The cool and calming bush country of the Canadian northwest, a far cry from the usual Californian and southwest American hotspots that serve as the playing fields for Meyer’s usual cast of characters, proves itself incapable in staving off the creeping evil that invades the hearts of men and women like. For amid the peaceful ambiance lives Vixen, the wild, free-spirited wife of a genial pilot and who, in the course of 71 very quick minutes, will be forced to confront her own demons in order to move past her racial bigotry and to plead the positive tenants of capitalism and democracy lest everyone perish in the plummeting fuselage of a hijacked twin-prop.
In a nutshell, that’s 1968’s Vixen!, Russ Meyer’s jolting shift from the soap operas into the sex pictures. Already moving toward a more relaxed attitude about graphic nudity and onscreen sex with Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! earlier in the year, Meyer lets loose with Vixen! as he lets star Erica Gavin stake a claim on all four corners of the map, giving the greatest and most fully-formed performance of any actor in any Russ Meyer film. If there were ever a performance in an exploitation film that deserved (at least) a nomination from the Academy, Gavin’s performance is the one. It’s simply unbelievable and a true joy to witness.
Canadian in its setting but American in its themes (and also in its actual shooting location of Miranda, California), Vixen! tells the story of its titular character and her exploits as the freewheeling wife of a busy, good-natured Tom (Garth Pillsbury), the both of them eager to entertain tourists looking to get away from it all. Hanging around their abode is Vixen’s biker brother, Judd (Jon Evans), and his friend, Niles (Harrison Page), an African-American expatriate who is living in Canada to avoid the draft. Drifting into the mix is a bored married couple (Vincene Wallace and Robert Aiken) looking for some R&R and the mysterious Mr. O’Bannion (Michael Donovan O’Donnell) who shows up deep in the third act to spin the film completely around.
One of the biggest elements that sets Vixen! apart from the other Meyer films is that, while almost everyone covets the randy wife who is the main character of the piece, in Vixen!, her voracious sexual appetite is not due to dissatisfaction with her husband. Instead of having jealous spouses who fight to the death for their unfaithful wives, Vixen! is a picture of marital tranquility despite all of the extramarital activity permeating the air.
Unlike the slow-boiling male tea kettles of lustful contempt found in Lorna, Common Law Cabin, or Good Morning… and Goodbye, Tom remains so blissfully ignorant of his wife’s side activities that it begs the question as to whether he’s a cuckold by happenstance or if Vixen’s constant feeding of her all-encompassing sexual appetite isn’t something of a subconscious, knowing turn-on with him. For Tom is the straightest of straight arrows in a universe that is so exaggerated that it cannot be taken seriously. He is decent, rigid, and square but the audience is never asked to have any contempt for him. In Meyer’s soap operas that came before it, Vixen’s infidelity would be treated with a seriousness that boiled over with physical violence. Here, it’s all played for fun and presented less as a public shame but almost as a sexual opportunity. And as there is something VERY specific about Tom’s indifference, Meyer seems to be hinting at a semi-polyamorous side not seen before.
But at the heart of the art of Russ Meyer’s films stood a strong woman. And in the soul of that strong woman, there was Vixen. No other Meyer heroine before or after got to play the full 88 keys of the piano as Erica Gavin did. She absolutely smolders and never once does the audience not believe she’s as randy as she’s portraying. Nobody faked it in Meyer’s films quite like Erica Gavin and if someone told me that Erica Gavin actually had an orgasm while filming some of the love scenes in the film, I’d totally believe it.
Additionally, nobody quite took the frame as hostage as Erica Gavin, either. With her imposing hairdo and stylishly frightening and intensely drawn brows, it is impossible for the audience to take their eyes off of her whenever she is on the screen. And where Alaina Capri purred, Erica Gavin roars. Where Lorna Maitland passively-aggressively suggested, Erica Gavin insists. She’s not as ruthless as Tura Santana but there’s never any doubt that Erica Gavin won’t crash that plane in the side of the mountain if anyone lays a hand on her man (and with a raised, cocked eyebrow and a smile, to boot).
And, surprisingly, Vixen has a truly soft and vulnerable side that surfaces quickly when it comes to Tom. Vixen doesn’t seem to like the idea that her husband could be cheating on her (and, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, he proves that he most certainly is not). And it’s probably because he doesn’t feel like he has to as he is constantly and sheepishly shrugging off the oft-repeated adage of having more than he can handle at home. Vixen truly loves her husband but is beyond being too much for one man or even one town. Vixen is almost like a mythological creature; Haji’s woodland witch from Good Morning… and Goodbye! spending her time moonlighting as a fishing guide in her summer home in the Great White North.
