[Originally published online in Senses Of Cinema, Melbourne December 2002]
Last Wednesday night I finally started filming my first feature, Lesbo-A-Go-Go. The idea floated to the surface five years ago while my friend Gregor and I tore through a six-pack watching Doris Wishman's 1966 anti-classic Another Day Another Man. The moment the strip club theme tune hit the screen, I was hooked. An hour later, the script was practically written. Our tribute to the genius of
It took five years to start pre-production. Then, just as the cameras were about to roll, I heard the devastating news:
The first night of filming went exactly the way I planned it: we recreated a '60s lesbian club called “The Furry Oyster”. There were go-go girls, an all-girl band (well, almost) on stage, and an audience full of girls in short skirts and tall boots swinging their hips in the name of Exploitation. True to the spirit of
Why a tribute to
Wishman's films clump together into three categories: the nudist camp films, the “roughies”, and what I call the “loopies” – gimmick exploitation movies with a hook so twisted you can hang a shop window full of roast duck off them. The nudist camp films came about almost by accident, as Doris trained as an actress in New York in the '50s (alongside Shelley Winters, who she always maintained was nowhere near as good an actress as Wishman was) before going to work for master producer and distributor Joseph Levine, the man who introduced Steve Reeves as Hercules and the Italian toga muscle epics to America. Doris then married and moved to
Doris returned to
By 1970, Wishman's brand of sexploitation soap operas had a quaint anachronistic feel now hardcore pornography was breathing down the backs of grind house patrons across the country. It was time for a change of tact. Despite a brief stab at soft-core sex comedy, the plain unwatchable Keyholes Are For Peeping, Or Is There Life After Marriage? (1972) starring faded '50s Jerry Lewis imitator Sammy Petrillo, and a hardcore feature with Annie Sprinkle that Wishman denied ever making, (1976's Come With Me My Love aka The Haunted Pussy, Wishman billed as “Luigi Manicottale”), Wishman's final decade of her career is remembered as her “gimmick” phase, with a series of films that don't exactly qualify as sex films, or for that matter fall into any recognizable category other than “Doris Wishman” movies. 1970 saw The Amazing Transplant, the story of a man whose friend's penis is grafted onto him only to find himself unable to stop raping women in gold earrings. Let Me Die A Woman (1978), an obscenely exploitative shockumentary on transsexuals (“Twelve months ago...I was a man!”), features the ugliest trans-gender cases Wishman could find, and the greasy surgeon narrator at one point starts tapping a patient's groin in shocking close-up – with a biro! All framed, of course, with Wishman's spotless intentions and tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, which turns the grotesque proceedings into a carnival of the perverse.
The freak show angle is hard to shake when Wishman's bad taste masterpieces Deadly Weapons (released 1973) and Double Agent 73 (released 1974) loom into view like a pair of Arctic icebergs. The two films were conceived with their central gimmick first, and the scripts as almost an afterthought. The gimmick, of course, was the Meyer-esque cartoon-like figure of Polish burlesque dancer “Chesty Morgan” (real name Lillian Wilczkowsky), a stripper with a reportedly whopping 73-inch bust. In the two Chesty films she is a wonder to behold under her plastic-looking ash wig, her “acting” consisting of a heavy-lidded pout or wide toothy come-on smile, depending on the mood of each scene. Which invariably calls for Chesty to whip out her moneymakers and massage them, air them out (her bra support straps are larger than most corsets), or frame them for the camera in gratuitous close-up. To be fair, Ms Wilczkowsky was never destined for acting greatness, but the story goes Doris was so frustrated with Chesty's lumpen delivery on-camera and prima-donna antics off-camera that she scrapped plans for a third Chesty adventure, tentatively titled Crystal.
Deadly Weapons is the story of an exotic dancer whose husband is killed by gangsters. One by one she tracks the mob down and smothers them between her frightening cleavage. For the Wishman student the film delivers on every promise – awkward zooms, ragged montage, pointless cutaways, a self-written manual of camera angles designed to cause delirium rather than exposition, and a library of stock music stolen from '70s German car commercials. Wishman's immediate follow-up, Double Agent 73, is equally as loopy, and reworks Chesty's “character” as a spy with some unusual equipment. As I said before, the film neither makes the grade as a sex movie OR as a low-rent Bond adventure. Instead it exists in that strange gray area of exploitation cinema that belongs uniquely to
The film opens with a government spy (“Agent 99” – I'm sure the joke's not lost on
Cut to Chesty as Jane Monet, Agent 73, sunning her top-heavy torso beside a pool at a (
Chesty then hunts down Toplar's associates and dispatches them in disturbingly inventive ways. One turns up at Chesty's apartment while she is enjoying a topless drink – she knocks him off his feet, crams ice cubes down his throat, then finished off her cocktail. Another, so drunk he thinks Chesty is his Russian girlfriend, chows down on one of Chesty's mammaries only to find them coated with poison. Meanwhile Chesty's girlfriend comes to stay at her apartment, and is mistakenly dispatched in the shower by Toplar's assassin;
On her usual feature film budget of around the $50,000 mark (not cheap by porno standards but a skidrow sum anywhere else) Doris comes into her own as an innovative filmmaker, and the moments in Double Agent 73 when her wild “no-budget” inventiveness kick in are pure Wishman gold. To simulate a nightclub
Wishman's career in the '70s was shaky at best, but took a nosedive after the abject failure of her 1979 gore film A Night To Dismember. Lost by the lab, she pieced the film together over three years and released the resulting mess direct to video in 1983. She then disappeared for 20 years while she licked her wounds and pined over a sour deal that saw her entire film catalogue sell for a pittance. Wishman fans finally tracked her down in
Our Lesbo-A-Go-Go feature should be finished early 2003. If you ever get to see it, you'll notice two captions at the finish. One, superimposed on a gutter-level shot of a dying drug-addled hell bound Sugar, will read “The End”. The second will say, simply, “For Doris”. Wherever she is (hopefully Dildo Heaven, for her sake) I hope there's a video machine – sorry,