Up Russ Meyer
Credit: Everett Collection

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

I usually make a point of not commenting on movies that haven’t been made yet, regardless of how promising they may sound. Yet when I learned that director David O. Russell, coming off The Fighter, was in negotiations with Fox Searchlight over the possibility of directing a feature film based on the life of Russ Meyer, the eccentric king of ’60s and ’70s sexploitation B movies, I thought, “Wow, now that is a film I’d love to see!” It sounded like it could be the Ed Wood of sleaze, a celebration of the raw and vital trash underground of American filmmaking.

When people hear the name “Russ Meyer,” they tend to think of one thing. Or, to put it a bit more literally, two things. Oversize ones. That come in pairs. He made his first, pioneering burlesque-circuit movie, The Immoral Mr. Teas (a surprisingly clever peep-o-rama fantasy about a milquetoast who can see through women’s clothes), in 1959, and from that point on Russ Meyer, in his scuzzy and just-under-the-radar-of-the-mainstream way, was to movies what Hugh Hefner was to magazines: an all-American breast fetishist who depicted women as buxom, voracious playthings — fleshy objects with moving parts. The breasts seemed to balloon, year by year, as his career went on, yet Meyer’s Vixens, unlike Hefner’s Bunnies, weren’t the girls next door. They were shining-eyed evil-angel goddesses with a taste for the extreme. In the frenzied, overripe universe of Meyer’s crazy, jacked-up movies, it was the women who were often in control. By the time the ’60s arrived, Meyer was combining sex and violence, pandering to the appetites of a newly permissive, thrill-seeking counterculture. And that was no accident, since it was Meyer’s outlaw spirit that helped to define the limits of what that culture was.

His 1965 go-go-dolls-go-nutzoid classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, was a fever dream of feminized power, all built around the black-and-white image of Tura Satana, a bizarrely furious and cackling mannequin of an actress in black bangs and geisha make-up, who boasted what was possibly the most lethal snarl the movies had ever seen. As Varla, a stripper–turned–desert drag racer on the warpath, she was like Morticia Addams as a kung-fu bitch played by a homicidal Raquel Welch. Tura Satana died just a little over a month ago (she was 72), and here’s a taste of her kick-ass majesty:

Faster, Pussycat! is great fun for about 45 minutes. I’ve always found, after that, that it grows repetitive and tiresome. Yet it’s a movie that has profoundly influenced filmmakers from John Waters to Quentin Tarantino, and in a strange way it looks more visionary as time goes on. Even as late as the ’80s, its kamikaze women, shot in Meyer’s sophisticated primitive skewed-angle style, seemed like the stuff of kitsch. But with each passing year, it’s become clearer that Meyer, in his comic-book transgressive way, foresaw — before anyone else — the age of female indomitability. That’s what makes him so paradoxical, as both a filmmaker and a man.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

He started out as a combat photographer in World War II, and once he’d turned to making low-budget sex films, he never let go of that basic, ’50s-retrograde, ordinary-Joe desire to ogle. Yet where the vast majority of softcore pornographers reassured their audiences — and turned them on — by portraying women as passive vessels, it was Meyer’s bizarre inspiration to infuse female sexuality with a man’s thrusting aggression, effectively flipping the male gaze on its head. When it came to knocking boots, you could say that he was the world’s most outrageously retrograde feminist. He invented his own circus-freakshow version of swinging sexuality, then pushed it so far that he became a kind of drive-in-movie auteur-renegade.

His career came in fascinating phases, as he rode the tidal wave of erotic energy that erupted in the hippie era. He started out working in “nudie-cutie” films (a genre that the young Francis Coppola took a dabble in too), then made Faster, Pussycat!, then found his “mature” style with Vixen! in 1968. He then became the only sex filmmaker in history to be granted a lavish studio contract when he was invited to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) for 20th Century Fox. That movie, written by a young film critic named Roger Ebert, remains one of the flukiest cult films of all time — a bizarrely baroque sex/camp/rock & roll/soap-opera burlesque, a movie that doesn’t so much parody the world of Jacqueline Susanne as put it through a psychedelic meat grinder.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Then came Meyer’s underground return to form with Supervixens (1971), followed by what, for me, may be the most arresting (and underrated) phase of his career, kicked off by the jaw-droppingly perverse erotic fairy tale Up! (1976), which was like Smokey and the Bandit, Li’l Abner, Sam Peckinpah, and the postwar legend of Adolf Hitler all thrown together into a raunchy redneck stew, topped off by dialogue and narration as florid as anything from the zaniest Coen brothers outing. (The movie also featured what may be his most spectacular siren, Raven De La Croix, who was like Vivien Leigh by way of Little Annie Fanny.) With his movies now trumped by hardcore pornography, Meyer shot everything, from fornication in the great outdoors to the cooking of a hamburger to the sodomization of the Führer, so that it was heightened, obscenely energized, in your face. As for sex, it had become pure, gymnastic expressionism. The whole screen seemed to rock and shudder and vibrate. Meyer’s films were becoming the fantasies of a dirty old man drunk on the surreal fizzy-pop possibilities of movies.

