When I first met Doris Wishman 14 years ago, I had to go through an elaborate diplomatic protocol just to get her to emerge from her apartment in Coral Gables, Florida.
There were to be no photographs.
We would meet at a certain park near her condominium complex. (I was persuasive enough to talk her out of this, and we dined at a Coconut Grove restaurant.)
She was not to be asked her age or questioned about her personal life.
I was to call in advance so that she would have time to dress properly.
She then cancelled and rescheduled the interview several times until the video company I was working for offered to pay her for her time. Yes, she said, that would be delightful.
I'm not sure what Doris Wishman was afraid of in 1988, but she assumed that anyone who came around asking about her movies MUST have some ulterior motive. She was not really aware of the
cult that had started growing up around the two dozen exploitation films she had made in the sixties and early seventies. She was, if the truth be known, a little ashamed of the films--and yet fiercely proud that she had made them herself, written them, directed them, produced them, edited them, and made money from them. She spoke of them in the same way one speaks of mutual funds, or rebuilt cars, as though the process of choosing the right ones and then selling them was the only thing that mattered.
She showed up in one of her trademark polka-dot dresses--she also loved leopard prints--wearing low heels, an apricot scarf that reminded me of Gloria Swanson, and dark dark oversized glasses that wrapped around her head like space goggles, accenting her mascaraed brows. She looked European and dramatic, like a bullfighter's widow. Although her face was lined and wrinkled from too much South Florida sun, I judged her to be about 55.
As it turned out, her age was just about the only thing she hesitated to tell me that day. There were topics that bored her--the plots of her movies, the actors and actresses--but otherwise she warmed to the conversation and ended up giving me a sentence or two on each of her projects.
Certain very specific details would suddenly fascinate her--a movie's theme music written by her sister, Pearl Kushner, or the way she got the idea of photographing feet, because she believes you can tell a lot about a scene when you see how feet are positioned.
I said something like, "Especially when a woman's feet are pointed toward a man's feet?"
I meant it as a joke, but she took it entirely seriously, going into a description of how she had cut away from sex scenes with various angles on legs.
Doris was not a filmmaker so much as a film manufacturer. She had gotten into the business in 1958 when her husband, a partner in a New York film exchange, had dropped dead of a heart
attack at the age of 31. Grief-stricken, she decided to save the business as a way of filling up her days.
She would make her own movie--not because she'd ever had aspirations to be a filmmaker, she said, but so the film exchange would have something to sell. She knew nothing about producing,
writing, directing, or editing. At one time she had wanted to be an actress, and had taken classes after graduating from Hunter College.
"I was in a class with Shelley Winters," she said, arching her dramatic brows, "but Shelley Winters was willing to do more to get a part than I was willing to do."
Instead she became a self-taught filmmaker. She never took a class. She never bought a book. She simply asked people how it was done and tackled one task at a time.
The result was a film called "Hideout in the Sun" (1960), one of the very earliest nudist camp films. A New York court decision, in the famous "Garden of Eden" case, had declared that nudity was allowed in films made entirely on the grounds of a nudist resort, because they were basically educational in nature. Doris was one of the first to realize that this was a virtual gold mine for small independent film distributors.
Yet she didn't do what her male colleagues were doing at the time--pay a nudist camp to let them shoot endless footage of volleyball games, picnics, and artist's models frolicking in the bushes. She insisted on a modicum of plot, and so in her "nudie," two escaping bank robbers kidnap a woman and force her to find them a place to hide. She chooses a nudist camp, of course.
"Hideout in the Sun" would be the first of eight lucrative "nudies" made by Doris. The most famous of them is "Nude on the Moon" (1961), her second film, which I was keen to have her talk
about because I was hosting a new video release of it.
"Why would anyone want to watch that?" she said. "Those people were so ugly." And she proceeded to lament never having enough money to hire beautiful people.
"Nude on the Moon" is today a cult classic, thanks to her screenwriter's conceit of having two astronauts land on the moon and find that it's occupied entirely by nudist aliens who have pipe cleaners sticking out of the top of their heads. Doris's only memory of it was that the lead actress always showed up on time.
Blaze Starr, the most famous stripper of the day, made her only film for Doris, "Blaze Starr Goes Nudist" (1963). Starring opposite her was Ralph Young, of Sandler and Young, who was given
the part--in typical Doris economy--because he could also be used to write the theme song.
In "Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls" (1963), a couple joins a nudist colony and finds it has a devastating effect on their marriage. In "The Prince and the Nature Girl" (1965), twin sisters fall in love with the same man--at a nudist camp. And in "Playgirls International" (1964) and "Behind the Nudist Curtain" (1965), nudist camp footage from overseas is mixed with a few pickup scenes Doris shot at her regular locations in Florida.
Her second, and most interesting period, began in 1964 with "The Sex Perils of Paulette" (1964), the story of a wide-eyed aspiring actress who shows up in New York City and is destroyed by lying lecherous men. It was the beginning of the age of the "roughie," or "kinky," film--movies made for the all-male audiences that frequented downtown grindhouses--and Doris was in lockstep with the times.
