Tag Archives: Erica Gavin

MEYER MONTH – Top Five Costumes

9 Mar

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HONOURABLE MENTION – Z-Man’s Superwoman costume (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
One of the sharpest dressed characters of 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s Z-Man’s final outfit that stands out the most; his Superwoman outfit. Forget a costume akin to something Wonder Woman might wear, this is a regal ensemble that makes as much impact as the declaration he makes; that he is in fact a she. With a colour scheme that tries to add some legitimacy to his claims (purple as a colour has often been related to monarchy and money as if he can buy his gender through money or respect), he tops the outfit off with a simple gold crown which says he/she’s in charge. For those that stand in his way he has the answer of a sword, one of the ultimate phallic symbols which also represents his willingness to castrate his male identity.

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HONOURABLE MENTION – Vixen’s yellow bikini (Vixen!)
An instance where costume reflects the character’s personality, Vixen’s bright yellow bikini is as fun-loving, outgoing and confident as she is. Standing out against the natural colours of the forest, the bikini ensures that she is the one that stands out amongst the small community in which she lives making her all the more desirable.

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#5 – Ashley St Ives crochet dress (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
Ash St. Ives (Edy Williams) is a superficial porn star out to sleep with whoever she wants, whenever she wants. So it’s hardly surprising that one of the most memorable costumes from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is Ives’ beige crotchet dress, which leaves very little to the imagination. Consisting of pants and a dress that comprises a bikini top with a panelled body piece, the dress is the perfect visual representation of Edy Williams’ character; superficial, vapid and attention seeking.

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#4 – Varla’s black jumpsuit (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!)
Second only to Supervixens in terms of iconography (see below), Tura Satana’s black get-up in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of Meyer’s most recognised and imitated visuals. The all black, skin-tight catsuit combined with her lethal moves effectively shows her off as the sleek killing machine that she is, as well as representing the dichotomy of gender stereotypes that she represents. The boots and leather gloves she wears are masculine traits to identify with whilst the fact that she doesn’t mind getting her clothes sweaty and dirty shows she isn’t afraid to be involved in some rough and tumble. Whilst the catsuit is certainly figure hugging, Satana as Varla is pretty much covered up in comfortable racing gear that wouldn’t be out-of-place on a man. The plunging neckline and exposed cleavage (Satana wore a custom-made bra to make sure she stayed in) are the only indication of her female sexuality which she always uses to her advantage. Meyer took a similar approach with Charles Napier’s serial killer character Harry Sledge in Supervixens, kitting him out in all black and gloves to be a male counterpoint to Varla.

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#3 – Mr. Teas’ jumpsuit and straw hat (The Immoral Mr. Teas)
Inspired by Jacques Tati’s character Mr Hulot, Mr Teas’ brightly coloured jumpsuits and straw hat make him visually all the more detached from the world he is already emotionally scared of. Whilst the scantily clad and nude women he stumbles upon seem relaxed in their environments and at one with nature, Mr Teas in his absurdly loud orange jumpsuit looks more like an astronaut stranded in a world that he doesn’t really understand which links him in some way to his viewing audience who would have been viewing the film as new territory themselves.

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#2 – Casey and Roxanne’s fancy dress costumes (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
He may have had a few issues but Z-Man’s choice of costume for lesbian lovers Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Roxanne (Erica Gavin) to wear at his costume party in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was the perfect visual metaphor for their relationship. Roxanne was very much the Batman figure to Casey; rescuing her, taking her under her wing and clearly being the dominant figure in the relationship. In return Casey was the perfect Robin, happy to always be by Roxanne’s side. Whilst Gavin stays in her Batman gear for a while, Myers only wears her Robin outfit briefly but it makes an impression. This is one of the best instances in Meyer’s work where costume really reflects the characters wearing them. Making it even more fun, the outfit Myers wears is one that Burt Ward wore himself in the 1960s Batman television series.

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#1 – SuperLorna’s red shirt (Supervixens)
Christy Hartburg only ever starred in one Russ Meyer film and it wasn’t a long appearance either but when it comes to the iconography of Meyer’s cinematic career, it’s Hartburg’s costume from Supervixens that tops the list. Tiny white shorts, hair in bunches and a pinky-red shirt tied at the waist, exposing a massive cleavage that one can’t help but notice in all its glory. Whilst Satana’s costume is visually just as iconic, it’s the above picture of Hartburg that is regularly used to advertise Meyer’s work (from DVD box sets to t-shirts, mugs to book covers and usually to accompany articles in magazines and film books) and was the main image used in the Supervixens publicity campaign. The perfect image to sum up the women that Meyer liked to portray in his features; outgoing, fun and provocative. Oh, and very top-heavy.

‘Beyond Your Average Remake – Modernising the Guys and Dolls’ by Paul Davis

3 Mar

Lydia and I have often had conversations broaching the idea of recasting movies we adore on a strictly ‘if you had to’ basis, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one that’s come up often due to the large ensemble cast. Made in 1970, BtVotD’s (as it shall be referred to from here out) tells the story of an all female rock group and their misadventures in being ‘discovered’ in Hollywood at the tail end of the ‘free-love’ era. The film was auteur Russ Meyer’s first studio production in a two-picture deal with 20th Century Fox. Originally planned as a sequel to Fox’s 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, the film was forced to distance itself from Mark Robson’s picture after author Jacqueline Susann was appalled by the prospect of a ‘soft-core porn’ director making a sequel to her original story. This, and an X-Rating courtesy of the MPAA, did not stop the film’s pulling power at the box office, however, grossing nearly ten-times it’s $900,000 budget upon it’s release. To this day, according to screenwriter Roger Ebert, BtVotD has grossed over $40 million in theatrical and video sales to date.

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I learned a long time ago that nothing in Hollywood is sacred. If there is money to be made with a remake, then you bet it will get made. When I think of BtVotD however, I can’t imagine it ever being remade. The original was so completely outrageous that I think even if it didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be made today. That itself made the ‘fictional’ task of re-casting the movie for a modern remake problematic for me. Not only do I hold the film very dear to me, but also I just can’t see it ever happening. For me this is like being asked to re-cast Twin Peaks. You just couldn’t do it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not citing BtVotD as Citizen Kane here; far from it. The performances are very hit and miss at best and I’ve never been a huge fan of Russ Meyer’s editing technique. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that no other movie exists that can compare to BtVotD. As a motion picture it is a wholly unique experience – which is something I can only say of maybe a half-dozen movies. It’s a musical, comedy, horror, drama, thriller! All it needs is some aliens and an animated sequence and you’ve nearly got all bases covered. How many movies can you name that tick as many boxes? Above and beyond all of this, the film is remarkably entertaining. Despite the pitfalls and dangers that come with fame and excess lifestyle the characters soon become entangled in, I still gaze upon the ‘fantasy’ Hollywood and almost cartoon-like characters as created by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert with envious eyes.

All that said, it has still been my task to cast a fictional remake of the film. So with a gun to my head, here are my casting choices, were I to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Reed) – Isla Fisher


Isla Fisher has that perfect blend of girl next door with a dash of firecracker to make Kelly work in a modern remake. Plus, I can easily see her as the lead vocalist of the Carrie Nations. It wouldn’t be her voice of course, for that I’d hire Florence Welch.

Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) – Jennifer Lawrence


Like Cynthia Myers, Lawrence oozes sex appeal without having to do or say very much at all – this is pretty much the essence of Casey. Her failure to adapt to the excess lifestyle makes her the ‘tortured soul’ of the group – something I think Jennifer Lawrence would own, given her God-given acting ability.

Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) – Rosario Dawson


I’m a huge Rosario Dawson fan and loved her in everything I’ve seen her in. She has the looks, the attitude and the style to bring Pet to the 21st century. She would be my Russ Meyer/Quentin Tarantino nod for the film.

 Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John Lazar) – Cillian Murphy


This was a bit of a no brainer for me, and perhaps the easiest to cast. Now, I don’t take John LaZar’s performance as Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell lightly, as he’s without a doubt my favourite character, but I just can’t see ANYONE else in today’s talent pool delivering the line “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” better than Cillian Murphy. Plus, I think he’d really enjoy calling someone a ‘buggery knave’.

Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) – Dolph Ziggler


Here is my wild card casting for the film. For those unfamiliar, Dolph Ziggler (real name Nick Nemeth) is a professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment. Those who ARE familiar will get exactly why I’ve cast him. The character of Lance Rocke is pretty much the character of Dolph Ziggler. He not only has the looks and the body to carry out the role, but the calibre of performances Ziggler delivers on Monday Night Raw every week are no further a stretch than that played by Michael Blodgett in original movie. Except for the gold digging part. Not much of that in pro-wrestling.

Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) – James McAvoy


James McEvoy has an annoying quality of being instantly likeable in whatever role he’s in. What’s interesting about the idea of him playing Harris is that his character seesaws throughout the story – we like him, we hate him and then BAM! He can miraculously walk again and we all cheer. I’d love to see McEvoy handle this type of character.

Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams) – Christina Hendricks


Christina Hendricks is THE quintessential ‘Meyer girl’ for the movie and who better than her to fill the crocheted dress of Ashley St. Ives? Who wouldn’t pay good money to see Hendricks as a hyper-sexed porn star? Mad men, I tell you. MAD MEN! *Sorry!

Roxanne (Erica Gavin) – Liv Tyler


This casting was based solely on who I could see paired up with Jennifer Lawrence in the more intimate scenes between Roxanne and Casey. After a couple of Empire Records flashbacks, I settled on Liv Tyler. She has a very sultry and almost tender nature that would be key to the seduction of Casey. I think the chemistry between her and Lawrence would be off the chart.

Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) – Sherylin Fenn


Who didn’t fall in love with Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks? Raise your hands… I see no raised hands. Point proven. This one is a bit of indulgence casting. I was on a bit of a Peaks revival while writing this and well… Fenn could do this role with her eyes closed. Although I wouldn’t ask her to do the role with her eyes closed. That’d just be weird.

Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page) – Columbus Short


Naturally if I was doing this in the mid-90s, the role would have gone to Alfonso Ribero, but now that he’s older, I just picked someone I figured could A) tame a rock n’ roll Rosario Dawson and B) convincingly not stand a fucking chance of winning a fight against Randy Black – although when you see who I cast as him, that pretty much could have been anyone…

Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod – Bill Murray

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It’s Bill fucking Murray. End of discussion.

Randy Black (James Iglehart) – Terry Crews


At first I considered another wrestler for this role –even changing the character to a professional wrestler rather than a heavyweight boxer (Randy Black being based on Mohammed Ali). Then it dawned on me that this guy, in this day and age would be a cage fighter and the body that Terry Crews is rocking, hell, you’d believe he could beat up the Moon! Not really a difficult decision here. With Crews’ dynamic personality to boot, he’d own the role of Randy Black.

Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) – Kurt Russell


Despite the fact that I love Kurt Russell and want to see him in more stuff, I’m going with the Meyer ‘square-jaw’ trait on this one. Kurt Russell is a man’s man. And if anyone was going to step into the boots of Charles Napier, it’d be Snake Plissken… Or R.J. MacReady… Or Jack Burton… Or Stuntman Mike… Or Dean Proffitt.

Otto (Henry Rowland) – Udo Kier


Seriously, who the fuck else?

Paul Davis is a writer and filmmaker from London. His short film Him Indoors starring Reece Shearsmith and Pollyanna McIntosh is finally available to watch online and his next short The Body is currently in production.

MEYER MONTH – Russ Meyer Fan Art

24 Mar

Whilst trawling the internet for images for this month’s Russ Meyer dedicated month, I’ve stumbled across a lot of Russ Meyer related fan art and posters, some of which are beautiful. I’ve collected a majority of my favourites here for a pictorial post but there are plenty more out there. I will say one thing, if any one of the artists who did any of these ever come across this page or blog, please get in touch! I would pay for some of the originals of these…

The girls of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Becca’s Art

artwork by the Pizz

Supervixens character sketch by Jeremy Polgar

Tura Satana by Nathan Fox

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Scott C

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Jeff Victor

Vixen! by WacomZombie

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  by kirbynasty

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by SHAG

Supervixens by Arbito

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! inspired painting by Sandra Equihua

minimalist Russ Meyer film posters by roosterization

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Ghoulish Gary Pullin

The Lust of Flesh by Sam Gambino

MEYER MONTH – The Final War of Russ Meyer by David K. Frasier

21 Mar

In the July 18-August 1 1985 issue of Rolling Stone director John Waters contributed an article, “Trash Tour of Los Angeles”, which included the address of Russ Meyer’s home, 3121 Arrowhead Drive, in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles.  The “Pope of Trash”,  long an articulate champion of RM’s work, dubbed the director’s two-story chalet the “Russ Meyer Museum” because nearly every inch of available wall, ceiling, and kitchen cabinet space was festooned with posters, photos, and memorabilia chronicling his career, wartime experiences, and serial sexual liaisons.  Meyer never forgave Waters for this transgression even though JW had him on tape saying it was okay to include the address.  Russ reportedly roundly cursed Waters each time a covey of fans dropped by the manse expecting an impromptu tour.  I owe John Waters a personal debt not only because this kind and gracious man has supported my books on murder, entertainment industry suicide, and showbiz homicide, but more importantly without his Rolling Stone article I never would’ve met Russ Meyer.  John’s travelogue led to a close 15 year friendship with “The King of the Nudies” largely spent working on his mammoth three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast.

I was a librarian at the Kinsey Institute (formerly the Institute for Sex Research) on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington when I first saw the article.  Ever since seeing a double bill of Good Morning… and Goodbye! and Common-Law Cabin at the Sunset Drive-in in Evansville, Indiana, during the early 1970s I’d been hooked.  Sure the outsized breasts were great, but beyond that it was obvious these movies were the progeny of a one man film factory whose love of life and vital essence energized every frame of film.  Jump cut to August 1985.  Armed with the address from the Waters article I respectfully wrote RM to request that he donate copies of his videotapes for the collections of the Kinsey Institute library.  A few days later, I was stunned when the Institute’s secretary rang my office to say “a Russ Meyer” was on the line.  Long story short – Russ was thrilled to donate videos to the library, and when I told him I wanted to do a book length bibliography on published works about him he informed me that I must come to Los Angeles to incorporate the multi-volumes of material contained in the scrapbooks in his vast home archive.  RM was proud of his work and doggedly sought out every published mention of his name (both good and bad).

Russ cooperated fully in the project, but insisted my book NOT be a biography.  He was engaged in that endeavor and nothing must compete with what he portentously dubbed THE BOOK.  I assured him my effort was solely to collect material about him so fans and researchers could use the book to study his work.  Russ Meyer – The Life and Films was published by a small reference publisher in 1990 and featured a 25 page career essay (“Russ Meyer, American Auteur”), and annotated entries on 1,148 published items, as well as a detailed filmography.  Jimmy McDonough, best-selling author of Shakey:  Neil Young’s Biography (2002), fully realized my vision for the book when he used it to write his definitive 2005 biography of Russ, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws:  The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.  If you haven’t done so, pick it up.  It’s a hell of a read particularly the tragic final years of “King Leer” filled as they were with equal measure of Shakespearean poignancy and perfidy.

Although John Waters briefly touched on RM’s manse in the Hills above the Lake Hollywood Reservoir it deserves closer scrutiny as a testament to the Great Man’s life.  Few houses, even in the Land of the Ravenous Ego, have ever been converted into a shrine to so fully chronicle the grandeur of its owner.  For a while it was painted a bilious combination of green and orange to mimic the color scheme of his Bosomania videocassette boxes.  Of course, the neighbors hated it (much to RM’s delight), and he was often at odds with them. On one kitchen cabinet, Russ had laminated a letter from a disgruntled neighbor unhappy with the trash (sets from Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens — much of it was shot in the house) strewn across the backyard.  She complained the space looked like “lower Tijuana”, and added that everyone in the neighborhood “would love to work from their homes, but as you know it’s illegal”.  “I had my attorney write a gorilla letter”, RM said, “and she backed off.”

Once while we were floating in the small pool on the side of the house I asked him if he ever had trouble with neighbors peeking in to catch glimpses of female guests like Francesca “Kitten” Natividad, Melissa Mounds, and many others.   Not a problem on Arrowhead (“my next door neighbors are Chinese”), but his second home in Palm Desert was in a neighborhood overrun with horny teen-aged boys.  The munificently endowed Melissa Mounds, his lover during the latter half of the 1990s, often swam nude and kids would either get on the roofs of their homes with binoculars, or, steal peeks over the wall.  Russ loved telling the story about how Mounds stormed after one sexually enflamed teen, knocked on the door of his dwelling, and when his mother answered, she pulled down her top exposing a brace of humongous bazooms and said, “Tell your son here they are if he’s still interested”.

For a Meyer fan the house on Arrowhead was a breast man’s Louvre.  Russ was deeply proud of his work and profoundly sentimental.  Photos of former lovers (one of a seductive Uschi Digard in a swimming pool playing a sousaphone) were everywhere and RM memorialized the fact of his couplings with a gold nameplate bearing the inscription, “To the mutual exchange of wondrous bodily fluids”.  The far wall of the kitchen was covered with priceless memorabilia from the films – Bill Teas’s straw hat from The Immoral Mr. Teas, Tura “Varla” Satana’s glove from Faster, Pussycat!  Kill!  Kill!, the ice tongs that spelled the end of Lorna Maitland in Lorna, even the wheel chair Meyer stock player Stuart Lancaster used in FPKK.  For me, however, one item in particular was just the best.  In the kitchen, RM had a framed ad from Daily Variety featuring a shot of Erica Gavin trumpeting both his greatness and the huge financial success of Vixen!.  It was one of those ads that asked a series of questions with only one obvious answer, in this case, “Russ Meyer”.  “Who is the man who gave us Vixen!?”, “Who is the man responsible for making a film that broke box office records in Chicago”, “Who is this visionary director…” etc., etc.  Under the final question, the late Eve Meyer (the beauty and brains behind Eve Productions) had written in bold ink, “Who gives a crap?”  Russ laughed it off remembering his voluptuous ex-wife never tired of “busting balls” especially when she controlled the budgets for the films produced under the Eve banner. What a woman.

