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REEL PEOPLE: Filmmaker Profile & Top 10 Listing

RUSS MEYER: The King Of Leer
by Andrew Darlington

Was Russ Meyer an independent movie pioneer, a low-budget, blurry, hand-held cinema maverick with no production values... or just a breast-fixated old perv? Opinion remains divided, clear through to the DVD re-issue of his four-decade-old smut.

'Classic porn', is that an oxymoron - like 'military intelligence'? Can there ever be such a beast? Cheerful, soft-porn maverick Russ Meyer was one of the first to turn a profit from the 'nudie' market. In doing so, he created his own genre; his own unique niche in movie-history. But is it 'classic'..?

In the late 1960s, Jack Valenti, former special adviser to President Johnson, was appointed as the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). He immediately set about revising and updating the restrictive old 'Hays production code' with a new certification system more inline with the seismic social changes that were convulsing the zeitgeist. Accordingly, on 1st November 1968, the MPAA altered its system to something less censored, more 'rated', with a new NC-17 classification equating something a little more generous than the old 'X'-certification. Some say the film industry's subsequent transgressions were made possible by this, what was essentially an easing up of the tired old straitjacket. A liberalisation that unintentionally set off a shock-escalation its architect might have flinched from envisaging.

But, in truth, its advance-tremors had been happening for some time, with Ed Wood, with Andy Warhol, all the way up to… or down to, Russell Albion Meyer. Meyer knew a thing or three about sexploitation, and although he already had an extensive back-catalogue of celluloid pulchritude by the time of Valenti, the new code did allow his shot for the legit Hollywood big-time. Even though he blew it...

As John Landis helpfully defines it "the word 'exploitation'," comes from "something you can exploit." And when it came to bringing low-cost start-up projects to an early break-even point, and hence into quick profit, the prolific Russ Meyer shrewdly claimed there's no cheaper and more efficacious special effect than bare breasts. He was essentially an auteur director, with a minimal support team. The Warhol films - trash-infected sleaze classics such as Chelsea Girls (1966), and Flesh (1968), were actually made by Paul Morrissey using the Warhol celebrity-brand as a flag of convenience. Documenting the self-obsessed psychodramas of his own bitching Factory 'superstars', they are frequently tedious and often (whisper it) boring.

Ed Wood's fascination with Gothic SF set him effects-challenges his zero-budget projects could never realise, leaving Bride Of The Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), celebrated only for their kitsch-ineptitude. Wood's compassionately fetishistic Glen Or Glenda (1953), alone, achieves anything approaching depth by hijacking the exploitation medium as a plea for tolerance for his own transvestite tendencies. Meyer had no such problems. Realising early on that 'tits are the cheapest special effects' you can buy, he was quick to capitalise on the phenomenon, making himself a cult figure - the 'King of Leer', by merely magnifying his own breast-fixation into what became his trademark 'busomania'.

Suddenly, there was the simple opportunistic space for his mischievously single-minded 'Meyeramas'. Operating from a technological base no more sophisticated than people now use to film their holidays or upload joke footage to You-Tube, he made it bottom-line viable. He wrote, directed, edited, photographed, and distributed his own films, the revenue from the previous one financing the next. He aspired to nothing more. For the Russ Meyer sexploitation flick, so lowbrow they're no-brow, no-budget nudity became its sole focus.

Meyer was no cineaste. He never gave a damn about art-house. He didn't really care about the ethical challenge of transgressing boundaries or breaking taboos. He wasn't motivated by pioneering liberation. "If I wasn't so into tits, I probably could've been a great filmmaker," he lamented, but "if I can't have a woman with big tits, I'd rather play cards." Equally, without that fixation, he'd have lacked the motivation to become one. Spool forward, during a late-career escapade he's described - by 'Glitterbest Flunkie' Sue Steward, as "elegant as a 1950s movie star with camel coat and Clark Gable moustache."

