In the four years following the breakout success of Russ Meyer’s debut film The Immoral Mr. Teas, the director mired himself (pun intended) in soulless repetition, churning out a mostly dull sequence of Teas-imitating nudie cuties that nearly broke his spirit by the time he made his fourth picture, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Obviously bored with his own creation, Meyer began to branch out genre-wise in the delightfully hateful shockumentary Europe in the Raw & started to show his true colors as an eccentric misanthrope. That, however, didn’t stop him from returning to the well one last time for a fifth & final nudie cutie, the enjoyably low-key Heavenly Bodies!. Meyer was reportedly not particularly proud of the way Heavenly Bodies! came out, both because of his growing boredom with the nudie cutie as a genre & because of the public’s similar boredom that lead the film to flop financially, but I find that to be a shame. Heavenly Bodies! is not quite as historically significant as The Immoral Mr. Teas or Europe in the Raw, but it does feel like a warm, fond farewell to the director’s pin-up & nudie cutie work, effectively closing that chapter of his life before the next, darker saga began.
Heavenly Bodies! is such a fitting tribute to the culmination of Meyer’s previous works that the subject of the film itself is a love letter to nude photography. It opens with intense close-ups of belly buttons, hair, kneecaps, and (of course) breasts while an industrial film-style narrator (Vic Perrin, who also voiced Europe in the Raw) helpfully explains that “You have just seen the component parts of a woman, a very voluptuous woman.” Meyer’s script goes on to espouse lofty platitudes about how nude models have been the main focus of photography since the invention of the camera & even the most beautiful paintings from fine art masters of the past can’t match the beauty of a nude photograph. Meyer isn’t even content to stop there, continuing to claim that nude photographs, the kind that he himself produced for “glamor magazines”, were the backbone of the US economy. Perrin dryly intones, “It is by no means far fetched to state that America’s entire vast fabric of prosperity, from automobiles to frozen foods, depends on this affinity between beautiful women, camera, and cameraman.” Why is that “by no means far fetched”? Because sex sells, dummy.
Although Heavenly Bodies! is by all means Russ’ love letter to himself, one that even name-checks the director as “Russ Meyer, one of Hollywood’s best known glamor photographers,” it at least vaguely pretends to be something more significant: a documentary on nude photography as a business. An early reenactment in the film retraces “glamor photography” back 30 years to stage a silent film shoot on the beach featuring Meyer vet Princess Livingston rolling around in a swimsuit. Anyone familiar with the elderly Princess Livingston’s toothless, maniacal screen presence (first seen in Wild Gals of the Naked West) should have a ball picturing the lovable coot sarcastically pretending to vamp it up for the camera. Another sequence depicts a pin-up cameraman who learned his trade as a combat photographer in the Army Corps during WWII (just like Meyer) feverishly snapping “glamor” photographs of two beautiful models lounging poolside & (in a particularly intense moment) jumping rope. All the while, the narration rattles off long, detailed lists of camera equipment that the Russ-surrogate is using, drooling just as much over the gear as it is over the bare breasted models. Another excursion involves Meyer himself & his real-life 166th Signal Corps war buddies retreating to the woods with two more cuties to snap more “glamor” photos and drool over more top notch analog camera equipment. The narrator cheekily asks, “Was your class reunion ever like this?” The film more or less goes on this way.
In these scenes, all of Meyer’s pin-up & nudie cutie calling cards are present: the rapid-fire editing, the swanky music, the besides the point narration, the self-glorifying cameos & bit roles for his war buddies, the otherworldly pastel voids, the navel gazing philosophy on the nature of photography, and the lingering effects of WWII. By the time he made Heavenly Bodies! Meyer may have have become bored with the nudie cutie as a format, but he also became extremely adept at injecting his eccentric personality into these by-the-numbers pictures, something he had struggled to do since he created the genre in The Immoral Mr. Teas. In every silly, frivolous minute, Heavenly Bodies! is easily recognizable as a Russ Meyer film, something that’s difficult to say about long stretches of lesser titles like Eve & The Handyman & Erotica. It’s by no means a mind-blowing picture, but it is a fairly enjoyable one.