Russ Meyer, the eternal boob man, passed away at age 82 in September 2004. Arguably the first “indie filmmaker” as we define it today, the director, actor, producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, and populizer of gargantuan breasts was an important figure in the sexual revolution as it made its way into the cinema. Although his skin flicks are utterly tame (and silly) compared to the gonzo porn of today, Meyer was both villified and praised in his time. But at the core, he was always a self-described “dirty old man.” That may not seem worth memorializing today, but his career stands as a monument to following your creative obsessions wherever they might lead. For more of his thoughts, read this Q&A.
Originally published Sept. 28, 1995
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To some, these are simple body parts, biological appendages meant for lactation and not much more. To Russ Meyer, they are a way of life.
“Cantilevered,” he says huskily from the hills of Hollywood, reverently describing his lifelong obsession. “Outrageously abundant and defying gravity. That’s it! And it sure generates a lot of, shall we say, carnality on the part of a person like Meyer.”
And it’s been quite a lucrative carnality. Since 1959, Meyer has been singing the gospel of big boobs, simultaneously lampooning and feeding the sexual desires of American males. That was the year the ex-Army cameraman-turned-pinup photographer released his first film, The Immoral Mr. Teas, single-handedly creating the “nudie film.” Combining decent production values, an actual script, lots of juvenile humor and, of course, naked women, Meyer turned sex into mainstream entertainment. And—honestly—changed the movies.
Mudhoney. Cherry, Harry & Raquel. Common Law Cabin. From these low-budget wonders of bizarre plotting, weird dialogue, and silly sex came great gobs of revenue. In 1968, he spent $72,000 to make his portrait of an uber-horny babe, Vixen, and reaped over $6 million. The message was clear–American society was ready to see amore up on the silver screen–and the major studios were listening. They, too, started making sexy flicks and toppling taboos; 20th Century Fox even hired Meyer himself to make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970.
But the one film that stands as Meyer’s masterpiece lacks graphic sex and even nudity. Re-released four years ago for art house distribution, this 1965 thriller has immortalized Meyer in the pantheon of weird movie masters forever: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
With undiminished interest in this charged tale of three go-go girls on the rampage, we must once again ponder the paradox of Russ Meyer: Is he a tasteless marketer or an inspired artist? An exploiter of women or a champion of their sexuality? A despoiler of family values or a liberator of the repressed? Perhaps all of the above.
So how does a sex film become a celebrated piece of American pop culture, as opposed to being relegated to the instantly forgettable (and ever-condemned) ranks of porndom? What makes a sex film “good” as opposed to “bad?”
“Well, first of all, you’ve got to have Russ Meyer direct it,” the 76-year-old Meyer explains. “And, of course, the leading lady is most important. She has to be pneumatic, outrageously abundant, and that’s about it. I’m not looking for Sara Bernhardt–just for a good, smart girl. And it works just fine.”
Naturally, this preoccupation with bounteous breasts infuriates Meyer’s feminist critics. By aggrandizing huge boobs for 40 years, they charge, he has helped further unrealistic images of the female form while profiting handsomely. And indeed, if that’s all Meyer revered in women, he’d be guilty of some heinous objectifying.
But women aren’t simply love machines in his films. They’re usually aggressive, independent, commanding leads–and very sexually demanding for their own needs. Those types of characterizations are rare in movies even today, let alone in the ’60s. In fact, some feminists are now reconsidering Meyer’s films–B. Ruby Rich, in the Village Voice, reevaluated Pussycat, finding positive images in its strong-willed women.
“One of the reasons why Faster, Pussycat has succeeded is that women have discovered the film,” insists Meyer, “and they are the ones that are generating interest in rentals and purchases. It’s affected the other pictures the same way. I’m starting to release the other films–I’ll have Supervixens, Cherry, Harry & Raquel, and Vixen to begin with, and then Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens. So I’m gonna go out again with them, because people can handle it.”
But people haven’t always been able to handle it, particularly when Meyer attempted to unleash his first nudie, Mr. Teas, in ’59. Previously, sex movies were just that–back-room bits of crude pornography not meant to entertain, exactly. Meyer introduced the concept of making a funny movie with general appeal that just happened to have lots of nudity. In this case, Mr. Teas goes to the dentist and, as a side effect of the anesthetic, is able to see every girl in the raw. Not exactly “hardcore” material, but enough to get it banned on its initial release.
“That film was busted on its first day in San Diego largely because we hadn’t paid a bribe, a ‘patch’ as it’s called, to the local police,” Meyer recalls. “It was exactly that–the San Diego police. So we were out of business for about a year. Couldn’t play it. Everybody was afraid. It just goes like a prairie fire through the distribution ranks.
