The career of Doris Wishman defies belief. She was one of the most prolific woman filmmakers of all time, making 30 features over four decades in a genre dominated by men, the sexploitation flick.
She only got into filmmaking in her 40s, after the untimely death of her husband left her looking for a way to keep herself occupied. The emerging subgenre of nudist films of the early ’60s were a cheap and easy way to start.
As censorship eased up and audiences demanded more extreme content, Wishman moved into darker stories of sex mixed with violence. It’s in these films that her sensibility starts to emerge, with an almost subversive approach to her subject matter. Her shooting and editing style keeps things off balance, carving out an unnerving sense of displacement amidst the eroticism.
Her most successful films starred the appropriately named Chesty Morgan and her fulsome bosom. But instead of being sensual erotic organs, her breasts are used as weapons. In Wishman’s movies, sex isn’t depicted as something that is fulfilling, but a cold, even cruel act that’s often used like a transaction, a means to an end. It’s as if Wishman were commenting on her own career, her sexploitation films are just a way to get by.
Her ambivalence towards sex and sexploitation reaches a bizarre apogee with Let Me Die a Woman, a pseudo-documentary about the lives of transsexuals. Mixing real life testimonials, softcore reenactments, and explicit clinical footage, the film is a jarring embodiment of the different, at times conflicting ways we relate to sex: as a biological fact, as a perverse sensation, as profound self-discovery.
After her first and only attempt at a horror movie flopped, Wishman went inactive for a decade, but renewed interest in her work led to her comeback feature, Satan Was a Lady, made when she was in her 80s. The film follows Wishman’s classic setup of a woman using sex as a vehicle to find her own way through life, even as it lacks fulfillment in itself. It’s that tension over what sex means to us that stirs our interest in Doris Wishman, the unlikeliest of sexploitation directors.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.