Saturday Night Spotlight #15: Doris Wishman

Hailing from Manhattan and standing only 4′ 11″, the life of Doris Wishman (1912-2002) started innocuously enough: she spent her early years as an adult getting an education at Hunter College and working as a secretary and a movie booker. After she was widowed in 1958, she embarked on a career in independent film that put her at the forefront of the “sexploitation” movement along with Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger and Michael and Roberta Findlay. Wishman began her directorial career with “nudie cuties” like the lunar Nude on the Moon (1961, co-directed by Raymond Phelan) and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), the latter being the only film to star the burlesque queen. Wishman sometimes worked under male pseudonyms, directing Nude on the Moon in the guise of “Anthony Brooks” and also making a number of films as “Louis Silverman,” including Indecent Desires (1968), Too Much Too Often! (1968) and Love Toy (1973). Wishman even strayed into the territory of pornography with the features Satan Was a Lady (1975) and Come with Me My Love (1976). Doris Wishman’s career stalled for many years after the early 1980s, but her final two films came out in 2002 (the year she passed away) and 2007. Her filmography certainly begs the question: to whom do her movies’ collective gazes belong? Are they stereotypical products of the male gaze because of the usual audience for the sexploitation genre or are they films made with the unique vision of a female auteur?

Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) – In one of her better-received B-movies, Wishman tackles some sensationalist themes: a young housewife (played by Gigi Darlene) is raped by her apartment building’s janitor and after she kills him, she flees and continues to encounter problems and more abusive men. The film contains less nudity than the usual Wishman product, focusing more on the injustices faced by the female protagonist and the unwelcoming New York atmosphere. As was often true throughout her career, Wishman also produced the film and wrote its screenplay.

Double Agent 73 (1974) – Wishman worked for a while with one of the biggest (pun intended) sexploitation stars of the 70s, Chesty Morgan, including in this farcical send-up of spy movies. Once described as a “burlesque grotesque,” Morgan’s comically large bosom is the central plot device; one element of her character’s espionage tactics includes having a camera implanted in her sizable bust. Is the film different for having been produced and directed by a woman, not to mention the story being written by Judy J. Kushner (Doris Wishman’s niece) and scripted by Wishman? Incidentally, Chesty Morgan’s real-life backstory is compelling; before she was a stripper and actress she was a Polish-Jewish girl who grew up during World War II and whose parents were killed while they lived in the Warsaw Ghetto; Morgan later lived in Israel and then Brooklyn, widowed when she was only 27 (in 1965) after her husband was killed in a robbery at his store. Perhaps the common thread of widowhood bonded Wishman and Morgan.

Let Me Die a Woman (1977) – Filmed over several years, this quasi-documentary chronicles “sex-change specialist” Dr. Leo Wollman and his patients, men transitioning into lives as transgender women, exploring the meanings of femininity and what it means to identify with being a woman. Staged recreations of the stories being told as well as real footage of a sex-change operation made the film infamous for the perceived shock value, though the film also has interviews with the people whose lives were chronicled.

A Night to Dismember (1983) – Inspired by the “slasher” films that had become popular in the late 70s and early 80s, Wishman made her own entry into the violent horror genre with this tale of a woman (Samantha Fox) who is released from a mental institution, after which gory murders immediately begin happening. Doris Wishman cast the film herself and she contributed to the film’s editing (uncredited), though this time the story and screenplay were written solely by Judy J. Kushner.

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