A famed film auteur and master of celluloid erotica, director Russ Meyer revolutionized attitudes toward nudity on film with his debut movie, "The Immortal Mr. Teas" (1959), one of the first films since pre-Code Hollywood to show nudity in an erotic manner. While he may have been written off by some as a smut peddler, Meyer used his films - dubbed sexploitation movies - to tackle issues concerning race, politics and morality. He was also incredibly successful making movies like "Wild Gals of the Naked West" (1962) and "Lorna" (1964) on the cheap, and turning a sizeable profit at the box office. Meyer entered the cult favorite pantheon with his wildly titled "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1966) and had a major commercial hit with the controversial "Vixen!" (1968), which featured taboo subjects like incest and lesbianism. Because of its success, Meyer was able to realize his dream of directing a studio film, resulting in the critically maligned financial hit "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), written by a then-unknown Roger Ebert. Though he tried to direct straightforward dramas, Meyer returned to the sexploitation genre only to retire before the porn industry boom after his final narrative film, "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" (1979). Part showman, part filmmaker, the uninhibited Meyer nonetheless ushered in the sexual revolution past Hollywood's repressed gates in the 1960s, establishing sex and nudity as a crucial cinema ingredient while making his mark as one of the most celebrated cult filmmakers of all time.
Born on March 21, 1922 in San Leandro, CA, Meyer was the son of William Meyer, a small-town police officer, and Lydia Meyer, a registered nurse. Shortly after he was born, his parents divorced and Meyer had little contact with his father for the remainder of his life. Fascinated with photography since childhood, legend had it that Meyer's mother pawned her wedding ring to buy her son his first camera. Showing a natural aptitude as a shutterbug, Meyer began making amateur films in his early teens, but it was during World War II that he established his professional credentials while serving in Europe as an army combat cameraman, from which a good deal of Meyer lore originated. In later years, Meyer recalled visiting a French brothel while stationed overseas, where he met none other than Ernest Hemingway. Upon learning that he was a virgin, Hemingway supposedly offered Meyer his choice of prostitutes. In response, he chose the one with the largest breasts - a fateful event which Meyer claimed later ignited his lifelong fascination with buxom women. After the war, Meyer's impressive portfolio led to his first professional assignment as a photographer for Playboy magazine in the early 1950s, where he cut his teeth for several years shooting some of the magazine's earliest centerfolds. Among his subjects were such pioneer pin-up queens as Dolly Read and Eve Turner, whom Meyer married in 1952.
Despite his success as a photographer, however, as the 1960s rolled around, Meyer found himself increasingly drawn to filmmaking. As the 1950s drew to a close, Meyer made his film directorial debut with "The Immoral Mr. Teas" (1959), a ribald, but innocuous sex comedy filmed in Europe about a delivery man (Bill Teas) who awakens from anesthesia at the dentist's office to discover every woman he sees to be naked. Though initially treating his newfound ability as a curse, Mr. Teas eventually learns how to enjoy the scenery. Made on an extreme low budget, "Mr. Teas" was a big hit, earning over $1 million at the box office, while transforming so-called nudie cuties into a viable genre. In fact, Meyer's film was revolutionary in its depiction of nudity on screen, which prior to "Mr. Teas" was reserved for nature documentaries and scare-movies about venereal diseases. Thanks to the success of "Mr. Teas," Meyer found his true calling and never looked back, leading to a string of self-financed sexploitation movies that gradually became more bizarre and over-the-top. He followed up with his second film, "Eve and the Handyman" (1961), which starred wife Eve Turner, and went on to direct some none-too-subtle titles as "Erotica" (1961), "Wild Gals of the Naked West" (1962), "Heavenly Bodies!" (1963), and "Europe in the Raw" (1963).
Starting in 1964, Meyer entered his so-called gothic period with a quartet of black-and-white films that titillated and entertained as no other films had before. Starting with "Lorna" (1964), Meyer employed stronger storyline while delving into more theatrical violence, sexually-obsessed women and weaker male characters at the mercy of domineering females. The period continued with "Mudhoney" (1965), "Motor Psycho" (1965) and "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1966), initially unsuccessful at the box office, but which later became a cult classic. "Pussycat" was also notable for not featuring any nudity - though there was plenty of campy sexuality - which might have explained in part its failure in theaters. Following "Pussycat," Meyer returned to making color films with the pseudo-documentary, "Mondo Topless" (1966), which focused on the lives of strippers in San Francisco during the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, after years of trying to breakthrough to mainstream success, Meyer finally scored a big hit with the controversial "Vixen!" (1968), which followed a bored, but hypersexual woman (Erica Gavin) who unleashes her pent-up repression by leaving her husband (Garth Pillsbury) and seducing anyone she comes across - men, women and even her own brother. Despite featuring taboo subjects like incest, lesbianism and racism, "Vixen!" took in millions at the box office and finally opened the doors for Meyer to fulfill his dream of making a Hollywood studio movie. Hired by 20th Century Fox to direct his first mainstream studio picture, Meyer made his debut with "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), a satirical quasi-sequel to 1967's high camp drama, "Valley of the Dolls (1969). Penned by novice screenwriter and Meyer devotee Roger Ebert, the film received a critical drubbing, though it became a box office hit and a cult mainstay.
Unfortunately, Meyer received another lukewarm reception with the release of his next film, the uncharacteristically somber drama, "The Seven Minutes" (1971), which focuses on the trials and tribulations of a teenager accused of rape after buying an erotic book. Stung by the criticism, Meyer returned to the sex-and-violence films that made him famous, starting with the financial flop "Blacksnake" (1973). He followed up with "SuperVixens" (1975), which once again put on fine display his obsession with large-breasted women, and went on a frenzy of nudity and gore in the spoof "Up!" (1976). He wrapped his sexploitation career with the borderline graphic "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" (1979), which dispensed of narrative and his signature bawdy humor in exchange for more titillating close-ups thanks to a rapidly growing porn market. Meyer retired from filmmaking a wealthy man, thanks to owning the rights for his movies, and spent the better part of a decade writing his autobiography, A Clean Breast (2000). But as time wore on, Meyer's health deteriorated and he began showing signs of memory loss in the mid-1990s, which was later diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease in 2000. Meanwhile, his longtime companion, Debra Angela Masson, was arrested for assaulting Meyer in 1998 after he refused to give her a large sum of money. But with no wife or children, Meyer had few financial obligations and eventually died on Sept. 18, 2004 from complications of pneumonia. He was 82 years old and left behind a legacy as the "King of the Nudies."
By Shawn Dwyer