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‘Feminism and Male Inadequacy in the Films of Russ Meyer’ by Syvology

10 Nov

A belated post but as part of this years MEYER MONTH I was forwarded this nice little article via twitter. The original post can be found here but I’ve included it below, and you can also follow its author Syvology on twitter here!

 

A dual biopic exploring the friendship between Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer is apparently in the works. Simpsons/SNL writer Christopher Cluess penned the script, which focuses on Meyer and Ebert’s formative collaboration on Fox’s big-budget fiasco Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Though it will be fun to see young Ebert in his humble side-burned glory, the most interesting character in this story is Russ Meyer.

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An ongoing fascination of mine, Russ Meyer is one of the most misunderstood figures in film history. To fans of sleaze and camp, he’s a deity. He invented the sexploitation genre as we know it with The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), a hallucinatory exploration of compulsive voyeurism. According to John Waters, the iconic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” To other, more genteel audiences however, Meyer is often thought of as a seedy proto-pornographer whose films trade in adolescent prurience, irredeemable violence, and general bad taste. Meyer himself subscribed to the latter characterization, rejecting intellectual interpretations of his work and insisting that he only made movies for two reasons: “lust and profit.” But as any true student of his films can attest, Meyer’s bizarre career encompassed much more than that. To appreciate the thought-provoking complexities inherent in Meyer’s work, one must first confront its most frustrating contradiction: that his films are simultaneously misogynist and feminist.

Meyer’s career unfolded concomitantly with second-wave feminism, but it’s primarily third-wave (or so-called “sex-positive”) feminists that appreciate his aesthetic. B. Ruby Rich famously labeled Meyer “the first feminist American director”, praising his progressive sense of female empowerment in Faster, Pussycat! and his bold rejection of hetero-normativity in Vixen! (1968). Similarly, quasi-feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia laments, “his women had an exuberance and vitality you rarely see in film anymore.” Roger Ebert has always been Meyer’s most high-profile apologist on this point, encouraging critics to appreciate “the quintessential Russ Meyer image: a towering woman with enormous breasts, who dominates all the men around her, demands sexual satisfaction, and casts off men in the same way that, in mainstream sexual fantasies, men cast aside women.” Indeed, Meyer himself credited much of his success to the fact that many women enjoyed his movies just as much as men. But things get tricky once you contrast these progressive interpretations with some of the director’s own words. He described his ideal target audience as “some guy…in the theater with semen seeping out of his dick.” When asked whether his films exploit women, Meyer responded plainly, “I’m prone to say, yes, I do exploit women. I exploit them with zeal and gusto.” On feminist thought itself, Meyer was pretty vile: “I don’t care to comment about what might be inside a lady’s head. Hopefully it’s my dick.” There’s really no question that Meyer was at all times primarily concerned with delivering male sexual gratification, not promoting feminist ideology. But he was the first American filmmaker to consistently depict and celebrate women who were in charge of their own sexuality. So what, then, was the connection?

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Whatever is incidentally pro-feminist in Meyer’s work was likely an accidental, albeit fascinating, side effect of his idiosyncratic sexual appetite. The theoretical disconnect in his treatment of gender may be explained by the extent to which Meyer’s films are exceedingly personal, one might say solipsistic, expressive vehicles for exploring his own masturbatory fantasies. Describing his creative process, he once said, “each film must begin with me. I am the idea. I’ve got to have the hard-on.” The relationship between his sexual personality and the feminist overtones of his work gets clearer once one acknowledges that Meyer’s obsession with female dominance was always complemented by another, perhaps even more continual thematic hallmark of his narratives: male inadequacy. Themes of sexual impotence permeate his entire career. In Lorna (1964), the title character’s husband is a sexually inept wimp that bores her into infidelity and recklessness. In Common Law Cabin (1967), a female character cuckolds and basically murders her husband as ostensible punishment for being, essentially, a pussy. Meyer’s failed attempt at First Amendment proselytizing, The Seven Minutes (1971), features a rape defendant vindicated at trial by the stunning revelation that the crime was physically impossible for him to commit. Charles Napier’s utterly despicable villain in Supervixens (1975) brutally murders a woman after she taunts his inability to perform. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) is a preposterous and anarchic profile of a hopeless idiot who can’t bring himself to have anything but anal sex.