Russ always said he never felt really close to someone until he’d been through a war with them.  His best friends remained his World War II army buddies, and Roger Ebert, their lifelong friendship initially forged in the trenches at 20th Century-Fox writing the classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  What follows is a free-form reminiscence of the “war” we shared, the seemingly endless working and re-working of A Clean Breast.  While illness ultimately left Russ unable to see the project through to its conclusion or to celebrate his achievement, THE BOOK stands as a remarkable document if not only for its thousands of photographs.  Readers shouldn’t go there expecting to find any great personal insights into the man.  Russ wasn’t that type of guy, and admitted he wasn’t particularly sensitive although he was strongly sentimental and attached to his friends.  RM once told me his autobiography was infinitely better than director David Lean’s because it was longer.

Over the years, ACB grew from one volume to three (as did its price from $70.00 to $350.00) as Russ refused to wrap the project.  RM first got the idea to write his own story after becoming disenchanted with German author Rolf Thissen’s book, Russ Meyer, der Konig des Sexfilms (1987).  Russ was so outraged by what he saw as the tome’s inaccuracies that he successfully sued to block the book’s distribution in America.  What ensued was a period of intense activity lasting years as Russ filled up seemingly inexhaustible reams of yellow legal pads with his story.  He combed his clippings archive and had an assistant obtain Permissions from various entities to reproduce complete articles (most often reviews) in the tomes.  On the strength of my book, Russ brought me in as an “associate editor,” a job that primarily consisted of proofreading, fact checking, and sizing photographs.

Russ, like most people with only a passing acquaintance with the university (his film festivals at Yale and Northwestern), was impressed with academia far beyond anyone who has actually ever had to work within their hallowed halls.  Russ would daily call the I.U. library where I worked (I left the Kinsey Institute in 1986) to ask how to spell certain words, but mostly just to talk.  He always referred to the library as “the Gutenberg” and my colleagues soon recognized his modulated FM radio voice.  After Russ decided only the printing presses of Hong Kong were cutting edge enough to reproduce the thousands of black-and-white duo-tone photos in ACB he compelled me to get a passport.  Never used it.  RM had a falling out with the printer and had all the work shipped to FB Productions, a commercial printer in Chatsworth, California that specialized in producing top quality stand-up movie advertising.  At first, Russ sent printer’s proofs to my home, but later he’d fly me out to Los Angeles annually for a week or so to work shoulder-to-shoulder and bunk with him at his Hollywood digs.  Russ always met me at the Los Angeles International Airport and, with the moxie gained in 40 plus years of navigating the traffic choked streets of Hell A, wended his way along a circuitous route of highways and surface streets.  Most often, he’d be driving his GMC Suburban, a veteran of several motion picture shoots. Once when we were stopped at a light a Mexican street vendor approached the truck and tried to sell Russ a dozen red roses. Without missing a beat, he pointed at me and told the guy, “No thanks, we’re not queer.” Classic Meyer.

A typical working day began with reveille around 5:30 A.M. with Russ eating a bowl of oatmeal seated at the editing machine in his garage in the shadow of shelves of boxed film cuts and a huge vault.  He always appreciated that I didn’t eat breakfast so I could immediately launch into work at a nearby table.  During work on ACB, RM was also cutting down his features for a planned 12 hour compilation film, The Breast of Russ Meyer, and later worked on two direct-to-video (then the format) films – one on then lover, Melissa Mounds, and the other on Pandora Peaks (eventually released on DVD, but finished by RM stalwart Jim “the Handyman” Ryan after his friend of 50 years became too ill to work).

While editing, Russ also fielded phone calls for RM Films and personally took orders for his videos.  After a big sale he’d hold up the completed invoice and exclaim, “Frasier, tonight we eat!”  Often during the day, Russ called me over to the editing machine to show off a particularly groin stirring scene.  “God, what a fucking evil look,” he’d marvel as footage of the hellishly configured Melissa Mounds clad only in a feathered mask coiled into a canvas film bin.  Their tempestuous relationship ended in May 1999 after the stripper attacked the sleeping director with a hammer.  Nothing kills sex quicker than a restraining order.  RM’s long-time film editor Richard Brummer was often at the house on Arrowhead doing sound editing on BRM. Once after Brummer left for the day, RM mused that while his friend and colleague was a superb editor he was incapable of editing a film without the Master’s supervision.  “You have to have this fetish, to adore the bosom vast in order to cut the breast just as it’s at its most perfect.  Brummer is married to a woman who’s built like a broom handle.  What can he know?”.

We’d knock off around 6:00 P.M., have a beer at the house (RM was in a Corona phase for a while), then the best times began.  Russ loved to eat and lived for the camaraderie of “cutting meat” with friends.  RM was a regular at the Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard and always entered through the kitchen.  Interestingly, he refused to pay the parking fee behind the restaurant, opting instead to give the Mexican attendant a few bucks (less than the rate) off the books.  Conversation during the dozens of meals we shared was unforgettable.  RM always started off with a stiff drink (“Bombay gin straight up and so cold it’ll hurt your teeth”), ordered, and for the next two hours or more over the meal discussed his movies, friends, women, and THE BOOK (which he considered to be one of the most important things he’d ever attempted).  Russ liked that I only drank beer (“it’s so much cheaper than liquor”) and spoke with contempt of picking up the bloated bar tab of an associate of ecdysiast Pandora Peaks who insisted on quaffing champagne cocktails at $15.00 bucks a throw at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Palm Desert.  Russ also appreciated my insistence on picking up the tab at least once during any visit.  To save me money he’d pronounce, “We’ll eat at the greasy spoon”, Meyerese for the Talleyrand restaurant, his standby eatery located at 1700 W. Olive Avenue in Burbank.

