Hollywood Myth Buster

by Jesse Hamlin

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Joseph McBride still remembers the date: September 22, 1966. That's when he saw "Citizen Kane," the Orson Welles masterpiece that changed his life.

"I had an epiphany I was going to go into films," says McBride, the associate professor of cinema whose 15 books include three about the wizardly Welles. Watching "Citizen Kane" that day at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he studied English and ran the film society, McBride was blown away by the movie's bold visual style and the potent screenplay by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. He taught himself to write screenplays by studying the script, an original mimeographed copy of which he found at the Wisconsin Historical Society. He spent a month typing it, word for word, because he didn't have the money to photocopy it.

"I wanted to write and direct a film by the time I was 25, as Welles had done. It was sort of a crazy ambition," says the Milwaukee-bred McBride, who made a handful of amateur films in Madison before moving to Hollywood in 1973. He started selling scripts to B-movie mogul Roger Corman a few years later, and co-wrote the 1979 cult classic "Rock 'n' Roll High School." A lot of his students say it's their favorite film and McBride hopes that they are telling the truth.

In addition to writing screenplays, McBride, who joined the SF State faculty in 2002, worked as reporter, critic and columnist at Variety. That gave him access to the great directors he admired -- Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock, among others -- and an insider's view of the movie business that he brings to his research and teaching.

"Joe's scrupulous attention to scholarly detail combined with his real-world experience as a reporter and writer gives him a perspective that is unusual, if not unique," says Dan Nishimura, a grad student in Cinema Studies and one of McBride's teaching assistants. "The depth and breadth of his knowledge of film, literature and political history is staggering. Fortunately, he has the ability to present material in an easy to understand manner."

The same can be said of McBride's massively researched and revealing biographies, which have brought him international acclaim. Three of them, widely considered the definitive accounts of their subjects, were published in February by University Press of Mississippi. First off the press was a newly updated edition of McBride's 1997 opus "Steven Spielberg: A Biography." Then came "Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success," originally published in 1992 and updated in 2000 with declassified U.S. government documents that reveal that Capra named names during the Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s; and "Searching for John Ford," which Martin Scorsese praised for having "the sweep, passion, complexity and tragic grandeur of a great John Ford film."

McBride speaks about those cinematic giants and others in the new documentary "Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History." Directed by M.F.A. candi- date Hart Perez, the film premiered in April at the Tiburon International Film Festival. It captures McBride's zeal for digging beneath the official Hollywood stories -- the myths and lies -- to "uncover the hidden stories" and set the record straight.


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