And this notion actually tracks as Vixen seduces most everyone that comes into her path and everyone’s the happier for it. She’s like a distaff version of the protagonist from Pasolini’s Teorema that gets to mingle with Meyer’s ever-widening fascination and increased comfort with reflecting bisexuality and lesbianism on screen. When Vixen asks the jilted Janet King if she’s ever made love to a woman and then breathlessly sighs, “It’s a real change of pace,” it feels like she’s channeling Vixen, Janet, AND Meyer’s anxieties in a very charged cinematic moment that had been in the works since Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Killl! In Vixen!, the lesbian love scene, equally tasteful and erotic, is the centerpiece of the film and works as well as it does precisely because the characters are so vulnerable and the scene seems to come from a genuinely vulnerable place. Little wonder that, when cooly walking away from Janet and Dave’s cabin after her afternoon tryst with the former, the character of Vixen triggers a thunderous round of applause from all viewers regardless of gender or which way they swing. Having provided services to both parties in an open marriage and unifying the previously fractured couple, the swagger she displays is absolutely unreal and joyously flattening. And, not for nothing, but the sheer electric joy felt by Gavin’s final-frame smile has only been bested by Melora Waters’s slight, breakthrough crack in Magnolia thirty-one years later.
But, as stated already, the dark side of Vixen is left to her small-minded racism. Niles gets called everything in the book by Vixen except the most verboten of racial epithets which, pointedly and ironically, is left to Mr. O’ Bannion, Niles’s supposed salvation. A soft-spoken Irish man of strong ideals, O’ Bannion pitches the shallow merits of communism to Niles in detail over images of Vixen having sex with Tom. When O’ Bannion eventually reveals himself to be a terrorist, hijacking Tom’s plane en route to Spokane to fly to a Cuban utopia, all sociopolitical issues get settled in a climax that’s as beautifully played as it is, in the words of the Chapman Brothers’ luchador mask-wearing wise guy, Strong Bad, crazy-go-nuts.
Like Motorpsycho, Vixen! is an indirect indictment of the Vietnam war. Then, it was about the psychological issues befalling the veterans. Two years later, it’s about how the disenfranchised (read: POC) are exploited by the American government and made to be cannon fodder. But like the film’s incest angle, the racism on display is so hotted-up and ludicrously played for counterpointed laughs that it never feels quite as off-putting as it should, achieving a proto-John Waters ambience when he’s at his most provocative (little wonder Waters cites Meyer as a chief influence on his own films).
The MPAA did not trademark the X rating in 1968, allowing filmmakers to put it on their films if they didn’t want to submit them for examination and a traditional rating and Vixen! was the very first film to be awarded the rating, though it was self-applied (Brian De Palma’s Greetings, released the same year, was the first film to be awarded the rating through the normal review process). Meyer happily slapped the forbidden rating on the film knowing it would cause a sensation and he was right as Vixen! was a virtual cash machine for Meyer. Ever dutiful, he accepted MPAA president Jack Valenti’s appreciation for being responsible to the public in warning them of the adult content in his film and showing real accountability. Ever the businessman, he shook his head and what a dummy Valenti was while he counted his fortune.
Beautifully lensed by Meyer himself, Vixen! contains a lot of his usual visual obsessions such as rolling rivers and canted nature shots but there is more of a lushness in this film than can be found in the flatter and drier settings that came before. Additionally, Meyer’s toying with the spatial collapse between the crick and Vixen’s bedroom, the incongruous inserts, and the upshot through the bedsprings feel so alive and fresh this time around. Vixen! also shows how using almost the same lighting scheme can convey an amorous mood in one film where it registered as nightmarish in another (specifically, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!). Of all of his films outside 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Vixen! finds the perfect ingredients and cooks them at just the right temperature and for the right amount of time.
Vixen’s love for Tom despite her inveterate infidelities and her overcoming of her own bigotry to give her character a necessary arc causes Vixen! to emerge as one of Russ Meyer’s most complicated yet wholly satisfying and rewarding pictures. A full throated double salute to wanton hedonism AND democracy, there is a reason that Vixen! is considered one of Russ Meyer’s towering achievements and was as such a seminal release in its day. It’s a stone cold masterwork of sexploitation with a truly incredible central performance that still impresses these many years later.
Viva Erica Gavin and viva Vixen!
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain