Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 04 September 2008
Source RM Films International DVD
Vixen! was the film that, according to Russ Meyer himself, “really made my life secure,” a box-office hit that far exceeded the expectations of its modest $76,000 budget and, due to this success (and that of other low-budget pictures of the time, notably Easy Rider), prompted the director’s subsequent deal with 20th Century Fox. In essence, it was Vixen! that assured Russ Meyer’s reign as the “King of the Nudies”—at least until the rise of hardcore pornography in the 1970s.
But watching the film forty years after its release, at a time in which pornography is instantly accessible to anyone with a computer, and yet has become as ossified, predictable, and ritualized as any form of mass entertainment, a number of questions arise about how Vixen! came to be so successful. Viewing the film today, one sees not “the sexiest film ever made” that he and frequent collaborator (and titular dogsbody in Eve and the Handyman) Anthony James Ryan envisioned when writing the screenplay, but a deeply bizarre, wholly destabilizing take on human sexuality and social order. All but alien to our own sense of “adult entertainment,” Vixen! is a film that, like its protagonist, dabbles in upheavals both political and sexual at every turn, but somehow always manages to find an odd, uneasy resolution.
From the first shot of the film – a maple-leaf flag fluttering majestically – we know we are in Canada, which will seem surprising once we come to learn how much about America the film actually is. The setting is soon justified twofold: first, with a gag (Vixen mounted by a Mountie), and second, with a character: Niles, an African-American who has come across the border to dodge the draft. Niles, a friend of Vixen’s brother Judd, is staying with our heroine and her trusting, docile husband, Tom. In an uncommonly straightforward prologue, we learn that Canada is “bush country” and that Tom is a “bush pilot” – one of those few rugged individuals who can navigate the untamed outdoors – and, by profession, he flies wealthy couples up from the city for deluxe hunting and fishing weekends in his cabin. This occupation doubly benefits the insatiably horny Vixen: on the one hand, her husband is often away for long trips; and on the other, he is constantly bringing home a fresh supply of people to have sex with.
Like many of Meyer’s films, the events of Vixen! seem to transpire as though written in a single sitting. Once we learn what a bush pilot is, Tom chats with a friend who warns him about the possibility of Vixen cheating, at which he naturally scoffs: “Vixen’s a lot of fun. She likes to tease a lot, but she knows where to draw the line.” Cut to Vixen cantering with the Mountie in the forest where, once fully sated, she announces: “Look, we’ve had our fun, playtime is over, and now it’s business as usual.” The Mountie protests – “So this has just been fun and games to you?” – and tries to kiss her romantically, but gets no response. “You bitch,” he grimaces. “You cold bitch.” From here, the movie proceeds as a succession of sexual intrigues, escalating in their oddity and their violation of taboo, until the arrival of one of Meyer’s typically manic, highwire climaxes.
All of this, so far, would indeed seem like “business as usual,” were it not for the character of Vixen herself. Played by Erica Gavin (whose Wikipedia entry lists measurements of 38-26-37), Vixen is one of the great – perhaps the great – Meyer heroine: buxom, voracious, dangerous, and thoroughly inscrutable on all moral and emotional levels. This last point is where the film’s principal interest lies, for Vixen is a cipher, and as such a signifier of the enigmas of Woman, impenetrable to the gaze of Man. Her actions and expressions, ever contradictory, evince a mercurial quality that suggests, in its worst inflection, a willful feminine flakiness, and in its best, an inexorable and complex force of chaos (and later, reconciliation). She is a conflation of types both compatible and incompatible: animal and woman, dominatrix and sex-kitten, housewife and hussy.
It’s never fully clear if Meyer actually understands Vixen’s motivations or even cares to, and perhaps the nebulousness of her intentions serves as an easy way of not fully writing them. But whatever Meyer’s role here, Gavin’s performance (like Dolly Read’s performance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) upends every expectation. Under the Mountie, she might immediately strike us as an unfaithful tramp, but as Tom says, she knows where to draw the line, and demonstrates as much with a sly grin. Later, she also sleeps with one of the guests, the well-heeled pretty boy Dave King, but not before a wild, ear-piercing lovemaking session with husband Tom, after which she tells him, “Nobody could satisfy me like you do.” Her euphoric squawking, we presume, is genuine, and perhaps her avowal is, too, despite the fact that she sleeps with nearly every other character in the film.
