Screen Queen

The director who gave the world Nude on the Moon and Bad Girls Go to Hell enjoys a critical revival

While being driven up U.S. 1 through Coconut Grove on her way to the Alliance Film and Video Co-op in Miami Beach, filmmaker Doris Wishman muses about the appropriateness of the title she's chosen for her comeback project.

"What do you think of Dildo Heaven?" she asks of the film's working title. "I'm afraid it might be too rough. Can you even print that in your paper? I was thinking about a couple of other titles. Which do you like better, Desperate Desires or Desperate Women?"

This is a rare moment. It's unlike Doris Wishman to question her titles. As she has related in the scant number of interviews she has granted over the years, the titles of her films almost always come before anything else, and for good reason -- they're unforgettable. Nude on the Moon, Bad Girls Go to Hell, Keyholes Are for Peeping, My Brother's Wife -- Wishman's great titles of the Sixties and Seventies always had hooks, something provocative to pique the interest of adult-movie viewers. The plot, characters, and narrative devices all came later.

But with the impending completion of her current project, her first new work in more than a decade, the filmmaker is vacillating about the title Dildo Heaven. "I think people might think it's hard core, and it's not hard core," she frets. The words hard core, as in pornography, are a bit jarring coming from such a grandmotherly figure. But then, Wishman is far from typical.

From the late Fifties to the early Eighties, Wishman was very likely the most prolific female director of feature films, cranking out more than two dozen pictures. Every one was produced on a minuscule budget, with Wishman herself (or as one of her pseudonyms, including Louis Silverman or Dawn Whitman) doing the writing, casting, directing, producing, and editing. She was in the thick of two groundbreaking trends in adults-only cinema in the preporn era: the nudist-camp features of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and the sometimes disturbing "roughies" of the mid-Sixties.

Wishman had several successful films on the so-called grindhouse circuit of small theaters in those days, but her films were always different from those of her contemporaries. The dodgy camerawork, the out-of-sync dubbing, the quick cutaways to pieces of furniture, the uniformly wooden nonacting of the cast, have combined into an oeuvre that engenders strong, immediate reactions in viewers. Those accustomed to traditional Hollywood production values have written off Wishman's films as inept and amateurish. But underground-film-buff hipsters cherish her work as kitsch, much as the films of Ed Wood have enjoyed a so-bad-they're-good revival.

"People just used to watch her films because they were at the drive-in and there were half-naked women in them," says Bill Orcutt, who worked with Doris for the past two years at the Alliance. "Now people are interested in them because they were made by Doris Wishman. She's very happy with her work, but very uncomfortable with the idea that her movies are considered trashy. She doesn't want to be condescended to."

Filmmakers, critics, and others who have gotten to know Wishman since her move to Miami in 1991 have begun to re-examine her work, not dismissively or with condescension but with curiosity, affection, and serious critiques of her underlying themes and unorthodox techniques. Though she expects to be finished with her current film shortly, Wishman admits that her rekindled enthusiasm for filmmaking is accompanied by a combativeness and mistrust born of a career peppered with cruel tragedies, unexpected betrayals, and outright disasters.

Wishman sits at a tiny table in the cafe of the Miami Beach Books & Books. She is on Lincoln Road, across from the Alliance Film and Video Co-op, where she has been staging her guerrilla comeback to filmmaking. She is clad in a white knit blouse with thin, horizontal purple stripes -- not quite the same hue as her vast, slick purple handbag -- and black pants. The years have stooped her only slightly, and she walks with a resoluteness, a purpose, leading with her prominent chin. Though she's barely five feet tall, she always seems to be looking down her nose at whomever she addresses.

She is cynical and suspicious, yet even after a 40-year career that armor seems to cover a lingering vulnerability. She is fiercely proud of the work she has done, but she refuses to discuss particular films in detail. In other words, she is as likely to touch you gently on the arm and proffer an engaging smile as she is to swat you with her purse.

"I've always been interested in film," Wishman says in a voice that creaks like an opening door. "I'm a frustrated actress -- very frustrated. I went to dramatic school with Shelley Winters, and I was far better than she. I know that doesn't sound right, but it's so.

"I made 24 films. Why in heaven's name didn't I act in them?" Her smile is coy, almost coquettish. "I can't answer that. I think I was so busy doing everything else. Producing, directing, casting, and writing. But I know I look back and ... I just must have been an idiot. In a couple of films I appeared for a second, but that's not acting. I could have been anything I wanted." Her voice rises, shrill with regret. "Too late," she declares.

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