Read the jovial crudity of Big Bosoms And Square Jaws: The Biography Of Russ Meyer by Jimmy McDonough (Jonathan Cape, 2005 / Vintage, 2006) - taking its title from his own description of his formula, and discover how this mother-dominated boy grew up in Oakland, without the influence of his absentee father, a policeman. Born on 21st March 1922, his curious career contortions began at just 14 when his doting mother, a nurse, sold her wedding ring to finance his first camera. But it's as a wartime cameraman that he learned how to shoot sniper-quickly, grabbing opportunistic Rolleiflex shots from different awkward angles, using that trusty 16mm to document the 29th Division's landing in Italy. He worked his way up through Europe, eventually reaching Paris, where he got to meet Ernest Hemingway.

During his stay the émigré writer conducted the tyro cameraman to a brothel where he lost his virginity. At a loose end, with the war safely over, Meyer found his lack of formal training barred him from union access to the Hollywood production machine, so he put his skills to work contributing 'mondo topless' pin-up stills of his loyal but long-suffering partner Eve to many magazines, including Playboy. Formerly, Eve Eugene Turner, their marriage survived from 1952 to eventual divorce in 1969, although it says something about their relationship that she continued working as Meyer's associate producer. And she conforms in every way to Meyer's ideal - sultry, blonde, and 38-24-35 buxom, their teamwork - she as model and he as cameraman, promoted each others ambitions with her teasing nude photo-spreads marketed to Modern Man, Scamp, Bold, and as 'playmate of the month' for June 1955. Not that Meyer restricted his studies to Eve. Playboy centrefold 'beat playmate' of the month for July 1959 was Roger Corman's starlet Yvette Vickers, also shot by Russ Meyer.

But stills go only so far. He wanted movement. The first of the gaggle of libidinous colour B-movies he produced through the PAD logo - The Immoral Mr Teas (1959), is often claimed as the "first skin-flick filmed in focus." Working with fellow ex-army cameraman Bill Teas as the titular door-to-door salesman, Mayer introduces generous nudity served up by bountiful buxom beauties in pastoral settings, skinny-dipping and playfully swinging from trees, but with a bonus of exaggerated humour and comic-surreal sequences. Shot on 35mm film on a four-day turnaround on a $24,000 budget (in "revealing Eastman colour") it returned a million. And its success unleashed a hundred imitations within a year. His 'unique selling point' is that for male moviegoers intent on ogling bare female bodies, there had previously only been a menu of dour 'nudist documentaries', Meyer demonstrated how nudity could also be blatant no-pretence fun.

An achievement he repeated with Eve And The Handyman (1961), with the title-role taken by his wife, and - according to his script, his mind racing "like a hotrod along the drag-strip of inspiration." He took a step back to monochrome for Lorna (1964), which adopts a satirical finger-wagging tone to legitimise its screen nudity. Then, at the El Reg Burlesque Club in L.A., Meyer happened to meet the Amazonian Tura Satana, as well as hooking up with Kitten Natividad, and Shari Eubank (the 44-inch double-D avenger). To him, they are 'fleshy firecrackers'. Their effect was life-changing. The result was Eve Productions' Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), with its tongue-in-cheek yet uncompromising narration "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence..."

Three go-go Watusi-dancers by night, become thrill-seeking delinquents by day - Billie (Lori Williams), Rosie (Haji) - adopting an odd Hispanic accent, and their martial-arts enabled leader, Varla (Tura Satana) - "a new breed of superwoman! Belted, buckled & booted!" They encounter a young couple in the Mojave Desert, while drag-racing. After killing the boyfriend (Ray Barlow) by breaking his back with her bare hands, Varla drugs, binds, gags and kidnaps his girlfriend, Linda (Susan Bernard). On a desolate highway, the four stop at a gas station, where they see a wheelchair-bound old man (Stuart Lancaster) with his muscular, dim-witted but soft-centred son, Vegetable (Dennis Busch). The pump-attendant (Mickey Foxx) explains that the old man and his two sons live on a decrepit ranch with a hidden cache of money.