Doris made eight "roughies," and all but one of them are about women who are sexually frustrated, sexually abused, driven to prostitution or violence by their overwhelming male environment. The one exception is a strange fantasy film called "Indecent Desires" (1967), in which the protagonist, a lonely man who can't really find sexual fulfillment, and a virginal girl are united through the magical properties of a strange doll.
I tried to get her to talk about the film, but she couldn't even utter the word "masturbation," one of the film's themes. There was a darkness to Doris's imagination, and a kinkiness, even though she claimed she didn't care anything about sex and that she actually left the room when the sex scenes were being filmed.
Her most popular film from this period is "Bad Girls Go to Hell" (1965), but her other tragic films noir, all of them in black and white, include "Another Day, Another Man" (1966), "My Brother's Wife" (1966), "A Taste of Flesh" (1967), "Too Much, Too Often" (1968) and "Love Toy" (1968), a weird one in which a gambler loses his virginal daughter in a poker game, she becomes the property of a pervert--and she sort of ends up LIKING it.
It was during this "roughie" period that Doris's distinctive style emerged--her cutaways to ashtrays, cats, wall photos, open windows, lampshades, and the like, which have been compared to
Italian neorealism in their unsettling effect on the viewer.
Actually, she told me, she did it so she would be sure she had enough film footage to dub in additional dialogue if needed. She was an Italian in more ways than one; like Fellini, she never recorded live sound. She preferred to hire dubbing actors and record all the sound in the editing suite. That way she could hire actors based on what they looked like, regardless of whether they could act, and she could avoid filming their mouths whenever possible so that dialogue would be cheap to add.
The result is very disturbing and disjointed--perfect for film noir!--but I'm not sure Doris really knew just how spooky it was. At any rate, she did it her whole life--including her comeback film, "Satan Was a Lady" (2001), which I reviewed a few weeks back--and the only reasons SHE ever gave for it were money and convenience.
When the "roughie" trend faded away, Doris floundered a little bit. She made a movie called "The Amazing Transplant" (1970), about a man with a transplanted penis, that sounds like a hoot but doesn't develop the idea very effectively. She tried comedy with "Keyholes Are For Peeping" (1972), featuring the atrocious burlesque comic Sammy Petrillo and a cameo by her husband at the time, Louis Silverman, in drag.
And then she made what are probably her two most famous films--"Deadly Weapons" (1973) and "Double Agent 73" (1974), starring Chesty Morgan, an Israeli stripper with a 73-inch bust
that Doris turned into a plot device. In "Deadly Weapons" Chesty takes revenge on the mob, eventually killing two hitmen and smothering Harry Reems to death with her breasts. In "Double
Agent 73" she's a spy with a camera implanted in her breast, requiring her to get nekkid every time she needs to preserve evidence.
I tried to get Doris to talk about these films, but all she would say was that Chesty Morgan was a terrible person that she never wanted to see again. She was tardy and unprepared and she
cost Doris a lot of money.
Doris also made two hardcore sex films--"Satan Was a Lady" (1975) and "Come with Me, My Love" (1976)--although at the time I met her she denied it. The truth is, she was embarrased by sex,
even though I got the impression that she was very sexual.
Myrna Oliver, writing in the Los Angeles Times last week, said that she thought Doris's best film of all was "Bad Girls Go to Hell," in which a housewife kills a man who tries to rape her and flees to the underworld, where she's beaten, raped, abused, molested by lesbians and endures all manner of nightmares. But I disagree.
I think by far the best movie Doris ever made was the 1978 shocker "Let Me Die a Woman" (1978), which purports to be a documentary on transsexuals, complete with scientific experts,
charts, graphs, narrations, live closeup footage of the surgery itself, and then simulated sex scenes between lovers who used to be another sex. It's sort of the ultimate Doris Wishman film,
because it IS truly educational at the same time that it's horrifying in a sort of "don't go there" sort of way, goofy, entertaining, and a little prudish when it comes to the sex. She put everything into that film, perhaps because she did see sex as something bizarre, confusing and never what it appears to be.
It makes me think that Doris should have been a documentarian. Her forte wasn't stories--her plotlines are thin as pancakes--but her ability to bring out the subterranean menace in everyday reality. Her movies are paranoid. They tend to end badly, even when the danger is seen from the first scene. Sometimes she didn't even put her name on the films. She called herself Doris Chasnik, Dee Ess, Luigi Manicottale, O.O. Miller, Lazarus Volkyl, or Doris Wisher. She was determined to keep those dark glasses in place.
Doris died on August 10, after a brief hospitalization for lymphoma. Her passport says she was born in 1920, but her friends think she fudged that number by at least 10 years. So she wasn't
55 when I met her; she was closer to 78.
Perhaps she sensed her mortality even then, which is why she insisted on her toilette being perfect and her scarves and her Garboesque goggles. I never saw her eyes. I wish I had seen her
eyes. But she was determined to remain well put together, as though she were saying, "Let me die a woman."