What’s more is that his focus on male inadequacy was no doubt a highly personal topic. In addition to his reputation for being decidedly wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am in the sack (corroborated by multiple former lovers), one particular episode of performance anxiety is instructive. Just as his filmmaking career was getting started, Meyer’s obsession with busty burlesque icon Tempest Storm caused him to abandon his first wife and nearly ruin his own life. But when it came time to go to bed with Ms. Storm, Meyer’s manhood was nowhere to be found. He described it thus: “When I first met Tempest Storm I was so in awe of her great big cans that thoughts like performing badly or ejaculating prematurely ran through my mind –all connected to the dick bone. So when I made my move to hump the buxotic after the last show in her Figueroa Street scatter, I felt inadequate, plain and simple. Fuck, what can I say?”.

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Tempest Storm happens to be the star of Meyer’s first short film (now lost), The French Peep Show (1954), and her breasts make a cameo in his first feature-length film, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) (As far as I’m aware, this isn’t actually true. It was June Wilkinson’s breasts that had an uncredited cameo, Storm was not involved in the film at all – Lydia). To a significant extent, she was the sex symbol that launched his whole career. So quite literally, feelings of sexual inadequacy were at the very root of his development as an artist.

Meyer’s brand of transgressive femininity may be thought of as the natural result of his own self-loathing, which subliminally translated into deep skepticism for contemporary masculinity at large. It’s likely he viewed female sexuality as something hopelessly out of his personal control, and ultimately out of society’s control as well. That’s why his work exhibits what UC Irvine film professor Kristen Hatch called “an ambivalence toward the traditional authority figures that classical Hollywood had helped to reinforce, showing masculine social authority to be in a state of disarray.” Characters like Varla and Vixen don’t just transgress rules associated with physical gender norms like strength and sex drive; they represent the rejection of all rules that paternalistic society is stupid enough to rely on. At its best, Meyer’s work subverts traditional sexual power dynamics and celebrates the disorienting sexual chaos that results. Female liberation in Meyer’s universe is not the product of paternalistic sympathy or cliché moral epiphany. Rather, he depicts female sexuality as being by its very nature violently irrepressible and self-actualizing. Socio-masculine anxiety about this threat to male sexual hegemony is the principal component of Meyer’s continuing subversive appeal. But as Ebert once put it, that’s only apparent to viewers “if they can see past the heaving bosoms.” Not likely.

MEYER MONTH – ‘The Immoral Mr. Teas’ (1959) review by Jonathan Henderson

13 Sep

Lets be honest, I spend a lot of hours surfing the web for anything Russ Meyer related, sifting through the good, the bad, and the wierd. During some model investigating (which I hope to share soon) I stumbled across this great review of Meyer’s first feature The Immoral Mr. Teas which I had to share. Written by Jonathan Henderson, the original link can be viewed here, but I’ve also copied it below.

The Immoral Mr. Teas might not be the first film title that comes to mind when the name Russ Meyer is mentioned, but it may have been the most important in his career and, indeed, the most important for the genres in which he’d spend most of his career working in. Released in 1959 with a budget of just $24,000, Mr. Teas eventually grossed $1.5 million, which helped to finance Meyer’s subsequent films outside of the help of the major studios. But it was also a watershed (on a relative level) in the world of film as it was the first film to unapologetically feature nudity in a film that wasn’t completely underground and pornographic, or under the guise of a “naturist/nudist” film. It essentially opened up the floodgates for what would become sexploitation, but Mr. Teas itself seems harmless by today’s standards.

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Its relative tameness perhaps has to do with the fact that it’s less sexploitation and more “nudie cutie”, which exchanged actual sex for simple nude eye candy. Mr. Teas is likely typical of such a film; it stars Bill Teas as Mr. Teas, a door-to-door dental supply salesman who’s frustrated by the drudgery of his daily life. During his day, Mr. Teas encounters three hot women: a Coffeeshop Waitress (Ann Peters), a Dental Assistant (Marilyn Wesley), a Secretary (Michelle Roberts), a girl on a beach (Dawn Danielle), and a Burlesque Dancer (Don Cochran). As his day wears on, Mr. Teas begins fantasizing about the women, seeing them in various situations unclothed. Fearing that something might be “wrong” with him, he goes to a Psychiatrist (Mikki France) who is quite hot herself.

If this doesn’t sound like much of a plot… well, who am I kidding? It’s not. But—and perhaps it sounds odd to say this—there is a peculiar charm to the film. Meyer doesn’t even attempt to present a dramatic narrative; instead, the film is shot with a narrating voiceover (Edward Lasko) and a revolving jukebox of jazzy music numbers (a mid-tempo march, a sexy sax refrain, and a few up-tempo pieces) that accompany the images as if it was a silent film. In truth, the film plays out like what would happen if Jacques Tati shot a nudie cutie; the film even has Tati’s sense of social satire. But while Tati was purely visual in his parodying of modern grossness and confusion, Meyer uses the voiceover which mimics the “informational” voiceovers in the exploitation films at the time that tried to preach a moral by presenting the “dark side” of what certain actions lead to.

