Russ Meyer: Sexploitation's Godfather, Director Of Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!
Left: Russ Meyer in a publicity photo from the set of 'Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1970). Right: Poster art from 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' (1970). Source: wrongsideoftheart.com
Director Russ Meyer, known for Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965), Mudhoney (1965), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, (1970) and a four Vixen movies, was a director who brought a high level of artistry to what were seen as cheap exploitation films at the time of their release, but his films were far from the low-grade "nudie" flicks that he was lumped in with.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make movie is a girl and a gun. Russ Meyer would agree, but his requirements for the girl in question involve actresses of mind boggling proportions.
He learned cinematography while serving in World War II and used sex as a way to make money and get distribution, not simply to titillate. Films like Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Mudhoney are now viewed as expressions of a director working as his peak - four of his two dozen films reside in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Russ Meyer may have a been a dirty old man, but he knew what he liked.
Meyer grew up in the Depression with a domineering mother
Oakland, California in 1922 was suffering in the depression of the early 1920s. That year saw the rate of business failures triple as workers from across North America traveled to California to find any kind of job. At the same time Meyer was born to a very intense woman who insisted on breast feeding him for three years. His father, a policeman, abandoned him and his mother before Russ was born so he clung to the woman he loved until she was institutionalized. When he was 14, his mother bought Meyer his first camera on her meager nurse’s wage. From that point on, all he cared about was making movies and making money.
World War II opened his eyes
It’s an understatement to say that World War II was a life changing experience for millions of young men across the world. For Meyer, the few things left to ingrain into his psyche were hammered down during his time in battle. During the war, he filmed and photographed the battle, learning cinematography with his boots on the ground. His photography and newsreel footage was so aesthetically pleasing that it was featured in the film Patton, which turned out to be the most mainstream feature he ever participated in. While in serving in France, Meyer reportedly formed a friendship with Ernest Hemingway, who took Meyer to a house of prostitution so the young filmmaker could lose his virginity.
He took shots for Playboy early in his career
Once the war was over, Meyer started down the path of the provocateur. He took his combat photography knowledge and shifted to photographing dancers at burlesque clubs, then snapping saucy pics of his wife for early issues of Playboy. Throughout the 1950s his erotic photography work was featured in men’s magazines like Fling, Frolic, and Ogle but he was still living a double life. Meyer hid his hedonistic sensibilities while shooting industrial films for clients like Standard Oil. While working as an industrial short maker he often the equipment supplied by his clients to film his earliest work including his 1959 soft-core breakthrough Immoral Mr. Teas.
Meyer’s work flourished in the 1960s
Meyer has about two dozen films under his belt, but his films that had the greatest impact are from his so-called “Gothic” period that saw him shoot only in black and white while scaling back in locations. The films from this period -- Lorna, Mudhoney, Motorpsycho, and Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! -- all feature over the top violence, tough women, and musclebound men with rocks for brains. At the time of their release the movies were seen as quickie exploitation films (the last three were released in 1965) but they’ve come to be revered as cult classics and high art.
Like any auteur, Meyer had his obsessions. Domineering women who wanted to live fast and push men around abound in these films, as do ample busts. Meyer said that in order to grow his audience he had to start casting women with smaller frames. He told Roger Ebert:
We made a movie Erotica, that had the most incredibly built girl you've ever seen. I mean beyond belief. Hugh Hefner screened it and called me up. 'My God, Russ,' he said, 'How big is that girl?' Hef, I said, she goes right off the scale. We have to use hat sizes… The big undeveloped market for us right now is the female audience. The reason [the 1965 Danish erotic movie] I, A Woman did so well was because women wanted to see it. But a woman can't identify with an actress who's unreasonably built. My actresses will always be built but not unreasonably, you know?
Meyer was obsessed with sex, but he wanted to make good movies
The one characterization that’s attributed to Meyer as both a criticism and a compliment is that he’s obsessed with sex. The director never denied this, but he wasn’t some lascivious guy that used his films to meet women. He simply enjoyed putting his obsessions on film -- it just so happens that sex and violence were the keys to earning production money and distribution. He told Roger Ebert in 1969:
Out on the coast they have what they call beaver movies. You know. But I have never gone into this area and I never will. It's not attractive. I like good, clean, wholesome sex, strongly plotted, with a sense of humor. A lot of the second-rate guys in this field believe that if you undress a babe in front of the camera, that's sexy. They're wrong. What's sexy is the situation. You have to have the buildup, the dialog, the camera angle. You have to establish characterizations, so the scene will be convincing. You can't just let the camera run. Timing is crucial, and editing is crucial. The way you edit a scene makes it work.
‘Beyond The Valley of The Dolls’ was his step into the mainstream
Russ Meyer never made movies that would be considered “mainstream;” he just worked with larger budgets and bigger distribution deals. In 1970, 20th Century Fox came to Meyer to direct a sequel to Valley of the Dolls after his film Vixen! made $8 million on a $73,000 budget. Unlike the rest of the exploitation directors of his era, Meyer never tried to break into Hollywood -- Hollywood came to him.
To help create the structure of the film Meyer approached friend and critic Roger Ebert, another man with an appreciation for the female form. The two were given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Neither of them read the book that the original film was based on, and they barely stuck to the formula of the first movie. Meyer later said of the film, “I felt like I had pulled off the biggest caper in the world."
Even though everything about Beyond The Valley of the Dolls sounds like a disaster, it made $40 million on an alleged $2 million budget.
Meyer made a fortune off of his films
There’s not a ton of box office information about the films of Russ Meyer, but most of them were financially successful in their initial theatrical runs and when his films came back into fashion in the ‘80s and ‘90s they made even more money. Meyer held onto the rights of most of his films, so when people wanted to see them they had to come to Meyer for prints of the film or agree to rental terms, and he made millions late in life. Meyer never let go of the distribution rights for his work because he didn’t want to compromise, and as a child of the Depression he wanted to hold onto his money. He told Roger Ebert:
I invent the plots myself, usually while I'm alone in the car. I have a clipboard and a felt tip pen and I jot down things that turn me on. I assemble these situations in my mind, I imagine how they develop. Then I bring in a writer to put it into script form. But it's all right here.
He spent his final years working on an autobiography
Meyer’s cinematic output ended with the ‘70s. He briefly worked with the Sex Pistols on Who Killed Bambi? and in 1979 his final film - Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens - was released to little fanfare. It's since been praised as a cult classic. For the last two plus decades of his life Meyer worked on his three volume autobiography A Clean Breast. He finally self-published the book in 2000, and passed away in 2004 in his home in the Hollywood Hills at the age of 82. Meyer was buried in the Stockton Rural Cemetery in Stockton, California with a headstone bearing the title “King of the Nudies.”
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