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.

Before Wishman completed her acting curriculum at a small private school in Manhattan -- commuting from her native Forest Hills -- her cousin, a motion- picture distributor who was partners with Joseph E. Levine ("You remember him?" she queries), offered her a job. She accepted, wanting to become part of the movie business in any capacity.

While she was working in film distribution she married Jack Abrams. After about seven years together they moved down to Miami, in the Fifties, by which time several of Wishman's relatives had also relocated to South Florida. The Abramses had been in Florida for some five months when Jack died of a heart attack. Though she steadfastly refuses to disclose her age, Wishman has said that she was in her late twenties at the time of Abrams's death. She returned to New York to be near her family.

"One minute we were together, and the next he was dead," Wishman says flatly. "And really, I just wanted to do something that would take my mind off this tragedy. At that time, Walter Bibo had produced a nudist picture called Garden of Eden, the first nudist picture. I thought, well, I know distribution, I'm going to produce a film."

With a $10,000 stake borrowed from her sister, Wishman wrote a nudist-film script, Hideout in the Sun, and began shooting. "When I saw what I had -- oh brother, it was horrible," Wishman recalls. "I'd just go to bed at night saying, well, if I spend the rest of my life paying my sister back ten dollars a week ... but that was healthy thinking, because I used to go to bed pretending I had a date with Jack, which is sick thinking."

Doris stuck with the project, though. Her second round of shooting produced better footage, and with a little extra financing from a New York film company, Hideout in the Sun was completed. And then: "What they did was sell their company to a man who turned out to be an embezzler," Wishman says. "He went to jail, died in jail, and the negative of Hideout in the Sun was missing, just missing. I searched and searched and searched. What could I do? The picture had about five play dates, and that was it."

"Let me just tell you this. About six months ago I went back to my storage unit looking for a script, and lo and behold, I found a dupe negative of Hideout in the Sun, which is now a classic and a collector's item. Naturally, I'm trying to sell it, and I am selling it."

Her subsequent nudist-camp efforts met with somewhat less bizarre ends. After Bibo's Garden of Eden led to a landmark court ruling that the naked human form was not inherently obscene, nudist films proliferated. Wishman's were some of the most fanciful of the bunch. Nude on the Moon, released in 1962, was a good example of her ability to introduce a fun "hook" for the kinds of films most others turned into perfunctory voyeuristic exercises. This one depicts two scientists building a rocket, flying to the moon, and discovering South Dade's Coral Castle, full of sunbathing beauties in bikini bottoms and sporting pipe-cleaner antennae. The obligatory "cavorting" scenes, where the half-naked men and women dance and toss the ol' ball around, are intercut with shots of the spacesuited scientists diligently taking notes about this strange libertine civilization.

"After a while, nudist pictures were passe," Wishman relates. "So there was calm sex, you know, very slight sex, not too hot. I went along with that. And then sex became ... hotter, shall we say? But I couldn't bring myself to do hard core, not that it's anybody's business if people want to see it, but I couldn't do it. So I just kept making films."

The process was always the same -- a loan from her family to pay the cast and crew, with all the film and processing being done on credit. Wishman prides herself on having always repaid those who worked for her or spotted money for her projects, most of which, she estimates, had budgets in the $50,000 to $70,000 range (slightly higher for her later films).

As the novelty of nudists wore off, Doris sagely changed her tack. "Roughies" -- gritty black-and-white films crammed with nudity and violence against women -- were in. With Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Wishman seized on this trend and made it uniquely her own. Her penchant for cutaways was more pronounced, as was her trademark -- born of the problems inherent in dubbing dialogue -- of not showing a character's moving lips while delivering her lines. Meg, the main character, is sexual prey on the hoof. Her building's maintenance man tries to rape her in the stairwell, then slips a note under her door demanding that she come to his room or he'll tell her husband she was a consenting partner. In the

ensuing scuffle in his garret, she brains him with a bowl, then flees to New York City in shame. "No one will ever believe I didn't go his room willingly," Meg's voice-over says. Her continuing misadventures include a whipping with a belt, the world's shortest-ever lesbian sex scene, another attempted rape, and a twist on the "it-was-all-a-dream" conceit.