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But there’s also a certain innocent joy in the film’s appreciation of the female form. Perhaps the most successful scene in the film doesn’t even feature nudity, but has Mr. Teas attempting to go fishing at the local beach when he spots the “Beach Beauty” who seems insistent on taking off her top. But this is probably where the homophonic “Teas” (as “tease”) comes into play as Meyer’s camera never actually catches the woman naked. Perhaps the most extraordinary bit in the sequence has the “Beach Beauty” playing in the ocean as the tide rolls in; there is a definite but intangible beauty to the scene. It almost brought to mind those first few moments when I became unconsciously aware of the female form. It’s hard to call such a scene “exploitation” because there’s no sense of the woman being exploited. Rather, this is Meyer taking in the beauty of nature no differently than if someone were to film a sunset.

While not every scene has that level of (dare I say) aesthetic grace, Meyer keeps it light, comical, and satirical enough that it would be hard for even the most rigorous Puritan—Ok, maybe a moderate Puritan—to ever feel ashamed. It’s perhaps telling, though, that Meyer never actually shows his gallery of busty beauties naked in reality, but rather only in the imagination of Mr. Teas. The film also takes its time (relative to its already short 63 minutes) before it even gets to the nudity. This allows the majority of the first 2/3 to play out as a comedic satire of both modern society, and the types of exploitation films that preceded Mr. Teas. The absurd voiceover certainly has its genuinely hilarious moments as it plays counterpoint to the witless Mr. Teas.

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For all its pleasantries, the film is far from perfect; even at a slim 63 minutes it feels a bit repetitive and “light”. The constant musical accompaniment eventually goes from humorous to annoying (though, thankfully, it’s never egregiously so), and Bill Teas himself seems a particularly unappealing “hero” for the film. I don’t know, there’s something about him that just doesn’t make him a sympathetic everyman. Meyer may do everything he can to frame the film like a Tati, but Bill Teas utterly lacks Tati’s carefully measured, but seemingly effortless, physical gifts for comedy and his innate charm. If anything, he makes the film appear much sleazier than it is. Meyer does just about everything he can, but he’s yet to develop his cinematic talents that will serve him much better in his later films.

Even with the complaints, this is still an interesting film from a historical standpoint, and a rather enjoyable film in-and-of itself. It’s certainly not superb from any angle, but it’s undeniable that the film has more substance and quality than the vast majority of its ilk.

‘The Key’ (1983) review

27 Jun

My review for the 1983 Tinto Brass release The Key is up over at Screenjabber.

‘Revenge of The Cheerleaders’ (1976) review

18 Apr

A quasi-sequel to 1973 release The Cheerleaders, Revenge of The Cheerleaders see’s Aloha High’s ever popular cheerleading squad deal with a potential merger with local rivals Lincoln High. Hailed as having a ‘morality crisis’ by local press and the town’s education board, the squad attempt to quash anything from happening by sabotaging school inspections (a rather hilarious sketch in which the school lunch is spiked with drugs and alcohol making students, teachers and outside board inspectors run havoc on an extended trip) and making sure current Aloha life continues as normal (sunbathing on the school lawn, having sex openly on campus, couches casually scattered outside the school for people to chill out). A second chance for the school comes in the light of a new principle, who eventually sacks the cheerleaders and sets about cleaning up Aloha for the better… Until the girls find out a secret plan behind it all to sell the school! Cue the cheerleaders on a mission to right the wrongs and have sex along the way (the suggestive rim-job in the local diner is a particularly nice touch). Were you expecting anything less?

Returning to this feature was director Richard Lerner, who was the DOP on the first film, and actress Cheryl ‘Rainbeaux’ Smith as cheerleader Heather (who starred as Andrea in The Cheerleaders). Smith was heavily pregnant in the film (having a baby with the films composer John Stirling), something the Lerner didn’t know when he originally cast her but decided to go with anyway. It makes for a strange contrast amongst the girls but works the promiscuous angle with obvious effect. Another gem in the cast in David Hasselhoff in his first feature role as basketball player Boner, just to see him getting to caught up in the campness of it all.

