Reel life was his real love

Times Staff Writer

FOR a month now, young Hollywood has been planning a retirement party. The guest list spans the pop culture landscape -- studio executives, novelists, Academy Award winners, sitcom writers, musicians. One proposal has Martin Scorsese jumping out of a cake.

The honoree will take the bus unless he can hitch a ride with someone. A lively, bespectacled bachelor who lives alone in a rent-controlled apartment, he can't drive. Nor can he afford a limo, though some of the most successful people in show business attribute their very sensibility as artists to him.

"Where do you begin? He shaped the way I think," said Ben Cosgrove, Paramount Pictures' senior vice president of production.

"I would not be the person I am today without him, or make the films I make," said Brett Morgen, the Oscar-nominated co-director of "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

"Single biggest influence of my life," said screenwriter Alex Kurtzman ("Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers").

"I actually have a theory," said actor Zooey Deschanel, "that everything in Hollywood is directly or indirectly influenced by Jim Hosney. And if it's not the case, it should be."

Jim Hosney doesn't work in show business. He's not a critic or an emeritus studio head. In one of the sharper ironies of a field often disparaged as mindless and superficial, the most influential Hollywood player you've probably never heard of is a 63-year-old English teacher. This month, after a career that has spanned nearly four decades, he'll be taking early retirement from Santa Monica's Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, where he has taught high school film studies and literature for 25 years.

Before Crossroads, he spent a decade at the Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake), and, since 1980, he has taught graduate-level film history on the side at the American Film Institute. Over time, he has become a minor cult figure on Los Angeles' show-business-heavy Westside, not only for his singular approach to great books and popular culture, but also for the legions of tastemakers who credit their understanding of L.A.'s signature art form -- storytelling -- to him.

Hosney's pop culture proteges number in the hundreds -- writers, performers, moviemakers, film scholars at USC and UCLA. Jack Black and Maya Rudolph did some of their earliest work for him. So did producers Bryan Burk ("Lost," "Alias"), Jason Blumenthal ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), Danielle Renfrew ("Waitress") and Matthew Greenfield ("Chuck & Buck," "The Good Girl").

"There was not a single course he taught that I did not take," said filmmaker Jonathan Kasdan ("In the Land of Women"). Melissa Clark, novelist and creator of the children's TV show "Braceface," remembers being so inspired in his class that she'd turn papers in late just for the excuse to drive by his apartment. "It was like I had a brain crush," she said.

The costume designer from "Being John Malkovich" is a former student. So is the guitarist for the seminal '90s punk band Jawbreaker. So is the founder and organizer of Cinespia, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery outdoor film fest. Former Hosney students write for Vanity Fair, for this newspaper, for influential blogs such as the L.A.-based TruthDig. That's not counting the AFI graduate students or Crossroads parents who have consulted him on projects, from Dustin Hoffman, who drew from Hosney for his portrayal of a professor in "Stranger Than Fiction," to Michael Mann, who sought Hosney's opinion, among others, in putting together the Oscar montage he directed last year.

"He's one of the most important figures in contemporary film who is largely unknown," said Ron Yerxa, a producer of "Election" and "Little Children" and a longtime friend.

HOSNEY'S self-assessment is less dramatic.

"I'm a teacher," he said with a shrug. "I teach."

He was raised in Los Angeles, the younger son of Syrian immigrants, an apartment manager and a seamstress. As a child, he lived for stories -- epic novels, double features.

"I wanted life to be like a musical," he remembered, sitting in his office at Crossroads. "I was always disappointed that people didn't burst out singing on the street."

In 1961, he graduated from George Washington High School with a full scholarship to Occidental College, where he eventually entered a doctoral program in Anglo American literature.

"I wanted to teach at the college level," Hosney recalled, "but while I was at graduate school at Oxy, I took a job, like a long-term substitute teacher, at the Westridge School, a girls' school in Pasadena."

Experienced only as a university teaching assistant, Hosney treated the teenage girls as if they were college students. It taught him a lesson.

"Never underestimate your students," he says now. "Those kids were great."

By 1970, he had taken that lesson to Westlake along with another he had learned at Occidental: that the study of literature needn't be limited to books.

At the time, Hosney said, cinema was just beginning to be taken seriously by scholars. At Occidental, his mentor -- Marsha Kinder, who is now a USC professor of critical studies -- had showed him "that movies are just as complicated artistically as novels, that they can be treated as works of art."

"He came in with his giant Afro and tie-dyed T-shirt, and he was about as passionate about literature and film as you could expect any human being to be, and still be coherent," recalled Nathan Reynolds, the now-retired headmaster who hired him at Westlake.

Hosney says he and the students learned together.

"I showed movies I'd always wanted to see but had never seen," he remembered. "We saw Vincente Minnelli, 'Some Came Running.' Douglas Sirk stuff -- I remember teaching a class in film melodrama and showing 'Imitation of Life,' and they were all in tears by the end of the movie. But also Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson."

