Aug. 17, 2005 - Issue #513: Fringe A-Go-Go
Meyer, jugs and speed
Jimmy McDonough takes a trip down mammary lane in Russ Meyer bio Big Bosoms
and Square Jaws
There’s a great photo of Russ Meyer that author Jimmy McDonough includes in Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, his wildly entertaining new biography of the legendary American director. The picture was taken in 1952, when Meyer and his wife Eve were newlyweds; at the time, Meyer was already a well-established photographer, shooting countless strippers and burlesque queens for various men’s magazines, but the tall ‘50s bombshell Eve was his first real muse. In the photo, Eve is sitting on Meyer’s lap, and he’s giving the camera a pop-eyed grin that seems to suggest something more than just happiness; it’s as if, in that moment, Meyer made it his mission in life to make sure that he would never again be more than an arm’s length away from a gigantic pair of tits.
“He found what he liked, and he never deviated from it,” laughs McDonough over the phone from his home in Seattle. And McDonough’s book is a painstaking chronicle of Meyer’s career, his outrageous films and his all-consuming (and eventually crippling) obsession with the female breast. Even with his first feature, 1959’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (a wildly profitable low-budget comedy about a bumbling schnook who acquires the magical ability to see through women’s clothes), Meyer’s films were obviously several cuts above the grimy, dimly lit “stag films” that dominated the market: they were sharply photographed, crisply edited, had a genuinely offbeat sense of humour and featured some of the sexiest, most well-endowed women in America.
“Meyer captures some kind of X-factor about women,” McDonough says. “He just taps into some kind of innate insanity—there’s a real frenzy that he captures in his films. When he’s firing on all eight cylinders, it makes you laugh, it makes you gasp. I saw a calendar he once did of photos of Lorna Maitland, and those pictures are just burned into my retinas. There are some great girlie photographers, but with Meyer there was an extra vim and vigor; he caught these women in full flight, and they just look ready to explode. Something about him inspired these women to express themselves in a way that was really narcotic to a young guy like me.”
McDonough wasn’t the only person to be affected by Meyer’s unique style—by the late ’60s, on the strength of hits like Lorna, Motorpsycho and Vixen!, Meyer was arguably as much a brand-name director as Alfred Hitchcock. With their sexy, strong-willed heroines, overheated dialogue, melodramatic plotlines, fast-paced editing and their idealistic belief in the healing powers of good, vigourous, all-American sex as the cure for every social ill, Meyer’s films defied the censors and packed drive-ins all over the United States. These movies were unapologetically shallow, absurd and one-dimensional—but enormously fun to watch.
And in Hollywood’s bewildered, post-Easy Rider scramble to put any director on the payroll who seemed to know how to attract an audience, Meyer found himself on the 20th-Century Fox lot in 1969, making his first studio picture. Originally, Meyer had been hired to do a conventional sequel to Valley of the Dolls, but along with his new screenwriting partner Roger Ebert, Meyer created something much more wild and bizarre, a demented, polymorphously perverse, barely coherent satire of the rock music world called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. While it was a financial success, the critics savaged its gleeful vulgarity and Fox was so embarrassed to be associated with it that they parted ways with Meyer after his next film for them, a dull adaptation of the Irving Wallace bestseller The Seven Minutes.
“There’s something about the attitude of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that’s very unsettling to me,” McDonough says. “It’s so hollow—it’s kind of weird how Meyer caught a certain emptiness that I think now is just omnipresent everywhere you look. I see a lot in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that’s in the culture now whenever you turn on reality TV or you listen to the kind of assembly-line stuff that’s become the pop music of the moment. It’s all very Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and that’s not necessarily a compliment, because where has it led but Nowheresville?”
McDonough could also be referring to the direction of Meyer’s life after the mid-’70s, when more frankly pornographic sex pictures entered the mainstream and Meyer’s more retrograde films began to lose their hold on the marketplace. Besides 1975’s Supervixens—sort of an all-star curtain-call anthology featuring Meyer’s pet themes and favourite actresses—Meyer’s post-BVD output is by turns mean-spirited and unpleasant (Blacksnake, Up!) or just sloppy and shapeless (Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, the sad, last-gasp, straight-to-video Pandora Peaks); where his leading ladies were once voluptuous and exotic, now their breasts were so freakishly huge they simply seemed grotesque. Meanwhile, Meyer turned against his old associates and devoted himself obsessively to launching cranky lawsuits against journalists and pursuing absurdly grandiose projects like his 1,200-page autobiography A Clean Breast or his never-completed 17-hour autobiographical film The Breast of Russ Meyer.
“There’s some real insecurity there,” McDonough says. “I think, despite everything he said, he had a chip on his shoulder when it came to the world. I think there was a deep emptiness inside the guy, and the way to fill that up was to create all these monuments to himself. I think there’s also a fear of mortality going on there—once you’re finished a project like this, you’re done; you’ve got to get your diapers changed by the nurse in the nursing home, and who wants that?”
Sadly, that’s pretty close to the situation Meyer found himself in when he died last year at the age of 82: living in filthy conditions, isolated from his former friends and colleagues, his mind diminished by some form of senile dementia, his cinematic legacy poorly represented on video and DVD.
McDonough says he’s gotten some of the best reviews of his life for this book—as well as some of the worst. And he figures if Meyer were still around to read it, the notoriously litigious filmmaker would have had the strongest reaction of all. “He would have attacked me in every fashion he could,” McDonough says. “He was brutally honest and yet totally unaware of himself; he went through life going, ‘Nothing bothers me, I’m the iron man, I raise a big middle finger to the world.’ Which he did, but at the same, he had a lot of troubled relationships, and once he shut the door on someone, nobody was going to pry it back open. And so a book like this... God, he would have killed me with his bare hands.” V
Big Bosoms and Square Jaws
By Jimmy McDonough • Crown • 463 pp. • $37.95
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