she received both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations; Jim Morrison’s Celtic Pagan lover Patricia Kennealy in Oliver Stone’s The Doors; and Amy Taylor in Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown. Since then, she has guest-starred in numerous television roles, including one as the psychiatrist Dr. Shane in an episode of Glee. The accomplishments of her portrayal of Deborah Blake certainly wowed enough critics and audiences to set her on a path to stardom which continues today.
The 1960’s cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors, is one of Roger Corman’s most well known features, however, the film gave Hollywood much more than just an entertaining movie to enjoy. The film follows the story of a clumsy botanist, Seymour, who gets sucked into a whirlwind adventure after creating and becoming invested in a carnivorous plant that only feeds on human blood. Many know the film for being a favorite at midnight shows on college campuses, revival cinemas, and videocassette outlets in addition to inspiring the musical remake in 1986 and a theatrical version, which is most likely performed at least once in every high school, but Little Shop of Horrors can also be credited for beginning a new genre of film, helping launch Jack Nicholson’s acting career, and serving as an example for how to successfully produce a low (LOW) budget film.
The Black Comedy Horror Genre:
Perhaps channeling inspiration from his days working on the Stanford satirical magazine, The Chaparral, Corman ventured out into the cynical, darker and more wickedly funny depths of storytelling when creating Little Shop of Horrors. The film was the second of Corman’s black comedy trilogy following A Bucket of Blood and preceding Creature from the Haunted Sea. The trilogy combined certain elements of Corman’s style that came to define the new black comedy horror genre. Along with incorporating fast cutting, fluid camera movement, and in depth composition, the films were also all rooted in quirky plots built on somewhat gruesome premises. In Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour finds himself on a murder spree as the pressure to feed his talking, bloodthirsty plant makes him lose sight of right and wrong. Additionally, the genre requires well-sketched characters, which are prominent in Little Shop of Horrors. Seymour is timid, naïve and dimwitted, which together create a character that would allow such events to unfold. The flower shop owner, Mushnik, is Seymour’s loud, over-dramatic, demanding boss that speaks broken English with a heavy Eastern European accent. His obsession with success paves the way for many laughs in the film. Audrey is Seymour’s high-pitched, sweet but simple, melodramatic girlfriend that adds a hint of innocence to this dark tale. But most importantly, Audrey 2, the man-eating plant is a soulless, hungry, dictatorial villain that even has the gift of mind-control.
The trailer for the film highlights how these elements and characters work together to create the black comedy horror genre:
The Rise of Jack Nicholson:
Yet, if any character in the film is to stand out, Wilbur Force, the masochist played by Jack Nicholson, is definitely a top contender.
Having just made his screen debut two years earlier in Corman’s 1958 film, Cry Baby Killer, Nicholson asked Corman if he could read for the part of Wilbur Force. Originally, the character was intended to be played by a middle-aged man, but Corman decided he could not stop the young Nicholson from simply reading for the part. As fate would have it, Corman was blown away by Nicholson’s creepy but comical take on the character and he was immediately cast. These early appearances of Jack Nicholson on the big screen allowed him to show the world the talents that he harbored, which inevitably lead this Corman School of Film alum to the successful career that he has had.
The Joke that Became a Success:
Besides inventing a new genre and contributing to the rise of a star, Little Shop of Horrors also pushed the possibilities of low budget filmmaking to a new extreme. Having filmed A Bucket of Blood in just under a week, Corman initially conceived Little Shop of Horrors as a joke to see what his team could accomplish with just two days in a studio. The movie was shot in just two days and one night! The crew jumped from set to set, filming only one take and including whatever improvisational additions that made their way into the shot. Furthermore, since union workers were too expensive for this $50,000 budget film, real people on skid row were paid to be extras in the film. However, the success of the film proves just how much a small budget and two days on set can actually accomplish. While the film may have begun as a joke, the great influence the film has had in the realm of entertainment is by no means one.
Forget the video game. Long before Grand Theft Auto gained notoriety as a crime filled game about stealing cars and street racing, the Roger Corman School of Film gave birth to the movie that brought the action of car stealing, racing and crashing to life. However, behind all of the special effects and high stakes that make this film so entertaining, a young actor was given his first professional opportunity to direct a full-length feature.
Ron Howard at the time was a well-known actor starring as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. In 1976, he nabbed a sideline opportunity to star in Roger Corman’s film Eat My Dust, which was received with such popularity that the following year, Corman approached him about filming a sequel. Yet Ron Howard had a plan of his own. He offered to not only star in the sequel for the same pay, but also to do an additional film for free…with one catch…he would get to direct. Corman looked him in the eye and responded to his proposal by saying, “you always looked like a director to me.” In that moment, Ron Howard’s successful directing career began.
After a few discussions about what direction to take the film, Corman suggested to Howard to title the film Grand Theft Auto, a title that had been discussed when naming Eat My Dust, and to go forward from there. The result…a fast-paced adventure that follows a runaway couple heading to Vegas to get hitched, and the many different people, enticed by a 25 thousand dollar reward, that will stop at nothing to capture them.
Here is the trailer of the film that launched Ron Howard’s directing career.
The Roger Corman School of Film is notorious for giving young talent the opportunity to launch their careers. Besides Ron Howard, other well-known directors such as James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese also began their directing careers working for Corman. Additionally, many prominent actors such as Jack Nicholson, Toby McGuire, and Mila Kunis can be found making their acting debuts in a Corman film.