Writer Jimmy McDonough is a big deal in the world of Russ Meyer. This is the man who wrote Meyer’s biography, a feat that probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Meyer hadn’t have been unwell. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer is an illuminating portrait of the director with some great stories from all of those who were nearest and dearest to him. The book has been a bible for me since it’s release and I’m very grateful to Jimmy for taking some time out to answer some questions and talk about the great man. To say that this is a personal life-greatest-moment for me is an understatement and my sincerest thanks go out to the guy. His latest biography, Tragic Country Queen, on Tammy Wynette is out now and previous biographies include Neil Young and Andy Milligan. The film rights to Big Bosoms were bought last year and a biopic is currently in the works with director David O. Russell linked to the project.
How did you first become aware of Russ Meyer and his career?
At some point I spied an old girlie mag calendar with photos Meyer had snapped of Lorna Maitland and June Wilkinson. Kablam! His photos were so much better than nearly all the competition. There was an X factor present–a crazed euphoria, a palpable sense of whoopie…One felt it in the grinch, as RM would say.
What was the first thing of his that you saw and what were your first impressions of it?
I think it was Supervixens at an Indiana drive-in when I was a teen. Seeing Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens during its theatrical run at at a decript old Jersey City movie palace is what really blew the back of my head off, though. The way the camera just locked onto Kitten Natividad and didn’t let go. The barrage of closeups: lips, eyes, breasts, radios, pinatas, and the wiggling wheel beneath a bedframe. An insane attention to the details, down to the garish set painting. Meyer appears in the end of the film, addressing the audience as he packs up his film equipment. The guy came at you with the con-man confidence of a car salesman who has you in a bear-hug and won’t let you leave the lot until the deal is sealed. It felt so personal, so maniacally single-minded. Once the lights came up I felt as if I’d hallucinated the whole thing. Everything about the film was wacko. Yet it’s strangely heartfelt. Beneath was a tribute of sorts–a love letter to Kitten.
How have these impressions changed over the years (for better or worse) and did doing the research for the book radically change how you felt about his work (film or photography)?
Not that I can think of. Doing the book only enhanced my appreciation of his work. And underscored how undeniably cuckoo RM was. Crazy family + combat photography + big bosoms + industrial photography + fear of insanity…it all made sense, really.
Where did the idea for the biography come from?
It was in the back of my mind for years. I had worked in the exploitation business for that other RM exploitation king on the opposite coast–Radley Metzger–and knew the lay of the land. My first published book was on Andy Milligan, who was the grimy, gritty low-down opposite of Meyer in every way. I wanted to go to the glossy end of the exploitation spectrum, say a few more things and get the fuck out. Plus I knew the book would be a million laughs.
Was it something that you’d always had in mind after discovering Meyer?
Yes. I spend a long time thinking about projects before I do them, because once I jump in I won’t quit until it’s done.
What was or is so special about Meyer that made you want to undertake the project?
I am attracted to people who are helpless in the face of an obsession. I can relate. Obsessions drove Meyer. And in the end they did him in. For better or worse, I see certain things in the same way as RM. Not everything, thank Christ, but…certain things. My wife Natalia could be a Meyer star. All the right curves…long, flaming red hair…the same bad attitude. She could hold her own with any of the Faster, Pussycat gang, believe me.
During the project, did you at any time feel like you may have taken on too much, in terms of trying to contact those closest to him, going through his extensive archives, the fact that he was, at the time, ill?
No, I wish I had found more interviewees, actually. I never went through RM’s archives, unfortunately. This was a completely unauthorized project.
Did you have any real difficulties along the way, in terms of contacting people or getting permission from his estate?
It took a bit of time to convince some people of my sincerity. A zillion nutcases have chased after these women. I actually had a number for Uschi and when I left a message I got so carried away I probably sounded like perv #4,567. I’m not 100% certain it was still her number but when I called back a few days later it was disconnected. Needless to say I never got to speak to her. A great loss for the book, unfortunately. I sought no permission from the estate nor was any granted.
Was there anyone in particular who really needed to be persuaded or talked around into contributing? You mention in the book how difficult it was to try and arrange meeting with Erica Gavin and how Alaina Capri had abandoned the business all together and never really talked about her time with Russ.
I specialize in difficult characters. Look at my books. Gavin is the Howard Hughes of the Meyer women, and the most psychedelic. She’s impossible to pin down on anything, even going to the Quickie Mart. But once gotten Erica was fantastic. She even flashed her cans at me, albeit in a brassiere. That chick should write a book–she’s been a lot of weird and wondrous places. Alaina was nervous about talking after all these years. She didn’t want to be laughed at. I hope I did her justice. Capri’s tops in my book.
