A MOVIE NAMED The Immoral Mr. Teas opened in 1959 at the little Illini Theater, across from the Illinois Central station and the News-Gazette, wedged in between Vriner’s and a pool hall. It ran for something like two years and became a rite of passage for the Illinois students, particularly popular during exam weeks. In 1961 I parked my car in the News-Gazette lot and, exact admission counted out in my hand, hurried across the street hoping to slip in unwitnessed. Similar figures materialized out of the shadows of Main Street. Once inside, guys in groups joked nervously and the rest of us sat very still, intent on the screen, avoiding eye contact.
The plot was not complex. A delivery man for false teeth pedals a bicycle on his rounds. This unassuming man finds himself encountering voluptuous women, who appear completely nude in his daydreams. There is no physical contact, they seem unaware they’re naked, and Mr. Teas seems primarily puzzled. A narrator comments on his dilemma and the sound track evokes bucolic wonderments. The film’s sixty-one-minute running time allowed the Illini to schedule as many as ten screenings in a day, and students rotated in and out.
I’d never seen anything like it, certainly not in nudist camp “documentaries,” which centered largely on the difficulties of playing volleyball with the ball constantly shielding the genitals. Meyer’s women looked healthy and wholesome, unlike the carnal strippers in such films as French Peep Show, which I had also attended while “studying at the library.” In the glossy Show magazine, no less than Leslie Fiedler described Mr. Teas as “the best American comedy of the 1950s.”
One day in the spring of 1967, I noticed Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! playing at the Biograph on Lincoln Avenue. The posters displayed improbably buxom women, and I was inside in a flash. That was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer, and he was the same man who made The Immoral Mr. Teas. I’d never seen anything like this black-and-white film. Pussycat was photographed in a jazzy style, all tilt shots and oblique angles, with intercuts of incongruous close-ups. The story was told inside a hermetic world. Nothing existed except three buxom hellions in fetishwear, the hero and his family in an isolated cabin, and the desire of the women to exploit the situation. The dialogue was ornate parody, the narration was strangely disconnected, the images popped out of the screen; the effect was surreal. Here, I felt, was a filmmaker. A couple of years later Meyer had a breakthrough hit with Vixen!, which cost $26,500 and grossed more than $6 million. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article headlined “King of the Nudies,” observing that was a 40-to-1 return, allegedly second in film history only to Gone With the Wind. I wrote a letter to the editor, I received a letter from Russ Meyer, and one of the great friendships of my life began.
Russ was flying to Chicago to screen Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! for exhibitors. He invited me to the screening. I noted in my review: “Meyer edits by juxtaposing his sex scenes with incongruous cutaways to something else. For example, his heroine has just finished shaving the hero’s chest. The hero, aroused, advances on her. ‘But can’t we wait?’ she asks. ‘I want to go to that symphony tonight. Erich Leinsdorf is conducting Maxim Gorky’s Prelude in D Major.’ Then Meyer cuts to shots of a stock car destruction race.”
After the screening we went to a rib place for an interview. Our conversation inevitably turned to large breasts, which we were both in favor of. Ever since I became aware of them, which was undoubtedly long before I can remember, I’ve considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the human anatomy. Russ saw them differently, somehow considering a woman’s breasts part of her musculature. In the maniacal lyricism of his advertising copy, jacket covers, and everyday speech, he referred to them as instruments of erotic aggression. They were bra busters, man grabbers, awesome configurations, the Guns of Navarone. His mind contained an endless thesaurus of synonyms, none of them referring to gentle, comforting qualities. His ideal women were cantilevered, top-heavy, awesomely endowed. These qualities were described without the least suggestion of lust or desire, but rather with apprehension. He seemed to live in fear or anticipation of being overwhelmed by a woman who was, as he wrote in a copy line for Lorna, “too much for one man.” Of June Mack and Ann Marie, two of the stars of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, he said, “They required brassieres built along the lines that made the Sydney Opera House possible.”
