- Russ Meyer
bgcolour = silver
name = Russ Meyer
birthname = Russell Albion Meyer
birthdate = birth date|1922|03|21|mf=y
deathdate = death date and age|2004|09|18|1922|03|21
Hollywood Hills, California
spouse = Betty Valdovinos
Eve Meyer(1952-1969) Edy Williams(1970-1975)
Meyer is known primarily for writing and directing a series of successful low-budget
sexploitationfilms that featured campy humor, sly satire and large-breasted actresses.
Russ Meyer was born in
San Leandro, Californiato William Arthur Meyer, a German-Americanpolice officer, and Lydia Lucinda Hauck Howe. His parents divorced shortly after he was born, and he was to have virtually no contact with his father during his life. When he was 14, his mother pawned her wedding ring in order to buy him an 8mm filmcamera. He made a number of amateur films at the age of 15, and served during World War IIas a U.S. Army combat cameramanfor the 166th Signal Photo Company. It was there that Meyer forged his strongest friendships, and would later ask many of his fellow combat cameramen to work with him on his films. Much of Meyer's work during World War IIcan be seen in newsreelsand in the film "Patton" (1971). [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004, p. 44.] Upon returning to civilian life, he made industrial films, was a still photographer for mainstream films (he did the still photography for the film "Giant"), and became a well known glamour photographer, whose work included shoots for Hugh Hefner's newly launched " Playboy" magazine. Meyer would shoot three "Playboy" centerfolds during its early years, one of which included his wife Eve Meyerin 1955 and a pictorial of then-wife Edy Williamsin March 1973. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004, chapters 1-3.]
His first feature, the
nudistcomedy " The Immoral Mr. Teas" (1959), cost $24,000 to produce and eventually grossed more than $1,000,000 on the independent/exploitation circuit, ensconcing Meyer as "King of the Nudies." Over the next decade, he made nearly twenty movies with a trademark blend of warped humor, huge-breasted starlets and All-American sleaze, including such notable films as " Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1965) and " Vixen!" (1968). Russ Meyer was a true auteurwho wrote, directed, edited, photographed and distributed all his own films. He was able to finance each new film from the proceeds of the earlier ones, and became very wealthy in the process. [McDonough, Jimmy, "Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004. chapter 5.] And unlike many independent directors of his era he chose to cast actresses like Shari Eubankor Cynthia Myerswho were considered extremely beautiful and wholesome. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004, p. 264.]
Meyer's output can be divided into several eras. Earlier works like "The Immoral Mr. Teas", "
Eve and the Handyman", and the Western-themed " Wild Gals of the Naked West" were stylistically similar to the nudie cutiefare of the era, though separated from the pack by their superior color cinematography. 1964's "Lorna" saw the ever economical director revert to black-and-white; with this change came a greater emphasis on storyline, almost theatrical violence, domineeringly psychosexual women, and their insipid male counterparts. The "Gothic" period (as it was termed by Meyer) reached its apex with the commercially underwhelming "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", which would eventually be reclaimed as a cult classic. It has a following all over the world and has inspired countless imitations, music videosand tributes.
After producing the popular
mockumentary" Mondo Topless" (1966) with the remnants of his production company's assets and two mildly successful color melodramas, Meyer made headlines once again in 1968 with the controversial "Vixen!". Although its lesbian overtones are extremely tame by today's standards, the film — designed by Meyer and longtime cohort Jim Ryan as a reaction to provocative European art films — grossed millions on a five-figure budget and captured the zeitgeist just as "The Immoral Mr. Teas" had a decade earlier. He followed it up with " Cherry, Harry & Raquel!" (1970), which depended upon montages of the California landscape (replete with anti-marijuana voiceovers) and Uschi Digarddancing in the desert as the film's "lost soul." This plot device was necessitated after the lead actress, Linda Ashton, left the shoot early and there was 20 minutes of footage needed to complete the film. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004, p. 246.]
Reeling from the success of "
Easy Rider" and impressed by his thrifty attitude, 20th Century Fox signed Meyer to produce and direct a long-simmering proposed sequel to "Valley of the Dolls". What eventually manifested was " Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), scripted by film critic (and Meyer devotee) Roger Ebertand bearing no relation to the novel or film's continuity (necessitated by a lawsuit involving Jacqueline Susann). Many critics perceive the film as perhaps the greatest expression of his intentionally vapid surrealism — Meyer went so far as to refer to it as his definitive work in several interviews. Others, such as "Variety", saw "BVD" "as funny as a burning orphanage and a treat for the emotionally retarded." [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws" 2004, p. 272.] Contractually stipulated to produce an R-rated film, the brutally violent climax (depicting a decapitation) ensured an X rating. Though disowned by the studio for years to come and amid gripes from the director after he attempted to recut the film to include more titillating scenes after the ratings debacle, it still earned over $6 million domestically in the United States on a budget of less than $1 million.
