The Life And Films Of Russ Meyer
From "King of the Nudies" to cultural icon, Russ Meyer has lead a rich and varied life. Though working almost exclusively in the realm of independent film, Meyer's movies have won acclaim from a worldwide audience; collectors seeking out posters from his films would have to visit several countries in order to complete their collections.A major reason for the continual interest in Meyer's work has been the advent of home video. Though Meyer does not produce new films at the same rate at which he did during the '60s and '70s, video has allowed new generations to discover such grade-B wonders as Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, perhaps Meyer's best known film and, amazingly, now 30 years old."Pussycat really took hold was when I released the video," Meyer agrees. "It's an unusual factor. Usually when you go to video it's dead. But in this instance, I released the film to video and women began to hear about it and read about it: 'Look at this. This is an interesting approach. Pay attention.' And that's what happened. Feminists and so forth would write me letters: 'Great film! Keep it going!' What's happening now is that women look at it very positively."What's interesting about the positive strokes Meyer's work has received from feminists is that his work is firmly grounded in the "sexploitation" genre. But what makes Meyer's films stand out are meaningful storylines, a substantial dose of humor, and the depiction of a universe where women are clearly the dominant sex, in addition to being spectacularly endowed.Meyer, born in 1923, began his film career at age 14 when his mother bought him his first camera (a Kodak Univex). His first professional work came during World War II, when he served as a combat photographer with the Signal Corps. "I loved the war. I didn't want it to end," he says. "I wanted it to go on and on and on. I'm serious about that. I really liked the excitement, more so than anything else. I was there for two years; I landed in Normandy, with the 29th Infantry Division, I went to Paris, I met Hemingway.... We had a unit that had four or five people; we were attached to the 2nd French Army Division. We got into a town called Rambouilet and there I encountered Hemingway. And he was brawling and supposedly running guns and being terribly dramatic about it all, but he was sympathetic to us and introduced us to a local bordello and that was worthwhile. He was a great guy."Meyer's footage was later used in the film Patton in addition to the Academy Award winning documentary True Glory. In addition to his first taste of filmmaking, Meyer's time in the army also introduced him to a network of friends he would continue to work with throughout his life. On returning to the civilian world, he worked for a time in the "legitimate" realm, making industrial films and working as a still photographer on movie sets. "Industrial films was really where I got most of my training," Meyer explains. "I did films for lumber mills, Crown Zellerbach, things of that nature. It was an effective way of going out on your own and creating sequences. It was exciting. Learning how to use an expense account, eating well, womanizing; I got it all! It gave me an opportunity of going out on my own and shooting pictures that turned into documentaries. In fact, my films are kind of like documentaries -- the better to see the product, my dear!"Meyer's work as a still photographer had him rubbing elbows with a number of Hollywood legends. Of his time on the Guys and Dolls set, Meyer remembers, "Sinatra was impossible. Brando was great because I got to know his father. His mother and father were on the set and I knew where the boot pinched. I knew if I got along good with the old man I'd probably be able to get Brando, and it worked. He'd say, 'Come on, give the guy a chance, give him some pictures.'"While on the set of Giant Meyer photographed the classic image of James Dean sitting in a Model T Ford with the roof down, feet propped up on the dashboard. "Jimmy Dean was cooperative because I lent him some of my equipment," explains Meyer. "We were out in Marshall, Texas. I'd lent him a tripod and he'd go out on Sundays and shoot wild burros; he had something about wild burros. So I always got exclusives from him. I remember he got rattled one day when the press were really on his case, and he flipped his wig and said, 'All you guys get out of here! Except' -- and he turned to me -- 'except you.'" With an eye on the future, Meyer held on to the rights for his photos, which paid off when his pictures of Dean were later widely reproduced and used in documentaries.During this period, Meyer also began working as a photographer for magazines like "Playboy" (his second wife, Eve, was the first "Playboy Playmate"). Meyer was also friends with Pete DeCenzie, "one of the last great burlesque entrepreneurs," who suggested