The aforementioned Jim Ryan (the “Handyman” in Eve and the Handyman), a wonderful guy who devoted most of his life to RM, was a frequent companion on these outings.  Booze flowed at a Russ Meyer repast and one drive back from a restaurant near RKO Studios (now part of Paramount) on the corner of Melrose and Gower in Hollywood was memorable.  We were discussing his troubled and checkered relationship with the Hollywood film establishment when he suddenly pulled his truck over next to the studio, walked over to building, unzipped, and pissed on the wall.  “There”, he said peeling away from the curb, “that’s what I think of the whole fucking lot of them.”

Once on the way to a steak joint, Russ said, “I want you to meet the woman who made me a millionaire”.  We drove over to Fred Segal’s, a trendy clothing store in West Hollywood, but Erica (Vixen) Gavin, the shop’s general manager, had already left for the day.  RM owed her big… and knew it.  Best meal ever with Russ?  Easy.  Cactus Jack’s on Highway 111 in Indio, California.  We’d just spent a grueling day on ACB, and Russ felt that it was finally done.  We spent the early evening photocopying the volumes at a local Xerox store then went off to savor the best prime rib in the world washed down with what he called “copious amounts of meaningful grog”. Work on ACB ground on for over a decade with Russ sending printer’s bluelines to my home, me visiting Los Angeles, and my fielding near daily phone calls about THE BOOK.  I probably should’ve noticed RM’s mental deterioration earlier, but when you’re in the middle of something as all-consuming as this project was for Russ it was easy not to see what in retrospect was obvious.  RM was a workaholic and recognizing this essential element in his character I just thought he didn’t want the book to end because he felt it would signal his death.

That said, he kept adding chapters and photos to the volumes like rooms in the Winchester House.  The project ultimately descended into chaos when Russ discovered his typesetter could adjust spaces between letters and words, a process in the printing biz known as kerning.  RM meticulously eyeballed every line to make certain the spaces between the words were exact.  He slept with a dog-eared thesaurus and readily sacrificed the use of an initially well-chosen word in order to use an inferior synonym containing just the right amount of letters to balance out a line.  This went on page after page, draft after draft, until he was unable to keep the corrected drafts in order.  Time and again I was sent the same version of a draft to correct that I had already proofread.  By mid-1999 it was apparent to those in the company that RM was unable to complete the project.  The attorney stepped in and informed the company’s office manager that RM was facing a huge tax bite were the project not completed and published by the end of 2000.  I was brought out in August 1999 for what I knew would be my final meeting with Russ.  I don’t wish to dwell on this unhappy time.  Anyone who has watched a beloved friend or family member fade slowly away fully understands the pain and cosmic injustice of this kind of loss.  It was particularly tough to watch helplessly as a man as vital and independent as Russ went slowly into that Good Night.

Again, Jimmy McDonough graphically chronicles this painful chapter of RM’s life.  With apologies, it’s just too sad to rehash here.  I wrapped the book for Russ and after it was printed in 2000 was sent a signed copy.  I have no reason to believe he even remembered who I was when he was prompted to sign it.  Flashback to August 1999 as I’m leaving the “Russ Meyer Museum” for the final time, the manuscript completed, our war nearly won.  Realizing I’d never see him alive again, I asked the Great Man if he’d be kind enough to sign the book I’d written on him in 1990.  Here’s what he wrote:

–David K. Frasier / 3-2-12

MEYER MONTH – ‘The Cutting of Russ Meyer’ by Eugenio Triana

20 Mar

Like many talented filmmakers there is a general sense that Russ Meyer was great at what he did without much real sense at what those skills were. Meyer often gets called “Eisentenian” in his style, but what does this adjective really mean? This is what makes film such an enjoyable art form, just how persuasive it is – each frame is composed of so many elements that parsing every single decision that goes into making an effect work in a scene can be difficult for even the most hard-working critic. As such, the word “style” gets overused in film criticism, as a placeholder for whatever a film is doing that works. Like a man under hypnosis we get the general sense of purpose but the specifics get blurry.

Film is also expensive enough an art form, and dependent enough on technology, that it is also useful to consider how a filmmaker managed to arrive at those decisions and whether they were under his control at all. How decisions were affected by constraints, as much as the freedom of imagination to put up anything on-screen, is part of appreciating what goes into a filmmaker’s style.

With Russ Meyer, it is possible to simplify the conversation by concentrating solely on his editing skills, since this is such an important part of what makes his films his. Although he had plenty of other talents too, it was his editing that earned him the lofty “Eisensteinian” adjective above. But, like the cliché line about every smut film ever made, writing was not one of his strengths. This was due more to a lack of interest than a lack of effort, Meyer was the kind of filmmaker who preferred to pick up a camera and go than spend months in careful pre-production trying to refine a story. And in any case, he was enough of a realist to know that nobody paid for his films for the dialogue, to recycle another hoary line about the softcore and beyond.

Meyer spent most of his life making low budget films were he controlled almost every decision directly – and were there were major limits to what he could do. Actors were never well paid and never that good, and in any case he was rarely casting for acting talent first and foremost. Films had to be short and quickly made, and re-shoots were hard to come by, a tough limitation for a perfectionist like Meyer. Editing was the way he could hide a lot of these limitations and try to squeeze style out of dried out situations, and so came a prominent part of his directing style.

According to Jimmy McDonough in his biography Big Bosom and Square Jaws, Meyer was often editing on site, taking a van with him with a suit on site to see what he had. This was likely why Meyer’s films, for all their other faults, always have a great sense of rhythm – his editing was reactive, and often informing the film as it went along.

In the case of his first feature and hit, the film was almost entirely made in editing. Saddled with even fewer resources than he’d had before, and friends as actors, the director had to keep the film short and snappy to distract attention always. To screen means both to show and to cover, and very early Meyer showed he was in good control of both. From The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) comes one of the main staples of the Meyer style, the plentiful use of cutaways. Meyer had started his career in industrial films, the corporate videos of those days, and had learnt how a few still shots, some music and a well placed voice over was enough to create a piece that worked. Mr Teas was the sex film as an industrial film, which is appropriate, since there’s never been a larger industry.

