If there's an exploitation filmmaker's heaven, Doris Wishman must be among their amiable archangels. A fascinating combination of cutthroat businesswoman, cinematic auteur and insane maiden aunt, she was one of the few female presences in the decidedly male grindhouse gristmill. She had several crazy career arcs. She started out making nudist camp films, moved on to gritty and grim violence-tinged roughies, and then finally found peace as a part time pornographer (both soft AND hardcore). Even up until her death in 2002, she was making cheap schlock shockers and tawdry smut slasher films.
But one of her most notorious efforts has long been out of the public eye, until now. As an update to the old Roadshow movie of the 40s and 50s, Let Me Die a Woman is one deranged docu-drama. Part hygiene exposť (the subject this time - transsexuals!) part wanton Wishman wackiness, this corrupt combination of sex change surgery footage and post-/pre-op tranny treats is so downright bizarre, it could only come from the lunatic lens of the raincoat crowd's favorite femme.
"Last year...I was a man." (Cue melodramatic music)
Thus begins Doris Wishman's long-in-gestation examination of gender dysphoria, better known as transsexuality. With the help of noted hormone therapist (and expert in hypnosis) Dr. Leo Wollman, we are suddenly thrust into the medical dictionary depiction of a freak show. As the sincere scientist explains all the personal permutations of people convinced of their improper biological sex assignment, we witness group therapy sessions, staged softcore scenes, nude examinations of post and pre-operative candidates, and several sickening minutes of actual sex reassignment surgery (chopping a penis into a vagina, for your laymen), all in an effort to learn more about the medical malady and its psychological effects. Thank God Leslie is there to give us her seventh grade educated spin on the entire issue.
It's about time someone says it, so it might as well be this critic's call to arms - Doris Wishman is cinema. She is the basic, primordial premise of celluloid incarnate. She is sound and image - sometimes in sync. She is art and artifice - usually in the same shot. She combines narrative aplomb with paltry plots, vacant characterization with wickedly three-dimensional dynamics and replaces mise-en-scene with something akin to mise-en-place to render her work a true definition of the vibrant visual medium. Her films are direct representations of raw human instinct, filtered through a discombobulating display of camerawork incompetence. Everything is symbolic in a Wishman film. She'll throw in a shot of feet for the fetish crowd, cover up bad acting with equally damnable overdubbing, and train the lens on a particularly unimportant object so that she'll have coverage, lest the plot need plumping. In essence, Wishman uses every part of the medium, from the resplendent to the retarded, to realize her painfully peculiar vision. She is the American answer to the French New Wave. She is moviemaking deconstructed, laid bare and bewildering so the real truth can be told.
That being said, Let Me Die a Woman should not be anyone's initial foray into Doris's den of inviting iniquities. If you really want to study this grindhouse gold standard, take a trip back to her nudist camp classics like Nude on the Moon, Diary of a Nudist or Blaze Starr Goes Nudist. Then cotton up to the monochrome miscreance of her roughies, including the classic couplet of Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man. Finish off your lesson in lewdness with some of her more misguided later efforts like The Amazing Transplant, Indecent Desires and the Chesty Morgan double feature, Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73. When you've endured all these displays in the ways of Wishman, only then can you truly approach (and appreciate) Let Me Die a Woman. Only someone like Doris could dream up a combination throwback to the Roadshow days of live childbirth footage wrapped around a hot button issue like transsexuality. Certainly the 70s saw a lot of interest in the subject, what with Myra Breckenridge and Dr. Rene Richards becoming pop culture counterpoints for the growing interest in alternative lifestyles.
