Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film by Jimmy McDonough

[Four stars out of five]

Russ Meyer was an American original. A bombastic, maniacally focused man, he tore through the culture making movies that gave censorship boards, and then the MPAA, screaming fits. Because they also keyed into the male psyche of the era, and because he was an entrepreneur who not only worked hard but, for a time at least, understood deeply the business he was in, he made money. A lot of it.

The studios came calling, checkbook in hand, and Meyer signed on happily. Two movies later, one hit and one flop, he quit and went back to making movies his way: cheap, lurid, and paced like a wildcat rollercoaster.

Then the market for what he wanted to make dried up and, unwilling or unable to make anything else, he lived on the profits his self-owned films made on the home video market, while he tinkered away endlessly on his “autobiography”, and succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This is an important book. Jimmy McDonough has done a shitload* of original research, and he did it at just about the last possible moment. Published in 2006, I was struck, reading it in 2013, how every major figure interviewed in it is now dead. From Richard Zanuck to David Friedman, from Tura Satana to Roger Ebert, almost everybody who was there and who talked is now gone. For that reason alone, this book will forever be a resource to anyone interested in the exploitation film business, and the film business generally, in the 1960s and ’70s.

So before I go off on the book’s flaws and problems, understand that they largely don’t matter. You want to read this book. Perhaps you need to read it. And you should, despite any of the quibbles and nitpicks that follow.

First, McDonough is a fan of Russ Meyer. In itself, this is not a problem. With a personality like Meyer’s, the biographer almost has to be sympathetic if he hopes to understand his subject with no condescension or dismissiveness. But it distracts the reader at times. For example, McDonough summarizes each of Meyer’s movies’ plots, but it’s ridiculously obvious which ones he likes and which he doesn’t. Expressing this directly — which he does — is fine. But his summary of the plot of Cherry, Harry, and Raquel only tells the reader about Harry, without even explaining why it doesn’t mention the other two title characters, and that’s not fine.

Second, McDonough is an over-educated Ivy League hipster coastal snobbish asshole. Or, at the very least, he writes like one. “The Eighties,” he writes, “a crap decade.” And he specifies: “Ronald Reagan, Huey Lewis and the News, Top Gun — need I say more? If you were unfortunate enough to be around, it seemed like ten years that didn’t happen at all.”

Glib, flippant, and wholly devoid of substance. What if you disagree with him? Well, then you’re just not cool, and therefore don’t matter. Certainly not enough for him to bother constructing an actual argument to support his poseurhood.

This sort of posturing, all fallacy and attitude, never fails to irritate me. So, just for the hell of it, I pause the review to deal with it.

Ronald Reagan? A President who, for all his faults, knew how the hell to end a recession, took no crap from unionized bullies, deliberately worded speeches to give hope to imprisoned political dissidents and offend our enemies — who was clear about who our enemies were fer crissake! — and (with help) drove communism into the ground face first. Need you say more? No, no, it’s very clear that your education was so bereft of substance that you got your knowledge of Reagan from aged issues of Mother Jones and the occasional Saturday Night Live sketch, and you think you’re soooooooooooo much smarter than those stupid rubes in flyover country because of it.

Huey Lewis and the News? Seriously? I’ve never met anyone who hates them. They’re fun, bright, upbeat, clever, and never took themselves so seriously that they felt they had to lecture the rest of the planet on the proper opinions to have and feelings to feel. Were they the deepest, most musically complex band ever? Nope. But so what?

Top Gun, admittedly, is not the greatest film ever made. But that’s not why he loathes it and feels it represents all he hates about the Eighties. It was popular. It was patriotic. And it dared to show the US military as something better than a pack of mouth-breathing baby-killing rednecks. Unforgivable, in McDonough’s puerile worldview.

As for ten years that didn’t happen at all, this is curious. Consider:

The crap economy of the ’70s, after a brief recession, came roaring back, put America on top again, and set the stage for the internet revolution in the ’90s.

Soulless disco died, and synthesized music became something truly artistic. Vangelis became a recognized name, Brad Fidel came on the scene, and New Wave hit the overculture.

Movies stopped looking grainy, dirty, and bleak, and were allowed to have hopeful, happy endings again. Nihilism stopped getting a free pass.

And oh yeah, one more teeny, tiny little detail. COMMUNISM FELL! A totalitarian ideology that held more than half the world’s population in bondage collapsed, freeing many who had been under it’s Big Brother surveillance, bringing them to freedom, letting them, for the first time in decades, speak their minds and get rich if they could.

Yeah. What a fucking horrible decade. No wonder McDonough hates it.

(End rant. Mostly.)

Russ Meyer’s last movie was released in 1979, even though he lived another 25 years. He could, in other circumstances, have kept making flick for at least another ten. So, in his personal case, you could argue that the ’80s sucked.

But that’s only partly the fault of the times he lived in. The times changed, what people were looking for in films (and home movies) changed, and Meyer did not change with them. Indeed, going by the evidence McDonough himself provides, Meyer did not want to change, perhaps even could not change. “Adaptable” is not a word that any part of this biography brings to mind. McDonough barely acknowledges this, choosing instead to indulge in his own enmity for a decade that was far better than he will ever admit.

A third problem with McDonough’s work is extremely trivial, but might be seen as evidence of sloppiness on the author’s part. Perhaps it is confined only to trivialities like the one I’m about to explain, or perhaps it is indicative of more. I can’t say, as this was the only one that stood out for me.

There is a moment in the story where Meyer feels that one of his old (and dearly trusted) friends has betrayed him, and worse, in a cowardly way. His way of breaking the friendship off was to send the former friend a yellow feather.

Reading that, I immediately got the reference and laughed, seeing that Meyer had (typically) gotten the idea right, but the details wrong. There is a book (and at least two films based on it) called The Four Feathers (it’s public domain, you can download it from Gutenberg or Feedbooks or Munseys). It’s a great story about a Brit who, just before his regiment is to ship out for duty, resigns. This is taken by his friends and his fiance for an act of cowardice, and they each send him a white feather. The rest of the story concerns what he does to earn the right to return each feather to its sender, four acts of spectacular courage and daring.

But then McDonough “explains” it. He refers to an “obscure” British movie called “The Three Feathers”, has the protagonist run away during battle, and his friends give him yellow feathers.

Relaying what actually happened, and Meyer’s and his friends’ recollections of the film and story, that’s good. Not checking to make sure that you are getting the facts straight? Not so good.

Could it be just this one trivial detail? It could. (It comes up one more time in the book, just as wrong there as the first time.)

Am I willing to trust that McDonough was not this sloppy elsewhere? Alas, since he has convinced me that he’s a preening hipster, and therefore insufferable, I am afraid not.

Be that as it may, and apart from his personal quirks (and Meyer’s), the book is a good read, informative, and full of original research that, now, cannot be replicated. It should be on any film lover’s to-read list, as long as there are a few grains of salt to go along with it.


Notes

* (If I did not use appropriate vulgarity in this review, the ghost of Russ Meyer might curse me with ugly women for the rest of my life! 😉 ) [back]

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