The Breast of Russ Meyer
The Chicago Psychotronic Film Society hosted a birthday party for Russ Meyer at the now defunct International Cinema Museum on Erie Street. Over 400 people attended, Roger Ebert did the introduction (which follows) and Michael Flores asked the questions on stage. Tony from The Green Mill was the onstage bartender, making Beefeater Gin martini’s for Russ and Mike. Debbie (now with Bella Luna) and Rachel from the all girl band Hot Heels brought out a birthday cake. We all sang Happy Birthday.
Roger Ebert: Russ Meyer received his first motion picture camera at the age of 14-his mother pawned her engagement ring to get it for him. That one simple loving act would lead to a cinema career that would change Hollywood, challenge censorship in the United States and create one of America’s greatest directors. My thanks to Lydia for believing in him.
World War II began, and Russ joined the 166th Signal Photographic Corps where he filmed Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton. You can see his newsreel
footage in the 1970 film Patton. Luckily for Russ, the war also gave him the chance to lose his virginity in a brothel courtesy of Ernest Hemingway.
At the end of the war an Army buddy, Don Ortiz, suggested he shoot pin-ups for the rash of Playboy imitators flooding the country. Issues of Adam are still sought after by collectors if his photos are in the issues.
Russ Meyer’s first battle with censorship was here in Illinois with the Police Film Review Board and the first Mayor Daley in 1963 over Europe in the Raw a peepshow account of European brothels. Then came Lorna in 1964 and Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined the battle against Russ. Good Morning and Goodbye opened in 1967 and Kentucky decided to arrest the projectionist. By 1968, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers caused Louisiana and Missouri to attack. Then came Russ Meyer’s answer to censorship—a deliberate slap in the face to the powers that be. Erica Gavin in Vixen. Busted in Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin! The resulting court cases would open the door to nudity in film, and change Hollywood forever.
There is no label that fits him. He is not a cult director, because his films have usually made money. He has never been an underground filmmaker, yet hundreds from John Waters to Richard Kern have been influenced by him. He is Russ Meyer and he makes Russ Meyer movies.
One of my favorite stories about Russ Meyer involves one of his critics, who at the time was the head of CITIZENS FOR DECENT LITERATURE, and who said that more than anyone else of his time, Russ Meyer had been the cause of the decay of the moral values of America. Russ told me that he wanted that carved on his tombstone and underneath he wanted carved “I was glad to do it.”
There’s an interesting footnote to that story. The man who said that was Charles Keating who is now serving time in a federal prison for having plundered millions of dollars from savings and loans—part of it used to pay for plastic surgery to augment the bosoms of secretaries.
I wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal after seeing his movie The Immoral Mr. Tease and many of his other films. The article was written by the perfectly named Steven Lovely, and my letter basically seconded the notion that Russ was
not simply a skin flick producer, but was in fact, a true auteur with a unique vision of his own. Russ has created, like so many artists in other fields, a unique vision— a Russ Meyer universe that doesn’t depend on sex to make it work. it relies on his unique pop art sensibility and vision and sex. Russ called me the next time he was in Chicago and we became friends and met for dinner. When 20th Century Fox asked him to produce a major studio picture called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, he called me up and asked me to write the screenplay. I remember him telling me that the day he went to meet
Darryl Zanuck at Fox he was so sure that no major studio would hire him, that he dozed off in Zanuck’s waiting room, only to go in and find himself signing a contract in his office. As he left the studio by way of the set for Hello Dolly, he was driving the jeep used by the sheriff in Cherry, Harry and Raquel and put the red flash light on. Beyond is still rented and seen by more audiences than almost any other film made in 1970. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine called it one of the ten best films of the 1970’s. It made a whole lot of money.
The interesting thing about Russ is that all of his life is in the same compartment. There are some people that put the work here, the family there, the friends over here, the private life somewhere else, and the sexual life around the corner.
For Russ, everybody knows everybody.
I can remember being out to dinner with Russ, Kitten (the famous stripper) and Russ’ sergeant from World War II who must have been about 80 years old. Russ
would never think about having the sergeant out one night and Kitten the next night. He would invite everyone. There is no hypocrisy-there is nothing hidden. Russ has great openness and exuberance. So keep that in mind.
PFS: Tell us about your relationship with Roger Ebert.
Russ Meyer: I recall working with Roger Ebert on BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. He’d flown in from the Sundance Film Festival to the Tornado Hotel where they filmed SOME LIKE IT HOT. He didn’t bring a typewriter so we had to use the only spare one in the hotel. It was a children’s’ one that typed giant letters. Later, we had to transfer the type to a normal size. Roger’s contribution to the film was enormous. I couldn’t have done it without him. The experience was fun for us. Here we were, a couple of people Hollywood didn’t know about, turned loose in a marvelous environment. The film wouldn’t have added up to a hill of beans without him.
We came in and as far as they knew, we were from the cornfields of Illinois. And we were working at Twentieth Century Fox. The film made money, and it still makes money. They can’t kill it with a stick. The actors still get residual checks. They call me and say “Hey – I got a residual check!”
