Behind that mountain of oversized tits-and-ass that make up his “body” of work is an extremely intelligent, charming, and funny man, well-versed in cinema history and pop culture.
My first sight of Russ Meyer live was in 1974, when I interviewed him at his Hollywood office. Meyer has always been the complete auteur, doing everything on his films from the writing to editing to cinematography, even hauling his Arriflex camera up a hillside for one of the films. So I wasn’t surprised when he answered the door himself. I didn’t expect him to be wearing only red jockey shorts and a large number of filmstrips draped over his shoulders. He was friendly but a bit frantic, in the midst of editing Supervixens.
What I remember most about that interview, though, was Meyer’s verbal facility. Behind that mountain of oversized tits-and-ass that make up his “body” of work is an extremely intelligent, charming, and funny man, well-versed in cinema history and pop culture. What distinguishes him from the parade of shlockmeisters who’ve mined much of the same territory is that he’s good. Unlike gorehounds like Herschel Gordon Lewis and kitschy showmen like William Castle, Meyer had formal training in industrial photography; that, along with his innate artistic gifts, makes his films stand far above the usual grindhouse fare that people associate him with. Though he’s a tireless self-promoter and can talk endlessly about the marketing aspects of his films, Meyer’s drive is basically aesthetic. While he has never lacked for audiences (and controversy), you get the feeling if he were stranded on a desert island he’d find some way to make a movie.
I spoke with him again in 1995 in connection with the re-release of one of his masterpieces, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! (See review.) He told me was exhausted from being on the road doing promotion on the film for the last six weeks. I asked him why he hadn’t come to Cincinnati, where anti-smut crusader and Bible-thumping thief Charles Keating made it impossible to show the softcore Vixen there twenty years ago. He said, “I’d come to see Poindexter hanging by the scrotum. You know who I mean … Keating.” I told him I thought Keating probably was hanging by the scrotum — in jail. Meyer laughs now about embezzler Keating’s desperate attempts to put him in “the slammer” over Vixen.
I mention another local name Meyer recalls with relish — sexophobic county prosecutor Simon Leis, whose attacks on Meyer helped brand Cincinnati as a cultural backwater. “Simon Leis,” he repeats it slowly. “It sounds like the name of someone who stabbed Christ. The name bespeaks evil!” He’s mellowed enough to laugh when I tell him that Leis is still a fixture in Cincinnati and still out of control.
Faster Pussycat was shot in crisp black and white — “an economic decision,” according to Meyer. The actresses, as in most of his films, were culled from “the strip clubs of Los Angeles and Playboy magazine.” Among the treasures they yielded for Faster Pussycat were Tura Satana, Lori Williams, and Meyer regular Haji. This film was initially less successful than its all-male prequel Motor Psycho, but has become an integral part of the Meyer legend. It was done at his wife Eve’s suggestion; no surprise at a time when every male action film instantly triggered a low-budget all-female alternative.
The most vivid image in Faster Pussycat is the ruthless lead Tura Satana. The well-named Satana was apparently as powerful and demanding on the set as she is in the film. Meyer recalls their fights over how to play a scene, which inevitably ended with him reminding her that he had the last word, that they could shoot a scene many ways but he would construct it as he chose in the editing room. He remembers that she eventually became too busy with one of the crew members (“three or four times a night!” he says wistfully) to give the beleaguered director more trouble. Unlike most of Meyer’s actresses, Satana owns some part of the exhibition rights — in Europe — to her only classic film.
Many fans are aware that Meyer collaborated with critic Roger Ebert on the script for the notorious sex ‘n’ sleaze epic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But according to Meyer, Ebert also helped write Supervixens, Beyond the Valley of the Ultravixens, and Up! “We worked well together and became good friends,” Meyer says. Ever the individualist, Meyer disliked working for a major studio (Fox) onBeyond the Valley of the Dolls and a second film, The Seven Minutes. The amount of overhead was “wasteful and ridiculous” for a man who could make a $90,000 film (Supervixens) look like a multi-million dollar production. He soon returned to independent filmmaking, then spent much of the 1980s and 1990s overseeing his vast softcore empire — the distribution of his hefty catalog of films.
The long-awaited The Breast of Russ Meyer, which threatened to be a hugely expensive coffee table book and many hours of complementary videos, appears to have been shelved, but Meyer remains busy. Though he seems disinclined to direct any more features in his familiar style, and spends a lot of time cooking and watching sports on tv, he is working on a variety of projects — photo shoots for Playboy,something called Meyer’s Pulp, and some “personal” videos (shot in 35mm) with actresses whose improbable names Meyer pronounces with fiendish glee: “Pandora Peaks” and “Melissa Mounds.”