While the first half of the movie sets up tongue-in-cheek dirty-movie scenarios that would, even by 1968, seem corny, the second half is a slowly mounting diversification of Vixen’s tastes, as well as some kind of attack on sexual boundaries of all kinds. First, in what Roger Ebert claims is “the only example of an uninterrupted sex scene” in Meyer’s work, Vixen seduces the equally bosomy Janet in a manner that switches between butch and girlish, by turns lusty, drunken, playful, shameful, and tender. The scene is curiously established—once again, we’re not sure if Vixen is scheming or merely following her capricious sexual appetite. But even if one gets the feeling that lesbian scenes of this kind are standard skin-flick fare (although Janet ingenuously asks, “Is there something wrong with us?”), the function of the scene is to reconcile Dave and Janet King and to revamp their sex-life. Vixen is also, as Meyer would later claim, “a healer,” her promiscuity across gender and marital boundaries serving paradoxically to repair the relationships of others.
But this benevolence, even charity, of sexuality is soon called into question when she finally makes good on her curious flirtations with her brother Judd, pouncing upon him in the shower. This incestuous tryst is more peculiar than what has come before, not only for the shock of the transgression on display, but also for its still-equivocal tone. What in many ways looks like another straight sex scene threatens to become utterly disturbing in its implications, but the arch dialogue and half-acceptable acting – from which John Waters would derive the inspiration for an entire career – keep the incestuous act squarely in the ironic heterocosm of camp.
But it seems that Vixen has standards: even after committing incest, she violently, disgustedly objects to Judd’s suggestion that she also screw Niles, the black draft-dodger. He is the one character that Vixen refuses to have sex with: she has already declared her willingness to sleep with anybody except “spades and cripples.” That this is perhaps another act, another performance, is also an open question, for even as she objects to the notion, hurling cringe-inducing racial invective at Niles (“Now why don’t you go into town and rape a white girl?”, “Why don’t you go find yourself a pickaninny, sambo?”, etc.), it remains unclear whether she is not, in fact, simply goading him into raping her. The performance is so excessive, so over-the-top, that we are never quite sure if she is a victim or manipulator, if this is now business as usual or still playtime.
The rape is not carried out – as Meyer somewhat disingenuously explains, this would have caused some problems with Southern audiences – but the scene still functions to reveal Niles as cowardly and gullible, even another victim (if we can call them that) of Vixen’s “fun.” Like Mr. O’Bannion, the Irish communist who arrives at the end of the film – in typically breathless Russ Meyer plotting – to hijack Tom’s plane for Cuba, Niles is a political straw-man. Both Niles and O’Bannion are liberal caricatures – the one a selfish, drop-out hippie with no commitment to his country, the other a two-faced pinko with a lot of talk about “the people” delivered from behind a gun barrel – and neither fare well in Meyer’s film, holding the place that Nazis often inhabit in later works. But naturally, even Marxist terrorism proves no match for Vixen, whose ability to manipulate, tease, cajole, and infuriate all around her saves the day and even brings about a truce with Niles. Once again, Vixen the healer commands the situation, even by engendering racial disharmony and sexual chaos.
Vixen! is no cogent political work, nor is it anyone’s idea of ur-feminist subversion, but it also seems to me far from an offhand stab at “the sexiest film ever made.” In this regard, it is hard to imagine just what kind of audiences flocked to the film in sufficient droves to make it a hit—there is plenty of sex, to be sure, but as much of it is qualified with Meyer’s usual discursions (intercutting Vixen and Tom’s quickie with O’Bannion’s defense of communism, for example) and by his aggressive insertion of social and political satire into the mix. But if any one factor can take credit for the film’s triumph, it must be Vixen herself—not as Meyer’s creation, nor as Gavin’s, but as some bizarre amalgam of their contributions (and a bit of luck). So uniquely unreadable, unreasonable a character is hard to find anywhere, and the film’s blockbuster success must surely be indebted to the confusion she creates, both in the film itself and in the reaction of the (presumably male) audience member. Here is no easy, commensurable feminine prototype, but a figure that, due or in spite of the talents of her creators, deifies all constraints of narrative logic and social propriety. And yet, for all her transgressions against taste, morality, and the sanctity of marriage, Vixen is still, as Tom notes, a lot of fun.
The Immoral Mr. Teas / Eve and the Handyman1959 / 1961
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!1965
Good Morning and… Goodbye!1967
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!1968
Cherry, Harry & Raquel!1970
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls1970
The Seven Minutes1971
Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens1979