The A to Z of Russ Meyer

December 16, 2018

Russ Meyer is the most cult-iest of cult movie directors.

Films like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill (1965), Vixen (1968) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) still pack out revival houses. HIs work continues to inspire critical analysis and attract new fans. Artwork from his movie remains in high demand for posters and T shirts.

Here’s an A to Z about the famous auteur.

A is for Alzheimer’s Disease, which afflicted Meyer during the last years of his life prior to his death in 2004, and is a downer of a way to start this article but you can’t ignore it happened. Meyer had an incredible life – lots of sex, fame, money, laughs and a job he loved, even some critical respect. He died a wealthy man with a devoted fan base – there was no Ed Wood/DW Griffith style languishing in obscurity and poverty for old Russ. That doesn’t guarantee you’ll go out well, though, and it didn’t for Meyer, whose health declined in the mid 1990s and developed into full blown Alzheimer’s. (Mental illness ran in the family – his mother and sister wound up in psychiatric hospitals.)

B is for blaxploitation, in part out of defiance because I’m expected to write “breasts” which really are the defining feature of Meyer’s oeuvre. Meyer did want to try other sorts of films in his career – hence in 1973’s Black Snake he tried a period blaxploitation film about a slave uprising at a plantation in the colonial West Indies. The film failed – I think mostly because it had a white hero and not a black one, but Meyer thought it was due to a lack of on-screen sex and because his female lead (future London aristocrat Anouska Hempel, who reportedly tried to block the film being seen in the UK in later years) didn’t have big breasts. You can’t escape them when talking about Meyer.

C is for Charles Napier, a big strapping actor familiar from countless films and TV shows (notably Rambo First Blood Part II), who pops up in a number of Meyer movies. A couple of male actors in Meyer films went on to do other things (Napier, Motorpsycho’s Alex Rocco and Common Law Cabin’s Ken Swofford) but none of the women. It’s remarkable because many of the women in Meyer films were fabulous, eg Dolly Read, Raven De La Croix, Shari Eubank. The two who should have been stars were Erica Gavin, who gave a performance of remarkable erotic ferocity in Vixen, and especially Tura Satana from Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, who should have starred in a whole bunch of Pam Grier-style action vehicles but kind of drifted off the scene.

D is for dentist, Russ Meyer’s – who loaned his office to Meyer in the late 50s for a weekend so the filmmaker could shoot the nudie comedy film The Immortal Mr Teas (1959). The film – Meyer’s first feature (he had mostly been a photographer until then) – was raw and plotless (it contains no dialogue) but was well-shot, good-natured and featured lots of nudity, and became a box office sensation, sparking a slew of imitations, including some from Meyer himself (Eve and the Handyman (1961) and Wild Naked Gals of the West (1962)) before the bottom inevitably dropped out of the market. In Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens (1979), Meyer had a dentist character, a flamboyantly gay male who tries to rape the male hero, so maybe he cooled on the profession in later years.

E is for Eve Meyer, Meyer’s second wife, associate producer, lead model, star of his second film Eve and the Handyman and overall muse. The two drifted apart personally and professionally by the early ‘70s and, like many an auteur director, Meyer was never as good once he broke up with his wife (eg George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich). She died in a plane crash on the Canary Islands in 1977.

F is for feminism, something Meyer is occasionally accused of, mostly due to having three strong female leads in Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and making a film about female sexual desire, Vixen. But try arguing that feminism after watching Charles Napier beat, strangle, stomp and electrocute Shari Eubank to a lingering death in Supervixens (1975); or Lorna Maitland learning to love sex by being raped in Lorna (1964) and then being murdered for liking sex; or have Alex Rocco in Motorpsycho (1965) ignore looking after his recently raped wife so he can go looking for revenge and flirt with Haji; or all of the comic rape in Up! (1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens. One thing is certain though – Meyer’s films with female protagonists (Faster Pussycat, Vixen, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Mondo Topless) are a hell of a lot more entertaining and hold up much better than those where the action is driven by the men (Blacksnake, Supervixens, Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers). He never seemed to learn that lesson though and kept drifting back to stories with male protagonists.

