By Lydia Mitchell
• This essay first appeared on Lydia's personal blog, Lydiarghgrace, where she has been celebrating the work of Russ Meyer during the month of March. If you want to read more of her musings on Meyer, you should pay her a visit.
Sex! Nudity! Lesbians! Incest! Fish?! Russ Meyer’s 1968 sex flick Vixen is one of his most memorable and successful. Starring Erica Gavin in the lead role, the film went on to challenge obscenity laws in America and helped to change the landscape of sex in western film.
My love for all things Meyer started 11 years ago, when I was watching late night television and I stumbled upon Vixen. Back when Channel 5 first launched and showed soft-core sex films every evening (now replaced with permanent CSI re-runs), I sat fixated on the screen, amazed at what I was seeing. There was a beautiful woman with thick, gorgeous hair wearing lots of skimpy clothing and doing naughty things with both men and women! I fell in love with Vixen there and then, the film remaining one of my favourites to this day.
Meyer’s film concerns the exploits of Vixen, happily married to her husband Tom and living in lush Canadian woodland. In her spare time Vixen likes to have sex, and lots of it. The film starts with her playful seduction and sexual encounter with a Canadian mountain rookie. She sleeps with her husband and has sex with a couple that comes to stay at their cabin. The climax (excuse the pun) of it all? The infamous shower scene with her brother and their subsequent romp. Meyer is even quoted as saying that this is one of the sexiest scenes he’s ever filmed.
The actual sex scenes and their themes (lesbianism, incest), along with lots of nudity and suggestive language, were the main reasons Vixen was so controversial upon its release in 1968. At that point the Hays Production Code in the US was replaced with the new MPAA rating system. Vixen became the first American-made film to recieve the X certificate, meaning no one under the age of 17 would be admitted. This new X-rated feature challenged obscenity laws in every state in which it was released, while going on to earn $7 million in its first year alone. Not bad for a $72,000 budget. (Meyer would later claim Vixen eventually netted him a cool $26 million.)
Over the course of the next year, Vixen ran into problems. In January 1969, one cinema manager and projectionist in Georgia were arrested and their print of the film confiscated. October of that year saw a theatre in Jacksonville, Florida, busted by the vice squad and the cinema’s reels seized. The theatre owner was charged with projecting a "filthy and indecent picture". In May 1970, a Center Theater manager in North Carolina was fined $250 for showing the film. The biggest battle of them all, though, would be in the state of Ohio.
In September 1969, in Cincinnati, the Guilds Art Theater saw both its prints of Vixen seized on two consecutive days. In November, a permanent injuction was placed against the picture in five Ohio counties on the grounds it was obscene. July 1971 saw the ban upheld; Vixen could be shown in cinemas only if Meyer cut out all the sex. Meyer refused – after all, a Meyer film without any sex is hardly a Meyer film. He lost the case. Vixen has not been seen in the state of Ohio since 1969 and is still legally banned there.
It seems strange, watching the film now, to think it is still an illegal act to screen the film in Ohio. Only three years later, Last Tango In Paris and, more explicitly, Deep Throat were unleashed in American cinemas. For 1968, Vixen was certainly a challenging picture in its sexual depictions, but watched now would possibly be considered a poor soft-core sex film. At the time, however, Meyer was making waves in the sexploitation industry. As a filmmaker, Meyer was influenced by the laid-back attitude towards sex and sexuality in European films, such as 1967s I Am Curious (Yellow), and tried to create western equivalents. There is no doubt that Meyer’s efforts and successes contributed to the eventual greater explicitness that we today are perhaps more used to.
Vixen was not only responsible for raising the bar in cinematic representations of sexuality and physical sex, but it also helped to draw in female audiences. The film is regularly referred to as the first instance of "couples porn". This is thanks largely to Gavin’s portrayal as the lead character. Meyer decided to go against type and settled on Gavin’s "smaller" and more "normal" physique. In her physicality, she is less intimidating than some earlier, and later, Meyer women and in that respect is most identifiable for women.
It wasn’t just Gavin’s looks that made Vixen so unique and irresistable but the potency of her beauty mixed with her behaviour. Vixen oozes sex appeal and plenty of it. If her bedroom eyes and cheeky grin don’t win you over then her playful and dominating sexuality will. Here was a woman who loved sex, was confident and comfortable in her own (very) active sexuality and got what she wanted, when she wanted. Even if what she wanted wasn’t quite what some might call respectable…
And this is where Meyer excelled. In order to play in drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas, Meyer added one fabulous little touch to all his films to justify the nudity and sexual depiction – redeeming social value. In previous and subsequent films, many of Meyer’s women are "punished" for their behaviour or desires. Not Vixen – she gets away with it, incest included. The reason? She saves America from communism.
Part of the film’s plot involves Vixen’s racist attitude towards her brothers black friend, Niles. When Vixen gets going, boy does she get vicious. This gets overlooked by Meyer when a greater threat enters the character's woodland idyll, communism. (On a side note, Meyer hated communists and the Nazis after serving in the Second World War. Certain aspects of his feelings would reappear throughout his work, including the frequent casting of "Martin Boorman?") Towards the end of the film, an Irish man called O’Bannion comes to stay with Vixen and Tom. He later confesses to being a communist and tries to hijack a plane to fly to Cuba. He too also happens to be a racist, which angers Niles. A fight breaks out in the plane which results in Niles knocking out O’Bannion and Vixen flying and landing the plane safely, getting O’Bannion arrested on the ground. At this point Niles and Vixen come to some sort of "understanding". And thus the All-American Vixen saves the day and her racist and sexually deviant escapades are all forgiven. Your typical Meyer heroine then.
Vixen is one of Meyer’s best films. The plot is admittedly somewhat ridiculous, but the picture has a certain charm you can’t ignore. Gavin is excellent, one of the few true natural actresses in a Meyer film. Alongside Tura Satana (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Alaina Capri (Common Law Cabin), Gavin’s acting is miles away from the forced, wooden performances of other Meyer leading ladies. She is also incredibly beautiful, her natural good looks shot wonderfully by Meyer’s camera which clearly loves her. Sadly, Gavin would later develop and battle anorexia and anxiety upon watching herself on the big screen and lives partly as a recluse in Hollywood.
I love Vixen now as much as I did watching it aged 11 all those years ago. It has had such a large and profound impact on my life ever since, with Meyer being my favourite director and my main interest being sex in cinema. However, 11 years later I’m still trying to perfect Vixen’s make-up and get that back-combed bouffant of a fabulous hairstyle. I’ve had no luck in finding a yellow push-up bikini either. Still, I can dream…