But where this movie differs is in its approach. Knowing that she could not offer the same skin and sin show that exploitation patrons were interested in (but growing tired of), Wishman had to up the ante, and she did it by trying to take a (semi) serious look at the entire subject. Sure, there is a lot of pre-millennial prejudice here (we get a few fleeting attacks on homosexuality) and some shady scientific statements (the injection of fluid directly INTO the breast for ampleness development???) really date the film. But when she focuses on the individuals involved in these life and love struggles, Doris becomes a documentarian supreme. It's natural for her. Most of her movies are of the point and shoot variety, so setting up a camera and letting Leslie tell her life story, or letting Dr. Wollman explain away some obtuse medical procedure becomes compelling stuff. Even if we soon realize that almost everyone is reading off cue cards (and some VERY badly, I might add), we still sense a legitimate desire to paint these people as genuine, authentic and horribly hurt by the lack of social understanding.
The more subtle examination sequences are also intriguing. Seeing some of the individuals pre and post-op is spellbinding, since they really do make us question the concept of gender. Leslie makes a fine Latina lass. Another famous face, a NYC activist icon named Debbie, is a little more concerning. It is the latter that we see the most of, from a sequence of her inserting a large metal wedge into her man-made vagina, to an up close display of her newly reshaped private parts (complete with the doc's digital exploration...hmmm). Deb even gets a fake sex scene with some unknown stud. It is obvious that Wishman is trying to de-mystify the make-up of these surgically altered entities, but it still kind of smacks of the sideshow - in a less exploitative way, if that is possible. Indeed, everything about Let Me Die a Woman is sensationalism for the sake of a selling point. All the dramatized scenes of actors faking fornication are just the dressing for what is already an inherently interesting idea. But Wishman was wise to the ways of the grindhouse, so a little smut had to find its way into the mix.
And then there is the operation footage. It's bad (especially if you're a man) but it's not as nasty as the hyperbole surrounding it. Indeed, the live birth of twins via Cesarean in any Mom and Dad type movie is far more nauseating than these quick few clips of skin stretching and snipping. If anything, the post-operative procedure is the most revolting - stitches in full view, wound 'plugged up' with a plastic tube to prevent 'unintentional closure'. In truth, the far more unsettling scenes involve a tranny making love to a man, full guy groins grinding into each other in enflamed foulness. Or a sequence where a pretty prostitute drops trou to expose her peanut pecker, and then proceeds to take a shower and bath the little button. If you've ever watched an episode of The Operation, you've seen much, much worse. But it's all the ancillary atrocities (including the aforementioned pelvic exam) that can make Let Me Die a Woman difficult to watch.
Thankfully, Wishman's wondrous way with a film wins us over in the end. Not content to show us the reality of being a transsexual, she piles on the melodrama (a distraught man seeks advice about his upcoming marriage from Dr. Wollman) the surrealism (a strange insert scene of a couple copulating, shown in its negative image form) and copious scenes of pretend paramours (including porn stars Harry Reams and Vanessa Del Rio) doing the dirty boogie. Taken all together, it's like Wishman's version of Godard's Masculin/ Feminin, a true attempt at reducing gender and sexuality to its basic component parts. As our gloriously disgruntled guide, Dr. Leo Wollman is a shifty eyed sensation. Reading his lines so rigidly that there's no time to interject emotion or concern, this quasi-quack appears like the patron saint of Estrogen as he champions counseling and smacks patients on the behind to inject them with another dose of maleness eradicator. Jaw-droppingly divine, completely original and purposefully obtuse, Let Me Die a Woman has long been the Mount Everest of many a Wishman fan. Who knew finding it and finally climbing it would be so remarkably rewarding.
And guess whose coming along for the alternate narrative ride? Why, it's 'Leslie', 30 years older and as many years sassier. Able to pick apart Wishman and her filmmaking facets (including monies owed and credit denied) now that the director is dead, she is a feisty companion to Bowden's more mannered approach. Together they explore the history of the film, how her footage was shot, and her reaction to the sequences that were added without her knowledge (including the softcore and surgery material). Quick with a quip and ripe with ridicule, Leslie is a fine catty counterpoint to Bowden's outright Wishman worship and this means we get a lively and illuminating discussion - just what a film like this needs.