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The fastest of the Pussycats

The Sun-Times' Dave Hoekstra writes about Tura Santana here.

By Roger Ebert

Tura Satana. From Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi, to a Japanese-American internment camp, to a Chicago housing project, to street corner newsgirl, to Tura Satana, to Bourbon Street stripper, to discovery by silent star Harold Lloyd, to superstar of cult movies, to lover of Elvis, to dental receptionist, to icon of pop art, to grandmother of eight. The American Dream.

Russ Meyer remained friends with all his actors (seven former supervixens attended his funeral), and always spoke of Tura Satana with special affection. "She is one super lady," he told me. "you'd like her. She married a cop. She's working as an office manager for a group of dentists in Reno."

It was Tura Satana who was responsible indirectly for how I met Russ. I saw "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1995) at the Biograph theater on Lincoln Av. I was struck by one powerfully-edited sequence where Tura's character, Varla, attempts to crush a muscular but dim-witted hero against the side of a barn with a Porsche. Meyer intercuts his bulging muscles, holding back the car, with her spike-heeled foot pushing down the accelerator, and the tires digging into the dust.

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page profile on Meyer, dubbing him the King of the Nudies. It was written by the inevitably-named Stephen Lovelady. I wrote a letter to the editor, agreeing that Meyer was a gifted auteur and his work deserved praise. Meyer read the letter, wrote me, we met when he was next in Chicago, and the result was one of the great friendships of my life.

"Faster, Pussycat!" has only grown in stature over the years. John Waters' full quote was: "The greatest film ever made. And the greatest film that ever will be made." The movie is Russ Meyer's second best- selling title, after "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (which was ranked by a recent Village Voice critics' poll as one of the 100 greatest American films, so you see I was right about the auteurism). Today "Pussycat" is one of the most-seen films of 1965.

I met Tura Santana only once, at Russ's funeral in 2004. Russ had been right. She was one super lady. I liked her.

Despite its aura, "Pussycat" contains no actual nudity. There are lots of plunging bodices, to be sure, enhanced by what Russ liked to call "Brassieres based on the same principles that made the Sydney Opera House possible." The film was part of what Meyer called his "drive-in period," when he made black-and-white films that could be played in ordinary theaters that would not show adult films. The group also included "Lorna," "Mud Honey" and "Motor Psycho." The last two, along with "Faster, Pussycat!" all inspired the names of rock groups.

* * *

One of the keys to Tura's Pussycat character's enduring popularity is the perfect comic timing she uses to deliver Meyer's dialogue, which owes a lot to his lifelong devotion to W. C. Fields. What his fans know is that Meyer made comedies, not sex films. That Tura was "discovered" by Harold Lloyd confirmed Russ's belief in Lloyd's stature.Thanks to IMDb.com, here are some of the zingers delivered by Satana's character, Varla:

Gas Station Attendant: Yes ma'am, what can I do for you today? Varla: Just your job, squirrel. Fill it up!

Gas Station Attendant: [staring at Varla's chest as he pumps gas into her motorcycle] Just passing through, huh? Boy, that motor's sure hot! You gals really must have been moving on these little machines. Yessir, the thrill of the open road. New places, new people, new sights of interest. Now that's what I believe in, seeing America first! Varla: You won't find it down there, Columbus!

Tommy: Look, I don't know what the hell your point is, but... Varla: The point is of no return and you've reached it!

Varla: I never try anything. I just do it. And I don't beat clocks, just people! Wanna try me?

Varla [her Elvis tribute]: You're all shook up, aren't you, baby?

Kirk: [to Varla] You're a beautiful animal... and I'm weak, and I want you.

Tommy: Been running some timing trials? Varla: We KNOW how fast WE can go. You can time that heap with an hour-glass.

Varla: Drive! And don't miss!

The Old Man [regarding the three hellcats]: Women! They let 'em vote, smoke and drive--even put 'em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!

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