Rogue movie producer, exploitation master and indie studio head Roger Corman is widely credited with kick-starting the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest directors, famously giving early assignments to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, John Sayles, James Cameron, Joe Dante, the late Jonathan Demme and many more. One of his most fascinating proteges, however, is never mentioned when discussions are opened about the opportunities that the daring Roger Corman gave to so many. Admittedly, Stephanie Rothman didn’t ascend the industry ladder in the way that so many of Corman’s early hires did, but she was not only one of the few female filmmakers to truly flourish under his watch, but also one of the few to succeed in the occasionally sordid field of exploitation cinema in which Corman found his greatest success. And while her works inject more than a little fiery feminist spirit into their solid genre frameworks, these were never really the kind of films that Stephanie Rothman wanted to be making. “I was never happy making exploitation films,” the director once said. “I did it because it was the only way I could work. With all the options that exist today, if I were beginning my career as a filmmaker, I would not choose to make exploitation films.”
This was, however, Rothman’s direct route into the industry, and it would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Born in 1936 in New Jersey, Rothman initially studied sociology before making the move into film in the early 1960s, studying at The University of Southern California. A harbinger of her obvious talent and tenacity, Rothman became the first woman to be awarded The Directors Guild of America fellowship, which was awarded annually to the director of a student film deemed worthy. This accolade, along with her university qualifications, saw Rothman eventually enter the heady world of Roger Corman, who hired her as his assistant in 1964. As he did with so many of his early hires, Corman had Rothman doing all manner of jobs for him: writing scenes on the fly during production, helping to cast actors, scouting locations, and assisting on the edits of many films. Rothman’s hard work led to a typically nebulous “associate producer” credit on cheap-and-nasty Corman-backed bottom feeders like Beach Ball (1965), Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet (1965), and Queen Of Blood (1966).
Corman also had Rothman reshoot portions of his 1966 horror flick Blood Bath, which resulted in her first directing credit (the first female credit achieved, in fact, under Corman), which was shared with Jack Hill. Rothman’s first real directing gig, however, came with 1967’s guys-girls-rock-music cheapo beach party effort, It’s A Bikini World. The title speaks for itself, and it was hardly an auspicious debut for Stephanie Rothman. “I became very depressed after making It’s A Bikini World,” the director told Film Comment. “I had very ambivalent feelings about continuing to be a director if that was all I was going to be able to do. So I literally went into a kind of retirement for several years until more than anything in the world, I wanted to make films.” And while she was not able to extricate herself from the sometimes sleazy world of exploitation cinema, Rothman did successfully bend the genre to her will.
Her first “real” film is often cited as 1970’s The Student Nurses, the first film project for Corman’s newly established production house, New World Pictures. “My husband, Charles Swartz, co-produced and co-wrote the story with me,” Rothman explained to journalist Henry Jenkins. “We made it while Roger was out of the country, directing a film of his own, so we were free to develop the story as we wished, as long as there was enough nudity and violence distributed throughout it. This freedom, once I paid my debt to the requirements of the genre, allowed me to address what interested me.”
Thusly, while The Student Nurses – which followed the misadventures of four friends starting out in the nursing field – featured the requisite lashings of T&A, it was also rich in subtext, dealing with issues like illegal immigration and abortion. “The Student Nurses was very successful,” Rothman told Henry Jenkins. “Some critics welcomed its unapologetic feminism. It made a lot of money for Roger and he wanted me to make a sequel to it, but I wasn’t interested. I had said all I wanted to about student nurses, and so he hired a series of male directors to make the sequels. I never watched them, so I cannot say if they contained any feminist ideas. But the lesson Roger derived from my film’s success was that you could make exploitation films whose narratives included contentious social issues, including feminism, and he consequently encouraged his directors to do it.”
From The Student Nurses, Rothman continued to gently subvert genre conventions with her next film, crafting a vividly kinky horror spectacle with 1971’s The Velvet Vampire. A minor cult favourite (again, co-written with Charles Swartz), the film has a strange, arty feel, and a dangerously sexy sense of urgency, while instantly ripping itself free of the usual Gothic vampiric moorings with its desert setting and decidedly 1970s attitude toward sex and marriage. The film also followed The Student Nurses with its rich feminist flourishes, as did Rothman’s next movies, 1973’s Group Marriage (a raucous swinging sex comedy) and 1974’s The Working Girls (which tracks the night-time activities of three uninhibited young women).
Rothman’s toughest women, however, were to be found in the film that came between them. Starring future Magnum PI stalwarts Tom Selleck and Roger E. Mosley, 1973’s Terminal Island takes a wonderfully unconventional approach to race and sex as a mixed group of convicts (men, women, black, white) band together to fight for their survival on a kill-or-be-killed prison island. A prime slice of violent 1970s exploitation, Terminal Island is a masterful exercise in rugged tension, and another example of Rothman digging deep and doing something different with genre filmmaking. “With Terminal Island, practically the whole film involves violence because the subject matter is violent people,” Rothman told Interview Magazine. “I accepted that. I recognised that if I was going to make films, and I was going to make them for the market, I was making them for it. I wanted to make films very much and that’s what I needed to do. What I needed to do was try to refine that and give it some meaning beyond the violence itself, or beyond the nudity itself. In that sense, I tried very hard to not make it exploitative.”
Sadly, Stephanie Rothman never managed to extricate herself from the exploitation genre, even while she fought against it the whole time. Her last screen credit is for the screenplay for the 1978 drive-in comedy, Starhops. “I had good agents and together we tried very hard to get me work, but we repeatedly discovered that I was stigmatised by the films I had made,” Rothman told The Austin Chronicle. “The irony was that I made them in order to prove that I had the skills to make more ambitious films, but no one would give me the chance. Then there was the other reason, the so-called elephant in the room: I was a woman. No one told me directly, but I often learned indirectly that this was the decisive reason why many producers wouldn’t agree to meet me. If that sounds exaggerated, remember that I worked in the American film industry from 1965 to 1974, and for some of those years I was the only woman directing feature films.”
Though she has been celebrated intermittently over the years (there is a women’s film scholarship in her name), and the importance of her film output recognised, Stephanie Rothman for the large part remains largely unsung. It’s nothing short of a travesty that this fine filmmaker – and a true feminist pioneer – never got the chance to break out of the exploitation genre. “For the next ten years, I tried to find work making more ambitious films,” Rothman told The Austin Chronicle. “My husband and I collaborated on a couple of challenging treatments and scripts that were well received, but never sold. I did sell a few options on scripts and screenplays on my own. I got a few offers to make more exploitation films, but I was never happy making them and I didn’t want to repeat myself. After enduring a decade of barely making a living, I gave up.” And we were all a lot poorer for it…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Tim Hunter, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.