Russ Meyer

Active - 1954 - 2001  |   Born - Mar 21, 1922   |   Died - Sep 18, 2004   |   Genres - Adult, Comedy, Drama, Horror

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Biography by Hal Erickson

American filmmaker Russ Meyer channelled his youthful energies into photography, winning several awards for his amateur films before he was 15. Experience under more grueling circumstances came when he worked as a newsreel cameraman in Europe during World War II. As a civilian, Meyer at first specialized in glamour photos of beautiful models, then found that the money came quicker and the work was more plentiful in the world of male-oriented "nudie" magazines; he was among the first and most prolific of the centerfold photographers for Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine. From there, Meyer moved on to nudie films, a field in which he managed to strike a happy medium, titillating the audience while remaining within the boundaries of local censor boards. His first film, 1959's The Immoral Mr. Teas, has a plenitude of female flesh, but the story line -- a man subjected to a powerful anesthetic discovers that he can see through the clothes of every woman who walks past him -- precluded any physical contact between man and woman. Arguing that nudity in and of itself is not obscene so long as it is kept at arm's length, Meyer was able to circumvent the bluenoses and get his film booked into theaters. Shot silent on a budget of 24,000 dollars, The Immoral Mr. Teas made over 40 times its cost. When other producers began muscling in on his territory, Meyer decided to move beyond mere voyeurism, and with Lorna (1964) added elements of sexual contact (always stopping short of actual fornication) and violence. The director's excesses in terms of blood and carnality reached a peak with his "classics:" Motor Psycho (1965), Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1966), and Harry, Cherry and Raquel (1969). With the 71-minute Vixen (1969), Meyer deliberately courted obscenity charges, reasoning that the best way to keep one's head above water in the sexually liberated movie scene of the late '60s was to stir up as much publicity as possible. Suddenly the director was making appearances on such conservative TV programs as The Art Linkletter Show, defending the artistic merits of Vixen -- and as a result, the film, put together for a mere 76,000 dollars, was a hit to the tune of six million dollars. 20th Century Fox, financially strapped and desperate to cash in on the sudden respectability of X-rated films (via the Oscar win for 1969's Midnight Cowboy), signed Meyer to direct his first big-studio picture. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), co-scripted by no less than Roger Ebert, was a success, emboldening Meyer to make his chanciest career move yet: The Seven Minutes (1971), a sexy but nonetheless "mainstream" all-star film based on a best-selling novel by Irving Wallace. Without his usual lascivious story ingredients to fall back on, Meyer proved to be an inept director, and the film ended up his first failure. Meyer continued making films into the late '70s, having been by this point firmly established as a cultural icon, and heralded at various respectable film festivals. Despite his body of film work, Russ Meyer's most lasting legacy may be his "protegée" and former wife, Edy Williams, the busty perennial starlet who could always be counted on to show a lot of skin at the annual Academy Awards show.

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