Who could play Russ Meyer? He was in his forties and fifties when he made the films he’s best known for, and we don’t seem to have actors any more who look the way that he did: the jowliness and wholesome perv twinkle, the Mr. Whipple mustache he wore like a badge of squareness. Just about the only actor I can think of who has not just his look but his aspect is the Dabney Coleman of 20 years ago. If I squint, I can sort of see John C. Reilly in the part, but I think that what David O. Russell — assuming he does the movie at all — is really going to want is an inspired wild card of an actor, the kind who could play a blustery lug like Meyer by taking the sort of imaginative leap that Johnny Depp brought to the fuddy-duddy Edward D. Wood Jr. I vote for someone like Chris Cooper, or maybe Dennis Quaid, or even Russell’s most recent partner in eccentric inspiration, Christian Bale. (Yes, he’s too young and too skinny. But we’ve all seen the way this guy can transform.)

Beyond that, I’d like to offer a few casting tips for a Russ Meyer movie, which I’m tentatively entitling Beyond the Valley. They are:

Katherine Heigl as Tura Satana. You may think that she doesn’t look the part — but listen, Tura Satana didn’t look the part either until she put on that Bettie Page-gone-kabuki hair and makeup. Heigl’s problem in romantic comedies is her slightly glassy distance, and the anger beneath it. If she let that anger out and dressed it in a punk bodysuit, it might free her as an actress.

Anne Hathaway as Erica Gavin. The star of Vixen! was Meyer’s first innocent/sultry superstar, and Hathaway has her look, as well as the complex allure to play a layer-cake angel-gone-devil.

Woody Harrelson as Charles Napier. The jut-jawed character actor appeared in three Meyer films, and Harrelson would be perfect embodying his straight-arrow goofiness.

Jack Black as Roger Ebert. Even before he was our most famous film critic, Ebert was one of the world’s great talkers (how else do you think he got to write a studio script for Russ Meyer?), and Black, if he can keep the hamminess in check, could nail that.

Scarlett Johansson as Eve Meyer. An extraordinary beauty, she was married to Meyer from 1955 to 1970 and produced most of his films until her death in a runway plane crash in 1977. If anyone knew him, it was this stunner of an actress, model, and businesswoman.

You may now be asking: Okay, so Russ Meyer was a trailblazer of exploitation cinema — why does that make him a worthy subject of a major Hollywood movie? My first answer is that when you look back at the great exploitation filmmakers, like Meyer or Herschell Gordon Lewis (who created the splatter film in 1963), they may, by definition, have been out to make a buck, yet there’s an extraordinary audacity to their best work. They may not have been artists, but they had the souls of artists, even when they were as untalented as Ed Wood. (That’s the whole joke of Ed Wood.) Meyer directed, edited, photographed, and distributed most of his films. He was the truest of independents — a horndog voyeur with a vision. But, of course, the way that exploitation filmmakers work is that, in the very casualness of their mercenary opportunism, they’re forced to tap directly into people’s fantasies, and so they end up channeling whatever’s out there. And the best of them, like Russ Meyer, channel big things. Not just big breasts but big dreams, seismic changes in our underlying attitudes about sex, fashion, violence, women, power. Today, more than ever, Russ Meyer’s movies look like lusty cartoon bulletins from a revolution. They are and always will be over-the-top, which is why I’d love to see a movie about him that isn’t.

So who besides me would like to see a movie about Russ Meyer? And what’s your favorite Meyer film?

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
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