After making his most subdued film, an adaptation of the popular
Irving Wallacenovel "The Seven Minutes" (1971), Meyer returned to grindhouse-style cinema in 1973 with the Blaxploitationperiod piece "Black Snake", which was dismissed by critics and audiences as incoherent. In 1975, he released " Supervixens", a return to the world of big bosoms, square jaws, and the Mojave desert that earned $17 million (American) on a shoestring budget. Meyer's theatrical career ended with the release of the surreal "Up!" (1976) and 1979's " Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens", his most sexually graphic films. Film historians and fans have called these last three films "Bustoons" because Russ Meyer's usage of color and mise en scènerecalled larger than life pop artsettings and cartoonishcharacters. [Green, Doyle,"Lips Hips Tits Power:The Films Of Russ Meyer 2004"]
Despite the fact that hardcore
pornographic filmswould overtake Meyer's softcore market share, he retired in the late 1970s a very wealthy man. [Green, Doyle,"Lips Hips Tits Power:The Films Of Russ Meyer 2004"]
Use of satire
Russ Meyer was also adept at mocking moral
stereotypesand actively lampooning conservative American values. Many of his films feature a narrator who attempts to give the audience a "moral roadmap" of what they are watching. Like contemporary Terry Southern, Meyer realized that sex — as one of the few common interests among most humans — was a natural vehicle for satirizing values and conventions held by the Greatest Generation. According to Roger Ebertin a commentary recorded for the DVD release of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", Meyer continually reiterated that this irreverence was the true secret to his artistic success.
Meyer's art is an example of the venerable
Menippean satire, a difficult genre to define — roughly, it combines disparate forms such as prose and verse, theatre and film (think Lavonia and Semper Fidelis making love in heroic couplets or Kitten Natividadas the Greek Chorusin "Up!"), all of the time maintaining a healthy disregard for all forms of authority: religious/moral, legal, political, and last but not least, the authority of the established aesthetic tradition. [Brian Kazinsky, "Russ Meyer: Rabelaisian Auteur (1989), Rolyholyover Press.]
Meyer was also known for his quick wit. While participating with Ebert in a panel discussion at
Yale University, he was confronted by an angry woman who accused him of being "nothing but a breast man." His immediate reply: "That's only the half of it." [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."]
Big breast fixation, or the Meyer physical archetype
Russ Meyer's lifelong unabashed fixation on large breasts would feature prominently in all his films and is his most well known character trait as both an artist and a person. His discoveries include
Kitten Natividad, Erica Gavin, Lorna Maitland, Tura Satanaand Uschi Digardamong many others. The majority of his discoveries were naturally large breasted and he occasionally cast women in their first trimesters of pregnancy as it enhanced their breast size even further. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.vol1-3"]
Rarely were there cosmetically enhanced breasts in any of his films until "Up!" (1976) and "
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" (1979). However, by the early 1980s, when surgical advancements had made the gargantuan breasts of Meyer's fantasies a reality, many felt he had started viewing the female body as simply a "tit transportation device" [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004."] and that his aesthetic vision was no longer attractive or vibrant. Darlene Gray, a natural 36H-22-33 from Great Britain, who appeared in " Mondo Topless" (1966) is said to be Russ Meyer's most busty discovery. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.pg182chap9"]
The Russ Meyer female physical archetype is fairly complex to decipher.Firstly, it's not to be confused with today's surgically enhanced
Hollywood pornstarlets or even slim, naturally endowed actresses. Russ Meyer was almost as much about a shapely 1950s hip-to-waist ratioor " wasp waist" as he was about very large breasts. The six-pack abdominal musclesand built-up squarish appearance of modern Hollywood figures do not mesh with his pin-up aesthetic. [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."] [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004."] [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.vol1-3"] Secondly, he also required that even his most busty actress have the ability to look good braless; "gravity-defying" and " cantilevered" became two of his favorite expressions. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.vol1-3"]
In his films such as "
Vixen!" and " Cherry, Harry & Raquel!" some of the actresses do not have large (by Russ Meyer standards) breasts yet their chests are always accentuated with very clever camera angles and well constructed bras. Reportedly, Gavin was cast as the lead in "Vixen!" because her "smaller" bust would make the character "more relatable to women"." [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap10pg213"]
He went on record numerous times to say that
Anita Ekbergwas the most beautiful woman he ever photographed and that her 39DD breasts were the biggest in A-list Hollywoodhistory, dwarfing both Jayne Mansfieldand the British actress Sabrina. [Steve Sullivan, "VaVaVa Voom!Glamour Girls of The Pinup Era 1995."] " [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap4pg83"] Dolly Partonwas the only modern Hollywood actress Meyer ever expressed interest in working with. [Frasier,David,"The Films of Russ Meyer."]