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For a sexploitation feature, there’s a lot less sex going on here than in its original big sister, with the adult focus more on numerous topless shots (and lots of pubic hair) and the occasional sexually suggestive scene. You’d be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed (like I was) if you were expecting a lot more sex scenes from a softcore picture with cheerleaders as its focus. That said, it’s a lot funnier and more bizarre than its predecessor making it a little more enjoyable and giving it a bit of a zany twist. A mass bubble bath in the school’s shower block is contrasted against a scene in which two girls hold up one Lincoln High classroom with a fire extinguisher, whilst there are three dance numbers, one of which is set in the local diner and has them all dancing around a jukebox, very reminiscent of Tarantino’s Death Proof. That said, it does have a different vibe and its nice to see the girls actually running the school as opposed to just being content as the playthings of the school sports teams. The film is worth a watch, a feature that is probably more fun when watching with a big crowd or a group of friends.

Lets be honest, you can’t really go wrong with a film that has a scene where a girl takes off her pants to use as smelling salts to wake up a knocked out basketball player…

Radley Metzger Blu Ray Reviews

1 Apr

My reviews for the recently released Radley Metzger Erotica set by Arrow Films is now up over at Screenjabber. These are well worth picking up if you’re a fan of Metzger or erotic cinema in general; Arrow really have put out some great packages and these are restored and remastered. You can also read a recent interview I did with the legendary filmmaker here!

MEYER MONTH – Lavelle Roby Interview

28 Mar
I have always been intrigued by actress Lavelle Roby. Ever since watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the first time, I have often thought about her character Vanessa, the assistant to music producer extraordinaire Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell. In a film that is full of wonderful costumes, her black and gold dress has always stood out for me and I’ve wondered on more than one occasion, that if the film were real, what her job must have been like. I’m sure that Vanessa would have a story or two about Z-Man and his parties! After I watched Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers a few years later, I was captivated again by Roby’s performance. In another small-ish role, she managed to be the most captivating actress in the entire picture and certainly the film’s highlight. Her character Claire is one of the stronger female characters in Russ Meyer’s entire filmography. The girl is a total badass, running her own business, not afraid to treat men the way they treat women and ready to get stuck in whatever the situation. It really is a shame that Meyer never used Roby in a leading role, for after watching her as Claire it’s evident that she could quite easily have held her own against the likes of Tura Satana and Kitten Natividad. Personally, I would have loved to  have seen a venomous exchange of words between her and Alaina Capri. Two of Meyer’s savviest actresses going head to head in verbal battle? Sounds absolutely perfect. After a little investigating I was really happy to see that Lavelle is still acting and modelling and still looks as drop dead gorgeous as she did in the 1960s! She kindly agreed to answer some questions, see below, for which I am very grateful. As my friends and readers will know, I’ve been a huge Meyer fan since I was ten (fourteen years and counting) and a majority of this website is nothing but a labor of love for me. I am more than thrilled, excited and humbled that I’m finally playing host to my first Meyer girl, it’s been a dream come true! Many thanks to Lavelle and to everyone who reads this, enjoy! 
 
How did you get into acting?
I had studied Speech and Drama in college and had continued drama classes and modelling school while working full-time in sales. When I left the company I had worked for after five years, I decided to concentrate on modelling. I had begun my career in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1966 that I decided that modelling and acting should be my career path. Actually, it was an abusive breakup that helped me make the transition. I probably wouldn’t have left the job when I did had I not been forced to go into hiding when I broke up with an abusive lover who was a co-worker. So, I guess I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to take the leap. I could have still been taking acting classes and not having the courage to go for it had I not been forced to. I was the highest paid woman in my job, I was the Assistant Sales Manager of a Food and Freezer Company. I worked in a sales office with about sixty salesmen. That office made the movie Glengary Glen Ross look like kindergarten. As a matter of fact, one of my one person shows is based on one of the characters from that period.  My e-mail address, egnapos (Every Girl Needs a Pair of Stockings, registered title ) is also from that period. Eventually my first acting role was the TV show Get Smart.
 
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Meyer gave you your first feature film acting role in Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, how did that come about?
It’s very interesting that my first film was with Russ Meyer. I don’t really remember how I first heard about the film, however, when I called my agent to ask him to submit me for the role of the madame, my agent laughed at me and told me that Russ would never hire me because Russ only hired big breasted girls. Since my breasts were only a small B cup, he didn’t want to submit me. I pleaded with him to give it a try, because if Russ would only let me come in to read for the part, I would surely convince him that I could handle the role. Indeed, I read for the role, Russ loved the reading and hired me. According to Russ himself, I was the first actress he had ever auditioned that had not had to show her breasts to audition for a role!
 
Talking of breasts, you show a fair amount of flesh in the film but it’s considerably less than the amount seen of co-star Anne Chapman. What was your stance on nudity and how comfortable did Meyer make you feel on set?
Russ had been famous for travelling the world over to find women with the biggest and best breasts. He was very careful in shooting me and not revealing too much flesh. And, while Anne was not a great actress, she did have a great set of tits! Working with Russ was a great pleasure. He was respectful, hard-working, and had a great sense of humour.
 
