Recently asked by a magazine writer what he wanted chiseled on his tombstone, pioneering skin-flick maestro Russ Meyer cited a quotation directed at him by Charles H Keating Jr. some 25 years ago:
"More than anyone else in his time, Russ Meyer was responsible for the decay of values in American society."
And if the maverick breastmeister has his way, immediately following Keating's words will be Meyer's own rejoinder: "I was glad to do it."
In the Valley two weeks ago to visit an Army buddy who lives in Surprise, the director of such low-budget bra-busting classics as Vixen, Lorna and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls chortles as he recalls his long-ago battles with Keating, then best-known as a key member of the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, among other censorship organizations. Twitching his bushy eyebrows, the 72-year-old "bosomania" auteur lapses into a hammily stentorian speech pattern that's familiar to anyone who's ever listened to the overwrought narrations that are hallmarks of virtually every one of his pictures. "I will tell you that it does my heart good to see Mr. Keating locked up after he robbed all those little old ladies.
"Funny how some things turn out, isn't it?" Meyer remarks dryly. Despite Keating's best efforts, Meyer not only never spent a day in jail, but the director can boast that the Museum of Modern Art now owns prints of several of his once-controversial box-office blockbusters. And next month, Meyer is off to attend a retrospective tribute at the National Film Theatre in London--the same city in which overzealous censors once pruned his feature-length Vixen down to a mere 47 minutes.
Probably because the specter of obscenity resulted in putting what Meyer calls "so many asses in the seats" (at one time, Variety's list of the 100 top-grossing films of all time included four Meyer titles), the sexploitation czar's animosity toward his critics appears to be more showmanlike than heartfelt. And, if nothing else, the crusty Meyer is one filmmaker who appreciates adversity and a good fight. By the early Seventies, Meyer might have won the battle--but he'd lost the war. Less than five years after establishing himself as the Spielberg of spice (in 1968, one Chicago theatre owner reported that patrons were actually buying tickets just to see Vixen's racy coming-attractions trailer), the independent moviemaker discovered he'd inadvertently opened a porndora's box. Unwilling to get down in the mud with the hard-core hucksters who'd raced into the marketplace with XXX-rated titles like Deep Throat, Meyer finally called it quits after 1979's Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, his last feature to date. "It didn't do well at all," says Meyer, who blames the picture's failure on prohibitive exhibition patterns rather than changing public taste. "By that time, most of the theatres were moving out to the shopping centers, and a lot of these people had signed leases agreeing that they wouldn't show X-rated pictures. We had a hell of a time finding any place to play it."
Twice married, twice divorced and currently living the bachelor life in Palm Desert, California, Meyer has frequently referred to his films as the children he never had. Today, thanks to Meyer's business acumen, those "kids" are taking care of the old man in style. Because he owns the negatives to virtually all of his 20-odd films, Meyer has found a new audience for his oeuvre via his home-video company. One of his cinematic brain children--1966's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, about a trio of butch go-go girls who race around the desert terrorizing men--has proved to be a particularly late bloomer. Nearly 30 years after it was first unleashed on unsuspecting drive-in patrons, the black-and-white scorcher is now being rereleased theatrically in a handful of selected cities, to both critical and popular acclaim. (Meyer is scheduled to return to the Valley for a public appearance at Tempe's Valley Art Theatre when Pussycat opens there this Friday.)
"Of some 15 or more of my films that I've distributed on video, Pussycat has been singularly more successful than the rest," says Meyer, who chalks up that popularity to a wider viewer base. "Unlike some of my other films that might have appealed to what we used to call 'the one-armed reader,' this one has been more successful largely because it appeals to women.
"Whenever I do the question-answer thing at one of these screenings, the women are very vocal about it. One woman who got up to speak said, 'The thing I liked about the picture was that there was no cause under any circumstance for having the women commit the violent acts. They just did them because they wanted to.'"
Pussycat bombed in its initial release--in 1966, movie audiences were apparently far more interested in watching Born Free's lion cubs than in ogling Meyer's trio of AC/DC sex kittens as they stomped their male co-stars. But three decades later, when the former movie's primary legacy is simply an annoying piece of Muzak, Pussycat's unmistakable paw prints can still be found all over the pop landscape.
Half of the film's title was borrowed by the Eighties band Faster Pussycat, and Meyer himself directed one of the group's videos. More recently, Janet Jackson paid homage to the film in her "You Want This" video, in which she and a couple of female sidekicks chase men through the sagebrush in sports cars. Pussycat logos and graphics (both authorized and bootleg) now emblazon everything from tee shirts to baseball caps. And in one of the strangest tributes to Meyer's opus, a Los Angeles restaurateur playfully headlined an ad for his bistro "Pasta, Fussycat! Eat! Eat!"
Not content to dine out on past glories, the septuagenarian "King Leer" enthusiastically outlines a top-heavy schedule of projects that could keep him busy for years. That's assuming any of them actually materializes--Meyer has a propensity for announcing mind-bogglingly titled films that never get made (the lengthy list includes The Jaws of Lorna, Up the Valley of the Beyond and The Breast of Russ Meyer). That weakness has earned Meyer the dubious reputation as "The Wolf Who Cried 'Vixen!'" Soon to hit video shelves are documentaries on strippers Pandora Peaks and Melissa Mounds. In the fall, Meyer hopes to begin production on something named The Bra of God, based on a treatment written by his longtime pal and collaborator, movie critic Roger Ebert. (Although the relatively unknown Ebert received screen credit for his work on 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, he hid behind pseudonyms on such films as Supervixens and Up!.) Sometime this year, Meyer's long-awaited autobiography--a $500, three-volume set featuring some 2,500 photographs--is scheduled to roll off the presses. In the meantime, the man whose breast obsession leaves Hugh Hefner in the shade also finds time to shoot photos for the German edition of Playboy.
"They really go for the big, pneumatic women over there," says Meyer. "In American Playboy, all the women are built like hoe handles.