In 1969 the Twentieth Century–Fox studio was going through hard times, having lost millions on unsuccessful productions such as Star! and Doctor Doolittle. The studio heads Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, noting the Journal article, invited Meyer to the lot for an interview. They owned the rights to the title Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and had turned down three screenplays proposed by Jacqueline Susann. They offered him the title, unattached to any story. Meyer offered me the screenwriting job, Jim Hoge gave me a six weeks’ leave of absence, and I fell into a delirious adventure.
Meyer was a tall, solidly built man with a Victor McLaglen mustache and a man-to-man manner. He enlisted in the army before his eighteenth birthday and learned cinematography as a Signal Corps cameraman during World War II. His war years created a template that he spent the rest of his life trying to duplicate; he said, and I believed him, that they were the happiest years of his life. He never told a lie to my knowledge, and his stories seemed to check out. When he told me he lost his virginity to a big-bosomed whore in a French bordello where he had been taken by Ernest Hemingway, I doubted it. “No, that’s true,” Jim Ryan told me. “I was there with them.” Ryan was Meyer’s lifelong Sancho Panza, the star of his second film and a crew member or technician on almost all of the others. Meyer set himself up as the liaison for all the survivors of his Signal Corps unit, presiding at quarterly lunches at Nicodell’s outside the Paramount gates and acting as the organizer of annual reunions, sending tickets to those who couldn’t afford them. “Russ is still fighting the war,” Jim Ryan told me once. “He gets us all together, we go off to some god-forsaken location and we work our butts off, bunk down in some motel that reminds him of a barracks, and chow down together. He’s never happier than when he’s waking everybody up in the morning.” I saw this myself when I worked on the location of Supervixens in the Arizona desert, and one night at Dan Tana’s one of the supervixens, Haji, told me that on the Pussycat location Russ nailed shut the windows of Tura Satana’s motel room because he feared she was slipping out at night for rendezvous that would deplete her sexual energy. Like a football coach, he banned sex from the job. Tura was one of Russ’s most improbable discoveries. That was her real name, and she was half Japanese, half Apache.
The Supervixens location took over the Green Gables Motel, which had nothing green about it and cringed under the sun in the high desert. Rooms were assigned two roommates. The furnishings were rudimentary; the closet was a broomstick hanging from the ceiling on wires, and the water from the shower ran directly out a slot in the wall to the desert outside, so that the vegetation behind the hotel thrived while cacti held on elsewhere. Meals were at the lunch counter, which offered hot dogs, microwave Tombstone pizza, hamburgers, and Tecate beer. Fred Owens, another Signal Corps buddy who was production manager, engaged the cook: “Have you ever made meat loaf here? What you do is, you take you some ground beef…” Within a day Owens had established himself at the grill and was acting as mess officer.
There was an intern from the UCLA film school on the production, who was assigned one day to dig a posthole in front of the Green Gables. A scene required Meyer’s frequent actor Charles Napier to drive his pickup to the motel, skid to a stop, leap out, and grab a pay phone. I commiserated with the intern, who was wearing a big tourist sombrero. “I’m a senior in cinema, and all I’m learning to do is use a fucking posthole digger.”
In midafternoon Owens returned from the nearest town with an Arizona Bell pay phone and a cooler filled with groceries. Meyer asked him if he’d had trouble finding the telephone. “I requisitioned it,” he explained. The light was failing, and there was no time for rehearsal. Napier drove the truck down the highway while the kid inserted the pole into his hole and arranged stones around the base. Meyer peered through the viewfinder to frame the highway shot. He shouted, “Action!” Owens waved a bandana over his head, and Napier sped down the highway and into the motel lot, skidded to a stop, leaped out, and grabbed the telephone, which was only four feet above the ground. The pole was proportioned to stand on a paved surface.
Everybody started laughing. Meyer walked over to the kid. “UCLA film school my ass,” he said. “Dig up the telephone and fill in your hole.”