I think you were also the first Black actress that Meyer ever hired, how does that make you feel?
I never gave any thought to being the “first” other than the first woman Russ had hired who didn’t have big breasts. I was just proud that he had hired me for my acting ability rather than my body.
 
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As Claire you get to wield a gun and rock a great looking outfit made up of a mack and go-go boots. With Finders being such a small production, did you have much say in how Claire looked? I know that quite a few of Meyer’s actresses had to do their own hair and makeup…
The thing that almost drove me mad was that I wouldn’t let anyone do my makeup, however I gave in and allowed the makeup man to do it. Well, when he was putting on my false lashes he got glue in my eye. As a result, the eye ran the entire day and the eyelash glue wouldn’t stick. When it was time for my closeups, all I could think about was they everyone would be able to see this flapping false eyelash that had come unglued at the edge!

The cream outfit and the go-go boots were my own wardrobe.  I had a close friend, Tommy Roth, who designed for Little Richard,   and he designed that outfit.  Tommy was gay and a cross dresser.  He made new outfits for himself every time he went out.  He would only wear the outfit once.  Because we were the same size, I got a lot of new designs from him.  He would also borrow my things, but the skirts would be returned altered –  pencil thin where I could hardly walk! 
 
Do you have any fond on-set memories or stories from working on Finders Keepers?
The most memorable moment was the day I was on my way to the wardrobe designer. A few blocks from my house a policeman, whom I knew from the neighborhood, stopped me to flirt, as he usually did. I had a few minutes, so I didn’t mind. But, after a while, I was running out of time and was soon going to be late for my wardrobe fitting when the officer said “I must call in to see if I have  a warrant out for your arrest.” I said I need  to leave because I don’t have any more time. He was just stalling for time.  He didn’t really think I had a warrant, but since he had said that, he had to follow through.  Much to his surprise, indeed, there was a warrant for my arrest. I went ballistic!

This scene takes place at one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles.  I am dressed in a micro-mini (more like a short blouse).  I am out of control! Enraged! Practically foaming at the mouth! The officer doesn’t know what to do.  He has to call for backup because I am now this crazy woman in the middle of the street in a rage. The pages of the script were flying everywhere.  Finally the backup officers arrive. Now my neighborhood officer has to explain why he stopped me…  I wasn’t speeding.  My licence was in order. But he explains that my vehicle identification number looked like it had been changed. 

I finally calmed down and explained that they would have to somehow reach the producer (Russ) who  I am  meeting at the designer’s studio. When they found out I was an actress, they were very accommodating.  They did indeed locate the studio through a cross directory and let Russ know that they had arrested me, but it wasn’t serious.  It had been a parking ticket that my former boss’s son had received when he had borrowed my car and failed to let me know that he had gotten the ticket.  Fortunately, the ticket was only $10, which I paid and then they released me. 

You returned to work with Meyer again on 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, what was your experience working on this like compared to Finders Keepers?
Some of the people who worked on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had previously worked with Russ. Of course, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was with 20th Century Fox and the cast was very large. And orchestrating a large cast of people was very different from the small, intimate sets that he had been used to when he was making a Russ Meyer film. A studio film environment was very different and there were people there looking over his shoulders, publicity people. There were business voyeurs, photographers, extraneous people that wouldn’t have been present on a smaller Russ Meyer set.

 
Did Meyer specifically ask you to play Vanessa or did you have to again read for the part?
Russ hired me for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls specifically to play Vanessa.
 
What were your impressions of the film when you eventually watched it?
While the film may have seemed like an exaggeration or a little over the top, on the contrary, Russ captured the mood of the times. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, the bizarre; he captured it all. But Russ had a way of putting it in your face, up close and personal. Mainstream America wasn’t ready for that kind of honesty. Mainstream America had this puritanical morality.  It’s a deceptive morality, like the Catholic Clergy committing horrible crimes against children but hiding it, and at the same time pretending to be the moral conscience and leaders of the faith. I think that which makes Russ’ film such a cult classic is not just because of the nudity, but the great sense of humour. The people who love him and his work get it, they get the “explicit” humour in the excessiveness.
 
The ending very much echoes the, at the time, recent Tate-LaBianca Manson murders. I know some people on the set of Beyond knew Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and that some of the costumes used were Sharon’s actual costumes from the film Valley of the Dolls. Did you know any of the victims yourself from working in Hollywood?
I didn’t know any of the people personally, however, I have friends that were neighbours, relatives and friends of some of the victims. I knew the very first attorney that was on the Manson case.
 
