Monday, September 13, 2004

Filmmaker on the Fringe: Doris Wishman

Recently, I viewed an excellent retrospective of the photographer Diane Arbus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Seeing Arbus’s portraits of nudists, carnival workers, transsexuals and others on the margins of 1950s-1970s society made me think of Doris Wishman, auteur of 1960s “sexploitation” films. Wishman made over 25 feature films from 1959 to 1983, and is one of the most prolific women filmmakers of the sound era. Sadly, she is mainly a footnote in mainstream filmmaking history because of her chosen genre: exploitation films, with titles such as BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965) and 1970s-era DOUBLE AGENT 73 and DEADLY WEAPONS, featuring well-endowed actress “Chesty Morgan.” Wishman has the distinction of being the only woman to work within this genre.

Wishman had no formal filmmaking training, her only introduction to the film world was through a job at a film distribution company in the late 1940s. She threw herself into filmmaking after the early death of her husband. Wishman started in the early 1960s making charmingly naïve “nudie” films and later moved on to “roughie” films, exploring darker topics of sexual freedom, violence, and sexual anxiety. She briefly retired after her 1983 film A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER. Aging and in need of money, Wishman sold all of her film rights to two businessmen and later worked at the Pink Pussycat Boutique in Coconut Grove, Florida selling sex toys. With a growing cult fan base, Wishman came out of retirement and made two more films and was working on the third when she succumbed to cancer in 2002. Wishman was 90 years old.

A small number of Doris Wishman’s films are available on DVD. She is also featured in the documentary SCHLOCK: SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICAN MOVIES (2001). For more biographical information, discussion of her films and list of web resources, check out her page at Senses of Cinema.

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