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."

The son's friend, Jimmy Maslon, remembers that Wishman was looking to sell her negatives in 1986; Maslon, who already owned the complete works of low-budget filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis, was glad to add yet another exploitation stalwart to his collection. "I thought her films were just totally extreme in every way," Maslon says.

Wishman's films are now available by mail-order from Something Weird Video, a Seattle-based company run by Maslon's friend Mike Vraney. (It's difficult to find any of them for rent, even at independent video stores.) Vraney says that the Chesty Morgan films do the best business of his Wishman titles "because of the freak appeal." Of the $20 a pop Something Weird charges for these videotapes, Doris Wishman receives exactly nothing.

This accounts for her reluctance to discuss the Maslon films. "Why should I make money for them?" she asks bitterly. "I'm not a good businesswoman, and that's one of the reasons I'm in this position. I don't make good deals; I don't negotiate properly. Business is all negotiating, and that's one of my downfalls."

Wishman sits in front of the slightly worse-for-wear video editing equipment at the Alliance film co-op. Even if the linear dubbing machines were working properly -- which at the moment they don't seem to be -- Wishman wouldn't know how to use them to whip her project into shape.

As always throughout her nearly 40-year career, budget constraints have superseded artistic considerations. First, there's the matter of the film's title. Dildo Heaven is out. Apparently most distributors agreed that the title was, in fact "too rough"; instead, Wishman has settled on the alternate appellation Desperate Desires. "So everywhere you have Dildo Heaven in the interview, put Desperate Desires," she says. "Just take that out of there. It's just not nice for a woman to make a movie with a title like that. I don't know what I was thinking. You've got to have certain standards."

Second, there's the matter of the film's production. With very little cash when she began shooting in early 1995, Wishman captured the scenes on Beta videotape rather than the 35-millimeter film with which she had always previously plied her trade. Wishman's use of Beta has deprived her of what she has called her greatest pleasure in filmmaking: editing. Wishman came of age in the business at a time when editing always meant splicing together strips of celluloid; linear video editing is a completely different animal, one that she had never been required to master. As a result, she's had to expand her one-woman-gang approach to filmmaking, adding a skilled video editor to the mix and upsetting her habits. "It had always been her practice to rewrite as she was editing," explains the Alliance's Bill Orcutt. "With linear video editing, if you change something in one place you have to redo everything."

With Wishman staring at the video equipment's two blank screens, Abel Klainbaum, Wishman's most recent editor for Desperate Desires, walks in. A goateed, bespectacled 23-year-old in a T-shirt, baggy pants, and Spam baseball cap, Klainbaum pulls up a chair. "I've been coming to the Alliance for about a year," he begins. "I've been working on Desperate Desires for about 30 years."

That tears it. Wishman pounces.
"I told you this was going to be a serious interview," Wishman scolds. "I told you that he was going to write down everything that you said, that even if you said, 'Ugh, ugh, ugh,' he was going to write it down. What are you talking about, 30 years?" She's almost shrieking now.

"Whatever," says Klainbaum wearily, with a faint smile. "Goodbye, Doris." Klainbaum strides out of the editing room.

The filmmaker looks very small and distant in the cheap swivel chair. Her face is a mask of worry. "I was going to give you Fred Schneider, but now I'm not," she mutters, referring to the B-52's vocalist who has given her a verbal commitment to appear in her next film. "You have a choice: Either use Abel or Fred Schneider. And if you want Fred, I want to have it in writing that Abel won't be in the interview."

When her request is refused, she turns her watery green-hazel eyes toward the floor. "Then that's it. This interview is over. I've given you too much already."

With her previous films no longer her own and no new projects on the horizon, Wishman was at her nadir when she moved to Miami to stay with her family in 1991. (She has a brother, a sister, and several nieces and nephews in and around Miami.)

"I thought when I came down here I was finished," she says. "I got a job in this lingerie shop in the Grove. And one day this man came in, and he bought some things. I thought, 'This is my life, what am I going to do?' I had no money, I can't make films. About an hour later this man came back, and he said, 'You're Doris Wishman. Oh my God, you're a genius!' He went berserk, really. He started calling everybody, and I started getting calls from people I didn't know existed."