G is for GI, which Meyer was during World War Two, working as a combat cameraman. He loved the experience so much he never wanted a grown-up job, hence going into nude photography and filmmaking. Meyer never lost a “GI” vibe to his filmmaking either – he mostly shot in a rough and ready style, with small crews, filming in isolated locations and Meyer very much the leader of his “platoon”… and the tone of many of his films (large breasts, square jaws, broad comedy, violence) often seemed aimed at GIs. In some movies you can practically hear a redneck private from Missouri watching it going “haw haw haw”.

H is for homophobia, something Meyer is accused of, mostly because (spoilers) all the LGBTI characters in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls get murdered but also because of the gay caricatures in The Seven Minutes (1971), Up! (1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, and Haji being a tragic doomed lesbian in Faster Pussycat. However, Meyer always depicts lesbian lovemaking as a positive, enjoyable thing (especially in Vixen) – indeed the climax of Cherry Harry and Raquel (1970) features two women happily going at it intercut with scenes of two men pointlessly shooting each other to death, making a surprisingly affecting point about sex being more worthwhile than violence. I am aware this doesn’t clear him of homophobia and he films everything very much through a straight male gaze (or leer), but he at least had queer characters in several of his movies when that wasn’t super common – half the characters in Up!, for instance, are bisexual.

I is for impotence, a recurring theme in Meyer films, which frequently feature men who can’t get it up as a plot point. The subject is treated mostly comically, such as Stuart Lancaster’s impotence in Good Morning and Goodbye leading to his wife (Alaina Capri) sleeping around, or Ken Kerr in Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens only being able to get it up for anal sex causing his wife (Kitten Natividad) to sleep around. Meyer occasionally tackles the subject more seriously, as in Supervixens where impotence drives Charlies Napier to murder a taunting Shari Eubanks. Meyer did like to reuse many story ideas and themes but after watching a bunch of his movies back to back, impotence did seem to be on his mind an awful lot #justsaying.

J is for Jimmy McDonough, a writer whose biography of Meyer, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film, is required reading for anyone interested in the career of this unique filmmaker. There are plenty of book-long cinematic studies of Meyer – including Meyer’s own memoir, A Clean Breast – but McDonough’s book is the one that really goes behind the scenes. Meyer had a difficult upbringing (little money, no father) but a devoted mother (who married six times). Service in World War Two was the making of him as a man and a filmmaker. When he got out, he shot industrial films and worked as a photographer (he took stills of James Dean in Giant and did a lot of jobs for Playboy), before breaking out with The Immoral Mr Teas. He usually self-financed and had his fair share of failures at the box office (Wild Gals of the Naked West, Fanny Hill, Mudhoney, Faster Pussycat, The Seven Minutes, Blacksnake) but would always bounce back with a massive hit (Lorna, Motorpsycho, Vixen, Cherry Harry & Raquel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixen). He had plenty of feuds and friends and women, but in general had a grand life until the end.

K is for killer convicts. I’m drawing a long bow with this one but bear with me, it’s interesting… During his war service, Meyer heard a legend about a special squad of Allied soldiers recruited from among the inmates of military prison that was sent on a suicide mission against the Germans. He told this to E.M. Nathanson, who turned it into a novel, The Dirty Dozen, which became a famous film in 1967 – easily Meyer’s greatest contribution to cinema outside his own movies. (An aside: Meyer was obsessed with Nazis, who frequently turned up as characters in his films).

L is for Li’l Aber, a comic strip about hillbillies living in the impoverished mountain village of Dogpatch USA. This was a huge influence on Meyer’s filmmaking, with its use of broad stereotypes and tropes such as buxom women and klutzy guys. Most of his films, sexy or not, are big screen cartoons, and really should be viewed in that light.

M is for mother, Russ Meyer’s, perhaps the defining female in his life. Meyer adored his mother Lydia, who inspired his dreams and gave him support (i.e spoilt him rotten). Dad was barely around – make of that what you will, psychiatrists.

N is for names of cool bands, which Meyer movies seem to have inspired more than any other director – Mudhoney, Faster Pussycat, Motor Psycho.

O is for overseas, where Meyer never liked working. He had an unhappy experience doing Fanny Hill (1964) in West Germany, Black Snake in Barbados and Who Killed Bambi (see below) in Ireland. At heart he was a very American filmmaker – just a very specific type of America.