It works in all the right places. We spent a few weeks in England with Charles “7 more teeth than Burt Lancaster” Napier, Darth Vader—a lot of great fun. We had huge breakfasts. There is an audience for what Roger does and people respect his point of view. I respect him for that. More than anything else, he’s an honest
man — straightforward.
If I didn’t know Roger, I don’t think I’d be as known today. Hopefully, Roger is working on something that will derail Siskel. (Laughter) He once said some things about Ebert to Edy Williams and myself and I threatened to throw him out a
window! I also don’t like that he jumps on Roger’s lines on the TV show – he does it, I’ve seen him do it, without a doubt.
PFS: What’s a typical day in the life of Russ Meyer?
RM: I’ve been out today with the publicist promoting FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! It’s tough because we don’t have the advertising budget of a new Hollywood film. My personal feeling is that I must get out and deal with the press and try to get them to understand how I’ve done my films. It’s a challenge. Mr. Wolf’s publicity organization did a great deal to help put me in the position of talking to lots of people about this film. We’ll see what happens.
PFS: What happened with you, Roger Ebert and the Sex Pistols movie?
RM: Well…. (pause)
PFS: Or should I ask what happened between you and Malcolm McLaren?
RM: He just abandoned it! Roger did a great script. It’s all so unfortunate. That experience drove me to not make more films for quite a time. It’s depressing to have a project collapse like that. I traveled to New Zealand and Switzerland just to get away from it. McLaren, that is. It’s damaging to have a project just drop like that.
PFS: When will the book be available?
RM: Soon – it’s ready. It’s called A Clean Breast. Roger came up with the title. This is a fuck and tell book – it’s not a history or anything – a strong book. I’m choosing from over 2,500 photographs. Most of them are very personal, I must say. Without a doubt—no question about it. There is nothing soft about the book. I hope to have it out by the end of the year. Fifteen hundred pages that will leave nothing to the imagination. It’s spoken in a frank way and I think the ladies
will live with it. They’ve dealt with me, satisfied me and taken good care of me.
I’ve got a treatment for a film Roger wrote many years ago called THE BRA OF GOD. That’s the next movie I’d like to do. It’s a take-off on the Supervixens series. A woman plays God. I’m back to what I do best — big bosoms!
PFS: What was it like to work with Tura Satana?
RM: Tura is of Japanese and Cherokee Indian extraction. She had a substantial bosom and wasp waist-she had the capability of dealing with the martial arts segments. She was recommended to me by Haji. She made it clear during the shooting that she didn’t like my discouragement of connubial bliss on my time. I didn’t want something to occur that might make one of the participants quit and end up on the bus—leaving me up the river. She told me she couldn’t work under those circumstances; that for that length of time she couldn’t work without men.
She knew I didn’t like that, she said that she couldn’t function without sex. I said OK — you not me. I asked her if there was anyone in the crew that she wanted. She looked over to the assistant cameraman and I walked over and asked if her
would like to go to bed with her. My only request was that she only do it once a night. I wanted her to be fresh. She said OK.
Years later, I asked him if it was once a night, and he smiled and said, “No, it was every hour.” Tura was very much in charge during PUSSYCAT! Women have found the movie to be fun and attractive. (Most of my films are directed to the
one-armed viewer). She is a very strong woman, and because of that, the film has found a lot of female fans. I think women today feel a lot better of her taking charge and maintaining control of the situation. Women have come up to me in England and New York and have said “It’s about time someone did this.” Well, it was made over twenty years ago!
PFS: Your next film was MONDO TOPLESS. You were broke, and the film didn’t have sync sound.
RM: It’s a shame to bring up money, but it represents how many asses you have on the seats. It’s doing well as a re-release.
PFS: There are rumors that you had to pull teeth for royalties from BEYOND.
RM: Not true. It’s worked out very well. I’ve been signed up by them to distribute it. I have control of the film. But I thank Twentieth Century’s accounting not enough time in the bedroom.
PFS: Who was your favorite actress?
RM: I’d have to say Erika Gavin. She was the star of VIXEN. That film played one theatre in Chicago for 58 weeks the Loop Theatre. It made a lot of money. She made a big contribution to the film. She was always afraid that someone would try to pick her up, so I was sort of her guardian angel.
PFS: The industry doesn’t really make trailers the way you did.
RM: No. they don’t use voice-over any more. Now it’s music and parts of dialog. With me, the dialog is usually way out of left field. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense. (laughter)
PFS: Where do you find the women in your films?
RM: Always the same way. I lean on the other girls I meet, and they in turn, introduce me to others. They all seem to know each other.
PFS: Do you have any daughters, and, if you did, would you put them in your movies?
RM: I would encourage them to do it – very much so.
Whatever I do is handled in a very personal way. I don’t think it’s been asked
before. I would use her, pay her well, and pat her on the ass if she did a great job. But I have a boy. He’s known as Mr. Mattress. Stays busy (laughter) It’s been fun!