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Mondo Meyer: Critic and Author Irv Slifkin talks about Russ Meyer


It's been nine years since Russ Meyer, the Eisenstein of sexploitation cinema, passed away, leaving behind a body of work that can be best described as unique, unusual—and certainly soft and supple.

This Saturday night in Philadelphia, the man who gave us "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and other campy cult classics featuring the most bosomy ladies ever to grace the screen will be saluted by one of his longtime pals. Philadelphia-based film critic/author Irv Slifkin will host "MONDO MEYER!" an event at PhilaMOCA that includes a screening of Meyer's 1975 flick "Supervixens." This will be followed by Slifkin telling stories about the movie and his friendship with Meyer. After that, burlesque crew Miss Rose's Sexploitation Follies will pay tribute to the filmmaker with a Meyer-themed revue. (Those who would like to attend the event can go here for information.) tracked down Slifkin to talk about Meyer, his films, their friendship and lost Meyer projects involving Elvis Presley and beavers.  

OK, let's start with "MONDO MEYER!" How did the event come to be?

I've been thinking of sharing some of my stories about Russ Meyer for a while, but I never was sure how to do it. I've toyed with writing an article or even a book, but I thought some sort of multimedia tribute was the best way. So, I approached the folks at PhilaMOCA and they were all for it. It's taken close to a year to get this together.

What made you choose "Supervixens" as the Russ Meyer film to screen?

It was between that and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," which I've hosted a few screenings of in the area over the years. "Supervixens" is rarely shown on a screen and it was actually the first film of Russ's I saw in its entirety in a theater. I stayed home from school for Yom Kippur and, instead of going to synagogue, went to see "Supervixens."

That's quite fascinating. Now, I'm not mad at you at all for playing "Supervixens" (the poster for it is hanging in my kitchen), but I would think with the recent passing of his most famous screenwriting collaborator, Roger Ebert, you would go for playing "Beyond…" or "Beneath of the Valley of the Ultravixens."

Yeah, good point. "Beyond…," though, has been pretty readily available and I don't like "Beneath…" as much. We still have Haji in "Supervixens," who recently passed away. I also have some stories about "Supervixens" I can relate to the audience.

Did you find "Beneath…" to be too, well, cluttered, like I did?

I agree. All over the place. Lots of good stuff there, but not focused.

Why did it take a year to get this event off the ground, and was it intentional to have it near the day of Meyer's death?

Not necessarily intentional—just the way it worked out. There were different elements that had to come together, from me gathering my stories to us picking a film to the show part of the program. Scheduling decisions, venue availability, me trying to get my stuff done.

I wanted to get into your friendship with Meyer. I read that remembrance you did of Ebert earlier this year where you said you saw "Beyond…" in college and you were awestruck. Then, you met Meyer after you graduated. How did it get chummy from there?

We had a phone friendship through business. I would call and order movies for a video store and he would call me back—from all over the world! He would even ship the VHS tapes himself and write out the invoices. I would hear foreign languages in the background when he called and I would ask: Where are you? He would say he's in Budapest or something, then "How many copies of 'Up' do you need?" He would sometime pass through Philly and call me and we would get together. And, eventually, I would get to the West Coast and get together. I stayed often at his home, in his pool house.

OK, I need stories about staying at his place now.

The place was like a museum with every inch of the walls—and the ceiling—covered with Russ memorabilia. For each woman he had a liaison with, he had a plaque with her picture and mini-trophy with an engraved saying, "For the loving exchange of bodily fluid." His spare bedroom had a big bed without a mattress, which he said some of his ladies preferred. I believe you see it in a movie or two.

Any Meyer repertory players ever drop by?

Not at his house, but one of the most memorable nights I recall was dinner at Kitten Natividad's when she cooked smelly fish (which I have a strong aversion to) that Russ caught earlier that morning. From her wearing a see-through negligee to showing me the burn she got from cooking—twice!—to other diners stealing her jewelry—all on the day
Zsa Zsa Gabor was arrested—it was simply surreal.

