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

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Meyer's films are filled with bosomy, dominating women, and Satana might be the prototype ad apotheosis. Dressed in black, with gloves to match, and sporting a tight top with a V or W neckline, she scowls at the world and spits emasculating aphorisms in its face. When a randy gas-station attendant stares at her cleavage and chirps, "Now that's what I believe in, seeing America first," she snaps, "You won't find it down there, Columbus." And when one of the other strippers is worried about whether she can fool the old man, Varna gives her Lesson No. 1 in the Russ Meyer Performance Manual: "You don't have to believe it, honey. Just act it."

Satana had the biography to back up her grit. Born Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1938 (or 1935), from a Japanese-Filipino father and a Cheyenne-Scots-Irish mother, she was interned with other Japanese-Americans in a California camp during World War II. She played bits as strippers and whores in such Hollywood films as Irma La Douce and Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? before getting her big chance in Pussycat and making the most of it. Her face is a rigid Kabuki mask of predatory sensuality, her deep voice clipped and authoritative, her figure a series of dangerous curves, her long stride that of a wartime general masquerading as a runway model. She wasn't a sex object called upon to act; she was the total package of commanding movie presence and acting chops. Seeing Satana here, you'll wonder why she didn't find a deep Hollywood niche, at least as a character actress. But neither Meyer nor any director of his stature used her again. Pussycat was her one shot at immortality, and her aim was true.

Lena Nyman
She enjoyed a 50-year career in Swedish movies and theater, including a good role as Liv Ullmann's damaged sister (and Ingrid Bergman's daughter) in Ingmar Bergman's 1978 Autumn Sonata; but Nyman's notoriety sprang from, and pretty much ended with, the two I Am Curious films — the first called Yellow, the second Blue, for the colors of the Swedish flag. In both she plays, more or less, herself. Released at home in 1967 and 1968, the films were acquired by Barnet Rosset's Grove Press in the U.S. The reels were immediately seized as obscene by U.S. Customs, until a Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that they could be shown. The ruckus created a must-see aura for Curious (Yellow), with enthusiasts paying up to $4.50 for a ticket when the average price was $1.50. Made for less than $100,000, Curious (Yellow) grossed $20 million in the States — the equivalent of at least $100 million today. And all for a movie with some vivid simulated sex encased in a screed about the Swedish welfare state.

Lena Nyman in I Am Curious (Yellow)

Sjöman's idea was to create, on the fly, a docu-portrait of his homeland and interlace it with the sexual and political adventures of Nyman, then 22, who had acted in his previous film, 491, and here would appear as the director's mistress, muse and plaything. His producing studio, Sandrews, gave him 100,000 meters of black-and-white film stock and the intoxicating license to do as he wished. "I had been taught to let every whim and idea pop up," Sjöman recalled in 1992. "So I began to look for actors who thought it would be fun not to have a written manuscript, but liked developing an idea I had invented that same morning." Trailed by Sjöman's small crew, Nyman interviews passers-by about government policies and sexual equality. She also quizzes Martin Luther King Jr. and Olof Palme, the Education Minister who became Sweden's Prime Minister (and like King, was later assassinated), as well as Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

A movie on the subject of whether Sweden is socialist enough does not attract the raincoat brigade; scenes of coitus and fellatio do. Nyman, who goes by her own name in the films, strays from her lover Sjöman for a tryst with a young actor, Börje Ahlstedt, and it is they who make love everywhere: up a tree, on a balustrade of the Royal Palace and in bedrooms hither and yon. Since Ahlstedt remains flaccid through the ardor, the sex scenes that raised the ire of the Customs Department stirred little tumescence among U.S. viewers and critics. Ebert, reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that the film "is not merely not erotic. It is anti-erotic. Two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks. See the picture and buy twin beds." TIME's Jay Cocks, who gave the film a more measured notice, nonetheless titled his review "Dubious Yellow." Generally, the film was seen as a swindle.

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