originally published September 18, 2012
Okay, fellow film scholars, movie lovers and culture critics, here’s a question for you. You’ve got a filmmaker who specializes in “nudie” films, carving out the standards by which the sexploitation genre will be measured, and almost exclusively employing large-breasted attractive women to be his stars, all during the heyday of hardcore 1960s feminism. Does this make him (a) a chauvinist pig who treats his actors as fetishistic objects, (b) an innovator of female empowerment cinema, or (c) who cares, there are boobies?
Filmmaker Russ Meyer was not, despite what his most vocal critics may profess, a pornographer. He was a film auteur with a distinct and recognizable style, who controlled almost every aspect of his films, from concept to distribution. While other auteurs’ work may contain numerous repeated themes – Hitchcock’s take on voyeurism, Polanski’s sense of alienation, and so on – Meyer’s only recurrent theme was that guys like to look at large-breasted women. Scoff if you must, but he made a mint on that theory.
Born in San Leandro, California and raised by his single mother, Meyer took an interest in film early in life. His mother pawned her wedding ring and bought him an 8mm camera which he learned to use so skillfully, it netted him the gig of combat cameraman in World War II. His footage was used in newsreels, and eventually in Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1971 film, Patton.
Meyer had a hard time making it in Hollywood after the war. He did a lot of freelance work, and wound up snapping some of the earliest shoots for Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. One of his subjects was his wife, Eve Meyer:
Not a lot of filmmakers can claim a hit with their first film. But Russ Meyer had figured out his complex formula (boobs) right from the start, and his 1959 ‘nudist comedy’, The Immortal Mr. Teas, grossed over a million dollars on the exploitation circuit, after costing only $24,000 to make.
There was no sex in The Immortal Mr. Teas. The film tells of a horny man who acquires the ability to see through women’s clothing after a bizarre reaction to some anesthetic. It was made in color, and became the first “skin flick”, or cinematic cover for explicit nudity to be shown to a mass audience.
Also, it made Russ Meyer a rich man.
Throughout the 1960s, Meyer became known as the King of the Nudies. He made over 20 films, casting buxom ladies who seldom wore clothing. Each film earned enough to finance the next, and Meyer controlled everything. He answered the phone and took orders, he packaged up his reels and sent them around the country.
In 1964, Meyer got a little bit more serious. With Lorna, he explored more serious themes, including infidelity and our societal obsession with lust and violence. Not wanting to deviate from his successful formula and risk alienating his audience, Meyer cast Lorna Maitland, who was three months pregnant and boasting a non-surgically-enhanced pair of 42D assets, in the lead role.
From Lorna on, Meyer’s female characters often took on a psychosexual persona. Where most films of the ‘nudie cutie’ genre (which has to be the most adorable of genre titles) depicted perky young women flaunting their assets through a quirky, campy landscape, Meyer wanted to give his characters a bit of an edge. His women still flaunted, they were still perky and disproportionately top-heavy, but they also weren’t afraid to decapitate a guy if he treated her badly.
This is where the grey area between objectification and empowerment appears, quite readily a product of Meyer’s creation. 1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! features no nudity at all, merely a trio of ample-chested go-go dancers who embark on a killing spree. As with most of Meyer’s work from the period, the typical critical response was, “Shut up. Boobs.”
Vixen!, released in 1968, attempts to add a touch of topical political commentary in between an astounding procession of sexual intercourse and acts of violence. It was the first film in history to be granted the newly-christened X-rating. I’ve seen this one – it’s a great film if you’re into nymphomania, gratuitous girl-on-girl action, incest, and Canadians.
After a decade of combining sex, violence and surrealism, Meyer was finally handed a ticket to respectability. 20th Century Fox signed Meyer to direct a sequel to the 1967 adaptation of the novel Valley Of The Dolls. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls quickly became a parody instead of a sequel. To help him pen the screenplay, Meyer worked with this man:
Yes, that’s famous film critic Roger Ebert, before he’d launched his and Gene Siskel’s thumbs into notoriety, posing with his co-writer. Though the finished product fits snugly into the Meyer catalog of ultra-violence and mega-boobies, the film attempts to achieve a social commentary, both on the state of film itself and the recent goings-on in the news. The final bloody scene was not in the original script, and was directly inspired by the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family, which claimed the life of Valley Of The Dolls star Sharon Tate.
Again, like it or don’t – this film has grossed over $40 million in theaters and DVD/tape sales and it only cost $900,000 to make. The Village Voice ranked it #87 on their list of all-time great films. On the other hand, Variety called it “as funny as a burning orphanage and a treat for the emotionally retarded.”
Meyer spent the 1970s back on the underside of social acceptability. He dipped his creative toe in the Blaxploitation pool, followed up his previous success with Supervixens and Beneath The Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and directed a movie called Up!, which was more about dead Nazis and heaving bosoms than balloons and boy scouts.
Perhaps Meyer’s greatest achievement was knowing when to retire. He hung up his director’s sash (I think they all wear sashes) at the end of the 1970s, having achieved an impressive bank account and effectively slipping out of the industry before the explosion of the home video porno market would have stolen his audience with the allure of more hardcore entertainment.
Film historian Jimmy McDonough paints Russ Meyer as an inadvertent feminist filmmaker. In a sense, he was right. His women are scantily-clad or often topless, and his movies are filled with all the sex and violence his male audience would crave, and then some. But his women fought back. They were assertive, aggressive even. They could be strong, angry, and typically they were the more sexually dominant.
Even now, eight years after Meyer’s passing, the debate carries on over the message and mores of his films. Some love him, some hate him. Some just say, “Shut up. Boobs.”