Yeah, that's a good way to describe it. Since this all happened in the '80s, I'm curious about Meyer's career at that point. I mean, "Beneath…" was the last, full-fledged film he directed, and you met him a year later. So, where did he go from there? You mentioned about calling him from Budapest.

He called me from Budapest. Russ always had other projects. He told me about a film called "The Jaws of Lorna" that he wrote with Roger Ebert, something to do with resurrecting Elvis by using secretions taken from beavers. My sense was he didn't want to foot the bill himself and he kept having meetings all over the world about financing this and other projects that never panned out. For years, he was working on a documentary about himself and his life that eventually became his amazing, three-volume autobiography. But he shot tons of footage, went back to Europe where he served during World War II, carried a camera around with him and even shot on a street I was living on at the time because it was called Large Street! He told me at some point it was tough to find the women who starred in his films, that the new generation wasn't his type.

The doc was going to be like eight hours long. I think John Waters said it should be called Berlin Alexander-tits.

It 's funny thinking that he started making movies at that perfect time where buxom and curvy women were so in. I'm guessing that era in the '90s where waifish supermodels were in vogue just crushed him.

Yes. He hated porn and abhorred all the skinny women with the obviously fake boob jobs. At the video conventions, he was usually placed in the porno area amongst these women and the triple-X companies. It became an ordeal for him.

I can't help thinking that, even though Meyer is forever known as a softcore sensationalist, there was a sense in his films that he held women in high, respectable regard. I mean, many of his female characters were bold, sensible, even heroic. I always go back to that line in "Common Law Cabin" where Babette Bardot tells a guy, "I only say what you think, so you'll hear how lousy it sounds." That's a ballsy line to give a gal in a movie.

I agree with you. And he certainly welcomed people who said that with open arms. I think there's an ambiguity in his work—and life—of women as bitchy sex objects, women as strong, indie heroines. That's a good quote you got.

He had high regard for women. He used to carry a framed photo of his mother around when he travelled and put it on his table next to him.

It's also funny to see how men are often portrayed as impotent, downright effed-up beasts who need women more than women need them. This is practically embodied by Charles Napier in "Supervixens," whose character becomes so visibly impotent at one point that he commits one of the most absurdly violent acts I've ever seen committed against a woman in a movie.

Definitely. Charles told me he and Russ were going through woman trouble at the time and that was the impetus for some of the violence in the film.

Hearing you say that puts that scene in such revealing perspective, because it's so bizarre yet it encapsulates how dysfunctional men's feelings can become when they get all caught up with a woman.

Interesting insight. I think Chuck and Russ were similar: gruff, manly exteriors, but really sensitive on the inside. Napier went on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show with his wife and cried on the air (I think it's on YouTube). And Russ shared some stuff with me that I never expected to hear from him.

Like what?

Well, I don't want to give that away if this is being published. Off the record, I can tell you.

I'll guess we'll discuss that the next time I'm in Philly. Here's a question: You have a favorite Meyer actress? Mine is Uschi Digard. It often seemed like Meyer couldn't even rein her in as an actress and just let her do whatever. I loved reading in "Big Bosoms and Square Jaws," Jimmy McDonough's book on Meyer, how that was kind of true.

I guess mine is Erica Gavin. Oddly, Uschi probably had more screen time than all of his other girls.

You're saying that like it's a bad thing. It's definitely not.

No, not at all. Most of the women in Russ's movies were put through hell. He ran his shoots like basic training. But they all loved to work with him and were into it. I think that shows in his films. They sure seem like they are digging it, too.

Would you say that would be the best way to put his legacy: As frivolous as his films looked, he made sure a lot of hard work went into them?

Without a doubt. He was a slave driver, to all who worked with him and to himself. I think he'd even agree with that observation. Is it OK to use that term these days?

Hey, if "slave driver" is the best way you can put it, use it.

I can sub tough-as-nails or something. That's what came to mind though.

You're good. Finally, what do you think Russ and Roger are doing right now?

Having some Bombay gin and watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

I think that's what most of us want to do right now.

Sounds good to me.

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