P is for penises, which appear in Meyer’s ‘70s films with surprising regularity for such a breast man. He’s got Charles Napier running full frontal in the desert in Cherry, Harry and Raquel and they keep popping up in Up! And Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens. Absolutely, they are outnumbered by breasts and (towards the end) vaginas but they’re in there.

Q is for questions, documentary style – asked of strippers in Mondo Topless, Meyer’s 1964 documentary about topless dancers. This intersperses a LOT of footage of topless dancing with surprisingly interesting first-person accounts of their work and life and makes one wish Meyer had made more documentaries in his career. For all his faults, he was an extremely gifted filmmaker with a flair for editing, pace and visual composition.

R is for Roger Ebert, a bespectacled film critic who is a bigger deal in the US than Australia because he was on TV for so long here. He became friends with Meyer after writing an appreciative article on the latter’s films, leading to Meyer hiring Ebert to write the fun, clever script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert stayed a critic for the rest of his life, but he occasionally took leave of absences to work with Meyer on the terrible scripts for Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (both done under a pseudonym) as well as the abandoned Who Killed Bambi? A film was even going to be made of their relationship called Russ and Roger Go Beyond with Josh Gad playing Ebert and Will Ferrell as Meyer, but the studio decided not to proceed when the #MeToo movement hit and it was felt this mightn’t be the time for such a project set in the world of sexploitation.

S is for Sex Pistols, The who were going to make a film with Meyer in the late ‘70s (they were big Beyond the Valley of the Dolls fans!!). Sets were built, a cast assembled (Marianne Faithful was going to play Sid Vicious’ mother), Roger Ebert wrote a script, and filming started in Ireland… but a few days into shooting the money ran out and the plug was pulled. The project was re-fashioned as the Meyer-less Great Rock n Roll Swindle which features some of Meyer’s footage. Ebert’s original script is available online.

T is for Tobacco Road, a sweaty Southern melodrama, now forgotten but a big deal in Meyer’s day, inspiring countless imitations of melodramatic sagas about horny Southerners. The plays of Tennessee Williams fall into this category (albeit at the higher end) as do the films of Russ Meyer, particularly in the ‘60s – Lorna, Mudhoney, Common Law Cabin, Good Morning and Goodbye, Cherry, Harry & Raquel).

U is for Uschi Digard, a Swedish model and actor who appeared in a few Meyer films, most notably in Cherry, Harry and Raquel, where Meyer compensated for the fact that his female lead quit before all her scenes had been shot, by intercutting footage of Digard running around the desert naked to cover any plot holes. And you know something? It totally works.

V is for violence, something which featured in most of Meyer’s films even though he was better known for the sex. Sometimes the violence is extremely well done (eg Faster Pussycat), sometimes it’s extremely unpleasant (eg Supervixens), other times it overtakes the movie when you’d rather characters were having sex (eg Blacksnake, Finders Keepers Lovers Weeper are basically action movies).

W is for Williams, Edy, who Meyer met during Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and became his wife number three. He overlooked her for lead roles in The Seven Minutes (she played a support) and Blacksnake. Meyer was going to put her in a star vehicle, Foxy but it was never made. Are you surprised to hear the marriage didn’t last? You know something, Edy Williams should have played the lead in Blacksnake – it would have been more fun.

X is for X rating which Meyer alternatively battled and embraced throughout his career. Battles with censors cost him a lot of money but he made it back in the success he enjoyed.

Y is for Yvonne de Carlo, perhaps the best-known star to appear in a Meyer film – his 1971 stab at respectability, The Seven Minutes, which he made following the success of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Although 1930s star Miriam Hopkins was in 1964’s Fanny Hill.) I think I’m the only person in the world who likes The Seven Minutes – I find it an entertaining, fast paced courtroom drama which deals with interesting issues, which is well directed and acted. The public stayed away in droves and Meyer was spooked back into the exploitation field.

Z is for Zanuck, Richard F who brought Meyer to 20th Century Fox after the director had a huge success with Vixen, which was made for $90,000 and grossed over $9 million. The result, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, was such a hit that Fox signed Meyer to make three more films – The Seven Minutes, Everyone in the Garden (from a play by Edward Albee, which would have been awesome) and The Final Steal from a novel by Peter George. Dolls was also so controversial it helped Zanuck get the boot from Fox. Meyer only made one film in that three picture deal, The Seven Minutes, which flopped and never worked for a studio again. His last four features were financed independently.

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