One morning before dawn Meyer took me for a walk in the desert. “Need your help on this. Edy has refused to play SuperVixen.” Edy Williams was the Twentieth Century–Fox starlet I’d introduced to Russ in the commissary one day. They married and moved into a house on Mulholland Drive with a kidney-shaped indoor-outdoor pool.
“I gave her the best role of her life in Dolls,” he said, “and now she thinks she’s too big for Supervixens. She doesn’t want to appear naked. This is a girl selling a poster of herself floating spread-eagled on her back in a pool. This is a hell of a time for her to develop scruples. It’s for SuperAngel in the last sequence in the film. I don’t have time to find another girl. What should I do?”
The story involved a series of supervixens, each named after the heroine of a Meyer movie: SuperLorna, SuperCherry, SuperSoul, SuperEula, SuperHaji, and so on. The solution was clear. “You have to circle back to the beginning,” I told him. “You started with Super-Vixen, and now you have to end with SuperVixen. Fly Shari Eubank back in.” Shari was a beautiful farm girl from Farmer City, Illinois, who had moved to Los Angeles with hopes of being discovered.
“I see a problem with that,” Meyer said. “In the opening sequence she is shot, stabbed, drowned, and electrocuted. How is the audience going to buy her as still alive?”
“Resurrection,” I explained. “When they last saw her, she was dead in the bathtub. Now it’s dawn.” I pointed to the top of a small nearby peak. “The bathtub is on the mountaintop. The sun is rising. We play Thus Spake Zarathustra. Now she’s SuperAngel. We see her rising out of the bathtub wearing a see-through diaphanous gown. She is alive.”
Russ liked it. “All we have to do is get the bathtub up there,” he said. He discussed the logistics at breakfast. Napier’s part-time job was as a columnist for Overdrive: The Voice of the American Trucker. He drove to the interstate and walked into a truck stop on the route bringing fresh vegetables from Arizona to New York. He was recognized, possibly for his column but more likely for playing one of the title roles in Meyer’s Cherry, Harry and Raquel. “Any of you good old boys like a day’s work on Russ Meyer’s new picture?” he said. “The beer is free and the girls are great looking, but it’s strictly look, don’t touch.”
Before the next day six truckers carried a bathtub to the top of the nearby peak. Meyer focused a telephoto lens. Haji, who was doing all the makeup in addition to playing SuperHaji, crouched out of sight, poised to retouch Shari Eubank’s body makeup and hair styling. As the sun rose, Fred Owens waved his bandana, and SuperAngel rose from the tub. Russ got several good takes. Russ held a preview of the film in Chicago. Our scene was missing. I asked what happened. “I tried it in and I tried it out,” he said. “It just didn’t make any sense. This way, I just cut to SuperAngel. She’s so good-looking the audience doesn’t ask any questions.” The scene didn’t go to waste. In Up! (1976), a sex scene is intercut with shots of six men carrying a bathtub up a mountainside.
In the late summer of 1969, we wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in six weeks flat. Meyer and I had a three-room office suite in the Fox director’s building, across the hall from Martin Ritt. Our offices were separated by the office of June, a veteran from the secretarial pool. As we interviewed actresses, June confided she had seen a few of them before, also visiting directors, but not to audition for a role. Meyer in fact hired none of the cold auditions. He cast two Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Myers and Dolly Read) and an African-American woman (Marcia McBroom) who had the innocent quality he was looking for, although she lacked the standard RM measurements. Other roles were filled by veterans from his earlier films (Napier; Erica Gavin, the original Vixen; Haji; Henry Rowland, his stock Nazi). For the key role of Ronnie (Z-Man) Barzell, we found John LaZar, who was to become a cult figure.
It was not long after the Manson Family murders, and Hollywood was in the grip of paranoia. Meyer and I shopped for a place for me to live and settled on the Sunset Marquis, near Sunset Boulevard. In those days it was an inexpensive motel, inhabited by semipermanent guests such as Van Heflin and Tiny Tim. When I called room service, a voice answered, “Greenblatt’s Deli.” Meyer specified a second-floor room: “I don’t want you being murdered by any of these Satan worshippers.”