So Meyer starts his film with still shots of California, with a largely nonsensical voice-over getting quick to the point of the movie as these images go by: “The guitar as we know it today, came about as a result of many types of earlier stringed instruments. There was first the harp, the lute, then the zither, and mandolin. The guitar is a very sensitive instrument, with “G” being the third string, and is played over a system of frets. Sensitive men have been fretting over G-strings for years!”

Certainly not the obvious way to start your smut film. Unlike the industrial films, where the copy was earnest and mannered, Mr Teas’s voice over is loose and sardonic: this is a tease rather than an open sale. Meyer manages a lot of character in such a short space: that of a fun, subversive movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And this done with almost no resources, just his camera to take what are essentially moving stills and recorded sound. That he had enough confidence to start a film without characters, dialogue or acting showed early on that Meyer was a distinctive filmmaker, one with bold ideas for his films, never mind the genre or budget.

Mr. Teas, saddled with an actor who had the look Meyer wanted but not any experience, also made plenty of use of the point of view shot, much more so than any of his later movies, which for obvious reasons tend to show their characters in medium shot. These uncomplicated techniques allowed Meyer to make a tight film on zero resources. The main shoot took only a four-day weekend but Meyer then spent days putting together additional bits of film, shooting those early shots, adding some more point of view of scenes with local models, slowly layering the film with more and more material. Meyer learnt the lesson that he could create a film himself in the editing room, getting plenty of coverage and putting slowly splicing it together in his mobile Steenbeck. His films usually feel very episodic, born not out of screenwriting rhythms but out of creating short sequences in editing.

With the success of Mr. Teas, Meyer had found a style he could make work in practice, and he made sure to keep learning as an editor, moving away from his still photography, industrial film days, to work that was more dynamic, more in tune with the moving image. Perhaps his best film, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), was the culmination of Meyer the filmmaker. It has one of the best-edited opening sequences of any independent film ever made. Meyer starts on his three leading ladies, with shots of Haji, Tura Sutana and Lori Williams, alternating between six, second vignettes of them go-go dancing shot from the director’s favourite angle (below to above) and a medium shot of the three.

Slowly, Meyer starts to intercut the source of the music, with close up shots of a jukebox.

And finally the punters, from whom Meyer gets great reactions.

Notice how all three elements are shot separately against black backgrounds (in fact each of the three spectators is also shown separately, never all of them together) so Meyer could build this whole sequence separately, without needing them all in the same room, or even to use the same place again. The sense that they are all in the same club is created by rapidly juxtaposing all these different elements together. This is where Meyer gets called “Eisensteinian” by the critics. One of the early proponents of this juxtaposing techniques, the Russian director in his books of montage looked at studies of audience reactions when different still elements where edited close together, a scene followed closely by close up shots of a crying woman created a feeling of sadness, etc. Meyer might not have intellectualized his approach in the way Eisenstein did but understood that film editing meant you didn’t need to start everything in a master shot. Film wasn’t theatre, cut it all together and the audience would get it.

Meyer creates a great rhythm in this opening sequence, slowly decreasing the time he gives to each element, down to a few seconds and then flipping between the dancers and the punters in bursts of as low as sixteen frames at a time. For those who find Meyer an unappealing self-publicist who only knew to shoot topless women, it’s worth noting how much care and work it must have been putting this sequence together. This was before the days of Final Cut and digital editing, and cutting such short bits of filming meant actually handling small pieces of material and carefully splicing them together. To make such a loose “MTV-style” editing required at the time focus, patience and an early belief that it would cut together and the work didn’t need to be repeated.

The sequence also allows Meyer to make a great jump in time and space, as he gets closer to each element until he is in macro shots of the jukebox (if Quentin Tarantino, one of Meyer’s most prominent fans, shows his influence it is in his careful use of the macro, otherwise their editing styles are diametrically opposite). From this close up of the jukebox we jump into a close-up of a radio car (for a moment it seems we are still at the club), a hand changing the clutch, a wide shot of three cars, and we are in the main narrative.

Faster Pussycat!’s great opening sequence introduces the characters, sets a mood, serves as its own self-contained scene and Meyer even finds a way to tie it seamlessly into the main body of his film. And the sequence would have been so easy to actually shoot, any independent filmmaker could do it, it is all created in the editing room. This is where Meyer shows he is worthy of all the accolades.

In Vixen! (1968), the director would get even more inventive with his juxtapositions, creating a fun, subversive tone not dissimilar to The Immoral Mr. Teas tone through smart use of subjective editing. When Vixen is circling the female half of a couple that is staying at her husband’s mountain resort, we get a brief look at the wife in negligee:

Followed by a quick reaction shot of Erica Gavin, a tossed off over the shoulder look with a twinkle in her eye (Erica Gavin really was Meyer’s best actress):

Followed by the wife sans negligee:

The effect is all in the quick editing between the first setup, the reaction, and the second setup repeated with the exact same framing minus one key element, but it manages to be witty and please the director’s core audience at the same time. Meyer always found an interesting way into nudity, which placed him head and shoulders above any other X-rated director out there.

Meyer developed his style as a fight against the limited means he had to make his often self financed movies with. Editing was a way to get the most out of little, of making a point with the use of what he was getting into camera alone. Often directors, particularly in those days, abandoned these down and dirty independent styles when they hit the big times, buckling down to the Hollywood house style of well lit, wide, medium and close up shots. This was usually due to the bigger budgets, which went to an outside editor, cameraman etc, which diluted a director’s idea into blander committee decisions. But not Meyer, who requested what for the studios was a small budget in his first big Hollywood film, precisely so he could retain his control and style. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is where Meyer showed he was a true artist, committed to his ideas through good times and bad, in the big film or the one shot with friends, because he believed they worked for what he was trying to say, regardless of budgetary pressures.

