By Jerry Renshaw
JULY 13, 1998: Purient, low-budget, and adults-only, the films of Doris Wishman may provide the missing link between the worlds of Ed Wood and Russ Meyer. A soft-core sexploitation filmmaker who between the years 1960 and 1983 made about 25 films, Wishman is the complete auteur. Not only did Wishman write, direct, produce, cast, and edit all her films, she was probably the only woman at the time whose work managed to be so prolific and groundbreaking. Doris Wishman's career began during the heyday of the early Sixties "nudie" films that featured minimal plots (if any) and wholesome folks playing volleyball or engaging in other in-the-buff good times. However, with her second film, the sublimely goofy Nudes on the Moon, Wishman created a hybrid of Fifties style sci-fi and the "uncensored from Copenhagen" genre in which cheapjack astronauts land on the moon and discover a community of nekkid lunar babes with pipe-cleaner antennae sprouting from their bouffant hairdos! The fairly guileless nudies flourished for several years in the Sixties until they got pushed aside by the "nudie-roughie," which usually included more violence and phony sex along with the nudity. In keeping with the times, Wishman made the jump to the new genre. By the early Seventies, grindhouse screens showed more explicit porn, a field which Wishman and her contemporaries like Russ Meyer, David Friedman, and Radley Metzger never ventured into. Her work has been compared to those directors, but the comparison doesn't quite hold water; Wishman's films were written, produced, directed, and edited solely by her, no small feat for someone with no formal training in moviemaking. The different names she often uses in the production credits can be chalked up to Wishman's embarrassment to list solely her own name for those various positions. It's an accomplishment even more remarkable when you consider that she was the only female working in the field at the time (a fact that she dismisses as irrelevant).
Wishman never let her lack of training get in the way of her moviemaking career, though; she directed a prolific 28 movies between l960 and l978. Her seat-of-the-pants style often features a hand-held camera prowling the room, focusing on a clock, shoes, or table legs while the dialogue continues; other times the camera shakes and jerks around violently during action segments. Her stories often have moral overtones as wayward, naïve females fall victim to predatory males in vice-ridden journeys through the sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, her themes also frown on the swinging bachelor lifestyle of the time as well. Her movies are distinct from those of her contemporaries due to their direction and plots (Wishman often employed the country-songwriter ploy of coming up with a title and then writing the film's story around it). The wildly improbable plots and the trashy look of her films has since made her a favorite with sleaze connoisseurs (the sharp-eyed viewer will even see a tribute to Double Agent 73 in John Waters' Serial Mom).
Now living in Coral Gables, Florida, Wishman was rediscovered by Bostonian Michael Bowen a few years ago. Bowen is now working on the filmmaker's biography and has been touring the United States with Wishman, showing restored prints of her classics Bad Girls Go to Hell and Double Agent 73 (named for the freakishly endowed 73"-bosomed Chesty Morgan). Double Agent 73 features Morgan as a secret agent with a miniature camera implanted in her left breast (hell, there's room for a 35mm Panaflex in there). Of course, every time she takes a picture, her shirt has to come off, and just to make things more interesting, the camera is programmed to explode in a certain number of hours! Is that exploitation, thriller, spy movie, or ... what the hell do you call it, anyway? Bad Girls (1965) and Double Agent 73 (1974) are notable for their bizarre plot inventions and, of course (in the case of the latter), the near-autistic acting of the rather grotesque Chesty. (In Deadly Weapons, the film's premise has Chesty Morgan beating men to death with her fatal attractions.)
Bowen and Wishman's travels bring them to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where they will attend screenings of Bad Girls Go to Hell and Double Agent 73 on the evening of Thursday, July 16.
Austin Chronicle: Let me start by asking you what got you started in filmmaking.
Doris Wishman: I think that I was a frustrated actress, and production was the next best thing. It was a challenge, it was a lot of fun, and I really loved it, and still do of course.
AC: In your acting days, you were friends with Shelley Winters, weren't you?
AC: Nude on the Moon  was your first feature, is that right?
DW: No, Hideout in the Sun  was my first feature, but the negative to that was lost, lost for 38 years, and I didn't find it again until a few months ago. It was my pride and joy, my first film, and when I started working on the film, I really didn't know what I was doing. The first time I shot, the footage was very bad, but I learned from my mistakes and when I shot again it was satisfactory. And of course, it was my first film, so I can see a lot of errors, but then again, it was my first attempt, my first endeavor, so it was pretty good.
AC: Any chance of that one seeing the light of day?
DW: Well, I don't know, I made some videos and advertised in Psychotronic and sold a number of them. I only found the negative about six or seven months ago and surprisingly the negative is in pretty good condition. But yes, I plan to get hold of distributors. It's just a matter of time. I imagine I'll still be able to show it. It's the first film that was shot in its entirety in Miami, which is a selling point, I think.
AC: How did you evolve from the simple sun and volleyball, nudist-camp type stuff to the so-called exploitation stuff of the later Sixties?
DW: It's difficult to say, you know, when the trend turned. After a while, those films just weren't acceptable anymore, they weren't commercial, and so I had to go on to other things, and I started making regular features, which of course was more fun, more challenging, and more costly. But every time I made a film, the budget was a little higher, which is just the way it goes.
AC: What was it like to be the only woman director in a field that was traditionally dominated by males? Did you encounter any problems along those lines?