Do you think (without sounding incredibly cruel) that his illness worked in your favor at the time of compiling research?
I had no idea what kind of shape RM was in when I started the research. I thought about chucking it once I knew the extent of the situation. His friends encouraged me to plow ahead, though, which was inspiring. But I have to say if RM had been in cognizant of my project there is no doubt in my mind that after my third question he would’ve punched me in the nose and unleashed the lawyers. Believe me, I would’ve loved to have picked that strange brain but Meyer wasn’t an introspective guy. I think he would’ve find my approach to be an assault on the fantasy. Needless to say I don’t see it that way. The women are what interested me, anyway. They hadn’t talked all that much. RM had ample opportunity to tell his story and spent three self-published volumes doing so–A Clean Breast. What an achievement–over a thousand pages and nary an insight to be found. Fantastic photos, though.
On ‘A Clean Breast’, do you think (if he’d completed it) his original idea of doing an autobiographical film would have been somewhat more insightful?
The bit of The Breast of Russ Meyer floating around is just fantastic. That was the last Meyer project of any interest, in my opinion. Insightful? I don’t know if Meyer was capable.
Did his illness or seeing him ill change your view or opinion on him in any way?
I felt for RM. Again, in the end his obsessions were his undoing. He’d become a feeble mark begging for mammary salvation, a pathetic john who’d empty his wallet to snuggle up to any big tit. Curiously it was a position not all that far from the weak males he’d mocked in his films. And then Meyer lost his mind–literally. The details are in the book, and it really is like something out of one of his mid-period films. His old screenwriter John Moran couldn’t have penned a more sordid tale.
Do you have a favourite/s Meyer girl and did your opinion of her change after you met her (if you did)?
Tura and I really hit it off. I mean really hit it off. Had circumstances been different…Kitten was absolutely fantastic. I nearly proposed to her after six questions. Unfortunately I was already married at the time. Hanging out with Erica Gavin was a mind-bender. They were all great and it was a thrill of a lifetime meeting them. Is there a grifter in the bunch? This is the world of Russ Meyer, what do you think?
What do you think it is about them that have made them so endearing amongst Meyer/film/sexploitation/cult film fans?
Their spirit. Dare I say they seem almost pure and innocent these days.
Do you think that that’s part of the charm of Meyer’s work, that by today’s standards of explicitness there’s a great deal of innocence in some of his portrayal’s of sexuality and some of his characters themselves?
Yes. The humor, which doesn’t always work, is another big part. Sex can be such a heavy, oppressive topic. Meyer lets you laugh at it.
Did any of them disappoint you in any way in reality?
No. If anything they were even more impressive. Life hasn’t been easy for them and they’re not easy dames to live with. Forget the physical attributes, these women vibrate with an energy that could charge 1000 Teslas. There’s a blinding light behind the eyes. Never a dull moment!
What do you think it is about Meyer himself that has kept the girls so loyal and proud of their work and association with him?
However much an asshole Meyer could be, he immortalized these women. How flattering is that? Last time I checked nobody’s building me a shrine.
There are a number of instances documented where he has fallen out with his actresses or treated them badly at some point. Is there anyone you think he was particularly harsher on?
Oh, I don’t know, everybody got the short end of the stick sooner or later. Meyer’s right-hand man George Costello was banished forever when Meyer discovered he’d been consoling Erica Gavin behind his back during the making of Vixen. During the shoot RM had a secret stash of Treesweet orange juice and Costello was brazen enough to filch one can and slip it to Gavin behind the boss’s back. RM took this as a great betrayal and never spoke to Costello again. Meyer made little plaques commemorating each film. And what was on the Vixen plaque? A can of Treesweet orange juice. A symbol of Costello’s treasonous behavior.
Did any girl surprise you in any way in reality?
Tura was ultra-right wing, which didn’t exactly surprise me, but it did crack me up. Very patriotic, loved Reagan and Bush, torture and kill the terrorists, etc. She was very loyal, very sweet and had a way of getting to you. She signed her letters “Always” and she meant it. Tura was just too big for the movies. Too bad.
Out of all the girls featured in his films, who you do think is or are the most memorable/most typically Meyer/most overrated or underrated? Are there any that you think he should have worked with more or less?
I just wish there was more of all of ’em. More Tura, more Lorna, more Uschi, more Kitten, more Alaina, more, more, more…I’m not a big Edy Williams fan but she certainly clawed out her place in the Meyer oeuvre. RM wasn’t interested in helping his stars build a career. He was always lusting after next year’s Cadillac. I really, really wish Eve had done more film work. And I wished somebody had properly interviewed her. What a dame.