Meyer consider taking his work one step further and make films -- specifically, "nudist movies," a genre that allowed naked people to be filmed if they were participating in wholesome outdoor leisure activities. Meyer was not interested in working on such a bland type of project. "I said, 'I hate nudist movies!'" he recalls. "'People playing volleyball and croquet and having little children walking around!' They got away from showing the pubic area by having pingpong; they could always set the camera in such a way that the woman's pelt was covered, the man's as well. Then they'd always be walking into the sunset with little children. Those were the first so-called risque movies -- nudist movies, they came to call them 'nudies.'"Meyer and DeCenzie had already worked on The French Peep Show, a film more oriented toward burlesque. Now Meyer tried to come up with a more interesting angle for a "nudie" film. He was eventually inspired by one of his army buddies, William Ellis Teas, who was frequently in attendance at Meyer's "Playboy" shoots. "He was a ham, he liked to pose for pictures," says Meyer. "So I said, 'We'll use Teas in a movie. We'll make him a peeping tom.' And that's it! So simple."The resulting film, The Immoral Mr. Teas, released in 1959, detailed the comical exploits of a man who imagines all the women he comes in contact with to be naked. With a storyline that was a decided cut above the usual "nudies," Mr. Teas became an immediate success. "It went gangbusters," says Meyer. "Big success. First week, we went out and bought two Cadillacs. The American dream. Enterprise. The following week we got two more cars for each of our wives. Thunderbirds."Mr. Teas was also important in that it helped break the stranglehold censorship boards exercised primarily on independent films. "We had difficulties with the film in San Diego," Meyer explains. "It was busted, because there wasn't a patch -- a bribe for police. They took it and locked it up, so we couldn't play it for a year. Then Pete had a great idea. He'd met a fellow who was on the censor board in Seattle, and he said, 'Why don't we have the censor board convene at a hotel room? I'll get a lot of dago red, spaghetti, and I've got a 16 mm print.'"It was the first time the censor board in Seattle ever looked at a film under those circumstances!" Meyer continues. "One might think there was a little hanky panky. There wasn't, they just got kind of oiled and loosened up with the wine! And they passed it completely. Then we went all over the country. We had a license to steal. We had no problems. This picture passed the censor board!"But by the mid-'60s, Meyer had moved away from the one-track "nudie" circuit. "I thought, I've got to do something else because the sheriffs are going to start busting us at the drive-ins," he says. "Kids would always crawl in, largely in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and someone would grab 'em and throw 'em out, and the parents would come wide-eyed and upset." As a result, a number of Meyer's films of the early '60s dropped in elements of violence as well as sex, kept the skin factor to a minimum, and were filmed in gritty black and white.Meyer had another hit in the mid-'60s with Motorpsycho, which laid the groundwork for Pussycat. Motorpsycho's plot revolves around the exploits of three male bikers who terrorize their community, until hunted down by a doctor seeking to avenge the rape of his wife, and the striking Haji, on the run after her husband is murdered by the trio. "Motorpsycho really made a lot of money," says Meyer. "It was a big success. So when I finished that, I talked to my wife, Eve, and said, 'Let's do one with three bad girls.' She said, 'OK, I guess it will work.'"Pussycat reversed Motorpsycho's formula; this time, it was a trio of women in sportscars who inflict the terror, indulging in drag races and games of "chicken," with a little kidnapping and murder thrown in on the side. Jack Moran wrote the script, based on a story of Meyer's. "I'm an idea person," Meyer says. "I make contributions, but it's much better if you have more than one head in there. We'd do a treatment together, kick it back and forth, have something to drink, have something to eat."Meyer met Moran when Moran was serving time in prison for forgery. "I met him through another army buddy of mine who was also in prison for forgery," Meyer explains. "He wrote me a note saying, 'There's a guy in here who writes well.' And I said, 'I would imagine so!' So when he got out I gave him a shot. I said, 'I'll hire you, and I'll pay you Screen Writers' Guild wages and what else do you need?' And he said, 'I need a bottle of Jack Daniels every day. And I need carry-out food, McDonalds or whatever, something in a bag. And then I want a cheap motel, something gritty.' And in four days he wrote it."The leader of Pussycat's trio is Varla, portrayed by