DW: No, none whatsoever, on the contrary. I never thought of it like that, but I must say I was always treated very fairly and it never became ... I mean, it just didn't matter. You know, these days it's completely different, but then it was a bit of a novelty, but the other producers and directors and so on were extremely nice and really tried to be cooperative. I had no problems, and I never thought of myself as the only woman director. I just didn't think about it; I just wanted to work and make movies.
AC: In the years since, your stuff has been labeled "proto-feminist." How did that make you feel?
DW: It just doesn't matter. I don't care what people say. I just do my very best, I make my films with love and care, and as I always say, "Not Eastman Color but Wishman Blood," and that's all that matters. I never think like that.
AC: I understand that Chesty Morgan was not a whole lot of fun to work with.
DW: No! I worked with many, many, many people and she was the only one who was uncooperative. But, I have to count myself as fortunate on that, since she was the only one who was uncooperative and everyone else was wonderful. Of course I paid them well, and that always helps. [Note: in her unofficial biography, Wishman confides bluntly, "Chesty Morgan was a monster!"]
AC: Do you have any idea where Chesty might be today?
DW: I haven't the vaguest idea. I have no idea whatsoever what might have become of her. I know she used to live in Brooklyn, and she might still be there.
AC: She was Eastern European, is that right?
DW: I think she came from Poland.
AC: And you had to dub in all her lines?
DW: I had to. I had to, because you couldn't understand what she was saying. And a lot of the people that I worked with, they couldn't speak properly, so I had to go back and dub in their lines, which was more costly but at least it was professional and you could understand what they were saying.
AC: What was your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
DW: I think editing, cutting it, making something out of nothing, and of course you can also make nothing out of something. But editing really is a challenge, because you're really creating. You can have the most fantastic footage and if you don't know what you're doing, if you don't have imagination, you have nothing.
AC: Of the movies that you did, what would you say was your favorite out of the bunch?
DW: You know, as I finished each picture it became my favorite one. They were all my favorites, because I gave them all my love and care, so it'd be hard to say. As I finished it, edited it, and got my master print, that was my favorite, until I made my next film. Don't you see, I didn't look at it the way the audience looked at it, I saw it a completely different way. It was my creation, I wrote the script, I edited, I directed, I did everything but use the camera, so this was me, really, and I couldn't have any particular favorite.
AC: If you were gonna go to the video store and rent a couple of movies to watch for the night, what do you think you might get?
DW: Oh, I don't know, Titanic, something like that. I'm not much of a moviegoer because I'm too critical, I find too many errors. No one wants to go to the movies with me because I'm constantly saying, "This should have been done, that wasn't done." I tend to be very critical because I feel that when people are making movies for millions, there shouldn't be any boners, there shouldn't be any errors. It's different when I made movies, because I didn't have any errors, and my budgets were very low; we couldn't even afford to go back and reshoot. But I just think that with these major companies, there shouldn't be any mistakes. I don't find it forgivable.
AC: I'd have to go along with you. What I find so exasperating is to see a movie with big stars, a big budget, and a high profile and find that there's so little substance to it.
DW: Yes, and what I really resent is the fact that you don't know what they're talking about half the time anyway. Do you find that too?
AC: Yes, or that the story and dialogue are just so inane.
DW: Yes, definitely. I don't really enjoy movies, I don't really go. I can't remember the last time I actually saw a film. Honestly, it must be 10 years, and I don't own a VCR either. I think I must be the only person in America who doesn't. Especially the movies these days; they don't make anything that means anything! But I shouldn't be too critical. It's like a woman who's really ugly and she smiles a certain way and she's gorgeous, or a man who arches his eyebrows and you think he looks fantastic while everyone else thinks he's ugly.
AC: How did you and Mike Bowen hook up?
DW: I was speaking at Harvard and Mike was in the audience. He didn't approach me in the autograph line, but a number of weeks later he called me and said that he wanted to write a book. I told him he was crazy, and then he came with his girlfriend to Miami, and I said, "I don't know why you want to write a book, because no one will buy it." He said, "I don't agree with you, I wanna write a book about you." And so we started corresponding, and Mike called me almost every night, and things just happened from there, and now we're, of course, fast friends. Incidentally, I did a piece on HBO a couple of weeks ago, did Michael tell you?
AC: No, uh-uh!
DW: Yeah, a spoof on Cinderella, it's very cute. HBO filmed me directing a film, so there were two crews working. I was directing a film and HBO filmed me while I was directing. That was kind of cute. The producer wants to do a film on my life, but that's in the offing, I don't have a contract or anything.
AC: Since Andrea Juno's article on you for ReSearch magazine 10 or so years ago, did you ever expect the kind of notoriety that you've achieved?
DW: Absolutely not, I never expected any notoriety, and if not for Michael, nothing would have happened. As a matter of fact, when I was still making films and anyone approached me, I just wouldn't speak to them. When I came down to Florida, Ted Koppel's daughter, what's her name, Adrian Koppel, called and wanted to interview me. She must have called a dozen times, and I just turned her down, then Michael turned all that around. And then I was on the Conan O'Brien show.
AC: Yeah, I wish I'd have known in advance so I could have seen it.
DW: Oh, it was dopey. You didn't miss anything, but then after the show the producer called me and said it was just fantastic, and sent me a letter that was just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! It started with, "Dear Doris: You are amazing." Then there was the underground film festival, which was interesting, and then I spoke at NYU, and I was there for about a week, so that was fun except that it was snowing and I was wearing open-toed shoes à la Miami.
Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch