Russ Meyer

Film-maker known as 'King of the Nudies'

Russ Meyer, "King of Sexploitation", with 26 films under his belt, was one of only a few in movie-making history to write, direct, produce, film, finance, edit, act and distribute his own films. He even carried his own equipment on location.

Russell Albion Meyer, film director and producer: born Oakland, California 21 March 1922; three times married; died Los Angeles 18 September 2004.

Russ Meyer, "King of Sexploitation", with 26 films under his belt, was one of only a few in movie-making history to write, direct, produce, film, finance, edit, act and distribute his own films. He even carried his own equipment on location.

His best-known film is the 1966 cult classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Three go-go dancers looking for adventure in the desert kick up all kinds of trouble in the faces of the weak-willed men they come across. Faster Pussycat! was inspirational - among other things, it was the basis for the Spice Girls video "Say You'll Be There" and Janet Jackson's "You Want This".

Meyer was a one-man studio and his movies made him millions of dollars. His films are singular in that they are beautifully crafted, hilariously scripted and star some of the most idolised characters in B-movie history.

Although he had begun making films in the Fifties, it wasn't until 1970 that Hollywood studios took notice of his abilities. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was Meyer's first crack at a big-budget production and was financed by 20th Century-Fox. It was one of only two of his films funded by anyone other than Meyer and, tellingly, it was a satire of Hollywood. At the end the famous character Z-Man is killed to the sound of the 20th Century-Fox tune playing in the background.

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, credited Meyer with coining the phrase "soft porn". The US film critic Roger Ebert was Meyer's co-writer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and says,

Russ Meyer made X-rated movies, but he was not a dirty old man. He didn't use

the casting couch, prohibited sex on his sets ("Save it for the camera"), and was a serial monogamist.

Why his movies made so much money, Meyer once said, was because he got butts on seats. He became "King of the Nudies" during a time when nakedness was not making it on to the big screens owing to strict censorship in Hollywood.

In his first film, The Immoral Mr Teas (1959, released in the UK under the titles Mr Teas and His Playthings and Steam Heat) Meyer got around the censors by showing nudity in the context of a good story. That is what would one day differentiate his films from porn. The sex is told as part of a story, in a way that the viewer can relate to it, and there is great dialogue and satire. Meyer simply made great films. Up until then, nudie movies had been shot on location in nudist camps with minimal plot. The Wall Street Journal claimed in an article written in the year it was released that The Immoral Mr Teas had inspired 150 imitations.

Mr Teas was an endearing story about a lonely man who is going about his daily business of delivering parcels on his bicycle when he realises he has X-ray vision and can see women naked. The well-endowed actresses who starred in the film were dancers in burlesque clubs who had earlier served as photographic models for Meyer when he was publishing in gentlemen's magazines like Adam and Playboy.

Meyer's first film is scattered with double entendre - at one point Mr Teas is holding a pair of melons in an outdoor market - and these kind of humorous winks were laid into all Meyer's films.

Along with humour, sex was also a constant. Breasts nearly became characters in themselves. The stars of four of his movies - Lorna Maitland in Lorna (1964), Edy Williams in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Holle K. Winters in Motorpsycho! (1965) and Darlene Grey in Mondo Topless (1966) - were pregnant during filming, to accentuate their voluptuousness.

Meyer's obsession with breasts perhaps stemmed from his close relationship with his mother, Lydia. Born in Oakland, California, in 1922, Meyer was the son of a nurse and a police officer. When Lydia became pregnant, Meyer's father, Howard, insisted she have an abortion. She kept her baby and went to court for child support. Meyer recounted that his father blew his top and yelled, "I wish they were dead."

When Meyer was 12 years old, his mother pawned her engagement ring and bought him his first camera: an 8mm Univex. He began his career as a photographer in the Army Signal Corps, travelling to the UK, Germany and France during the Second World War. The film director Steven Spielberg expressed admiration for Meyer's combat footage in a recent documentary, Shooting War (2002), that includes one of the last interviews with Meyer. His shots of General Patton are said to have inspired the film Patton (1970).

These were some of Meyer's favourite years. He loved the camaraderie of war and the friends he made during this time he kept for life. Many of his comrades later starred in and worked on his films with him, including Bill Teas who took the lead in The Immoral Mr Teas. It is alleged that one of Meyer's war stories, related to his pal Eric "Mick" Nathanson, was the basis for the novel (and then film) The Dirty Dozen.

At the end of the war, Meyer and some of his comrades arrived at a hotel in Paris, where they found Ernest Hemingway in the bar. The story has it that Hemingway paid for all the recently arrived soldiers to enjoy a sexual romp, and that Meyer lost his virginity to a prostitute that night, thanks to Hemingway.

On his return to the US, using his army experience Meyer began making industrial and educational films before drifting into the sex industry. One assignment was to photograph "playmates" for Playboy magazine and it was the example of Hugh Hefner's success that inspired Meyer to make Mr Teas.

For years Meyer was considered an obscure, cult figure. He had a large underground following from one art-house movie theatre to another. He is the kind of director whose fans rattle off lines from his films: "This is my happening and it freaks me out", for instance, or "You're a groovy boy, I'd like to strap you on sometime" (from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).

In time, though, the praise was flowing. In 1995 the film critic Stephen Holden in The New York Times said,

Watching Faster Pussycat! it is clear the extent to which Mr Meyer invented Mr [John] Waters. Stretching the point, you could also credit him with helping invent Madonna. And anything and everything else in popular culture that proudly advertises itself as trash.

The artist Daniel Clowes, author of the comic book Ghost World which was recently turned into a movie by Terry Zwigoff, named his first comic book after a line in Faster Pussycat!, "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron ". And the film-maker John Waters said that Faster Pussycat! was, "beyond doubt the best movie ever made . . . possibly better than any film that will ever be made".

Recently, critics have begun to reassess Meyer's work, which seems to gain resonance as time goes on. His films have been honoured at festivals around the world, including at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood and with a 1995 retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London. A couple of his films are owned by the New York Museum of Modern Art and in 2002 his photography was exhibited at the Feigen Gallery in New York. A film retrospective is being held at the Image Forum Theatre in Tokyo this month and a biography by Jimmy McDonough is due out next year.

Meyer suffered from dementia during the last few years. Tura Satana, the star of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, recalls in a documentary that will be broadcast on Channel Five later this month that, the last time she saw Meyer, he said, "I know I am supposed to know you, but I can't remember who you are."

Russ Meyer's studio says he leaves no survivors but McDonough is said to claim in the biography that Meyer has a son.

Alicia Peyrano

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