Intrigued, Varla hatches a scheme to rob them. Intent on seducing the sons in an attempt to locate the money, the girls become houseguests at the ranch, not realising the lecherous old man has a few sinister intentions of his own. He tries to trick Vegetable into assaulting one of the girls as he watches, until the other son (Paul Trinka) shows up to save the day. Although, as a calculated trade-off to gain wider distribution, there's no actual nudity, just straining blouses, deep cleavages and teasing back-shots as they shower in crisp black and white photography, the three super-hot chicks in the desert leave a trail of bodies in their curvaceous wake.

It's what McDonough calls a cartoon world of "criminally abundant women" on a spree of sex and murder. Tura Satana (1938-2011), of mixed Filipino-Cheyenne parentage, pretty much created her own extreme role around Jack Moran's vestigial screenplay, supplying her own double-entendre gag ad-libs. Elsewhere, she dated Elvis Presley, could be glimpsed with Jack Lemmon in Irma la Douce (1962), and appeared in TV's The Man From UNCLE. But it's Faster, Pussycat... that made her iconic. With music supplied by the Bostweeds, the movie has entered pop-culture mythology, and would later be referenced by the Spice Girls in one of their videos.

Now, the Russ Meyer template was intact. All the ingredients were in place. Interviews with colleagues and friends such as John Waters and critic Roger Ebert suggests that his vision of free love and athletic sex was as active off-screen as it was on. His films are exploitational - how could they be anything else? Yet they specialise in a worms-eye view, shooting breasts from below, which oddly empowers the buxom over-endowed Amazons on-screen. Women are forces of nature, men are scuzz-bags defined by their lust. There's no pretext or moral justification for its violence. Varla needs no justification for beating up un-likeably spineless men. Something that Quentin Tarantino must already have been taking notes on, picking up influences that would emerge as far along the timeline as his Kill Bill movies.

Vixen (1968) is a charmless tale of an unpleasant racist strumpet in the Canadian bush, attempting to cuckold her husband at every opportunity. There's violence, fun-lesbianism and brother-sister incest in the shower. And the men just can't measure up. "You're taking too long," she complains when his seduction technique can't match her urgent needs. There's a... kind of plotline, an obvious attempt to personalise and elevate the film above generic porno. The sex scenes may be all rolling eyes, with equine sound effects, nightmarish close-ups of uncontrollable pubic topiary and way-too-much mascara, but - banned in 23 states, its notoriety was already assured, and it grossed some 2,000 times its cost.

Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1969), stays true to Mayer's distinctive vision where the action continues unabated with pneumatic cartoonish sex and violence as usual. Horny women enthusiastically make love to each other, as men smash each other to pulp. Playfully, teasingly, only partially restrained by the conventions of its time, Meyer develops a talent for hinting at what he's not allowed to portray on-screen, with showerheads used as phallic stand-ins... as well as bedposts, candlesticks, and in the later films, painfully-huge dildos. Character-actor Charles Napier, by his own description "square jaw and big heart," had already appeared as an interstellar hippie in the Star Trek episode The Way To Eden (he played Adam!).

He recalls something of Meyer's spontaneous production techniques. Napier was accompanying his then girlfriend to an audition with Meyer. "I walked in, and (Meyer) basically said 'what the hell are you doing here?' And I said 'well, she doesn't feel comfortable around you'. And he said, 'do you feel comfortable around me?' And I said, 'about as far as I can throw ya'. And I wound up in a movie." Napier was cast as a sheriff involved in drug smuggling, but his responsibilities stretched to more than just acting. "We took two cameras, (Meyer) handheld both of them, edited all of them, and I did all the stunts, I did all the car driving, I did all the makeup and that shit." The arrangement worked so well he was cast again by Meyer in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970), and The Seven Minutes (1971).