We fell into a routine. At nights we would dine like trenchermen, Russ insisting on large cuts of beef to keep my strength up. On yellow legal pads we made up the story day by day. I would write from ten to six. Russ kept all the office doors open. He equated writing with typing. When my typewriter fell silent, he would call, “What’s wrong?” One day, at about page 122 of the screenplay, an inspiration struck. I entered Russ’s office dramatically.
“I’ve got news for you,” I said. “Z-Man is a woman. He’s been a woman all along.”
“I like it,” Meyer said.
Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by Fox, I wonder whether he didn’t suspect that BVD might be his only shot at employing the resources of a studio at the service of his pop universe of libidinous, simplistic creatures. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he explained, should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic exposé of what the opening crawl called “the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.”
What was the correct acting style for such a hybrid? Meyer directed the actors with dead seriousness, discussing the motivations behind each scene. “I know Russ treats this like Shakespeare,” Chuck Napier told me, “but it reads to me like a comedy.” The uncertainty of the cast led to a curious tone; the actors were directed at a right angle to the material. “If the actors seem to know they have funny lines, it won’t work,” Meyer said. The movie was inspired in title only by Valley of the Dolls. Neither Meyer nor I ever read Jacqueline Susann’s book, but we did screen the Mark Robson film, and we lifted the same formula: Three young girls come to Hollywood, find fame and fortune, are threatened by sex, violence, and drugs, and either do or do not win redemption. Susann’s novel was a roman à clef, and so was BVD, with a difference: We wanted the movie to seem like a fictionalized exposé of real people, but we personally possessed no real information to use as our inspiration for the characters. The character of teenage rock tycoon Z-Man Barzell, for example, was supposed to be “inspired” by Phil Spector, but neither Meyer nor I had ever met Spector. It was eerie when many years later the tragedy of his own life played out like Z-Man’s. There was a happier coincidence: Joan Jett said the film’s all-girl rock trio was one of the inspirations for her band the Runaways.
In late June of 1977, I got a call from Meyer, who said the Sex Pistols, the most notorious British punk rock band, were among the fans of BVD. He’d received a call from Malcolm McLaren, their Svengali, explaining that he, Johnny Rotten, and Sid Vicious had visited the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, where Beyond the Valley played at midnight on weekends. They wanted Meyer to direct them in their own film. Meyer asked me if I wanted to return as screenwriter.
“What sort of picture will it be?” I asked.
“McLaren says he wants to do the flip side of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” Meyer said.
“But Beyond itself was the flip side of Valley of the Dolls,” I said.
“You figure it out,” Meyer said. “McLaren is flying out here to Los Angeles next week.”
I met with Meyer and McLaren. I established headquarters at the Sunset Marquis, and Meyer hauled in card tables, typewriters, and yellow legal pads. McLaren briefed us on the Pistols. He showed us press clippings, describing the Pistols being thrown out of clubs, attacked by fans, arrested in front of Buckingham Palace, and saying “fuck” on the BBC. We looked at videotapes of the Pistols on TV and in concert. We listened to all of their records. McLaren talked and talked and talked. McLaren himself would have made a good subject for a movie. He was an educated Londoner, of average appearance except for the bondage pants he wore—leather pants equipped with straps and buckles, so that he could be rendered immobile at the drop of a whip. The pants were a best-selling item at Sex, the punk boutique McLaren ran with Vivienne Westwood on King’s Road. The buckles and straps saw action in restaurants, where he’d sometimes get his restraints tangled and overturn his chair.
McLaren’s notion was that the Sex Pistols stood for the total rejection of modern British society, and especially of the millionaire rock establishment symbolized by Mick Jagger. “These guys are all in their thirties and drive around in Rolls-Royces,” McLaren said. “What do they have in common with the typical sixteen-year-old school-leaver who has no job, no money, no prospects, and no hope?” The Sex Pistols’ music spoke for these disenfranchised, he said, and the movie should be a statement of anarchic revolt against the rock millionaires, and the whole British establishment.
