Screen Queen

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

Peggy Ahwesh, an experimental filmmaker who also teaches film at Bard College in New York and maintains a Doris Wishman fan page on the Web, considers Bad Girls to be Wishman's masterwork. "Bad Girls is about a woman who is literally lost, wandering around on the run, sort of a lost soul," Ahwesh explains. "It has all the classic Wishman devices: sexual tension, men anxious about women's power, women anxious about their sexuality and what they want to do with their lives."

Yet Wishman herself has never been one to analyze or deconstruct her own works. "I don't think I have a style, and yet people will look and go, 'Ah, that's Wishman.' And I really don't know what they mean, because nothing's deliberate. Sometimes I did things because I had no money, and they'll say, 'Isn't that great, look what she did,' and I only did it because I had to."

By the time the Seventies came truckin' along, Wishman's themes of sexual anxiety had found a truly outrageous champion. The spectacularly proportioned Chesty Morgan (bustline: 73 inches) starred in two films, Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73. Each one, true to Wishman's nose for a killer hook, revolved not surprisingly around the size of Morgan's breasts. In Deadly Weapons, Morgan tracks down her boyfriend's killers, slips them a Mickey, and smothers them with her copious endowments. In Double Agent 73, she continues this practice, with the added bonus of a spy camera implanted in one of her nipples. These films in particular have an enduring cult following. Exploitation filmmaker gone almost mainstream John Waters is a huge fan of Wishman's work; he even included a clip from Deadly Weapons in his film Serial Mom.

The Chesty Morgan films were clearly written for that particular "actress" (perhaps the most treelike of the many stiffs who appeared in Wishman's pictures). Wishman's usual creative process was rarely based on casting, though. "This may sound weird, but very often I would get a title in mind and write a script around the title," Wishman says. "Which doesn't make much sense, but that's what happened."

Her control of the creative process was total: She wrote, produced, cast, directed, and edited all of them herself. "I never allocated anything to anyone," she says. "I think editing is the most fun, because you can make something out of nothing -- and, if you're unlucky, nothing out of something. So I would say that editing was the most fun. I don't particularly like shooting because you can't really control it. And writing, I enjoy the writing.

"I always made my films with love and care," she emphasizes. "You may not like them, and that's your privilege."

Her devotion to filmmaking, in her opinion, was largely responsible for the failure of her second marriage, which lasted, as Wishman remembers it, from about 1970 to 1980. Neither this nor her first marriage produced any children. "Can I just give you his first name?" she asks. "He lives in Florida so ... his name was Lou. That should be adequate.

"We were divorced because I don't think I'm marriageable material," she continues. "My husband was not first in my life. He was third, and he knew it, and that's bad. After my family and my work, then came he. So I really, in an effort to be honest and fair, I would say that my divorce was 80 percent my fault. He was very possessive; I almost lost my identity, that was the twenty percent. But nevertheless, had I wanted to, I could have made it work, I'm sure," she concludes, a bit wistful.

Though her body of work is quite large, Wishman is reticent to discuss particular movies. "I'm not going to talk about the films I made," she insists. "I'm going to talk about the films that I now have." The latter list is a short one: the aforementioned Hideout in the Sun; A Night to Dismember, a horror film shot in the early Eighties whose original edit was accidentally destroyed by the film lab but which Wishman re-edited; and the current project in its final edit at the Alliance.

The rest of her films now belong to someone else. "These films were practically stolen from me," she growls. In the mid-Eighties, she recalls, a man she identifies only as "a millionaire attorney" called her up and said he was her biggest fan and loved her work. He flew her out to L.A., she says, and they discussed her situation: The lab in New York where she used to have her films processed was going out of business. She would need to spend $5000 per month to store her negatives.

"He said, 'Why don't you sell your films to my son and his friend? You're going to make more films.'" Wishman remembers that the attorney promised her a $500,000 letter of credit at his bank, with which she would have been able to finance her next film -- or films, given her low budgets. "I sold them for practically nothing, about $2000 per film," she says.

"Three months later the man was dead. He died of cancer." As for the $500,000 stake, that died with him; her entire catalogue now belonged to the man's son and his friend. "I never should have done it," she laments. "But I had myself a good cry and went on."

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