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) was Mayer's failed attempt to take his obsessions above ground. The first of only two films he got to make for a mainstream Hollywood studio. Taking advantage of Jack Valenti's loosening up of what the MPAA allowed, and with an eye to the new counter-culture youth market, 20th Century Fox assumed they'd get a sequel to their lugubrious movie of Jacqueline Susann's novel Valley Of The Dolls (1967). It's not. In fact the lead-in says as much, this is "a different time and context."

Instead, critic Philip French calls it "a loony camp comedy about three raunchy girls" (played by former Playboy centrefolds), bent on making it as an all-girl rock trio in Hollywood. After playing the Westmoor senior prom, wide-eyed innocent auburn-haired singer Kelly (Dolly Read), guitarist Casey, black drummer Pet, and loyal male roadie Harris are paid $300, and pass around a celebratory joint (although Cherry, Harry & Raquel carries an anti-marijuana voiceover). They decide to take a 'groovy' trip to L.A., the land of "perverts, fruits, swingers and kooks." Accompanied by flower-power gentle-people songs and stoned-Beat poetry they fetch up at the Pacific Surf Motel where Kelly seeks out her rich aunt, Susan Lake. Introduced to poetic-poser and rock teen-tycoon Ronnie Z-Man (John LaZar), they attend his freak-party where "all are available, for a price." Strawberry Alarm Clock play their #1 single Incense & Peppermint. "This is my happening and it freaks me out," Ronnie enthuses. "Oh, it's a stone gas, man," Kelly agrees.

As an attempt to jump the hippie music-bandwagon, Meyer painfully obviously doesn't get it, but his understanding of the lowlife oddballs who populate the music industry's periphery is spot-on. Soon the Carrie Nations Band are really getting it together, with a gold disc for their album Look On Up At The Bottom. Only to have their upwardly-mobile career corrupted by the iniquities of the music industry as Kelly hooks up with evil Lance Rock, Pet with black lawyer Emerson (ensuring there's no inter-racial sex), while poor neglected Harris is propositioned by a porno-actress, "you're a groovy boy, I'd like to strap you on some time."

Then, despite proclaiming "our generation fights the sex revolution," infidelity and casual sex tear them apart. The comic pacing takes in the gloopiest dialogue, trippy sequences, girl-on-girl action, and even fey boy-snogs-boy too. Until Casey has an abortion, Harris' failed suicide leaves him in a wheelchair, and it turns out that Ronnie has breasts! In the bloodbath climax Ronnie, fancy-dressed as Superwoman, beheads Lance with a sword - "you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance," and skewers token-Nazi Otto ("an end to Martin Bormann," he cries, despairingly). The morally uplifting tack-on ending shows how the power of Kelly's love cures Harris and they return home together, wiser. Although "the road back is painful" it leads to a comfortably conformist triple-marriage ceremony.

Can there ever be such a beast as 'classic porn'? Scripted by Roger Ebert - leading film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, with Meyer's active collusion, this is now considered something of a cult movie, even the Stu Phillips soundtrack album with songs that "spread love across the land... we're the only ones who understand," has become a highly-collectible item. Sometimes cult can come in strange disguises. But just as he was running the risk of losing his independence in the 'belly of the beast', with whatever mainstream ambitions he harboured answered by his Hollywood ventures, Meyer returned underground to what he knew, and loved best, for the central instalment of what must now be termed 'Russ Meyer's Vixens Trilogy' (for its 2005 Arrow Films DVD box-set edition).

No pretensions, no ambitions, simply Meyer's ongoing single-minded preoccupations. As the opening credits scroll for Supervixens (1975), a Nazi marching band soundtracks cheerily over a gas station setting. Clint, a young horny attendant is on the phone to his lavishly endowed wife, SuperAngel, who happens to be sprawled decoratively on the bed, stroking her pussy(cat). "Honey, we're out of cat food," she mews. "Well, go to the store and get some," he responds dumbly. "I'm not dressed," she pouts, nude and now straddling the bedpost, "and besides, I'm lonely. Why don't you come home?" By now Clint is ogling a regulation-Meyer top-heavy customer who is bending provocatively over the pump, his crotch bulging in close-up, "er, we're getting busy here."

