Russ Meyer was born in San Leandro, California, the son of Lydia Lucinda (Hauck) and william Arthur Meyer, an Oakland police officer. His parents were both of German descent. Meyer's parents divorced soon after he was born, and Meyer was to have virtually no contact with his father during his life. When he was 14 years old, his mother pawned her wedding ring in order to buy him an 8mm film camera. He made a number of amateur films at the age of 15, and served during World War II as a U.S. Army combat cameraman for the 166th Signal Photo Company. Even then he already demonstrated a corny directing style and included nudity, like in scenes of naked GIs bathing in the Rhine in March 1945. In the Army, Meyer forged his strongest friendships, and he would later ask many of his fellow combat cameramen to work on his films. Much of Meyer's work during World War II can be seen in newsreels and in the film Patton (1971). On his return to civilian life, he was unable to secure cinematography work in Hollywood due to a lack of industry connections. He made industrial films, freelanced as a still Photographer for mainstream films (including Giant), and became a well known glamour Photographer whose work included some of the initial shoots for Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine. Meyer would go on to shoot three Playboy centerfolds during the magazine's early years, including one of his then-wife Eve Meyer in 1955. He also shot a pictorial of then-wife Edy Williams in March 1973.
In many of Meyer's films women eventually defeat men, winning sexual fulfillment as their reward, e.g., Super Vixen (Supervixens), Margo Winchester (Up!) and Lavonia Shedd (Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens). And even in the 1950s and '60s his films were sometimes centered on a woman's need and struggle for sexual satisfaction (Lorna, Good Morning and... Goodbye! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens). Additionally, Russ Meyer's female characters were often allowed to express anger and violence towards men (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens).
His first feature, the naughty comedy The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), cost $24,000 to produce and eventually grossed more than $1 million on the independent/exploitation circuit, ensconcing Meyer as "King of the Nudies." Over the next decade, he made nearly 20 movies with a trademark blend of odd humor, huge-breasted starlets and All-American sleaze, including such notable films as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Vixen! (1968). Russ Meyer was a true auteur who wrote, directed, edited, photographed and distributed all his own films. He was able to Finance each new film from the proceeds of the earlier ones, and became very wealthy in the process. Unlike many independent Directors of his era he chose to cast actresses such as Shari Eubank or Cynthia Myers, who were considered extremely beautiful and wholesome.
Meyer's output can be divided into several eras. Earlier works like The Immoral Mr. Teas, Eve and the Handyman, and the Western-themed Wild Gals of the Naked West were stylistically similar to the nudie cutie fare of the era, though separated from the pack by their superior color cinematography. 1964's Lorna saw the ever-economical Director revert to black-and-white; with this change came a greater emphasis on storyline, almost theatrical violence, dominatrixes, and their insipid male counterparts. The "Gothic" period (as it was termed by Meyer) reached its apex with the commercially underwhelming Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which would eventually be reclaimed as a cult classic. It has a following all over the world and has inspired countless imitations, music videos and tributes.
After producing the popular mockumentary Mondo Topless (1966) with the remnants of his production company's assets and two mildly successful color melodramas, Meyer made headlines once again in 1968 with the controversial, Vixen!. Although its lesbian overtones are tame by today's standards, the film – designed by Meyer and long-time cohort Jim Ryan as a reaction to provocative European art films – grossed millions on a five-figure budget and captured the zeitgeist just as The Immoral Mr. Teas had a decade earlier. He followed it with Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1970), which utilized long montages of the California landscape (replete with anti-marijuana voiceovers) and Uschi Digard dancing in the desert as the film's "lost soul." These plot devices were necessitated after lead Actress Linda Ashton left the shoot early, forcing Meyer to compensate for 20 minutes of unshot footage.
After the unexpected success of Columbia Pictures' low-budget Easy Rider, and impressed by Meyer's frugality and profitability, 20th Century Fox signed him to produce and direct a proposed sequel to Valley of the Dolls in 1969, fulfilling his longstanding ambition to direct for a major Hollywood studio. What eventually appeared was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), scripted by film critic (and Meyer devotee) Roger Ebert. The film bears no relation to the novel or film adaptation's continuity, a development necessitated when Jacqueline Susann sued the studio after several drafts of the initial Susann-penned script were rejected. Many critics perceive the film as perhaps the greatest expression of his intentionally vapid surrealism — Meyer went so far as to refer to it as his definitive work in several interviews. Others, such as Variety, saw it "as funny as a burning orphanage and a treat for the emotionally retarded." Contractually stipulated to produce an R-rated film, the brutally violent climax (depicting a decapitation) ensured an X rating (eventually reclassified to NC-17 in 1990). Though disowned by the studio for decades to come and amid gripes from the Director after he attempted to recut the film to include more titillating scenes after the ratings debacle, it still earned $9 million domestically in the United States on a budget of $900,000.