the half Asian-half Native American Tura Satana. Meyer found Satana, then working as a stripper, through Haji, who also worked as a stripper and was again working with Meyer on Pussycat "When I had the opportunity to do a show where I had to have a girl that knew the martial arts, Haji said, 'I know just the one," says Meyer. "'She's a great stripper, a great chest, all the works. She's the one for you.'" It was a truly inspired piece of casting, for Satana exudes a charismatic menace simply by standing with her hands on her hips, let alone when she's delivering well-placed karate chop or breaking a hapless man's neck with her foot.During the three-week shoot, Satana also proved to be a handful for Meyer to work with. "The assistant cameraman was placed in Tura's carnal needs, which she'd made very clear to me," he says. "'I cannot work under those circumstances you seem to force upon other people. If you want me to do a good job I've got to have someone to sleep with.' [Meyer usually insisted that his cast and crew be sexually abstinent during the length of a shoot] I knew she had me, because I couldn't have found anybody else that would've done the job!"So I said, 'Who is it?'" Meyer continues. "And she said, 'That guy,' pointing to the cameraman who was manhandling a very heavy camera for me. And I said, 'Now, you've got to have a deal with me. Only once a night. He's got to get some sleep.' 'All right. You've got a deal.' Then, of course, it gave Haji a license to steal, so she ended up with one of the leading men, the younger brother. The only one I didn't have anything to worry about was the blonde [Lori Williams, who played "Billie"]. I think she was on the verge of marrying somebody."The resulting film is an exciting and revelatory experience. The sight of three women strutting across the screen, striking out at whoever crosses their path for no other reason than that they can do it is as bracing today as it was then. Consider the fuss generated by 1991's Thelma and Louise, whose protagonists inadvertently kill a man to prevent a rape attempt; the critics who were horrified by that film would undoubtedly go reeling into a coronary at the antics of the gals in Pussycat. But Meyer's unique take on female emancipation (which included hints of bisexuality and lesbianism) was too much for a "liberated" '60s audience to take."It didn't work," Meyer admits. "The film was rejected. You see, most of my distributors were little Jewish gentlemen. They had no idea what a lesbian was. It was beyond their understanding. 'Why? What is this? They seem to care for one another.' I'd say, 'Don't ask me that! Just get out there and sell it!' But it was not accepted by the populace. They liked the guys but they didn't like the girls. I couldn't understand that. So we just put it away and went on to another project."One of those subsequent projects was one of Meyer's most successful films, Vixen, released in 1968. Erica Gavin starred as the title character, a woman with an insatiable sexual appetite who seduces everyone around her, yet remains devoted to her husband. But this ostensible "skin flick" had a most unusual subplot about a conscientious objector and an Irish communist determined to hijack a commuter plane to Cuba.Though more sexually explicit than Pussycat, Vixen's sex scenes have a teasing, erotic edge to them; unlike "hardcore" skin films, Vixen leaves something to the audience's imagination. Even so, the film was released with an X rating. "That was a very strong film at the time," says Meyer. "Erica had a lot to do with it. She contributed so much to the whole thing." The film's success also attracted the interest of a "legitimate" studio: 20th Century Fox.Two producers from the studio had learned of Vixen's success, and wanted to check it out for themselves. "Zanuck said, 'I want to see it in a grindhouse,'" Meyer explains, "because he was curious that a picture could play in a grindhouse on 42nd St. and the best place on the East Side at the same time! So they went in and looked at it, and supposedly said, 'There was an ass on every seat!' That was the way he put it. And Zanuck said to his son, 'You've made Tora Tora Tora and Cleopatra and you've lost money. Why don't you give this guy a bone, throw him a bone, let him make a film.' So I was approached through an agent to make a story very quick."Such was the genesis of the classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Meyer tapped his friend, film critic Roger Ebert, to do a treatment, and then a screenplay. "I'd always been thinking of Roger to do something, so I called and said, 'I've got 5,000 bucks, it's all yours, less the air fare, come on out!'" says Meyer. "And so he came out and we put it together, the two of us, in three days. And it was sent to Cannes film festival where Zanuck was, and he liked it very much. We got $25,000 to write the screenplay. Ebert got