Russ Meyer actually wrote his own bio – he called it A Clean Breast, though, like most of his films, it went through some other working titles before its eventual publication. It hit the stands with a dull thud, like many of his films. Yet it is fair to call Meyer, or RM, as he was known, “the king” of his genre, not the least because he pretty much invented the genre as he went along.
Meyer’s life began humbly enough, the son of a manipulative nurse and a father who abandoned him at an early age. He got tired of onion and celery soup, frequent fare at the Meyer table. Probably something of a nerd, RM chose to distinguish himself in high school by becoming an expert with a camera, winning at least one photography prize while still in his teens. He went on to work as an army photographer in the conflict he called “the last good war” – in Europe, WWII. It was in France, at a brothel, that he surrendered his virginity – to a woman with a prominent bosom. As McDonough observes, “Tits and war – was there anything better?”
Returning stateside he was determined to make his mark in Hollywood, and in that he undoubtedly succeeded. Beginning with snapping stills for mags like Playboy, he quickly moved into self-produced and directed films, all featuring women with “big balconies” and men with rippling muscles. None of the actors were long on brains, as evidenced by the fact that Meyer’s most common “acting method” for getting his people prepared for a take was to “shake” the women. His second-in-command literally took the “girls” by the shoulders and shook their bodies until they were deemed ready for the shoot.
One of the best parts of this book, by the author of Shakey who seems to be a genuinely zealous RM movie fan, are quotes of the reviews of RM’s films. About his wooden attempt to bring the Victorian porn novel Fanny Hill to the screen, one reviewer commented, “They said it couldn’t be filmed, and it hasn’t been.” But that was early on. Later, Meyer’s epic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls merited this commentary: “past trash into obscenity…a treat for the emotionally retarded, sexually inadequate, and dimwitted.” And of one of his better known creations, a reviewer had this to say: “Supervixens is for men who hate women and love each other.”
The rating system, at first hailed by RM as a marvelous innovation, soon became his downfall. He wanted notoriety but he also wanted bucks, and an X rating was the kiss of death for hopes at the box-office. In an era still experimenting with the limits of the rating system, a famous star could get away with, well, anal penetration for example (Last Tango in Paris), in the name of art, while RM’s sadistic flights of fancy with busty broads and men who looked too good to be hetero were roundly panned as simplistic porn. And rated accordingly.
RM was no fun to work with unless you happened to be the preferred squeeze of the moment. He delighted in wrong-footing his actors, and those who caved were Meyer-bait. He fed his actors and crew a lot of cheap greasy glop and kept them on location in remote, inhospitable climes which cost him nada, sleeping in cramped quarters and doing their own make-up.
There is scant reason to love RM, but many people did, even some of his women, and his films are still remembered for their craziness. Arguably, Meyer was a genius with too many neuroses to make a truly great film. He found flat-chested women boring, and there’s some speculation that he drooled over big bosoms to fortify a masculinity that was in doubt. But one can endlessly argue whether homophobia is a mask for homosexuality. The proof in this particular pudding is a lot of movies featuring a lot of dazzlingly lovely women with huge endowments above the waist.
As McDonough comments: “For Meyer, beautiful women are cruel narcissistic figures of torment that can’t be vanquished.” Vanquishing them in celluloid was his obsession. Analyze it or let it alone, it adds up to no class, no sensitivity, but plenty of sex and sado-sleaze. If that is your cup of Teas, you’ll love RM and enjoy this well-researched book.