How big breasts led Roger Ebert to discover a great filmmaker

How big breasts led Roger Ebert to discover a great filmmaker

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the late Roger Ebert, whose life and career is celebrated in the new documentary Life Itself, we’re recommending a few films the critic loved and championed.

Vixen! (1968)

It’s no secret that Roger Ebert loved big breasts. Just goddamned loved them. America’s most iconic film critic had plenty of endearing quirks, but this is the one that made him seem most down-to-earth. 

It was the promise of seeing some big-screen cleavage that led Ebert to the Biograph Theater one fateful day in 1965, to a screening of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, directed by boob aficionado Russ Meyer. As Ebert would later write:

“I was struck by one powerfully-edited sequence where [Tura Satana’s] character, Varla, attempts to crush a muscular but dim-witted hero against the side of a barn with a Porsche. Meyer intercuts his bulging muscles, holding back the car, with her spike-heeled foot pushing down the accelerator, and the tires digging into the dust.” 

Hoping to see some busty women in action, he had instead discovered an auteur. Ebert wasn’t alone in admiring the movie’s style; Meyer became an unlikely critic’s favorite in the late ’60s and early ’70s, an outrageous camp master whose filmmaking was playful and energetic. During his tenure at the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr dubbed Meyer “the supreme poet of the Rotary Club smoker, telling his tall stories with wit, relish, and a montage style that might make Eisenstein nervous.” 

Ebert’s admiration for Meyer—and their shared non-scientific interest in the female bust line—would eventually produce one of the strangest creative partnerships in the history of American film. Ebert would pen four screenplays for Meyer, three of them after winning the Pulitzer Prize: Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Up!, Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens, and the un-produced Sex Pistols vehicle Who Killed Bambi?

Ebert stopped reviewing Meyer’s films after they met and became friends and collaborators. His final Meyer review came in early 1969, for Vixen!, which was then just opening in Chicago. It begins:   

“Five years ago it might have been necessary to devise all sorts of defenses for Russ Meyer’s Vixen, finding hidden symbolism and all that. But I see no reason why we can’t be honest: Vixen is the best film to date in that uniquely American genre, the skin-flick.”

This is Roger Ebert writing as a young man—26 years old. Though the second sentence contains what would become a classic Ebert construction (see: “the most commodious of genres, the Western,” “evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences,” etc.), the imperfections of his early writing are evident—namely a very Midwestern tendency to take swipes at the hoity-toity.

Over the decades, Ebert—who was always more comfortable with the first-person newspaper column tradition than the partisan lines of film theory—would refine his prose voice into something more frank and conversational. His later writing is distinguished by its nakedness, especially when addressing difficult topics like his illness and struggles with alcoholism. 

But even in those ornamented early days, one can already see the later Ebert—the Pulitzer Prize winner, the media star, the elder statesman—forming. There was a line that Ebert loved to quote from Robert Warshow, who had been Commentary’s film critic in the early ’50s. It goes: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” For Ebert, this was a maxim. 

The Vixen! review is a celebration of a skin flick done right, sex and nature intermingling with jokes poking fun of politics and social mores. The setting is the Canadian woodland, crawling with Mounties, draft dodgers, and Communist agitators. The overwhelming impression—as with much of Meyer’s best work—is that the introduction of sex into the conversation automatically makes all other subjects fair game, regardless of seriousness. It’s the skin flick as a liberating force.

“If you object to that kind of entertainment, stay away,” wrote Ebert. “My personal prejudice is that its approach to sex is more healthy than the perverted Victorian values written into our city code.” 

Availability: Vixen! is available on DVD.


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