Beyond… is in fact a compendium of all of Meyer’s editing ideas. There is the montage of California shots with a sardonic voice over (a great improvement on the sequence from The Immoral Mr. Teas). There is the fast juxtapositions of short sequences, which Meyer uses for the crazed Hollywood industry conversations – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has the fastest dialogue scenes you’ll ever see on any film. Meyer also plays with cross cutting of action, in a beginning and ending sequence were a crazed maniac threatens the film’s young heroes. He also even experiments with cross fading in montages where he shows the development of the main protagonists all at the same time. Meyer’s only misstep was in choosing Scope to shoot the film. The 2.35:1 wide frame does not suit his low angles and how he likes his to photograph his women. But overall, it’s obvious watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that Meyer was the right director for the material. Only Meyer could have shown the fast, crazed world of Hollywood with so much style, the film is as full of unconnected off-the-cuff ideas than its vacuous characters.

Editing was the saving element for Meyer’s first film and through it he learnt that he could get a lot out of very little. It was also the difference between the worlds of photography and static industrial films he was used to and the super accelerated films he wanted to make. It is a crucial element in what makes Meyer’s films recognizably his own, since often he didn’t have the budget to make choices on any of the others. By his later films Meyer had truly become a master editor, and a precursor of the fast editing styles that are now so tired because they are so easy to do (his fan Tarantino would push the other way, with long medium shots of long dialogue sequences). In Meyer’s time of manual editing, and particularly with the lack of resources the director had, it was a style that required ambition, precise cutting, and hard work above and beyond the call of duty. It is in his editing (and flawless photography) that Meyer showed he wasn’t just another smut film director but had dreams of being the ultimate exponent of lust in film.

MEYER MONTH – ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ Soundtrack Top Ten

13 Mar

My personal favourite and one of Russ Meyer’s more well-known pictures, 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his first film as part of a three picture deal with 20th Century Fox. Following the story of an all girl rock group trying to make it big in 60s Hollywood, the film has achieved a cult status for numerous reasons including it’s fantastic soundtrack which is arguably one of the best film soundtracks ever recorded. First named The Kelly Affair and then re-named The Carrie Nations, none of the actresses who play Kelly, Pet and Casey (Dolly Reed, Marcia McBroom and Cynthia Myers) actually sing nor play any of the instruments on the tracks.

These duties instead fell onto composer Stu Phillips (The Monkees, Battlestar Galactica, The Amazing Spider-Man, Knight Rider) who Meyer specifically brought into the project against Fox Studios wishes. Phillips had previously co-written and produced the title track to Meyer’s film Cherry, Harry & Raquel which was released the previous year. Also on board were Bill Loose, who would wind up doing later Meyer soundtracks in the 70s, and vocalist Lynn Carey who did the voice work for the character Kelly McNamara that Dolly Reed was to lip-sync to. Carey’s vocals are incredible and were sadly replaced on the film’s soundtrack album with those of another singer, Ami Rushes, due to a dispute over royalties. Simply put, Rushes just don’t compare and are notably inferior to Carey’s who Phillips apparently had to stand on the other side of the room from the mic during recordings as her voice was so strong.

Whilst Phillips did the soundtrack and the score, I’ve decided to instead focus on the film’s soundtrack with this being my personal top ten…

A rousing rock ballad by composer Stu Phillips, Once I Had Love is the perfect song for The Carrie Nations, an ode to all the friendships and relationships that they have lost. Interestingly not included in the film but on soundtracks that have been released over the years.

The number one hit from 1967 gets played by the band themselves at record producer Z-Man’s first party (he owns them). A perfect example of psychedelic rock/folk music that epitomizes the whole tone of the film, the lyrics fit perfectly for the moment the song is heard in the film. The party is the first time that band members Kelly, Pet and Casey get to taste the hedonistic lifestyle that being in a successful rock group can bring them and start to question who they are personally and where the band is going under their current manager Harris, Kelly’s boyfriend. The irony in the lyric ‘Little to win, but nothing to lose’ is brilliant, there really is little for these girls to win in Hollywood but there’s everything to lose.

Our first introduction to The Kelly Affair are the roaring vocals of lead singer Kelly McNamara (Dolly Reed) although it’s actually singer Lynn Carey doing the duties. This is the group before they take the trip to Hollywood, doing their own set-up, lighting effects and playing small town shows, hungry for a shot at fame; ‘I’ve got to find a direction to follow, Something that’s mine not something I borrowed’. What’s great about this scene are the subtle beginnings of the story of resentment between Harris and Kelly that Meyer hints at using some well-timed editing skills (listen to the lyrics, watch which face they fall on…). Phillips actually taught Reed, Myers and McBroom to lip-sync and play instruments to a degree that they could pass off playing them when acting (maybe not all of McBroom’s drum bashing…) which he’d never done before. Whenever the girls weren’t shooting, Meyer made sure they were practising in an empty studio with Phillips. This was a track that Phillips and Carey wrote together, in five minutes, with Phillips writing the music and melody and Carey providing the lyrics.

This track is used to soundtrack the growing relationship between lesbian lovers Roxanne and Casey every time that they are alone on-screen, the sweet and tender music making their sex scene seem loving and natural and adding to its intimacy. Also used at the end of the film for its resolution scenes, the song perfectly sums up the idea of giving love a second chance, which practically most of the main characters do. I do love happy endings!

Another moment in the film where Meyer’s editing, the composition of the shot and the lyrics of the song really come together and play the story out well. This is also one of composer Stu Phillips favourite songs from the whole soundtrack. The Carrie Nations are successfully on the rise, caught between hot-shot popular producer Z-Man and their previous manager Harris, who has become an envious mess of a man. The girls are blossoming whilst Harris is stagnating, and this scene sure as hell makes the audience aware of it. He is literally looking up from the bottom. Watch Dolly Reed’s eyes when she’s singing. Those are the eyes of a woman on a mission to ridicule a man (trust me, I know). The decline downhill suddenly just got steeper…

This is another track that the Strawberry Alarm Clock are playing at Z-Man’s first party, again fitting in well with The Kelly Affair’s first appearance on the Hollywood party scene. You can see the enthusiasm and excitement in the girls eyes as they are being introduced to people and the idea that they have found their ‘home’ in this crowd is a strong one. Little do they know…

Newly christened The Carrie Nations and still looking somewhat more wholesome than they do in later performances, this is the start of Z-Man’s takeover and the eventual pushing out of Harris from the friendship group. Look at the composition of the shot; the overly happy and excited Harris versus the scheming Z-Man. He knows what’s good for the girls and it doesn’t involve nostalgic relationships getting in the way. Z-Man is on a mission to become the one that the girls will lean on in the long-term, if only the plan will work… Also used to musically illustrate each new relationship a character develops with another, helping the extend the guessing game of whether these relationships will provide any amount of longevity or crash and burn.