His courses focused on critical thinking and writing, he said, but grew to incorporate other disciplines.

"You could teach a class where, say, you were looking at American horror films but at the same time also reading Poe, Hawthorne, other American authors who wrote horror. You could show how the two mediums are connected, show the process of adaptation. Show how film is a cultural construct, what it says about American society."

As Hosney spoke, he moved forward. A compact man with cropped, dark hair and rectangular glasses, he is famously animated when he lectures. He leans into his audience, almost as if he is about to climb it; his long hands move as if painting a picture. At his back was a framed poster, in French, for the film "Taxi Driver."

"Why, for example, is 'Psycho' made in 1960?" he asked excitedly. "Why does 'Psycho' make more money than any other of Hitchcock's films?

"Well, it's the Kennedy election. The country is changing. And by now, the public is used to television. Go back and look at 'Psycho.' There are incredible sequences in it, but there are also some very stagy, talky sequences that come right out of television...."

And with that, he was off -- the conventions of TV, the films of the '60s -- until finally, he circled back to his original question and the answer Truffaut once got from Hitchcock.

"Hitchcock," he said, leaning in, "wanted to see if he could shoot a movie the way he had shot shows on TV." He smiled with such delight, it was almost as if he hadn't been teaching this insight for decades, almost as if you, the listener, had deduced it independently.

HOSNEY left the Westlake School in 1980. He had hoped to work in film with his friend Yerxa, but the position fell through. He quickly returned to teaching, by night at AFI and by day at Los Angeles High School, where he might have stayed, he added, had the public school credentialing process been simpler. But then he was offered the Crossroads job in 1982.

Crossroads was 10 years old but still scarcely more than a funky start-up, and with little of its current cachet. The students were less likely to be children of celebrities than of psychologists and dentists. The campus was in a warehouse district; a body shop had been cleared to make way for Hosney's classroom.

But what the school lacked in glamour, Hosney made up in intellectual passion. "He was a teacher who inspired us like no other," said Greenfield, now senior vice president of production at Fox Searchlight, who was a freshman when Hosney arrived.

Hosney lined his walls with posters of Freud and the Sex Pistols. He adopted a series of stray dogs with glitzy names (Rona, Madonna, Rocco) and brought them to school. Especially striking, students recall, was the way he found value even in their most off-base answers.

"He'd actually tremble when someone made an astute observation -- he'd kind of lift his palm in the air with his forefinger extended and cry, 'Yes!' " recalled Blake Schwarzenbach, an ex-punk guitarist who now teaches English at New York's Hunter College.

"He made you feel smart, and, as a result, you got smarter," said Matt Tyrnauer, who is now a filmmaker and a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.

Eagerly, they applied Susan Sontag's concept of fascist art to the work of Steven Spielberg. "We'd watch 'La Chinoise' or 'Week-End' by Godard and then he'd have us read Marx," recalled Tyrnauer. "We were in the ninth grade!"

When a Los Feliz art house screened Sergio Leone's classic "Once Upon a Time in the West," he asked who wanted to see it with him and was swamped with takers; it was the first time many of the sheltered students had been east of the 405.

"I had a mini existential crisis as a 10th-grader," said Charlie Dahlgren, the son of two scientists who says he has spent most of his adult life toiling to write screenplays that live up to what he learned from Hosney. "NYU paled in comparison."

"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."

Hosney's former students say they can no longer watch a movie without imagining what he'd say about it. (Let alone make one. Kurtzman and Orci, for instance, swear they were channeling Hosney when they tried a European-style nonlinear narrative with "Mission: Impossible III.")

"He's like a little friend on your shoulder," said Amanda Micheli, who is now 35 and a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco. "It was like he opened up a way of seeing for me."

Now, she and others note, a generation of his students is coming of age throughout the entertainment world with Hosney figuratively on their shoulders.

"You constantly run into Hosneyites," said Paramount's Cosgrove, whose last job was as co-president of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's production company, Section Eight, which produced "Syriana," "The Good German" and "Good Night, and Good Luck."

"Brett Morgen was in a meeting across the hall from me last week. I talk all the time to my classmate Jason Blumenthal, who's a producer. My best friend, Brian Rousso, who was in his class, wrote the original screenplay for the movie 'The Reaping.' "

"He just infused every student he had with a great love of filmmakers," Rousso said. "You walked out of that class with such an enormous appreciation of cinema."

So it was on that afternoon as Hosney sat in the theater, the human race battling the zombies, the flickering light on his rectangular eyeglasses telling a tale from a land far away. On one level, it was just a movie. But on another, it was the most abiding of Hollywood stories: the story of the man who loved stories, and whom the storytellers came to love back, a story from the heart of L.A.

shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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