I’m sure some will consider this heresy, but Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t my favorite, either. I admire the achievement but it’s a little too chilly, a little too arch for me. Give me Mondo Topless/Common Law Cabin/Faster, Pussycat…
RM’s last couple of films are just an embarrassment. His taste was of course vulgar, but exuberantly so. At the end it turned grotesque, tired, creepy. The women seem factory-made, joyless. You feel embarrassed for the guy, cringe at his pathetic fetish. This wasn’t the case previously, at least not for me. He made it all seem fun. And funny.
At what point do you think his career really peaked?
In 1968 Vixen made a pile of dough, so much so that a desperate 20th Century Fox came knocking on Meyer’s door to make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A Hollywood studio INVITED an exploitation filmmaker into the kingdom and let him run amok. Unheard of! The joke was definitely on them for once. And the moolah was in the Bank of Meyer! Fantastic.
Mentioning Eve Meyer, how important do you think she was in relation to Meyer’s early career? She seems to have played a big part on the finacial side of business, helping Russ out on a few occassions…
From what his friends told me, Eve really understood Russ. And could stand up to him. Eve was a very sharp dame and a fantastic businesswoman–she distributed his films. I think RM’s life can be split into BE and AE. Russ seemed increasingly rudderless After Eve. But nobody was going to tell RM what to do. Look where it got him. Heaven. And hell. Had he been a little more humble…but who wants a humble Meyer anyway? His life was like his movies. Absolutely nuts from beginning to end.
Women are the obvious topic to discuss when it comes to Meyer but he also had a lot of male friends and actors around him from his service during WW2 and the films he made. Which of them stand out as being the most memorable and loyal towards him?
Undoubtedly the most loyal was Anthony James Ryan AKA The Handyman. He helped create the movies, appeared in them, and cleaned up many a Meyer mess. He was loyal until the end. He knew how crazy Russ but was loyal until the end. A hell of a guy, Ryan. I loved visiting his dusty old photography store to shoot the shit. Little bits of Meyeribilia were everywhere, like shots of Kitten Natividad appearing in a local parade. I’d rather have a colonoscopy than attend such an event, but a parade with Kitten. Now that’s exciting. I hope she threw candy to the kids from the back of the Caddy.
How much of an impact do you feel Meyer had on cinema in terms of depicting sex and sexuality on screen?
He kicked down the door and did it with panache and wit. However crude and bizarre the point of view may be, RM was there first. He fought many an expensive battle in court defending his films. Everybody who came after benefited from his ballsy and brazen approach. To what end, one may ask. Nowadays anything goes and how dull is that?
As an independent filmmaker, do you think he is successful in what he did?
Are you kidding me?!? The guy saw his demented fantasies come to life on the silver screen, had incredible broads throwing themselves at his feet and he made a shitload of dough–the kind of loot that allows you to tell the world to take a fucking hike. He circled the globe attending tributes to himself. And outside of the films for 20th Century Fox RM owned everything he created and controlled how it was presented down to the minute details. He got away with everything, answered to nobody. I don’t know about you but I’d trade places in a second.
The bulk of sexploitation is really tedious unwatchable crap. Dave Friedman was a hell of a guy, but his posters and trailers were far better than most of actual movies. And that’s in keeping with the exploitation con. Moviemaking was no laughing matter to Meyer. He gave it his all. Experiencing Meyer’s work is akin to listening to Little Richard belt out “Keep A-Knockin’.” A runaway train–you either get on board or get the hell out of the way!
RM nearly killed himself getting shots as a combat photographer in WWII; he nearly killed his cast and crew making these films. Nobody told me making these films was fun. Raven De La Croix tore up her feet running like a maniac barefoot and naked through the woods. You think Meyer cared? Naaah. RM demanded take after take. He just wanted it to look good. So somebody dies, so what? Filmmaking is war!
My one wish is that Meyer would’ve made a 3D movie. But the medium wasn’t technically ready for somebody like Meyer. Could you imagine if he were still around? Scorsese made Hugo. Meyer could’ve done Huge-O.
Do you think the content of his films has stopped him from being celebrated or his achievements in independent filmmaking from being recognised at all?
Not really. Love him or hate him, Meyer was recognized as his own genre. Sure he was vilified by the conservative and the humorless, but RM demanded and got different consideration than most smut peddlers. Meyer was also lucky–powerful critics like Roger Ebert (it must be said, a fellow tit man) championed him in the mainstream press. And being hilarious and endlessly quotable made RM great copy and earned him endless ink. He was great at playing all the angles and knew controversy only enhanced box office. He’s been fully absorbed into our culture–these days you can buy Faster Pussycat t-shirts and lunch boxes at the mall. Unfortunately the films themselves have become harder and harder to show theatrically or buy in a store and that, I think, has been the worst thing for his longevity. Nobody’s really promoting or taking care of his work, except for draining the last easy dollar to be made. Go look at the website for RM Films. Is it still 1982?