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Given Hollywood’s fondness for remakes and re-imaginings, do you think Beyond could ever be remade?
Anything is possible in Hollywood.
 
They are both small-ish roles but Vanessa and Claire are both highly memorable. Which character is your favourite?
With both Claire and Vanessa there was something about both characters that I believe they shared, freedom and loyalty as friends.
 
Meyer was known for working multiple times with much of his cast and crew, how often did the two of you work together?
I had the fortune to work with Russ on Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Seven Minutes and I did the entire voice track for another actress who met the breast requirement, however, her voice was terrible and had to be dubbed. I’ve forgotten the movie title but the character was Junk Yard Sal (the film Roby is referring to is Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, the actress is June Mack – Lydia). Russ called me in to dub the film. It was great fun! I was able to do all the sexual things without actually being seen. When Russ screened the film, as we were walking out of the screening, I overheard the actress talking to one of her friends excitedly, “I had no idea I sounded that good.” She never knew that it wasn’t her voice. I was very proud that I had captured her rhythm well enough that she didn’t even know that it wasn’t her voice! In real life she was an S&M professional (sadomasochist professional). She was murdered not long after the movie was made.  I’m not sure if the crime was committed by one of her clients or not (it is well-known, but also apparently proven wrong, that Mack was murdered by one of her clients – Lydia).
 
Did you keep in touch  with Meyer after working with him?
I always stayed in touch with Russ. As a matter of fact, many of us did, male actors as well. He was well liked and respected deeply. We had reunions and also, the people he worked with, including his crew, were his friends. Some of his crew were his old war buddies.
 
Are reunions still something that happens now that Russ has sadly passed?
The last time the Meyer girls got together was at Russ’s memorial service.  We all got together afterwards and shared stories. We said that we would continue to get together. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
 
Are you close to any other Meyer alumni?
The only person that I have remained in touch with is Harrison Page (Vixen!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  As a matter of fact, Harrison and I are both members of the SGI, a worldwide Buddhist organization. I started practicing Buddhism 40 years ago, and as a new member, I introduced Harrison to the practice.
 
You also worked with Melvin Van Peebles on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, what was that experience like?
Working with Melvin Van Peebles was totally different! First of all, for the role in Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song, I had no script. I created the dialogue myself. Melvin told me what he wanted and it was left up to me to create that. It was improvisational. We shot until he got what he wanted.
 
Did you notice any similarities/differences between Van Peebles and Meyer in their approach to filmmaking?
I found no similarities in Meyers style to Van Peebles. I worked with Van Peebles on Sweetback as a favour. It was my only experience working with him and it was a frustrating experience. I am proud of the role I created, but much of the anger and frustration came out of the moment. There was nothing comfortable about the experience. But perhaps that’s what it was supposed to be. Sweetback was “raw.”
 
Was improv something that came naturally to you?
Creating the improvisational role was very easy for me because in my acting training we did lots of improv work.  I trained in a form of the Method called Transpersonal and had studied with Ned Manderino who wrote several books, The Transpersonal Actor, All About Method Acting and others.
 
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What have been your favourite acting jobs?
All of my acting jobs are my favourite acting jobs. Every single one, from the smallest to the largest, I have enjoyed doing the work. But there are those that have a more memorable story, like for example working on The Formula with Marlon Brando. I had eleven days with just Brando, myself and George C. Scott. Watching Brando do his “Brando” thing was amazing. I really learned from that experience that you didn’t have to be sane to be a brilliant actor. I also learned that if you surrounded yourself with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t say no to you, that it’s impossible to remain in the world of reality.
 
Scott and Brando aside, you’ve worked with many veteran and talented actors. Was there anyone else you worked with, in either film or television, who was particularly memorable?
I was working on a TV show, I think it was Equal Justice, and the director gave the actor Joe Morgan the highest compliment I had ever heard a director give an actor.  He said to Joe, “You are never not on.” That had a profound impact on my life.  As a matter of fact, it changed how I approached my work.  Up to that time, as we were rehearsing a scene, I always held back just a little bit.  I would never give it my all until we were ready to shoot.  But after that, I never held back.  Each time, even when we are rehearsing, I gave it my all, and by doing so, I discover something new. So, thanks to Joe Morgan, I always try to,”never not be on.”
 
Meyer was known for keeping souvenirs from his films and had an extensive archive of publicity material. Have you ever kept anything from the projects you’ve worked on?
I haven’t ever kept anything from any film that I have done. I only have publicity photographs from a movie for tv, The $100,000 Opportunity, which won a Local Emmy for CBS Repertory Workshop. It was a three character script.
 