It should also be noted that while he often referred to his actresses as "Junoesque" and "Amazonian" [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.illus"] this was probably more in their spirit than their actual physiques" [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap14pg321"] as Meyer rarely ever cast very tall or symmetrically built actresses with strong legs and large posteriors.So while the general public could easily perceive
Jane Russellor Sophia Lorenas "Russ Meyer material", their balanced bodies did not mesh with Meyer's precise aesthetic preferences." [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap3"] And indeed Meyer said many times that it was Gina Lollobrigida's smaller breasted figure that he preferred visually over her larger breasted, taller and bigger hipped rival, Sophia Loren. [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."] Thus Meyer's complete oeuvre shows the viewer that while his actresses could easily be described as voluptuous, buxom and curvaceous, it's debatable to some if they were strapping, stately or even statuesque as Meyer readily proclaimed." [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap14&15"] [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."]
The tallest actress Meyer ever cast in a lead was the 5'9, slim hipped, huge breasted
Lorna Maitland[Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast vol 2pg165 2004."] (who he admitted he found intimidating to work with). [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.pg134"] [Ross, Glen "Adult Video News"Vol.2,no.4,6/87."] Nearly all the other women he featured were no taller than 5'7. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast vol1 2004."] Tura Satana's performance as Varla in " Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" was Meyer's only true portrayal of the large, strong and aggressive Amazonian archetype in the classic visual sense. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.Chap8"] [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.Vol.1"]
Film historian Jimmy McDonough posits that Russ Meyer's usage of physically and sexually overwhelming female characters places him in his own separate genre. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004."] He argues that despite portraying women as sex objects, Meyer nonetheless depicts them as more powerful than men and is therefore an inadvertent
feministfilmmaker. Similarly, Hugh Hefnerhas observed: "In retrospect it seems to be empowering rather than exploitive. How much of that was conscious and how much was unconscious? I think it was relatively uncalculated...most of what Russ did came from the gut." [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004 pg9."]
In many of Meyer's films women eventually defeat men, winning sexual fulfillment as their reward, e.g., Super Vixen ("
Supervixens"), Margo Winchester (" Up!") and Lavonia Shed (" Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens"). [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."] And even in the 1950s and '60s his films were sometimes centered entirely around a woman's need and struggle for sexual satisfaction (" Lorna", " Good Morning and... Goodbye!" and " Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens"). [Woods, Paul,"The Breast of Russ Meyer 2004."] Additionally, Russ Meyer's female characters were often allowed to express anger and violence towards men (" Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and " Supervixens"). [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004."]
Yet in his research, McDonough also notes that Meyer's female characters were limited in how powerful they could appear; [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.Chap8&pg305"] often the female lead is raped ("
Up!" and "Lorna") or brutally murdered (" Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", " Supervixens", " Lorna" and " Blacksnake"). While Russ Meyer may have championed powerful woman characters, he also forced them into violent and terrifying situations, making them prove their physical and mental strength against tremendous odds. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.Chap8&pg305"] He also ensured that women's breasts were at least semi-exposed during these ordeals for comic or erotic effect. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.pg238"] Furthermore, according to frequent collaborator and longtime lover Kitten Natividad, Meyer's love of dominant women extended to his personal life, and he was almost always in a tumultuous relationship. [McDonough, Jimmy,"Big Bosoms and Square Jaws 2004.chap14-16"] [Sullivan, Steve,"Kitten natividad:Russ Meyer's Most Bodacious Babe," Glamour Girls Then and Now,no11, 4-5/86,8/17/90"]
Personal and family life
It was in World War II, that, according to Meyer, he found himself at a French brothel with
Ernest Hemingway, who, upon finding out that Meyer was a virgin, offered him the prostitute of his choice. Meyer picked the one with the largest breasts. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004."]
Despite his reputation as a
Rabelaisianman, Russ Meyer never employed the casting couchand rarely slept with any of his actresses. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004."] He had no children though there were rumored unsuccessful pregnancies with his second wife Edy Williamsand last serious girlfriend Melissa Moundswho was also found guilty of assaulting him in 1999. There is a long standing rumor among his closest friends and at least one biographer that he had a son in 1964 with a secret lover who he would refer to only as "Miss Mattress" or "Janet Buxton". [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.vol 3pg48"] Meyer was very upfront throughout his life about being too selfish to be a father or even a caring partner and husband, yet he is also said to have been very generous with all he knew and never isolated friends from each other. Biographers have attributed most of his brutish and eccentric nature to the fact that he was abandoned by his father, an Oaklandpolice officer and overly coddled by his mother, Lydia, who was married six times and breast fed him until he was three years old. Russ Meyer also had a half sister, Lucinda, who was diagnosed in her twenties with paranoid schizophreniaand was committed to CaliforniaState mental institutions until her death in 1999. Mental illness ran in his family and it was something he secretly feared. During his entire life Russ Meyer would speak with only the highest reverence for his mother and sister. [Schwartz, Adolph,"A Clean Breast 2004.vol1-3"]
Meyer was married to:
*Betty Valdovinos (ca.1949 -
Eve Meyer( April 2, 1952- 1969, divorced)
Edy Williams( June 27, 1970- November 7, 1977, divorced)
Contrary to some accounts, Meyer was never married to his
Kitten Natividad, the star of his final two films.