The boobilicious customer coos "got any paper towels, handsome," with the implication that she has more than paper towels on her mind. Picking up the new voice SuperAngel demands "who's that?" He plays for time, "hang on honey, I've gotta get something for a customer." Angel fondles her nipples in annoyance, "Clint! Who the fuck was that?" ... "No-one. Just a customer. You make her look like a boy." Somewhat misleadingly, as the girl is go-go dancing in white hot-pants, and jiggling her exaggerated mammary assets. Not to be outdone, Angel sits with legs akimbo, cooing "well, come on home stud, 'cos SuperAngel's got a super need for you..." establishing the tone of the action to come.

Soon, SuperAngel is seeking consolation in an afternoon-delight clinch with a date who turns out to be no-good Harry Sledge - a stone-cold psychotic cop with erectile dysfunction. She ridicules his impotence, his inability to achieve an erection. He furiously rejects her attempts at oral stimulation as 'faggot' games, then batters and stomps her to death with disturbingly extreme and unsettling violence, which is where the plot picks up. The tale becomes the decent guy framed for a murder he didn't commit, as Clint hitch-hikes across America intent on avoiding trouble, but finds himself pitched from one ludicrous over-the-top sexual insanity into another, climaxing in a laugh-out-loud (or at least a puerile sniggering!) confrontation as the deranged cop lobs loony-tunes sticks of dynamite at him off a cliff.

Of course it's utterly outrageous. Elsewhere, Meyer's fondness for using racial stereotyping as a form of comic cartoon shorthand can be disturbing, here the barmy old Nazi is played strictly for laughs. The violence is offensively unpleasant. But there's a fun-silliness that, for the most part, works. With the not-particularly-subtle subtext, for those who care to draw such conclusions, that America is a nation of closet weirdos.

As Meyer's career continues, with his directorial skills becoming more acutely-honed, there's more outdoor sex in UP! (1976), and anal sex in Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens (1979), as though he's finally conceding that breasts alone are insufficient to carry the entire movie. Sometimes quoted as Meyer's finest, with jump-cut shots at a postmodern structure that styles itself as cultural satire, as a glimpse beneath the surface of Everytown USA, '..Ultravixens' comes with Meyer's regular ensemble cast of pervy stereotypes. The moronic Lamarr is trying to cure himself of his fixation with anal sex, while his wife takes her attentions elsewhere. Here, Meyer shifts the weirdness rating off the scale. Different coloured blood for every character, unnecessary close-ups of shoes, radio knobs, and what is probably the screen's biggest pubic close-up, with Meyer himself appearing at the end as narrator with a camera over his shoulder.

Are they good films? No, of course not... That's barely the point. Did he exploit women? None of the women he worked with have a bad word to say about Meyer. He loves their body-shapes, doesn't he? He makes them into (almost) movie stars, doesn't he? And there are always girls eager to get naked to advance their careers. Not even feminist Camille Paglia was entirely immune to Meyer's celluloid charms; after all, his two-fisted hyper-heroines are all about female empowerment, aren't they? And his reputation still occasionally attracts the attentions of mainstream oddities. He was considered by Malcolm McLaren as potential director for the Sex Pistols movie project then called 'Who Killed Bambi' (it later evolved into The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle). Meyer did shoot test-footage, including an appearance by Sting, even though it was later edited-out.

Meyer died 18 September 2004, aged 82, from pneumonia complications. During his lengthy and prurient career he produced some 26 fun-movies in total, bulging with cinematic sensuality and a screen-obsession with big tits and hooker's lips. No classics. So did he end up a sad creep? No, he lived his dream, pretty much as he wanted to live it, with no regrets. 'Classic porn' is probably an oxymoron anyway - like 'military intelligence'. Instead he worked on the premise that most people, throughout their lives, will never get to see other people having sex. So when they do get to see it on screen - even low-budget, blurry, hand-held, with no production values, they'll tend to look. So - cinematic maverick, or breast-fixated old perv, opinion remains divided, clear through to the DVD re-issue of all that four-decade-old smut.