Do you get recognised much because of your work, be it acting or modelling? I know a few people who recognise you from your cameo in Rocky (Roby makes an appearance as Mary Anne Creed).
Because of the amount of modelling work that I do, I get recognized more for modelling. My face is literally seen everywhere!  And because its lifestyle, people see me in their doctor’s office, at their drug store, advertising their resort, and on and on… I am the queen of health care and medicine! I don’t believe there is any other African-American female in my age category that advertises more in print than I do. My dream was to become the African-American Carmen. She’s my inspiration.
 
With my acting, people are seeing a lot more of my earlier work in reruns. Now they are like, “Oh, I saw you in something last week.” For example, there was a marathon of the Planet of the Apes films. I did two of those. As I switching channels, I saw myself in one of them. Just a few minutes afterwards someone called me from another state to say that they had seen me in a Jim Brown film that I had done. There are so many cable channels so the need for material is beyond belief.
 
Were you ever asked to come back to play Mary Creed in the other Rocky films?
I was never asked to come back to play Mary Creed. I think Apollo Creed was based loosely on Ali.  Ali married several times. I knew the woman who played the second wife.  We often competed for the same roles, especially in commercials.  She passed away recently.
 
You did a biker movie in 1971 (The Peace Killers), another blaxploitation flick in 1972 (Black Gunn), a franchise (Planet of the Apes) and a comedy (Love at First Bite). Is there anything you havent done that you’d love to do?
I’ve yet to do a serious drama. I want to do that. I would like to do something serious enough that I can win an Academy Award.  I still have time.  Ruth Gordon was 80 when she won her award!  I’ve still got a few more years!
 
You’ve also worked in theatre and modelling, what are your working passions now?
I have modelled since 1963 and continue to do so because I love the work. What I love most is how many people I am able to encourage because they say “I see your face everywhere,” and they are encouraged by that. Or that a relative can see my face on some ad on their computer and they are inspired by it. It encourages me that I am still modelling after fifty years and am still kicking! I am now working towards perfecting my V.O. skills. I’m also rewriting some one woman shows that I created a couple of years ago that I want to make some changes to. And lastly, there are some novels that I started, but haven’t completed. I have still much to do! And so little time to do it all!
 
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MEYER MONTH – The Bodacious Babette Bardot

12 Mar

Once viewed, Babette Bardot is never forgotten. Tall, curvaceous, well stacked, a perfect red pout and inches of voluminous platinum blonde hair. Think of your typical hourglass-figured caricature and you’ve got Bardot, thick fluttering black eyelashes and all. She only starred in two of Russ Meyers films, Mondo Topless and Common Law Cabin, but she made one hell of an impression. And yet, I know very little about her, so tried to piece together as much as I could find to create some sort of rounded profile on the girl.

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Swedish-French Babette Bardot was born in Goteborg, Sweden in 1940. She’s quoted by Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough in his book Big Bosoms and Square Jaws as being  ‘the fourth cousin of Brigette Bardot‘ although there seems to be some contention online as to whether or not this is actually true. Another fact up for questioning is whether or not she really did model for artist Pablo Picasso in her teens which she exclaims she did. At some point in the early 1960s she became a cheesecake model and was a regular in glamour and pin-up magazines, appearing in Fling, Adam and Escapade to name a few. Judging from earlier pictures of her she has at some point had a fair amount of cosmetic surgery. I didn’t know whether her breasts were real or not, and had yet to read anything that said either way, until it was confirmed for me by Diana Hart in her book Under The Mat that she’d had a boob job. Looking at early pictures and comparing them to her later look in Russ Meyers films, it’s also clear that she had some sort of nose surgery and maybe even lip fillers. You wonder whether her caricature look was one that she had intended to construct for a long time.

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In the early 1960s she apparently worked on two Swedish films but I have found nothing to establish whether or not this is actually true or, if it is, what the titles were. Sexploitation director extroadinaire Russ Meyer found Bardot at the infamous Pink Pussycat on Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, where she at one point had a headlining strip show (she previously used to dance before the legendary Tura Satana did her routine). Meyer asked her to appear in his mockumentary Mondo Topless and Bardot agreed, bringing some of her fellow co-workers along with her. There is no denying that Babette steals the show in Mondo, with Meyer even giving her assets pompous exaggeration; ‘French and Swedish, fifty-fifty where it counts!’. Once you see the images of her driving around San Francisco, topless, bouncing at every turn and bump, you’ll never be able to erase it from your memory. Even more so when you see her dancing and stripping off next to a train track, an oncoming locomotive in the distance and then roaring past. Only statuesque Babette would be discussing the intricacy of portraying a sexually mature woman with childlike innocence in her routines. Except that she manages to do it pretty easily, peeling off her stockings whilst sucking her thumb. My personal highlight is spotting the bruises up her thighs. Sign of a true pro, Bardot wasn’t once the highest paid stripper in the entire US for any old reason, reportedly earning a regular $2,500 a week.

