The mother of exploitation: Doris Wishman

Chesty Morgan beats a man to death with her 73-inch breasts. Two scientists build a rocket and fly to the moon only to find overweight, scantily clad girls with pipe cleaners on their heads. A husband is mysteriously stricken after a spaghetti and meatball dinner, forcing his wife into a life of prostitution to pay the medical bills. A man has a doctor graft his best friend's penis onto his own, only to find himself uncontrollably raping women who wear gold earrings. These are just some of the bizarre plots in the 18 movies directed by Doris Wishman, the unheralded queen of exploitation films. Wishman wrote, directed and financed her own movies, which ran the gamut from nudist-camp films to "roughies"(sleazy black-and-white shockers) to a Mondo-like documentary about sex changes.

Wishman didn't set out to be a director. She attended the New York Avalon Drama School in the 50's, where she was classmates with one Shelley Winters. "I was a far better actress than she was,"Wishman proudly recalls. But instead of pursuing acting, she got married and started working for Joseph E. Levine, the showman turned producer who imported foreign films (including Fellini's 8 1/2 and Hercules). Dissatisfied with New York, Wishman and her husband moved to Florida, where he died suddenly. Devastated, Wishman was encouraged by her sister, Pearl, to throw herself into the work she knew. Pearl lent Wishman $10,000 to make a nudist-camp film-the easiest way to turn a few bucks, she figured. She directed her first feature film, Hideout in the Sun (1960), about two bank robbers who lay low at a nudist camp. With her niece, Judith (who went on to write several memorable theme songs for her films), Wishman headed for the Sunny Palms Lodge Nudist Camp to meet with manager Zelda Suplee, who agreed to let her film there, provided that the entire film crew be naked. Wishman nervously called her cameraman that night with the news, only to have him cheerily reply, "That's great!"Wishman, however, remained clothed during the shoot.

The film turned a profit and she churned out others, like Diary of a Nudist, Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (starring the infamous stripper and former mistress of Louisiana governor Huey Long), Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls and the wonderfully loony Nude on the Moon. Bored with the nudist genre, Wishman returned to New York and started work on a series of sexy melodramas with lurid titles like Bad Girls Go to Hell, My Brother's Wife, A Taste of Flesh and Indecent Desires.

Wishman has a signature style. Irritated by the actors' nasal twangs, she post-dubbed all of her films and devised unusual ways of cutting away from actors while they talked to make it easier to synchronize later. At any given moment, the camera will zoom in on feet walking across a rug, or perhaps an ashtray, lamp, hanging plant or the ceramic knickknacks arranged on the mantle of Wishman's Queens apartment, where she shot many of her films. When actors talk on the phone, the receiver obscures their lips. And, in some films, she has shots of people thoughtfully reacting to what is being said, which can be maddening to watch. These bizarre tactics-mixed with violence, busty women in lingerie and obligatory bubble-bath sequences-are Wishman's trademarks. There's an almost Jean-Luc Godard-like perversity to her technique. Even Michelangelo Antonioni, who used landscape, space and architecture to illustrate his characters' alienation, never dollied in on an out-of-focus squirrel for several minutes during a crucial bit of dialogue like Wishman did in The Sex Perils of Paulette.

Wishman will perhaps be best remembered for the films she made with the Israeli-born stripper Chesty Morgan, whose real name was Lillian Wilckowsky. Chesty's main assets were her freakishly large breasts, and Wishman fashioned two outrageous movies around them: Deadly Weapons, in which she seeks revenge for her husband's murder by smothering people with her massive mammaries, and Double Agent 73, in which she plays a secret agent sent to break up a drug-smuggling ring by having a camera surgically implanted in her breast. What she doesn't know is that the camera is actually a bomb set to explode in 48 hours. ("That made it more exciting,"Wishman says gleefully.) There was to be a third Chesty film called Crystal, but the thought of working with the difficult and woefully inept Morgan was too painful a prospect for the director.

Wishman tried her hand at comedy with Keyholes Are for Peeping, starring Sammy Petrillo, the low-rent Jerry Lewis, and Let Me Die a Woman, a documentary that included an actual sex-change operation that had patrons screaming up the aisles on 42nd Street when it debuted in 1978. Wishman has always vociferously denied that she ever made hardcore sex movies, but recently a porn film surfaced: Come With Me My Love, starring Annie Sprinkle and Vanessa Del Rio, about a horny ghost who has sex with the reincarnation of his lost love. The movie has all of Wishman's unmistakable crackpot flourishes-from meandering plotlines to endless cutaway shots of inanimate objects. The credits read "Directed by Luigi Manicottale,"but Wishman often used pseudonyms like Louis Silverman, Dawn Whitman or Anthony Brooks when she was embarrassed by a film's sexy nature. We contacted Sprinkle, who admitted that Wishman was the director and that they made several films of this nature together.

Wishman's Waterloo came with a slasher film called A Night to Dismember, which she started in 1979 and which was ultimately destroyed by the lab. She spent three years trying to piece together a movie out of what footage she salvaged, and the result was a baffling, utterly fascinating mess that went straight to video. Depressed, Wishman returned to family and friends in Florida and took a job working at a sex boutique.
Thanks to the release of Wishman's movies on video, fans began to search her out, igniting her fever to return to filmmaking. She recently shot her first video feature, Dildo Heaven, about "Tess, Bess and Lisa-three girls who would do anything to satisfy their erotic desires!"Harvard University awarded Wishman an honorarium and held a symposium of her films. Author Michael Bowen is finishing an eagerly awaited book about her career, and this month Wishman herself will be the guest of honor at the New York Underground Film Festival, which will screen her 1965 film, Bad Girls Go To Hell, a movie that prompted Variety to compare Wishman to Alfred Hitchcock. "I wasn't sure if it meant the way I looked or the way I directed,"she laughs.

It's gratifying to see this maverick filmmaker get the recognition she deserves. In the male-dominated field of exploitation movies, she did it her way and is fiercely proud of her accomplishments. Once, when asked what she would be doing in the future, Wishman replied, "I'll be making movies in hell!"See you there.

Hideout in the Sun, thought to have been lost, is now available on video in a special autographed director's edition for $42.95 from Doris Wishman Treasure Chest, 2925 Center St., Unit 2, Coconut Grove, FL 33133.

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