a leave of absence for one month, came out, and wrote the script, the two of us together. I was ideas, he was ideas, but he was the one on the typewriter."The idea of doing something partially based on Valley Of The Dolls, one of the most popular books ever published (written by Jacqueline Susann), later an unintentionally campy film starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate, was part of Fox's plan. "Fox had even given the people that had done the Dolls film a chance, but they didn't like what they were coming up with," Meyer says. "It was too much like the other thing. They wanted something different. And I had a winner out there that was really making a lot of money, and that was the basis of it: 'Let's give him a shot at it and see what happens.' So we made it for a million-two. And it plays now on HBO, successful as hell. It goes and goes and goes -- I own ten percent of it and I'm pleased to be a part of it!""Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, released in 1970, is one of the most remarkable rock films ever made. The plot focuses on the rags-to-riches rise of an all-female rock band, the Kelly Affair, who move to LA and are rechristened the Carrie Nations by megalomaniac producer Ronnie Barzell. A hefty dose of sex and drugs are tossed in with the rock 'n' roll element of course, and despite innumerable plot complications, everything ties up with a happy ending. The film was also unusual in that it was the first of Meyer's films to have an accompanying soundtrack released, featuring the music of the Sandpipers (who sing the title song) and the Strawberry Alarm Clock (who appear in a party sequence). The album was released on Fox's own record label and has long been out of print.Despite the title, the film had nothing to do with Susann's Valley Of The Dolls, and was in no way a sequel. As a result, Fox ended up being sued by Susann, a problem Meyer had anticipated. "I told Zanuck, 'Just call it Russ Meyer's Dolls," he says. "You don't have to say Valley Of The Dolls; that's the kicker. You can say Beyond Dolls, and it's OK, but Valley Of... is the thing that shows. And of course, Susann was really pissed off because they'd given it to the king of the nudies!" Meyer adds that the suit is still pending, "And both of the principles [Susann and her husband] are gone!"Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls was another success, and Meyer was given another chance to work with Fox. Unfortunately, the resulting film, Seven Minutes, was a flop, and Meyer returned to making independent movies, releasing such films as Supervixens, Up!, and Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens. By the '80s, his output has slowed considerably, but the development of the home video market introduced his work to a whole new audience. His films especially found favor among rock musicians; psychobilly group the Cramps covered Faster Pussycat's theme song on their album Smell Of Female, early Seattle grunge band Green River used a picture of Satana on the label of their Dry As A Bone EP, and another Seattle group formed from the ashes of Green River, "Mudhoney," took their name from Meyer's film of the same name.Meyer now finds himself visiting film festivals around the world to talk about his work. Inevitably, people want to know what's become of Faster Pussycat's three leading ladies. "Tura is working security at a hotel in Reno," he says. Lori sells real estate. And she looks good. She holds up extremely well. They all do, for that matter. Haji is becoming an entrepreneur. She buys things from us at wholesale and sells posters and CDs and things like that. She makes quite a bit of money now. And she has a sugar daddy that takes care of her. And Erica [Vixen's star], a great lady, is in charge of a very fine clothing facility on Melrose."Though original posters and stills from Meyer's films are only available from collector's shops, Meyer sells new items through his own company, R.M. Films International. Videos are available on his "Bosomania" imprint, and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is also available on laserdisc.Two soundtrack CDs are also available, one featuring music from FasterPussycat, Lorna, and Vixen," the second featuring music from Supervixens, Up!, and Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens. And after years of seeing bootleg t-shirts, the original poster art for Faster Pussycat is now available on an official t-shirt, as well as two different posters. (Contact R.M. Films Int. at PO Box 3748, Hollywood, CA 90078, (213) 466-7791, fax (213) 461-4152).With his merchandise company, frequent public appearances, and continual work on his long-awaited autobiography, A Clean Breast, it's clear that Russ Meyer has no intention of slowing down. Try to catch him if he comes to your town; it's a great opportunity to experience a true American original.