Dead Sex Kittens: Farewell to Three Icons of Movie Eroticism

The recent deaths of Maria Schneider, Lena Nyman and Tura Satana call to mind the sexually adventurous films they starred in and the cultural battles of the 1960s and '70s

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Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris

A trio of movie actresses died within a day of one another last week: Maria Schneider, 58, in Paris on Thursday; Lena Nyman, 66, in Stockholm and Tura Satana, 72 (or maybe 75), in Reno on Friday. Each was known mainly for a single film, and the three could be written off as one-hit wonders, except that the films they starred in — Satana in Russ Meyer's 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Nyman in Vilgot Sjöman's 1967 I Am Curious (Yellow) and Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 Last Tango in Paris — stand today as monuments to cinema's wildest and most adventurous decade.

In the Vietnam era, which saw the toppling of so many social standards, these actresses gave face and especially form to a seismic, worldwide change in movies, when suddenly everything could be said and shown. They provided a view of the bold, confrontational, sexually liberated woman — from the perspective, that is, of the avid, controlling men behind the camera and in the audience.

In the mid- to late 1960s, as young America exploded in opposition to the Vietnam engagement and French youth shut down their country in the manifestations of May '68, a cultural revolution was brewing in movies. Just a few years before, U.S. jurisdictions had banned films showing an unseemly amount of skin; in 1964, Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity. The Hollywood factory was still grinding out family films starring Doris Day, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley and handing out Oscars to the likes of The Sound of Music and Oliver! But in corners of the cinema world some directors threw out the playbook that had held since the coming of talking pictures in the 1920s.

The new rule was that there were no rules; movies could spout obscenities, show nudity and copulation, operate under the same freedoms that applied to artists in any other medium. Within a decade, every movie outrage that had been a crime became the Hollywood norm, and hard-core pornography was both public and chic.

Tura Satana
The filmmakers who shattered the old icons came from two different directions: up from the grind house and over from the art house. Meyer, a combat cameraman in World War II and then a cheesecake photographer (his portrait of his wife Eve was used as an early Playboy centerfold), graduated to feature films with the 1959 nudie-cutie The Immoral Mr. Teas, which was made for $24,000 and grossed more than $1 million. Within a few years Meyer had ditched the color comedy genre for mad melodrama in monochrome: epics like Common Law Cabin, Mudhoney and Motor Psycho, all featuring convoluted plots, ripe dialogue and riper starlets. Deemed disposable drive-in fodder on their first release, they quickly found adherents among film critics and proto-fanboys, and in 1969 Meyer was hired by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls from a script by one of his young critical admirers, Roger Ebert.

Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — the title encapsulates Meyer's tripartite vision of movies: speed, babes and violence — has plenty of those commodities, but, surprise, no nudity. Its narrative tone, though, is lurid to the max. The movie follows three strippers, led by Satana as Varna, who love racing their cars on the California salt flats. They race one guy who's brought his girlfriend along; über-tough Varna gets into a fight with the guy, snaps his spine and kills him and takes the girl as a hostage. Hearing of a rich coot (Stuart Lancaster) with a hidden fortune, Varna and the three women pay him a visit, only to discover that he's as crazy and ruthless as they are. But the old man is accurate enough in his appraisal of Varna. "She's a cold one, all right," the coot says. "More stallion than mare. There's too much for one man to handle."

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