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Russ Meyer, Producer of Cult Porn Films, Dies at 82

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page B04

Filmmaker Russ Meyer became a wealthy and famous porn producer by combining his skills as an Army Signal Corps photographer with a lifelong lust for women with "cleavage cantilevered." Dubbed "King Leer" for his soft-core, often cartoonishly carnal classics such as "Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!" and "Vixen!," Mr. Meyer, 82, died Sept. 18 at his home near Los Angeles. He had dementia.

Slick-haired and mustachioed a la Clark Gable, Mr. Meyer was an unmistakable personality and a truly independent filmmaker. He made a fortune in his skin trade by writing, shooting, editing, directing and producing two dozen low-budget movies featuring well-endowed women who were, in his view, exemplars of feminist values.

Russ Meyer, shown in 1969, made such soft-core films as "Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!" "Vixen!" and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." (AP)

His films, seldom as clinically detailed as other contemporaneous "skin flicks," were less about lusty groping than semi-nude, erotic fantasy. Critics praised them for their professional sheen, stemming from Mr. Meyer's dedication to editing craftsmanship.

"I am the rural Fellini," Mr. Meyer once said, referring to the Italian filmmaker. "He liked women that were outrageously buxom, too. The difference is, his country looked upon him as a true artist."

In some ways, Mr. Meyer underestimated his renown. Several of his films are in the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art; others are deconstructed by Ivy League film students; and still more are shown at retrospectives. The director John Waters called "Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!" (1965), about thrill-hungry go-go dancers in the desert, "beyond doubt, the best movie ever made."

Mr. Meyer's rare venture with a major studio, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), was a financial success, as well. It featured a screenplay by film critic Roger Ebert, one of Mr. Meyers's closest friends, who once wrote in Playboy: "Meyer is almost unique in the world of popular eroticism in seeing women not as passive victims but as aggressive sexual beings who demand that their needs be met."

Mr. Meyer was unapologetic about his career. "You take Atlanta," he said. " 'Vixen' played to over 100,000 people there. They're not all dirty old men."

His first picture, "The Immoral Mr. Teas" (1959), became the first soft-core film to exceed the million-dollar mark. It launched an industry of lesser fleshpot movies, yet Mr. Meyer retained a reputation for high production quality.

As Kenneth Turan wrote in his Washington Post critique of "Vixen!" (1968), "Russ Meyer stands alone at the top of the heap."

Russell Albion Meyer was born March 21, 1922, in the Bay Area. He was raised by his mother, a nurse, and a stepfather. Outwardly shy, he said he was constantly observing women around him in school.

His mother bought him his first camera to make 8mm home movies as a teenager. Later, while in the Army, he filmed World War II battle scenes in Europe under the tutelage of a man who had made "Our Gang" comedies. While in Paris, he said, Ernest Hemingway paid for his unit's visit to a bordello, where Mr. Meyer lost his virginity.

After the war, Mr. Meyer made industrial films; took cheesecake photos of Hollywood stars; and did centerfold photographs for Playboy magazine. Unable to get Hollywood backing, he cobbled together $24,000 in 1959 to make "The Immoral Mr. Teas." The film, shot in five days, made more than $1 million.

The star was an Army buddy, Bill Teas, who played a door-to-door dental supplies salesman. Anesthetized for his own toothache, Teas starts imagining women in the nude. The critic Leslie A. Fiedler called the movie "a kind of imperturbable comedy with overtones of real pathos."

"The Immoral Mr. Teas" was credited with spawning a new permissiveness in mainstream cinema and influenced a generation of pornmakers.

Mr. Meyer's works soon took on a Gothic quality. In "Lorna" (1964), a lonely housewife has a fling with an escaped convict and then pays a heavy penalty for her transgression. In other films, such as "Vixen!," about the sex-loving wife of a Canadian bush pilot, Mr. Meyer seemed to address contemporary culture. The film featured a draft-dodging American and an Irish Communist bound for Cuba.

Having proved himself a hit-maker, Mr. Meyer was approached by 20th Century Fox studio President Richard D. Zanuck to make several large-budget films. His first venture, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," satirized the trashy Jacqueline Susann novel "Valley of the Dolls."

Working at a major studio was an ill fit. The filmmaker's next project, "The Seven Minutes" (1971), a courtroom drama about censorship, was no one's favorite.

He was happier with "Supervixens" (1975) and "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" (1979), his final movie. He also wrote an autobiography, "A Clean Breast."

His marriages to Betty Valdovinos, Playboy model Eve Turner and actress Edy Williams ended in divorce. For years, he lived with a stripper named Melissa Mounds.

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