Is there anything about him personally and professionally that you think he isn’t but should be remembered for?
I just think he should be remembered, period. Everybody agrees that the estate has missed the boat. No Blu-Rays containing state-of-the-art transfers of his films? Meyer would’ve been on top of that from the get-go. Rumors that the negatives are rotting away? It’s a disgrace. I think RM would be appalled at the state of his archive. This is a guy who turned his own home into a museum to himself–where are all his treasures? Why can’t the world experience them? There should be a Russ Meyer Museum. How great would that be? You think people wouldn’t visit, write about it, put it on TV?
It does seem a real shame that for someone who embraced the VHS market so early on, his films haven’t been transferred to BD yet. Who is in charge of his estate? I know that Arrow had some difficulties when they released his films on DVD which seem to be the best and most definitive way of getting hold of them.
Meyer’s secretary and contractor joined forces to become the, ahem, finely-tuned machine that runs the empire. Everything I have to say about the estate is in the book, specifically the “Janice and the Handyman” chapter. I’d rather not give them any more attention, they’re a bit internet-excitable when it comes to me.
In regards to his house, the descriptions of it in the book are incredible. What was it like being in that environment where Meyer is literally coming at you from all directions?
I was never in the house, unfortunately. All my knowledge comes from those who had been there.
What do you think of the homages and imitations of Meyer’s work that are raising his profile? Have you seen films like ‘Pervert!’ and ‘Bitch Slap!’? What, if you’ve seen them, do you think of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s references to his work in ‘Death Proof’ and ‘Planet Terror’?
Haven’t seen any of these and don’t feel compelled to catch up. That whole referencing-films-past has become a little cliche, don’t you think? The TV set on in the background showing Kiss of Death? You’ve seen a few movies, we get it. Go teach a class. If I need a jolt of Meyer I just turn on Mondo Topless for ten minutes. What’s that line from The In Crowd–“The original is still the greatest.”
In terms of his treatment of women (both on screen and off screen in his personal relationships and friendships), how much do you think he cared for/respected the opposite sex?
As great and fun a guy as RM was, he treated everybody like crap sooner or later. There was always suspicion, a plot, a betrayal. Women were certainly no exception. And yet despite himself he recorded a certain greatness about them, however absurdly specific it is. I think this talent was beyond his control. Obviously he never got over dear old mother Lydia. Interesting that a frequent Meyer POV is a low-angle, I’m-way-down-here-looking-way-up-there at these towering femme infernos. A child’s eye view, perhaps? It should come as no surprise Meyer came from a demented family. He was surrounded by a couple of crazy women; enemas were involved. Need I say more?
What do you think his honest opinions on male/female sexuality were?
As Jane Hower–one his last paramours–told me RM was “very straightforward–hug, kiss, touch put it in.” There’s a picture in the book of Meyer’s spartan bedroom that says it all. Box of Kleenex on the nightstand, no-frills bed…It might as well be army barracks. Sex to Meyer was like backing up a Mack truck, dumping a load and heading straight back to headquarters to hang out with the fellas. A very old-fashioned guy. To him oral sex was a commie plot. Just the word “sexuality” would’ve been met with derision from RM. He couldn’t have cared less about anybody’s needs except his own. “Making love”? “Sensuality”? That was for sissies, Yes-Dear men. Meyer approached sex the way he tore into a steak: not a lot of finesse and blood dripping off the knife.
How do you think Meyer will be remembered in 50 years time? What do you think people will see as his legacy by that point?
He was a complete original. How many filmmakers are? Not many, if you ask me. A minute or two of Meyer and you know you’ve fallen through a hole in the universe. A little more interesting than another Spike Lee retrospective or the complete oeuvre of Jonathan Demme.
Lastly, I don’t know whether you can or can’t talk about the film? Not in terms of where it is in production or who is being considered for casting but your view on it. Did you ever think that this would be an opportunity that would happen to you and how deserving do you think Meyer is of a film biopic?
I can tell you that the actress attached to play Eve Meyer was my first choice–she’s a dead ringer for Eve and can convey the mountain of moxie required. Some very talented people are connected to the project. But it’s Hollywood. I’ve been through this before. Of course I wish them the best. How will they recreate those women, anyway? CGI, or your dread porn cyborg types? I hope not. These were one-of-a kind women. Hard cups to fill.