Speak, Mammary

Russ Meyer’s Lifelong Search for Boobs


Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer
Jimmy McDonough
Crown: June 28

I don’t know why people take love-making so seriously. It’s pretty funny when you look at it.
- Russ Meyer

A self-described “class pornographer,” a pervert who preferred “good, clean, wholesome sex,” a total megalomaniac, a Gordian knot of neuroses, and a de facto censorship activist, Russell Albion Meyer (1922-2004) was a wet-dreamer with one hand in his pants and one hand reaching for the stars. “Like an explorer, Marco Polo or Magellan, I’m constantly looking for bigger bosoms.” For Meyer, the parallels couldn’t ever be grandiose enough, and indeed it’s doubtful that any human in the history of the world ever quested as fervently for anything as Meyer lusted after tits. Now known primarily as the cult auteur behind Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer could reasonably boast at the summit of his popularity in the late 60s and early 70s that there were two directors who could sell a film by their name alone: Hitchcock and Meyer. The story of that climb and eventual, humiliating decline — as told by Jimmy McDonough in this biography — is also the story of America’s sexual awakening, from burlesque houses to the birth of Playboy in the mid-50s, up until our numb and oversexed present.

The formative events in Russ’ life are easily catalogued: born in Oakland, CA, at the age of 14 he sneaks into the President Follies in San Francisco and witnesses Margie Sullivan, a busty dancer who was to become, as McDonough puts it, Meyer’s “mammary Rosebud”; at 19, with WWII raging, Meyer is trained as a combat photographer and eventually deployed to the European theater; while in Paris, Russ meets Ernest Hemingway, who takes pity on the penniless soldier and sponsors a trip to the local whorehouse, where Meyer loses his virginity. Meyer started moonlighting as a photographer when he returned to the States, selling his shots of burlesque dancers to magazines with titles like Fling, Frolic, Caper, and Ogle.

A kind of photo work then called “cheesecake” (though Meyer preferred “tittyboom”), Meyer’s pictures sold well, and eventually he left his day job and was shooting full-time. By his first Playboy centerfold (of his wife, Eve Meyer) in 1955, his style was firmly established — one part fun, three parts va-va-voom!! — what McDonough describes as his “female explosion” style. Meyer became one of the foremost glamour photographers of his day, shooting stars like Elizabeth Taylor. But he wanted to run his own show, and as Playboy had revolutionized skin mags with Hef’s luxurious color layouts, Meyer thought he could make a different kind of nudie flick. The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) was his first effort, the story of a lech who receives an anesthetic at the dentist that leads to an unending “naked reverie”: suddenly every woman he sees is without clothing. The film is entirely composed of the goateed Mr. Teas stumbling around, leering at the buxom nudes he encounters. Shot for $24,000 in four days, the movie was a smash hit when it was finally released in 1960, running for three years straight in LA, breaking records all over, and grossing a million bucks.

At the pace of about two per year, Meyer continued making films, and the more he made, the more Meyer’s trademark style emerged. Start with fertility-doll-shaped rutting females, add a couple of impotent, weak-chinned men and one with Stone Age virility, then mix that up with an almost incomprehensible plot, a desolate location and catty dialogue (“You hide your nuts away like a squirrel. Get the message, husband?”), and you have a Meyer film. The innovation of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) was to combine the lust and violence in the women, producing a trio of kick-ass go-go dancers led by Varla, played by the scowling, aggressively endowed Tura Satana. When I first saw Faster at the tender age of 15, Satana (who’s half Japanese and half Cherokee, seems six feet tall, and bewilderingly combines a masculine comportment with a feminine strut) had my pubescent id hiding underneath my seat. John Waters famously declared Faster “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made,” a claim that says more about John Waters than Faster, but certainly the film endures. Yet for all of the cult enthusiasm, it was a flop at the box office.

When Meyer got back to basics, giving his most faithful following (the Mr. Teas of the world, or as Meyer called them, “the raincoat brigade”) what they wanted, Meyer struck it big. So big that Fox came knocking with the hope that Meyer could make money for their ailing studio. The result was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), a “camp sexploitation horror musical” scripted by Roger Ebert, a longtime Meyer fan. Ebert, who according to Meyer is “freako over tits,” wrote a script that out-Meyered Russ Meyer, and the outcome was appropriately chaotic. The film was a nationwide hit, and the success seemed to go to Meyer’s head, who asserted, “If I wasn’t so into tits, I probably could’ve been a great filmmaker.” His next two films, the first a drama about a censorship case, the next a period piece on slavery, tested that conviction, and the result was disastrous. The bosom was the only fixed point in Meyer’s universe — without it, he was adrift.

Meyer tried to recover, but after Deep Throat (1972), he was out of place. Hard core pornography was now the standard, and the world had increasingly little patience for his exuberant, stylized nudity. The raincoat brigade had taken over. Meyer had no interest in hard core (or anything beyond page one of the Kama Sutra for that matter), and after Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1978), he became a recluse in his home, which, covered floor to ceiling with his photographs and movie posters, was a monument to the mammary. There he toiled away at his immense, 1,200 page, three volume autobiography, A Clean Breast, living off the proceeds of video sales.

McDonough is the ideal biographer for Meyer: an enthusiast, though not too much. Meyer comes across as a loveable freak, and the book is crammed full of hilarious anecdotes from his authentically zany universe, but the larger story behind Meyer’s life and career is how a man dubbed King Leer by the Wall Street Journal, who seemed tapped in to the mainstream libido, could be a cult filmmaker now. Once upon a time, this country had a sense of humor about sex. Yes, Meyer took it seriously, but he also saw the funny side, giving his films their unique synthesis of parody and earnest lust. Now, after his life-long erection, Russ Meyer’s in the ground. May he rest in peace.


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