Within a week, I had a rough treatment ready. It included an opening scene in which a millionaire rock star leaps from his chauffeured Rolls and kills a deer with a bow and arrow. He is witnessed committing this act by a young girl who reappears at the end of the film to assassinate the star and shout the immortal line, “That’s for Bambi!” McLaren’s working title was Anarchy in the UK, but now I suggested Who Killed Bambi? The action included such passages as Vicious fighting a dog named Ringo and Johnny Rotten demolishing a street-corner Scientology-style testing center.
After we finished two drafts in Los Angeles, Meyer and I flew to London, where we met the Sex Pistols themselves. McLaren’s idea was that they would go over their dialogue with us, making suggestions. I assumed they would reject everything I had written, but they seemed completely uninterested; I suspected it was McLaren, not the Pistols, who was the Russ Meyer fan. Paul Cook and Steve Jones were hardly seen during the days we spent in London. McLaren came to the flat every day and took a lively interest in the process of auditioning possible actors for the movie. (Among the actors cast were Marianne Faithfull, who would play Vicious’s mother, and fallen rock idol P. J. Proby, who would more or less play himself.) One day McLaren, Rotten, Meyer, and I went out for lunch. Rotten seemed to enjoy intimidating waiters by playing dumb and asking the same questions over and over again, until Meyer lost patience and ordered for him. If the film had ever been made, there would have been warfare between the two, because Meyer was emphatically unimpressed by Rotten’s aggressive rudeness. But this day, mellowed by beer, Rotten relaxed and even showed some glimmers of the person he would eventually metamorphose into—John Lydon (his real name), leader of Public Image Ltd. and radio personality. We were talking about Sid Vicious, and Rotten observed that Sid had become like a new man since he had fallen in love. I do not know if the woman Sid had fallen for was Nancy Spungen, the eventual heroine of Sid & Nancy, but I assume so. I remember Rotten observing with wonderment that romance had inspired Sid: “He changed his underwear for the first time in two years.”
Sid Vicious was angry most of the time about something, but one night he was particularly mad because he was a fucking star and Malcolm McLaren had him on rations of eight quid a week. We were in Russ Meyer’s rented car, driving down the Cromwell Road in London, and Vicious told Meyer to pull over in front of a late-night grocery so he could purchase some provisions. Meyer and I watched as he skulked into the store, wearing leather pants, a ripped T-shirt, and Doc Martens, the shoes favored by punks because they were ideal for kicking people. Sid’s hair was spiky and his eyes were bloodshot. Through the window we saw the store owners exchange uneasy glances before Sid checked out with his supper, which consisted of two six-packs of beer and a big can of pork and beans. Then we dropped Sid off at an anonymous brick building on an anonymous brick road. It was the last time I would see Sid Vicious, but it would not be the last time I would hear about him.
After the BVD experience, I saw Russ every time I went to L.A. and joined in tributes to his work at Yale, the National Film Center in London, the Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA. He came to my housewarming, he flew all the way to Urbana for my mother’s funeral, we went fishing on Lake Michigan, and I sat with him the night his own mother died and saw him completely depleted, blank eyed, barely able to talk. He was a Rabelaisian workaholic, demanding total dedication and loyalty. He was the general and the movie was the war. He would travel anywhere to promote his films or appear at events and talk shows, and interviewers liked him because he was good copy and fun to be around. He could have taken advantage of the Hollywood casting couch ritual, but didn’t. Of all his actresses, the only ones I know for sure he slept with were his wife and producing partner Eve, Edy Williams, and his frequent star and later companion Kitten Natividad. He was close with Haji, a Canadian actress and stripper who appeared in six of his films and did makeup and crew work on most of them, but I never heard them refer to sex. He and Uschi Digard, a Swedish stripper/model who appeared in four of his films, were good friends; she later married a European diamond merchant and became a gemologist. Kitten, a Mexican-American, was introduced to Russ by Uschi. She was warm and funny, and they liked each other. I went along with them for dinner one night at her grandmother’s apartment, jammed with antique furniture. They were a couple on and off for fifteen years.