BIG BOSSOMS & SQUARE JAWS: A Top 11 Listing [size 10 too small? -Ed]

Supervixens (1975)
Meyer's cartoon-intent is made explicit towards the end, when Sledge's (Charles Napier) impending death is preceded by a Road Runner-style 'beep-beep'. Napier takes it further with a double-take facial gesture to camera, direct to the audience.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
"Russ Meyer's ode to the violence in women! Filmed in glorious black & blue." This reverses the male bad-guy biker trio of Motor Psycho, with three "Superwomen! Belted, buckled & booted," to create what is maybe Meyer's most enduring film.

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)
L.A. session-singer Lynn Carey provides the real vocals for the on-screen Carrie Nations to lip-sync to, back-up harmonies include Sandi Robinson of psychedelic folk-rock group Peanut-Butter Conspiracy. With a soundtrack by Stu Philips, the theme-song is performed by The Sandpipers, with Strawberry Alarm Clock adding Girl From The City and I'm Comin' Home. An original vinyl LP used re-recorded song-versions by Ami Rushes, a 2003 CD (Harkit) reinstates the soundtrack originals.

The Immoral Mr Teas (1959)
"A Frenchy comedy for unashamed adults" in "revealing Eastman colour." Considered to be the first commercially viable American 'skin flick', this shows female nudity without the pretext of Naturism. 'Teas' is a play on tease, with a surreal dentist visit fuelled into surrealism by the anaesthetic, with the extraction of a giant tooth and a nude dental nurse (Marilyn Wesley).

Vixen! (1968)
"Is she woman... or animal?" - with Erica Gavin as sexually voracious Vixen who seduces everyone, including her own brother (Jon Evans), while her wilderness-guide husband Tom (Garth Pillsbury) is away in the mountains. Given an X-rating, this was Meyer's breakthrough movie, with clumsy satire extending to incest, racism, and the threat of creeping communism.

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1970)
With blonde Larissa Ely as Raquel), Linda Ashton as Cherry, and the first appearance of Charles Napier - as the Californian border sheriff and dope-smuggler Harry. Uschi Digard appears as the narrator dressed only in Apache headdress.

The Seven Minutes (1971)
From a novel by Irving Wallace, "an explosive film, about a banned book, a rape, and a trial that tore a town apart," this dramatises the pornography versus free speech debate. It features Meyer's then-wife Edy Williams, plus Charles Napier, a young Tom Selleck, and legendary deejay Wolfman Jack.

Wild Gals Of The Naked West (1962)
"A SINtillating, titillating, rollicking, raucous romp in the wild & swinging west."

Lorna (1964)
"Ever wonder why wives wander?" Upgrading to 35mm film, with Lorna Maitland as the unsatisfied wife seeking extramarital pleasure, this was a major technical step forward for Meyer.

Mudhoney (1965)
Based on a Depression-era novel by Raymond Friday-Locke, this features Lorna Maitland again (as Clara Belle), and soon-to-be Meyer regular John Furlong (1933-2008).

Motor Psycho (1965)
With Russ Meyer himself as the sheriff, this is about a veterinarian's wife raped by three 'cycle-maniac' bikers led by a sadistic Vietnam vet (Stephen Oliver). The veterinarian (Alex Rocco) then teams up with Cajun Ruby Bonner (as Haji) whose husband was killed by the hoodlums, to hunt them down. Styled as a 'thriller' this is maybe Meyer's last conscious attempt at making a 'proper' movie.
Russ Meyer


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

The Immoral Mr Teas


Cherry, Harry and Raquel

The Seven Minutes

Wild Gals of the Naked West



Motor Psycho

Russ Meyer DVD collection

Russ Meyer with camera

Premonitions in paperback - click to order

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