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The following year in 1967 Bardot returned to play a character named after herself in Meyer’s Common Law Cabin. It’s here where Babette really shines, albeit in a glow of european campness. Every line is drooled in her thick French-Swedish accent making some words have an unintentional hilarious different meaning when in conversational context (‘rich’ ends up sounding more like ‘retch’). Having said that she does have some great scenes. I am a big fan of Common Law Cabin but if you’re not convinced, give it a watch just to see her in a tiny, push up bikini chopping fire wood with a machete. Then there’s her exotic fire dance atop a mountain, complete with wailing screams… Bardot plays off against her fellow leading lady Alaina Capri really well creating a memorable performance that stands out amongst those of other Meyer leading ladies. Capri herself said working with Bardot was ‘kind of wild’ which is hardly unsurprising. Accounts give the impression that this woman had a lot of energy, which director Russ would know all about. He claimed to have enjoyed a dalliance with Babette on set, with her frequently staying in his on-set accommodation. In true Meyer fashion, he blamed the films lack of success on the fact that there was too much extra-curricular action on set…

In 1967 she also appeared in I, Marquis de Sade in a minor role as one of de Sade’s girls. I can find very little about her brief role in this but it would again appear that she was hired based on her background of stripping and dancing. This and the two films she did with Russ Meyer appear to be her only film credits.

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On the back of her appearances in Meyer’s films and under the guidance of her husband Bob Baker (her manager and leader of the small band that accompanied her act), she toured the US as a burlesque dancer in 1968,  having shows at the Gayety Theatre in New York City, the Town Theatre in Chicago (of which I managed to find a photo essay of one of her routines in which she looks gorgeous) and the Colony Club in Dallas. Bardot toured the burlesque circuit internationally until she set up a residence at the Majestic Inn in Calgary, Alberta. The liberal laws in Alberta allowed her to strip completely nude, although she would maintain her thong during performances. She performed there nightly for six months before heading to Las Vegas where she not only danced but also sung. She also managed time to fit in another night with Meyer… and none other than Uschi Digard. One can only imagine the amount of breast on show that night (Tura Satana once said she was knocked out when she bumped into Bardot in Vegas in the 70s having not seen her since her early Pink Pussycat days, her words ‘silicone does wonders’ pretty much sums up the interaction).

Whilst in Calgary she became friends with the legendary wrestling family The Harts through wrestler Andre The Giant, a regular at her shows. In the early 1970s Bardot and her family, which by this point included two children Bobby and Bianca, would travel to Calgary yearly to perform at the Majestic Inn where she would perform a lunchtime show and an evening show. During this month they would stay with the Hart’s in the big family home. In 1973 Stu Hart billed her as Miss Stampede Wrestling (the wrestling promotion he ran) after spotting her popularity with other wrestlers he worked with (she was also friends with Terry Funk and Dan Kroffat) but it was always Andre at every one of her shows sitting in the front show. Apparently he was reluctant to miss any of her performances and would sometimes turn up late to bookings that Stu had arranged for him because he’d been to see her. Word on the street was that he secretly held more than a flame for her. Bardot appeared at many of the Stampede parades, regularly riding with the wrestling clan on their float. One summer, the horse she was riding on buckled after the float in front of it stopped and Babette was thrown into the road. Apparently in tears in a heap on the floor, she still managed to let her bulging cleavage show to the crowds supposedly embarrassing a young Owen Hart. As Miss Stampede Wrestling Babette also had frequent appearances on the Stampede Wrestling TV show, handing out awards, title belts at wins and greeting big name stars to the ring.

The last known appearance I can find that she did was in 1981, where she headlined the Babette Bardot Review at the Kings Inn Motel in Daytona Beach. It would appear that she passed away at some point in the early 00s. Tura Satana herself suggests on one online forum that Bardot remarried at some point but that her new surname wasn’t known to many people, including her, which renders much information seeking redundant. It’s a real shame because I would have loved to know where this enigmatic woman found herself after 1981 and what she was up to at the time. By all reports she was a lovely lady and left an impression on all those she met, as well as all of us Russ Meyer fans.

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