One night Russ convened a gathering of the Signal Corps buddies at a prime-rib house he’d found in the Valley. By this time I’d met them all several times. Midway through dinner Russ related a story, paused, and repeated it again, almost word for word. Our eyes all met around the table. In the 1980s he began to exhibit gathering dementia. He completed Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens in 1979, and it was his last film, although he announced others. He began to work on his autobiography, originally titled Russ Meyer: The Rural Fellini. I suggested A Clean Breast, and he liked that more. This project grew and grew like a book in a fantasy.
Writing on legal pads, he drew from fifty years of leather-bound scrapbooks on shelves dividing his living room. RM Films was being run by Janice Cowart, whom he met as the manager of his favorite video store, and she feared it would never end. He consulted printers about paper that would not deteriorate after five hundred years. It would be leather bound. It would contain countless illustrations, repeat many interviews, copy many documents. It would have photographs of every important woman in his life. When he couldn’t find a photograph, he would shoot a body double with a paper bag over her head. Yes. Janice typed, and his long-suffering graphic and advertising man, George Carl, assembled the manuscript. Russ was proud that all of the lines were the same width but asked why there was a little more space between the words in some lines than others. George explained justification. Russ holed up with a thesaurus in his second home in Palm Springs and substituted longer or shorter words as needed. He found a printer in Hong Kong.
“Three volumes,” he told me. “Eighteen pounds. One-hundred-pound stock. A hundred and ninety-nine dollars.” He was publishing it himself.
“When will it be in stores?” I asked.
“No stores. I’m selling it personally. If they want it, they can call here.”
“But your number is unlisted.”
“It’s out there. I was in a bookstore once and I saw Olivia de Havilland’s autobiography marked down to half price. I worked with her once. A great lady. That will never happen to my life.”
As his illness progressed, Janice took away his car keys, and Kitten, who was fighting cancer, did his driving. The time came when he required around-the-clock caregivers. He died in 2004. He was eighty-two. Chaz and I attended the funeral at Forest Lawn. The night before, there had been a gathering of the friends. All the surviving army buddies. All the crew members, collaborators, lawyers, distributors. Janice, Jim Ryan, and Chuck Napier, of course. And Erica Gavin, Kitten, Tura Satana, Haji, Marcia McBroom, Cynthia Myers, Sue Bernard. Kitten told me Uschi would have been there but was having eye treatments. This was the family. Russ had a son, he told me, whose mother had never told him who his father was. “I’ve seen him from a distance.” The stories went long into the night. The women cried. In the cruel world of X-rated films, Russ had treated them with respect, paid them moderately well, photographed them lovingly, required them to act and not simply be naked, never did hard-core sex, worked their asses off climbing mountains and fighting in mud, and stayed in constant touch forever after.
The sermon was a dreary affair by a Forest Lawn rent-a-preacher, who uncanned the usual boilerplate about Russ being in a better place now, in the bosom of Jesus. “He’d rather be in the bosom of Mary Magdalene,” Napier whispered. Chaz told me, “If you don’t go up there and say something Russ will come out of his coffin and strangle you.” I walked up to the altar. The hired man droned on about heavenly rewards, looked at me uncertainly, and asked if I wanted to speak. “Thank you,” I said. “The family has asked me to say a few words.” I spoke of Russ’s friendship, loyalty, and lifelong efforts to stay in touch and keep us all in touch.
It was so sad seeing him in the final decade, this vital man. Chaz and I would visit him at his home on Arrowhead in the hills. On our last visit he didn’t know who we were, or who he was. “Sometimes he has a flash of memory,” Janice said. A nurse came in to give him pills and a glass of milk. He looked after her as she walked away. “No tits,” he said.