[published: February 13, 2009]
Lots of guys like breasts. But for filmmaker Russ Meyer these lumps of fat and gland were much more than a turn-on.
(Illustration by Byron Werner)
Male artists throughout history have credited their success to female muses. Russ Meyer was probably the first to admit it wasn’t a muse that inspired him.
It was just her great rack.
Meyer died in 2004, but not before leaving a giant, breast-shaped mark on the cinematic canon. Between his first real film, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)—about a man whose vision can penetrate female clothes—and his last, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), Meyer established himself as auteur without par of mammary-based movies. With casts drawn from burlesque houses and go-go clubs, his films grossed millions and ushered in the sexploitation film genre. They enjoy a massive cult following that includes John Waters and Roger Ebert, a former Meyer screenwriter.
All this success was predicated on one pimple-pocked idea: Find the biggest bosom possible and film it. “A good actress!” he once scoffed. “I’d rather have a big-chested stiff who can hardly pronounce her name.” The California-born filmmaker clarified the subject in his autobiography, A Clean Breast: “I like women who are epically built, bounteous, super-abundant; who have humongous, conical, sleek, blue-veined giganzos accessorized by protuberant nipples surrounded by aureoles double the circumference of a silver dollar!”
Filming big tits was a smart move, as the taste of Americans had been swinging in that direction for years. The average bust sizes of Miss America contestants had grown from 32 inches in the 1920s to 36 in the 1960s, according to Carolyn Latteier’s Breasts: The Women’s Perspective on an American Obsession. Meyer’s arrival in the 1950s coincided with what Latteier refers to as the era of “mammary madness,” a time when Russian warheads loomed in the national psyche as much as those other menacing missiles, conical bras.
Meyer was well aware of the commercial power of breasts—he called them “ticket sellers,” among other things. But his love came from a deeper place. This was a man who encouraged his longtime star and lover, Kitten Natividad, to double her birth-control dose to engorge her bust, which already weighed nearly 20 pounds. Meyer’s lust for titanic milkers was out of control: If he didn’t wear a jockstrap on the set, he might stun his cast with a visible erection. During one steamy shoot, “the guy had a hard-on,” recalled Natividad in Jimmy McDonough’s biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws. “And it was oozing.”
It’s normal enough for a guy to want hefty cans. Meyer wanted muscular orbs that could crush a man beneath their weight, a desire akin to the “breast inflation” fetish one sees in certain Japanese comics that imagines tits blown up to the size of camper vans by scientists and aliens. For a life as thoroughly documented as Meyer’s, digging up the roots of this odd yen shouldn’t be a difficult task. The problem is, with a fetish that burns as brightly as the director’s did, everything is suspect, because each aspect of his life seems to have been defined by two mega bulges of fat and gland.
He drank from his mother’s sizeable teat until age three, for instance. But if the Meyer matriarch was responsible for any unusual obsessions in her son, it was probably through her regular delivery of enemas. One of Meyer’s actresses nicknamed him “Mr. Poo-Poo” for his endless stories about how mom would “hose me out.” And yet Meyer’s movies are not known for their enema scenes.
The adolescent Meyer not only showed a preference for cartoons featuring busty ladies—even at this age moderately busty was simply not enough. He corrected Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae with a compass, drawing twice-as-big bosoms. It wasn’t until he was a teenager at a San Francisco burlesque that Meyer would spot a woman who lived up to his completely unrealistic standards. “If she moved too fast she could throw herself right down to the deck—the centrifugal force was enormous,” he remembered. “From then on, she’s been the carbon copy that I’ve constantly been looking for.”
Like Cezanne and his mountain, Meyer returned to this vision to create the most memorable movies of his career: Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) — a title that somehow was improved in West Germany to Die Satansweiber von Tittfiel; Vixen (1968); and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). He’s an example of the rare visual artist who managed to endear the public to a peculiar anatomical fixation. In the curio cabinet of history, next to Georgia O’Keefe’s flower-vaginas, Fernando Botero’s fatscapes, and Hans Bellmer’s pubescent-girl mannequins, rest a pair of Meyer’s mammoth bazongas.
Meyer didn’t get his films into The Museum of Modern Art just by sticking bloated mammilla in front of the camera (although he did take that approach when making the promotional posters). He cut his teeth shooting combat footage in World War II and later learned editing techniques crafting industrial films for Standard Oil. Meyer is lauded by film historians for introducing narrative into the vapid “nudie-cutie” films of the 1950s. It’s not clear if he cared about such highbrow things. For instance, in directing the buxom Lorna Maitland on how to portray feelings, he told her that he wanted to read the emotion on her face. Later he confessed, “What I wanted to say was, ‘Read it on your big tits.’”
Everything in a Meyer’s production revolved around breasts, right down to a lumpy shooting location outside Modesto, California that his crew called the Tit Hills. Never one to film a small-chested actress—he believed they caused box-office failures—Meyer supplied pads to actresses who had merely large breasts and in other cases employed pregnant women for their natural swollenness. During filming, he put these women through a rigorous routine of running, dancing, fighting, and screwing—basically any activity that would draw attention to their jiggliness. Many a Meyer actress later complained of being forced to run barefoot for miles over harsh terrain, only to find a tiny bit of the sequence showing up in the final cut.
There was so much breast-related activity going on in a Meyer flick that sometimes it wasn’t safe to walk around. In McDonough’s biography, actor Ken Swofford related an incident in which he was coldcocked by the breast of star Babette Bardot after it accidentally dislodged from her top. “It just flew out and hit me in the face,” he said.
As for cinematography, it seemed as if Meyer dropped his camera on the floor and forgot to pick it up. Women’s chests tower above as big as any mountain range. Sometimes the men’s did, too. In his first big film for Fox, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer had ceramic breasts affixed to the chest of John Lazar. A classically trained actor, Lazar later blamed the demise of his post-Dolls career on the surprise sex change.
Indeed, Meyer’s crusade left much bitterness in its wake. Breasts came first, the women they belonged to later. He lied to some actresses about the amount of nudity he was going to show. And though he married a couple and romanced many more, he didn’t seem to connect on an intimate level. “All I want you for is fucking and cooking,” is what ex-wife Edy Williams heard. In Meyer‘s words, “I don’t care to comment about what might be inside a lady’s head. Hopefully it’s my dick.” Two of Meyer’s paramours threatened to shoot him, and one of these ladies, stripper Melissa Mounds, sent him bloody to the hospital after beating his face in while he slept.
Meyer was after the perfect breast, and acquiring this elusive item required discarding one leading lady after another as their knockers invariably came up short. He never really captured his Platonic funbag. After making a couple big-studio films, his career died off, partly due to the fact his own trailblazing had created a legion of imitators. Meyer’s last film was to be called The Bra of God, but he died from complications of pneumonia.
Maybe he’s making it now.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
John Metcalfe reported for the Washington, D.C. City Paper and Seattle Weekly before moving to New York to freelance. Despite his affection for Russ Meyer movies, he says that normal-sized breasts are good too.
Byron Werner spent 28 years doing animation painting for cartoons, commercials and special effects work on movies in Los Angeles. In 2004, he quit his job and moved to Little Rock to devote himself to his artwork. His work is a psychedelic folk-art using found materials in a hand-made way, heavily influenced by Op-Art, psychedelic dance posters, underground comics and such influences as M.C. Escher, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Dr Seuss. He can be contacted at email@example.com and his artwork is on view at www.rockseye.com/werner.
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