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.
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,² 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?
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?”
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). 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.