Sex! Nudity! Lesbians! Incest! Fish?! Russ Meyer’s 1968 sex flick Vixen is one of his most memorable and successful. Starring Erica Gavin in the lead role, the film went on to challenge obscenity laws in America and helped to change the landscape of sex in western film.
My love for all things Meyer started when I was ten years old, when watching late night television I stumbled upon Vixen. Back when Channel 5 first launched and showed soft core sex films every evening (now replaced with permanent CSI re-runs…), I sat fixated on my old 80s television, amazed at what I was seeing. There on my screen was a beautiful woman with thick, gorgeous hair wearing lots of skimpy clothing and doing naughty things with both men and women! Somewhat confused, I fell in love with Vixen there and then, the film remaining one of my favourites to this day.
Meyer’s film concerns the exploits of Vixen, happily married to her husband Tom (Garth Pillsbury) and living in lush Canadian woodland. In her spare time Vixen likes to have sex, and lots of it. The film starts with her playful seduction and sexual encounter with a Canadian mountain rookie. She then sleeps with her husband and has sex with a couple that comes to stay at their cabin. The climax (excuse the pun) of it all? The infamous shower scene with her brother and their subsequent romp. Meyer is even quoted as saying that this is one of the sexiest scenes he’s ever filmed.
Vixen (Erica Gavin) and Janet (Vincene Wallace)
The actual sexual scenes and their themes (lesbianism, incest), along with lots of nudity and suggestive language, were the main reasons Vixen was so controversial upon its release in 1968. At that point the Hays Production Code was replaced with the new MPAA rating system which had just been established. Vixen became the first American-made film to receive the X certificate, meaning no one under seventeen would be admitted to see it in cinemas. This new X-rated feature challenged obscenity laws in every state in was released in, whilst going on to earn $7 million in its first year alone. Not bad for a $72,000 budget. (Meyer would later claim Vixen eventually netted him a cool $26 million, one of his most profitable films.)
Over the course of the next year, Vixen ran into problems. In January 1969, one manager and projectionist in Georgia were arrested and their print of the film confiscated. October of that year saw a theatre in Jacksonville, Florida busted by the vice squad and the cinema’s reels seized. The theatre owner was charged for projecting a ‘filthy and indecent picture’ by the courts. In May 1970 a Center Theater manager in North Carolina was fined $250 for showing the film. The biggest battle of them all though would be in the state of Ohio.
In September 1969 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Guilds Art Theater saw both its prints of Vixen seized on two consecutive days. In the November, a permanent injunction was placed against the picture in five Ohio counties on the grounds that it was obscene. July 1971 saw the ban upheld; Vixen could be shown in cinemas if Meyer cut out all the sex scenes. Meyer refused, after all a Meyer film without any sex is hardly a Meyer film. Not surprisingly he lost the case. Vixen has not been seen in the state of Ohio since 1969 and is still legally banned.
No sex please, we’re American… One of Vixen’s many banned clinches
It seems strange, watching the film now, to think it is still an illegal act to screen the film in Ohio. Only three years later Last Tango In Paris and, more explicitly, Deep Throat were unleashed in American cinemas. For 1968 Vixen was certainly a challenging picture in its sexual depictions but watched now would possibly be considered a poor soft core sex film. At the time however, Meyer was making waves in the sexploitation industry. As a filmmaker, Meyer was influenced by the laid back attitude towards sex and sexuality in European films, such as 1967s I Am Curious Yellow, and tried to create western equivalents. There is no doubt that Meyer’s efforts and successes contributed to the eventual greater explicitness that we today are perhaps more used to.
Vixen was not only responsible for raising the bar in cinematic representations of sexuality and physical sex but it also helped to draw in female audiences. The film is regularly referred to as the first instance in ‘couples porn’. This is thanks largely to Erica Gavin’s portrayal as the lead character. Meyer decided to go against type and settled on Gavin’s more ‘smaller’ and ‘normal’ physique. In her physicality, she is less intimidating than some earlier, and later, Meyer women and in that respect, is more identifiable for women.
It wasn’t just Gavin’s looks that made Vixen so unique and irresistible but the potency of her beauty mixed with her behaviour. Vixen oozes sex appeal, and plenty of it. If her bedroom eyes and cheeky grin don’t win you over then her playful and dominating sexuality will. Here was a woman who loved sex, was confident and comfortable in her own (very) active sexuality and got what she wanted, when she wanted. To hammer this point home, the first sexual encounter we see Vixen have is weighed more in her sexuality, with her sexual desire far exceeding the Canadian Mountie’s ability to perform. Once he is done she gets up and leaves to get on with the rest of her day, her focus firmly and always on herself.
And this is where Meyer excelled. In order to play in drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas Meyer added one fabulous little touch to all his films to justify the nudity and sexual depiction; redeeming social value. In previous and subsequent films, many of Meyer’s women are ‘punished’ for their behaviour or desires. But not Vixen, she gets away with it, incest included. The reason? She saves America from communism.
Vixen and her brother Judd. One of Meyer’s sexiest scenes?
Part of the film’s plot involves Vixen’s racist attitude towards her brothers black friend Niles (played by Harrison Page). When Vixen gets going, boy does she get vicious. This gets overlooked by Meyer when a greater threat enters the characters woodland idyll, communism. (On a side note, Meyer hated Communists and the Nazis after serving in the Second World War. Certain aspects of his feelings would reappear throughout his work, including the frequent casting of ‘Martin Boorman?’) Towards the end of the film, an Irish man called O’Bannion comes to stay with Vixen and Tom. He later confesses to being a communist and tries to hijack a plane to fly to Cuba. He too also happens to be a racist which angers Niles. A fight breaks out in the plane which results in Niles knocking out O’Bannion and Vixen flying and landing the plane to safety, getting O’Bannion arrested on the ground. At this point Niles and Vixen come to some sort of ‘understanding’. And thus the All-American Vixen saves the day and her racist and sexually deviant escapades are all forgiven. Your typical Meyer heroine then.
Vixen is one of Meyer’s best films. The plot is admittedly somewhat ridiculous but overall the picture has a certain charm you can’t ignore. Gavin is excellent, one of the few true natural actresses in a Meyer film. Alongside Tura Satana (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Alaina Capri (Common Law Cabin), Gavin’s acting is miles away from the forced, wooden performances of other Meyer leading ladies. She is also incredibly beautiful, her natural good looks shot wonderfully by Meyer’s camera which clearly loves her (Meyer himself describes her as ‘Radiant! Alive!!’ in his autobiography A Clean Breast which seems incredibly accurate and poignant). Sadly, Gavin would later develop and battle anorexia and anxiety upon watching herself on the big screen and lives partly as a recluse in Hollywood.
I love Vixen now as much as I did when I first watched it all those years ago. It has had such a large and profound impact on my life ever since, with Meyer being my favourite director and my main interest being sex in cinema. However, all these years later I’m still trying to perfect Vixen’s make up and get that back-combed bouffant of a fabulous hairstyle. I’ve had no luck in finding a yellow push-up bikini either. Still I can dream…
The other infamous scene. Vixen sleeps with everyone in this video except, surprisingly, the fish.