Monday, February 7, 2011

We've Lost a "Pussycat"

It's my sad duty to report that one of the brightest stars of Weird Movie Village, Tura Satana, has passed on. She was 72 years old, and her manager claims that she died of heart failure. The lady may be gone, but the legend will always live on.

She was born in Japan in 1938, and her background is as colorful as you'd expect. Her father was a silent film star of Japanese and Filipino descent, and her mother was a circus performer with Cheyenne and Scots-Irish blood, which accounts for her wonderfully exotic look.

She was gang-raped at age nine, but the judge was bribed and the assailants were all released. However, she insisted to Psychotronic magazine in 1992 that she got revenge on all of them (shades of I Spit on Your Grave!). By the time she was 13, she was the leader of a girl gang. "We had leather motorcycle jackets, jeans, and we kicked butt," she said.

Her endowments arrived early, so she came to Los Angeles with a fake I.D. in 1951 and posed nude for silent film star Harold Lloyd (he didn't know she was underage), who encouraged her to pursue a career in the movies. Unfortunately, she contracted make-up poisoning and was forced to return to her parents in Chicago, where she started a career as a stripper. Nevertheless, she always credited Lloyd as the person who gave her the confidence to follow her show business dreams and a return to Hollywood was inevitable.

She did bits in lots of television shows, including Hawaiian Eye, Burke's Law, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Although she only made a handful of films, she will always be remembered for the best one—Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Directed by adult film maven Russ Meyer in 1966, it's a smart, sharp, professionally shot and edited "ode to the violence in women."

Tura plays Varla, leader of a gang of tough, wild strippers who race off into the Mojave desert in their Karrman Ghias in search of kicks. They find a young couple and decide to play games with them. Varla challenges the boy to a race. When he loses, she snaps his spine like a twig! They kidnap the girlfriend and continue on their violent way.

Next they encounter a desert-dwelling family consisting of an elderly father and two sons, one of whom is muscle-bound but simple-minded. Billie (Lori Williams), the "femme" of the group, is drawn to the handsome lunk, infuriating her sometime girlfriend Rosie (Haji). Varla has other things in mind, though: she's sure that the old man is loaded and schemes to get her hands on that "long green." Of course, violence and conflict ensue.

John Waters has said that Faster, Pussycat! is his favorite film, and it's easy to see why. The editing is kinetic, the dialogue is like Tennessee Williams on steroids, and Tura is truly a sight to behold in her skin-tight leather outfit and enormous rack. If Divine had been thinner, he certainly could have played the tough-as-nails role of Varla, which would have put an interesting spin on things. And the outrageous dialogue is definitely Waters-style.

I love this movie, too. From the audacious opening in which the narrator leeringly warns us that women are dangerous to the climax in which Varla tries to kill the lunk with her car, it's just celluloid dynamite. Check out the opening. It tells you all you need to know about the next 76 minutes:

The dance sequence with the sleazy, smelly-looking guys yelling, "Go, go! Wail! Harder, faster!" is outrageous. And the Pussycats love it—they're responding in as masculine a manner as their audience is. Made just three years after the publishing of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," it's truly a film about female empowerment—even though the empowerment relies on treachery and murder.

Tura also did Astro-Zombies (1968) and The Doll Squad (1974) for famed schlockmeister Ted V. Mikels (who deserves a post of his own), but ironically married a retired Los Angeles cop in 1981 and seemed to drop out of sight. According to Psychotronic, she was happily retired, aside from appearing as an interviewee for an episode of Great Britain's Incredibly Strange Film Show about Mikels in 1988.

Tura's husband died in 2000, and I think that's when she did the thing that was most familiar and comfortable to her...hitting the road. I think—and hope— that Tura was pleased and surprised at how well-remembered and idolized she was.

I met Tura and the other Pussycats in 2001 at an autograph show in Los Angeles. See the picture at the top of this page? They were all having a great time, basking in their cult status. Of course, I was floored, seeing all three Pussycats at the same time. Check out Tura's inscription to me. "I don't try anything. I just do it!"

In addition to the photo, I bought a Faster, Pussycat t-shirt from them, which they also offered to sign, but I wanted to wear it, so I declined. Now I'm sorry I did.

The last time I saw Tura, she was posing for photos and signing autographs at Comic-Con 2008. She was still happily exhibiting her rack and having fun. Wish I'd stopped to talk to her.

Have a good trip, Tura. And kick some angel butt while you're up there!


Russell Adams said...

The Village is missing an angel. (sob)

Anonymous said...

Nice article, but the name of the character that Tura played in 'Faster Pussycat...' is Varla, not Varna

The Goose said...

I thought I'd fixed that. Well, now it is!


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