King of the Boobies: Russ Meyer

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For the first time ever here at SK, we have a male for our "Vintage Inspiration" model, and although many consider him to be a lech and a pervert, but to me, Russ Meyer was a role model. Well-known for introducing the softcore porn genre to mainstream audiences, Meyer not only created a signature style to his films, but Meyer exemplified the term "independent filmmaker".

If there was one body part (or two) that Russ Meyer would be associated with, it is well known to all who have ever viewed one of his films-boobies, and big ones. Meyer liked actresses that were ample breasted, and were not talking about double D's here; no, we're talking about F, G, and H-cups, if such bra's exist. He made no bones about it, either, Meyer loved boobs, and giant ones at that. The bigger the better. Some call him "King of the Nudies", but he could just as easily be called "King of the Boobies."

A skilled military cameraman, Meyer created his own genre of films and continued to re-invent himself several times over his 20+ year career, he is both controversial and celebrated due to the content, style, and fast-paced editing of his films. Laying the groundwork for the "nudie-cuties" genre of B-films with his 1959 classic The Immoral Mr. Teas, Meyer inspired hundreds of copycat films and filmmakers, but none has ever surpassed his style and craftsmanship. Later on, Meyer would contribute to the "roughie" genre of the 60's and the softcore genre of the 70's. A true auteur, Meyer produced, wrote, financed, and directed almost all of his own films, with the exception of two that were funded by 20th Century Fox and written by outside sources. Meyer's work continues to live on, unlike many of the directors and films from his generation, and is constantly finding new audiences thanks to the timeless appeal of his films.

Meyer started his career with the Burlesque film craze in the 1950's, when he shot footage of the legendary Tempest Storm at the El Rey Theatre in Oakland, California. He caught the eye of theater owner Pete DeCenzie, who'd been impressed with Meyer's work and professionalism. DeCenzie offered Meyer $12,000 to make a color feature with female nudity. Meyer used the money to direct The Immoral Mr. Teas, the first film of what would begin the "nudie-cutie" genre. Shot in five days with a mostly improvised script and starring Meyer's wife, Eve, Mr. Teas went on to gross more than $1 million theatrically. Although it was essentially a silent film with a voice-over narrative, the film became a pivotal production in Adults Only history and spawned over 150 copycat films in just three years following its release. The film contained more nudity than ever seen before onscreen and was busted at a screening in San Diego; the first of many times Meyer would have to defend his work against obscenity charges.

By 1964, the "nudie-cutie" genre had been exhausted and Meyer took it upon himself to re-invent his filmmaking style, which led to the second phase of his career with the "roughies" genre. Influenced by the turbulent times of the 60's, these films were rife with hardcore violence, rape, and murder. No longer were the women portrayed as sex goddesses leading on harmless men, but as victims of the worst kinds of crime. Once again, Meyer is credited for kicking off this period of films with his 1964 production Lorna, about a backwoods blonde who's raped by an escaped convict while her faithful husband is away at work. Lorna was followed by Mudhoney (1965), the ultra-violentMotorpsycho (1965), and what is considered to be Meyer's signature film, 1966's Faster Pussycat!Kill!Kill! Ironically, in this genre of violence against women, Faster... is now considered to be a feminist classic and lead character Varla (Tura Satana) is called "Meyer's boldest statement yet that women are sexually and intellectually superior to men." In fact, Faster... was a box office bomb when it was originally released, earning the least amount of money of all of his features, but today is his most memorable and marketed title.

By this time, many of Meyer's familiar motifs punctuated his films such as the moralistic voice-over narration, backwoods locations, and of course, large-breasted women as central characters. Meyer hand-picked most of his female leads out of strip clubs and preferred that they had little or no acting experience. He demanded that his casts also work as crew on his films to save money, and many of these glamorous sex-kitten type women were forced to carry equipment, work sound booms, and slave through 15 to 20 hour days. He filmed in remote locations to keep production costs low and to minimize the risk of rousing the attention of authorities for photographing nudity in public.

The introduction of the ratings system in 1968 gave directors the freedom to brand their film with an X rating without having it viewed by a panel and gave way to the softcore porn genre. Meyer's 1968 production Vixen was a milestone film in that it was one of the first to carry an X rating and was the first skin-flick to break into quality first-run theaters. Like many of Meyer's movies, it carries a moral message against racists, draft dodgers, and communists while telling the story of a sexually charged woman. Shot on a budget of just $72,000, Vixen grossed over $7.5 million at the box office and became one of the first skin flicks that appealed to both men and women. Vixen's popularity paved the way for the successes of such 70's fare as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, while finally forcing the major studios to take notice of Meyer.

Meyer was commissioned by 20th Century Fox to make a sequel to Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, the soap-opera-y Patti Duke vehicle that had been a hit in 1968. He hired a young Chicago Sun-Times writer by the name of Roger Ebert to pen the script after seeing a piece Ebert had written praising Meyer's work. The result was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, clearly not a sequel to the original, but a unique sexploitation-horror-musical-thriller about a girl band struggling to become successful in Hollywood. Grossing $10 million on a $1 million budget, the film is considered to be a cult classic today with its catchy soundtrack and feminist overtones. (Any feminists who've bashed Meyer's work have obviously never seen BVD, a film in which all the female characters are intelligent and ambitious.) Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is Meyer's favorite of all his films and is undoubtedly his most professional looking.

One more production for Fox, The Seven Minutes (1971) was a flop and Meyer returned to his independent ways. His first R-rated feature, Blacksnake! (1972)told the story of a slave uprising on a 19-th century Caribbean island, but that was also a flop, so Meyer returned to the sexploitation films his audiences loved best. Supervixens was pure Meyer-esque sex and violence, followed by UP! (1977), much of the same, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultrvixens (1979), was his last theatrical release. By the time the 80's rolled around, hardcore porn had weaseled its way into the foreground and Meyer, refusing to make hardcore films, was losing money. Smartly, he decided to throw in the towel just as the video-era took over.

Always the shrewd businessman, Meyer retired from filmmaking with an advantage very few directors have--with the exception of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes, he owned the sole rights to all his films. In keeping with the video age, he set up RM Films International and released 13 of his films himself on video. He retains all the profits from the sale of his videos himself, and refused to give discounts for wholesalers or video stores. He passed away last year, in 2004, after a battle with Parkinson's disease, but his legacy lives on.

I became a fan of Meyer's work after seeing Faster Pussycat! Kill!Kill! and immediately declaring it my favorite movies ever. Though many of his works contain sexist and misogynist tones, I have always been able to see Meyer's love and respect for women in his works. Though the women in his films have giant breasts and are over-sexualized, more often than not, they have strong personalities and know how to control men. His films almost always have political messages and deal with the battle of the sexes in ways never presented onscreen before. Often his female characters are unlike any we've ever seen before and his stories always revolve around women. Women are the central characters in all of his films and they are often the sexual aggressors, not men. Perhaps, this is why I find his films to be so revolutionary, especially for their time.

Like a great pop star, Meyer re-invented himself repeatedly throughout his twenty year as a filmmaker and wound up being one of the most recognized independent filmmakers in history. His films rarely lost money and four of them continue to hold a place among the top-grossing American films of all time. Meyer's contribution to the world of exploitation film is unsurpassed. As Roger Ebert has stated"...in a genre overrun by sleazo cheapies, he was the best technician and only artist."

Libby

 

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