“Fortunately, my partner Pete DeCenzie was able to encounter a man who was on the censor board in Seattle, Wash. And he was able to talk him into conducting a screening of a 16mm print of The Immoral Mr. Teas in a hotel suite. After a lot of Italian take-out food and a lot of red wine, the censor board–for the first time in its existence–convened under those circumstances with that kind of … shall we say some sort of encouragement? I don’t want to create the impression there was any money passed, or anything of that nature. They liked the film, they laughed at it.
“It’s like a license to steal once you get through the censor board. In fact, it had a 58-week play at a very fine art house.”
From there, Meyer became a hugely successful independent filmmaker, churning out his odd tales of lusty women and brawny men, including camp classics like Supervixens, Russ Meyer’s Up!, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens. While it’s hard to believe any of them could have been conceived as truly erotic–they’re far too silly for that–they were nonetheless fun “cartoons,” as Meyer calls them. Now they’re considered classics of “psychotronic” film making.
Psychotronic movies aren’t art by any means. In fact, most were made simply to cash in on whatever trend was current at the time–bikers, zombies, bikinis, psychedelia…sometimes all of the above. Produced in the ’50s-’70s, most could be considered campy hodgepodges of clunky dialogue, ridiculous acting, and pathetic special effects. But despite all that, somehow, the twisted vision of an oddball film maker still comes through, as in the work of Ed Wood, Jr. or Ray Dennis Steckler (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies). By any measure, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of the ultimate psychotronic movies.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence–the word and the act.” The smooth, steady voice-over at Pussycat’s start could be from an industrial film–no doubt because Meyer once made them. “Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy. It creates and molds as well. Let’s examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation…”
In a barren desert landscape–shot in luminous black and white–we race with three viciously beautiful women gunning their sports cars through the dust. We learn that their leader is the deadly Varla (Ikido expert and burlesque dancer Tura Satana), attired in skin-tight black pants and blouse, not to mention black leather boots and gloves. After winning a chicken race against a hapless preppy boy in an MGB, Varla is forced to break his back after he demands she return his stopwatch. Kidnapping his screeching, mousy girlfriend, the deadly trio stop at a run-down farmhouse to find a crippled old man and his two sons…who might have a stash of money. Varla immediately decides to stay, and plots to relieve them of their cash.
The supervixens of Pussycat are merciless and unapologetic. Whatever they want, they take. Brazenly libidinous and greedy to the core, they pretty much have their way, toying with whatever men should cross their paths. You can rest assured that there’s never been a character like Tura Satana’s Varla before or since. You know she’s pure evil, but you can’t help but root for her because she’s just so damn cool.
Despite the lack of an actual plot, everything comes together into an other-worldly whole in Pussycat. Perhaps unintentionally, Meyer creates his own strange realities within his films, where people talk and act like nowhere else. In contrast, his cinematography is smooth and orderly, again like an industrial film, with perfect lighting and composition. Truly, Meyer’s films are his own. And they work.
Finally, the inevitable question–why big breasts? Where did this mega-mammary obsession come from?
“Al Capp is the man who is responsible for that,” Meyer says. “Lil’ Abner. All the women were drawn with large breasts–except for Grandma, of course. The men were muscular and stupid, which kind of works in my films. As a tad of 14 years of age, I used to draw his cartoons–but make the tits bigger.”
Later, entranced by the strippers in burlesque shows, his fixation took root. Too shy to act on his impulses, it wasn’t until after his four years in the Army during World War II that he found the chutzpah to realize his desires. Eventually, of course, he combined this fetish with business and became a pinup photographer. Together with his wife, model, and business partner, Eve, he created an empire based on glorifying the female breast.
These days, even well past retirement age, he continues to pursue his passions. When he’s not shooting spreads for Playboy or Japanese fashion magazines (“They’re really into these big ladies”), he’s overseeing his film empire. He sells all his films on videotape at his own web page, rmfilms.com, which also features such products as Faster, Pussycat T-shirts. Recent film projects include two short-subjects for his video catalog, one featuring Pandora Peaks and the other his fiancee, Melissa Mounds– “Both spectacular women!”
And finally, he is about to release his much-delayed, three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast–The Life and Loves of Russ Meyer (“I’m in the process of driving a man down into the earth like a tent peg, a bad guy who has held it up.”) According to online bookseller amazon.com, it should have been available in March of 2000 at $350 and is credited to one Adolph A. Schwartz. [Note: It did finally come out and is currently $200 at Amazon.]
“The title was given to the work by Roger Ebert, who’s been a close confederate of mine through the years. Pretty good. It’s got 2,500 photographs. It’s a fuck and tell book–it’s not a kiss and tell. It’s very, very strong. It’s three volumes. And it’s good, very good.”
With all his ongoing projects, Meyer says he’s too busy to take note of other films–not even bizarre, Meyer-esque productions such as the breast-filled Showgirls.
“No, I won’t see that,” he says staunchly, committed to the end, “because the girls are built like ironing boards. If Meyer made it, they would all be casting long shadows.”