That man was Tom Smith, an avant-garde musician and film enthusiast now living in Atlanta. Smith declares that the story of his finding Wishman in the lingerie store in 1994 is "not apocryphal," and that he did indeed begin telling his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about Wishman's presence in Miami and her importance in the world of underground film.

"You're just stupefied by the really incredibly rarefied vision this woman had," Smith says. "It's unlike anything you've ever seen. When I first saw Nude on the Moon I was floored, and not just because it was kitschy. I really abhor that whole thing, that well-intentioned, loving ridicule, the fact people can make such light of these films because they're poorly staged or because the acting is inept. Those are limitations of budget, not limitations of imagination, and Doris's imagination runs circles around most people's. I was sitting there watching Batman & Robin and wondering how a film that cost $120 million could be so appallingly poor. Doris spent $50,000 or less on Hideout in the Sun, and it's riveting from start to finish. Why should a movie that cost $120 million suck 120 million times more?

"Imagine if Doris had $120 million," Smith muses. "You'd probably have breasts morphing into rabbits or something; it would be completely fucked up."

Smith's enthusiastic boosting of Wishman's works had a ripple effect, and not only in getting her hooked up with people at the Alliance. "I got a call from Harvard asking me to come up there and talk to some students or whatever," Wishman says. "At first I didn't want to go, and then I decided, maybe I'll start again. Anyway, I went to Harvard, which was a wonderful experience. It was amazing, it was a fantastic time. So that's really why I started again."

It was at the Harvard retrospective in 1994 that Wishman met Michael Bowen, a Boston native and Brown University graduate student. Also a Wishman votary, Bowen approached the filmmaker after a screening; the two of them are now collaborating on her biography. "Doris has a way of thinking about herself and her work that is counterintuitive to what people think constitutes a good movie," Bowen says. "She's a truly innovative filmmaker, even an important filmmaker. She inverts some of the standard structure of narrative filmmaking. Her work does in many ways problematize what I would call the standard sensibility of what constitutes a good film."

Wishman's comeback attempt also reached the attention of filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh, who was one of Tom Smith's musical collaborators in her film class at Bard College. Like Bowen, she struck up a correspondence with Wishman; also like Bowen, she finds thematic and technical significance in Wishman's films that Wishman herself doesn't care to discuss. "Enough time has gone by to re-examine formal issues in the films, to see how women were portrayed," says Ahwesh, much of whose work centers on women's feelings about their sexuality. As far as the sometimes primitive camerawork and dubbing, Ahwesh doesn't see these as impediments to a serious treatment of Wishman's work. "I don't have this fetish for Hollywood production values," she declares. "I'm looking for other stuff."

Ahwesh found enough of such stuff to include Bad Girls Go to Hell, along with other films she found personally important or influential, in a retrospective of her own work called "Peggy Ahwesh: Girls Beware," which was held throughout August at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Not everyone was as taken with Wishman's oeuvre; the Village Voice called Bad Girls "a hilariously dismal drive-in picture."

"There are a lot of things about her work I find totally fascinating," Ahwesh says. "Her editing style is unique. It deconstructs narrative logic -- although she thinks she's building a narrative. All these awkward shots of someone listening, off-screen someone listening. And she has these outrageous cutaways that don't match anything: paintings, table lamps, plants, shoes. There are these loving, overly long close-up moments.

"Doris is really into sexual tension, really into the dark underside of sexuality in this period right before the women's movement hit," Ahwesh emphasizes. "Most of her work is about sexual anxiety. She's an amazing creature, like one of those pioneers that went west in the 1840s seeking fame and fortune without knowing what they would find. After the women's movement, people started to know how to talk and think about these things. Feminism was a system in which people could discuss women's sexuality."

Wishman herself pooh-poohs all this talk of feminism. "I want my door opened when I leave, I want you to cater to me as a female," she says. "Equality is fine. I want that, but that's not being a feminist, that's just being another human being. If I do the same job that you do, I want to be paid as you are. But that does not make me a feminist. I think the word has absolutely no meaning. What is a feminist? You tell me."