Meyer owned the rights to nearly all of his films and spent the majority of the 1980s and 1990s making millions reselling his films on the
home videoand DVDmarket. He worked out of the very same Los Angeles, Californiahome he lived in and usually answered the phone to take orders himself. A major retrospective of his work was given at The British Film Institute(1983), the Chicago Film Festivalhonored him in 1985, and many revival movie houses booked his films for midnight moviemarathons.
He also worked obsessively for over a decade on a massive three volume autobiography entitled "
A Clean Breast". Finally printed in 2000, it features numerous excerpts of reviews, clever details of each of his films and countless photos and eroticmusings.
Starting in the mid-1990s Meyer had frequent fits and bouts of
memory loss. By 2000 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and his health and well-being were thereafter looked after by Janice Cowart, his secretary and estate executor. Most of Russ Meyer's estate was left to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centerin honor of his mother.
Meyer died at his home in the Hollywood Hills, of complications of
pneumonia, on September 18, 2004, according to Janice Cowart. [Cite news
last = Martin
first = Douglas
title = Russ Meyer, 82, a Filmmaker of Classics in a Lusty Genre, Dies
publisher = The New York Times
date = 2004-09-23
url = http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/23/arts/23meyer.html
accessdate = 2008-08-01] He was 82 years old. Meyer's grave is located at Stockton Rural Cemetery in
San Joaquin County, California. [ [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9504308 Russ Meyer's grave at findagrave.com] ] Stockton, His headstone reads: RUSS MEYER
"King of The Nudies"
"I Was Glad to Do It"
FILM PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR
MARCH 21, 1922
SEPT. 18, 2004
*1950 - "
The French Peep Show"
*1959 - "
The Immoral Mr. Teas"
*1959 - "
This Is My Body"
*1960 - "
Eve and the Handyman"
*1960 - "Naked Camera"
*1961 - "Erotica"
*1962 - "
Wild Gals of the Naked West"
*1963 - "
Europe in the Raw"
*1963 - "
*1963 - "
Skyscrapers and Brassieres"
*1964 - "Lorna"
*1964 - "Fanny Hill"
*1965 - "Mudhoney"
*1965 - "Motorpsycho"
*1965 - "
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"
*1966 - "
*1967 - "
Common Law Cabin"
*1967 - "
Good Morning and... Goodbye!"
*1968 - "
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!"
*1968 - "
*1969 - "
Cherry, Harry & Raquel!"
*1970 - "
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"
*1971 - "The Seven Minutes"
*1972 - "Black Snake"
*1975 - "
*1976 - "Up!"
*1978 - "
Who Killed Bambi?" (unfinished)
*1979 - "
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens"
*2001 - "
Pandora Peaks (film)"
*cite book|author= Frasier, David K.|year=1998|title=Russ Meyer : The Life and Films : A Biography and A Comprehensive, Illustrated, and Annotated Filmography and Bibliography|publisher=McFarland & Co|location=Jefferson, N.C.|id=ISBN 0-7864-0472-8
*cite book|author= Greene, Doyle |year=2004|title=Lips Hips Tits Power : The Films Of Russ Meyer (Persistence of Vision)|publisher=Creation Books|location=New York, NY|id=ISBN 184-068095-4
*cite book|author= McDonough, Jimmy|year=2005|title=Big Bosoms and Square Jaws : The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film|publisher=Jonathan Cape|location=London|id=ISBN 0-224-07250-1
*cite book|author= Meyer, Russ|year=2000|title=A Clean Breast : The Life and Loves of Russ Meyer (3 Volume Set)|publisher=Hauck Pub Co|location=El Rio, TX|id=ISBN 0-9621797-2-8
*cite book|author= Woods, Paul A.|year=2004|title=The Very Breast of Russ Meyer|publisher=Plexus Publishing|location=London|id=ISBN 0859653099
* [http://www.rmfilms.com/ RM Films]
* [http://www.acleanbreast.com/ A Clean Breast: Russ Meyer biography]
*imdb name|id=0000540|name=Russ Meyer
NAME= Meyer, Russ
ALTERNATIVE NAMES= Meyer, Russell Albion
SHORT DESCRIPTION= director,
DATE OF BIRTH=
PLACE OF BIRTH=
DATE OF DEATH=
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