One of Meyer’s many references to other cinema in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Phillips adapted Dukas’s legendary piece of music to add to the trippiness of the ‘private party’ that Z-Man holds towards the end of the film. It’s a sinister scene, with Z-Man gleefully enjoying getting drugs into Casey’s blood stream despite her obvious apprehension. The naughtier cousin to Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, it all goes rapidly downhill from here. Nothing will ever be the same again.

And so it begins… This is the journey that The Kelly Affair take to Hollywood and drag the audience along with them, using that much-loved 40/50s film cliché of having the map superimposed onto the screen (remember folks, as much as Meyer denied it, this is one of the best satires on the 1960s as a decade to hit the film medium). They are the ‘gentle people’ wanting to spread love and trying to persuade Harris that it’s all a good idea. His apprehension is well noted, if only they’d listen and take note of his sarcastic peace sign. They feel out-of-place in their hometown, Harris feels out-of-place in his disregard for the idea of taking the trip to the West Coast and little do they know that they’ll all find Hollywood a bit out-of-place too…

Without a doubt this is the best song from the whole film. They came to Hollywood to be heard and, boy, do you hear them in this scene. Tensions are already running high between Kelly and Harris, Casey is beginning to show signs of boredom with the whole scene, Z-Man has begun plotting his takeover of the group and the break-up between Kelly and Harris, everyone’s flirting with each other, the group become The Carrie Nations… With lyrics the singer really should be listening to herself, this is the one number I can’t help but belt out whenever I play the soundtrack at home and features some of Lynn Carey’s best vocals.

MEYER MONTH – ‘Viva Foxy!’ and Edy Williams

11 Mar

Viva Foxy! a Russ Meyer film? No, you’re not wrong, he didn’t make it but it was one of the few film ideas that Meyer toyed with before eventually abandoning in the mid 70s. With a screenplay written by Roger Ebert, the picture was meant to star Meyer’s then-wife Edy Williams, whom he’d married after meeting on the set of 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Edy played hypersexual porn star Ashley St. Ives), and was set to start shooting in Hollywood on December 6th 1972. Except that it never did.

So what could we have expected from Meyer? Viva Foxy! aka Foxy (the film’s title was changed to incorporate the setting) was to be centred around the early 1920’s border war between two South American banana republics. Williams was to play the titular character of Foxy McHugh, an orphan of missionary parents who had grown up on the streets and was the power behind the two thrones. One dictator was to be modeled on Che Guevara, the other on Peter Ustinov’s Nero from Quo Vadis (one can only imagine how Meyer would have done this visually in his sometimes garish style). Williams saw McHugh as her version of Erica Gavin’s Vixen character; ‘She used men and abused them and had a ball. That’s what Foxy’s gonna be about. She’s gonna do all the things that men have done. I’ll be a female guerilla’. Meyer did photograph Edy for a Playboy pictorial which was featured in the March 1973 issue. He briefly describes his latest film Foxy which, according to Russ, will be about ‘a sexy record-company executive who gets mixed up with a number of men in outrageous situations’. Whatever the outcome would have been one can only imagine that the notoriously fame-hungry Williams would have taken the lead and run with it if her portrayal of Ashley St. Ives is anything to go by.

Russ Meyer and Edy Williams on their wedding day

Whilst the film never got made, Meyer and Williams did shoot some footage to advertise the film before any plans really took off. Russ shot the film’s trailer, which had Williams water skiing in the nude, and tagged it on to the end of his feature Black Snake which was released in 1973. One of the first directors to use this concept, there are conflicting reports as to whether the trailer was actually attached to the film or not during its original theatrical run (I’ve tried a lot of online research and not come up with a definite answer, if anyone can help…). Unfortunately this ending is not on the Arrow DVD release of Black Snake and the Arrow DVD’s are currently the most comprehensive packages of Meyer’s filmography.

What is known is that the project eventually fell through. One reason was due to difficulties in putting a deal together, despite Penthouse apparently being interested at one point and Russ stating to Hollywood Reporter in April 1973 that the trailer alone had resulted in three separate offers to completely finance the budget. This issue surprises me as Meyer was already a rich man by this time in his career. The film was conceived as a $400,000 vehicle for Williams and one of Meyer’s many talents was his ability to make a film on a budget (granted, there are a few blips in his career where he has had to be bailed out). How they couldn’t raise the money is beyond me, as is why Russ didn’t just self finance the project to begin with. It’s well-known that he liked to be in control of his entire empire and works. Another reported reason is that Meyer cancelled the film’s production amid fears that investors money would be lost on a film that could be challenged by local communities when a new ruling on obscenity was drawn up by the Supreme Court allowing local communities to self-determine what they considered to be ‘obscene’.

That said, the other reason it fell through was due to a temporary breakup between Meyer and Williams. The marriage between the two of them was a tempestuous one with many questioning at the time how the relationship had even gotten to that point. By 1973, tensions were already running high between the two with Williams angry that Meyer hadn’t given her the part of Lady Susan in Black Snake which she had assumed she was getting. Her Playboy pictorial was meant to be an attempt to pacify the situation. Their arguing continued until the day that Edy decided to leave Meyer’s house and file for divorce. It was a very messy battle and Williams is not generally looked upon by the Meyer community in a positive light.

There’s no denying that Viva Foxy! would have been an interesting film had Meyer continued with his plans and made it. Edy Williams is extremely memorable in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and it would have been nothing short of an experience to see her take on a female lead in one of Russ’s many sexploitation entries. Sometimes, the imagine dreams up ideas far more exciting than those ever given to us on a plate and this is one project where dreaming is just going to have to do.