Russ Meyer is a lot like marmite. You either accept him at face value appreciating his filmography for what it is or you loathe him and fail to see any cinematic worth in his work. Dubbed ‘King of the Nudies’ by the Press, Meyer had a prolific career in independent cinema. Using his previous experience as a Pin Up photographer, he stablished himself as one of the best and most successful sexploitation film makers. Creating films on a small budget and exploring sex in any way possible (nudity, suggestive language, scenes of sexual activity), Meyer was a key film maker in helping to bring sex and sexuality to the big screen.
His film career started in 1959 with The Immoral Mr. Teas, a nudist comedy made to rival the other nudie cutie films that were playing in the independent/exploitation circuit. Though not the first film to show female nudity, it was the first feature film to use women purely as sex objects. On a budget of $24,000 the film grossed over $1 million. Meyer knew he’d found a niche in cinema that he excelled in and would in turn be a profitable investment. He made two more films before the nudie cutie genre had run its course and after, went on to produce sexploitation films with a rougher edge.
The roughie period in Meyer’s work is a big contrast to his previous output. Filmed in black and white, the films handle darker material and play out as rape-revenge narratives. Effectively morality tales in which the bad guys eventually get their comeuppance, Meyer scored himself another first with Motorpsycho. Released in 1965, Motorpsycho’s narrative was the first to explore the idea of Vietnam veterans coming back to America suffering from mental illness and stress disorders. It was his last film in this period that would eventually have an influence on the public and feature film makers alike.
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! opened to little response back in 1965 but has since gained a considerable cult following. Meyer’s premise was simple. His last film had featured three guys terrorising women; why not make a film about three women terrorising guys? Meyer cast three striking women in the films leads, notably Tura Satana in the Amazonian role of Varla. They were women out to get what they want, when they want, using everyone and anyone they can. Only ever looking out for number one, the film raised the bar in empowering roles for women on screen. With the subtle hints on lesbianism, the film unapologetically embraces strong, active feminine sexuality showing that women could certainly rival men in all aspects of life.
Meyer’s following films would continue to depict sexually charged women and focus on the failure of the men in their lives to satisfy their needs. Infidelity, bed swapping, outrageous flirtation, lesbianism and even the odd hint of a father lusting after his daughter. Meyer continued to exploit any angle he could in order to show more nudity and sexual behaviour. Exhibiting each new film city by city, state by state, Meyer would regularly have problems with the law. Aware of the amount of nudity and sexual freedom in European/art house cinema coming to western shores, the director put out his most shocking film at that point.
Vixen! was released in 1968 and was an immediate hit with both the public and the law. Whilst people queued around street blocks numerous times to catch the film, Meyer faced prosecution in many states under obscenity charges. Most of its charges were overturned but to this day Vixen! is still banned in Ohio. The film was also another cinematic first for the film maker, becoming the first American made X-rated movie. This film follows the oversexed Vixen as she seduces everyone she meet, infamously ever her brother. Whilst full of taboos, the end of the film shows Vixen bringing down an unruly communist. Only Russ Meyer could make a sex film with a commentary on American apprehension against communism!
Two years later, the director released his first studio film with the backing of 20th Century Fox. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls debuted in 1970 with another X certificate. Originally intended as a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, the film eventually became an intelligent satire on the 1960s as a decade. Parodying cultural references and cinematic techniques, clichés and genres, the film was billed as something ‘never seen before!’ Featuring a cast of buxom women, the film starts as a musical melodrama before turning into a violent exploitation flick. Beyond is well known for its ending which channels the end of the hippy decade with the Tate/LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer’s last cinematic high. His next studio picture, The Seven Minutes, was poorly received critically and commercially. He never made another film with studio backing again. Returning to independent film making, he released Blacksnake in 1972. His first foray into the blaxploitation genre, the film was not a success. Set on a plantation, the narrative follows a slave owner who manipulates both the black and white men on her estate. The film has some violent scenes and the lead actress, Anouska Hempel, is not suited in the role. Without the satire or humour present in Meyer’s previous work, Blacksnake is a jarring and uncomfortable watch.
Returning to what he knew best, Meyer made two sexploitation films in the mid 1970s, Supervixens and Up! By now the public were used to seeing more extreme sexual imagery in cinema. Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat were released in 1972, raising the bar of screened sex in film and challenging pornography and obscenity laws. Meyer, despite being a sex film maker, was repulsed at anything hardcore and refused to incorporate this aspect into his own work. Whereas once he was ‘King of the Nudies’, the sex film industry’s evolution left Meyer out in the cold. It would be the downfall of his career.
In the late seventies, Meyer was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a film about and starring the Sex Pistols. Work was started on the picture, called Who Killed Bambi?, but was abandoned when it was apparent there was no funding. He made and released one more sexploitation film in 1979, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. A parody of his previous work and still containing nudity and simulated sex, it was still a lot less than the images found in harder films.
Russ Meyer made one last film a few years before his death entitled Pandora Peaks, though it is sometimes considered out of canon with his other work. He enjoyed numerous screenings of his work in various festivals and universities across the globe, including a big retrospective at the British Film Institute in 1983. In his later life his major project became his autobiography, A Clean Breast, which was released in 2000 in three hardcover volumes totalling over 1200 pages. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the same year and died four years later, aged 82, from pneumonia.