The resurgence of interest in Wishman's works is not confined to the hallowed halls of academia. Movie moguls and celebs have spent much of the Nineties trying to coax her into the limelight. The Late Show with David Letterman has called. She proudly declares that her script for an upcoming film, Each Time I Kill, will cast Natasha Lyonne, youthful star of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, and Fred Schneider, vocalist for what Wishman calls "the renowned musical group the B-52's."

Another big fan of hers, actress/ author/ sexual-enigma-about-town Sandra Bernhardt, has been begging Wishman to fly out to Los Angeles to appear on her show Reel Wild Cinema, a melange of clips from exploitation films and interviews with Bernhardt that appears at 4:00 a.m. Sunday on the USA network. Ironically, the cosponsors of Reel Wild Cinema are Jimmy Maslon and Mike Vraney.

Yet with few exceptions Wishman balks at these opportunities to promote herself. "I don't care about publicity," Wishman says dismissively. "I don't think any of these interviews help me."

Wishman's backers disagree. "The only thing I was ever angry with her about was that she would not take advantage of the small amount of fame she'd acquired," says Tom Smith (who is not only a fan, he's a member of the cast of Desperate Desires). "She's not an obscure footnote any more. Now a large segment of the population that is educated about film knows about Doris. I said, 'You really should go out and talk to Bernhardt.' Yeah, she might try to make an ass out of her, but Jesus, maybe someone would see that and decide to give her some bucks."

"Doris has it in her head that she should be getting paid for these interviews, and that other people are making money off her old films," says Joanne Butcher-Zbornik, executive director of the Alliance. "I can't particularly fault her logic, but on the other hand, even if you aren't getting paid, fly out and do the show! I can't tell whether she's just kind of sticking to principles or if she's just afraid or if she just doesn't understand the concept of publicity or exactly what."

"I can see why she would be suspicious, now that she's been through the wringer a couple of times," Smith says. "And she can be cranky and hard to work with, and we've had many fights. But she's such an endearing person, even when she's being surly. You always get complete honesty with Doris."

Scant minutes after Wishman has chased Klainbaum out of the Alliance's editing facilities, he and Butcher-Zbornik are in the office of the Alliance Cinema across Lincoln Road. Klainbaum allows that a typical editing session with Wishman, while contentious to the point of shouting, "is usually not that bad." Butcher-Zbornik concurs, then ruminates on Wishman's persistent aversion to publicity -- and how it is, to a point, justified by the tough luck she has had throughout her career.

"I think it's a shame that these people who say they love Doris's films so much are making money and she gets nothing," Butcher-Zbornik says, referring to the folks who now own her films. "They could have handled it differently."

Wishman appears in the doorway to the cramped office. Eyeing the reporter, she delivers a well-rehearsed line. "I just want to tell you that if you put in there that Abel said he was working on my film for 30 years, I'm going to sue the paper," she proclaims. "What for? For lying!"

"I was just kidding, Doris," Klainbaum says contritely.
"People won't know that it's a joke!" she snaps. "It's not true! Why would you put that in if it's not true? I'm just being honest. If that appears, I'm going to sue the paper."

A cacophony erupts, with Wishman pointing, hectoring, and grimacing. Through the din, Klainbaum begins to issue quiet apologies for his statement.

"Doris, let's go get a bagel," Klainbaum says, taking her by the elbow and tugging her gently toward the entrance of the theater. Wishman responds with a little scowl and a couple of stiff jabs to Klainbaum's shoulder, but begins to relent. With a final declaration of her litigious intentions, Wishman walks with Klainbaum down the shady passageway from the cinema toward the cafe in Books & Books.

Later Klainbaum relates that they spent about 30 minutes sitting and talking, made up, and went on to edit Dildo ... er, Desperate Desires, for about two hours. He says he expects the thing to be finished within a month at the outside. And though further verbal sparring will likely be a part of the experience as the project comes to a close, he doesn't mind.

"She's the world's kindest, sweetest dictator," Klainbaum says tenderly. "She's one of those auteurs; she likes to have absolute control. But she's very honest and very fair; everything's always on the table with Doris. That's why we get along.

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