Despite the fact that hardcore pornographic films overtook Meyer's softcore market share, he retired from filmmaking in the late 1970s a very wealthy man. He made a one-off return to filmmaking in 2001 to direct Russ Meyer's Pandora Peaks, featuring the nude glamour model of the same name. Around the same time, he also participated in Voluptuous Vixens II, a made-for-video softcore production by Playboy.
After making his most subdued film, a The Seven Minutes (film)|commercially unsuccessful adaptation]] of the popular Irving Wallace novel The Seven Minutes (1971) for Fox, Meyer returned to grindhouse-style independent cinema in 1973 with the blaxploitation period piece Black Snake, which was dismissed by critics and audiences as incoherent. In 1975, he released Supervixens, a return to the world of big bosoms, square jaws, and the Sonoran Desert that earned $17 million in the United States on a shoestring budget. Meyer's theatrical career ended with the release of the surreal Up! (1976) and 1979's Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, his most sexually graphic films. Film historians and fans have called these last three films "Bustoons" because Russ Meyer's use of color and mise en scène recalled larger than life pop art settings and cartoonish characters.
Rarely were there cosmetically enhanced breasts in any of his films until Up! (1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979). However, by the early 1980s, when surgical advancements had made the gargantuan breasts of Meyer's fantasies a reality, many felt he had started viewing the female body as simply a "tit transportation device" and that his aesthetic vision was no longer attractive or vibrant. Darlene Gray, a natural 36H-22-33 from Great Britain, who appeared in Mondo Topless (1966) is said to be Russ Meyer's most busty discovery.
In 1977, Malcolm McLaren hired Meyer to direct a film starring The Sex Pistols. Meyer handed the scriptwriting duties over to Ebert, who, in collaboration with McLaren, produced a screenplay entitled Who Killed Bambi? According to Ebert, filming ended after a day and a half when the electricians walked off the set after McLaren was unable to pay them. (McLaren has claimed that the project was scrapped at the behest of the main financier and Meyer's erstwhile employer, 20th Century Fox, whose board of Directors considered the prospect of a Meyer production to be untenable and incompatible with the insurgent family values ethos in popular culture.) The project ultimately evolved into The Great Rock & Roll Swindle.
Meyer owned the rights to nearly all of his films and spent the majority of the 1980s and 1990s making millions reselling his films on the home video and DVD market. He worked out of his Los Angeles home and usually took telephone orders himself. A major retrospective of his work was given at The British Film Institute (1982), the Chicago Film Festival honored him in 1985, and many revival movie houses booked his films for midnight movie marathons.
Starting in the mid-1990s Meyer had frequent fits and bouts of memory loss. By 2000, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and his health and well-being were thereafter looked after by Janice Cowart, his secretary and estate executor. That same year, with no wife or children to claim his wealth, Meyer willed that the majority of his money and estate would be sent to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in honor of his late mother.
Meyer was very up front throughout his life about being too selfish to be a father or even a caring partner or husband. Yet he is also said to have been very generous with all his friends and acquaintances, and never isolated friends from one another. Biographers have attributed most of his brutish and eccentric nature to the fact that he was abandoned by his father, an Oakland police officer and overly coddled by his mother, Lydia, who was married six times. Meyer had a half sister, Lucinda, who was diagnosed in her 20s with paranoid schizophrenia and was committed to California State mental institutions until her death in 1999. Mental illness ran in his family and was something he secretly feared. During his entire life Russ Meyer spoke with only the highest reverence for his mother and sister.
He also worked obsessively for over a decade on a massive three-volume autobiography entitled A Clean Breast. Finally printed in 2000, it features numerous excerpts of reviews, clever details of each of his films and countless photos and erotic musings.
Russ Meyer died at his home in the Hollywood Hills, from complications of pneumonia, on September 18, 2004. He was 82 years old. Meyer's grave is located at Stockton Rural Cemetery in San Joaquin County, Stockton. His headstone reads:
Russ Meyer was also adept at mocking moral stereotypes and flagrantly lampooning conservative American values. Many of his films feature a narrator who attempts to give the audience a "moral roadmap" of what they are watching. Like his contemporary Terry Southern, Meyer realized that sex — as one of the few Common interests among most humans — was a natural vehicle for satirizing values and conventions held by the Greatest Generation. According to Roger Ebert in a commentary recorded for the DVD release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer continually reiterated that this irreverence was the true secret to his artistic success.