The human comedy rarely comes wrapped in as gloriously trashy a package as Lipstick & Dynamite (full title: Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling) (Koch Lorber Films), Ruth Leitman's unreasonably entertaining documentary about the "first ladies of wrestling." Here they are, the ladies (who were "no ladies," according to ads of the day) who bit, scratched, and body-slammed their way to immortality in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, when a woman's position was supposed to be supine.
Many of Leitman's subjects had been mishandled by life from an early age; for them, fighting was simply a matter of survival against stepfathers, uncles, neighbors and other predatory males. Now, their bones brittle and their voices reduced to croaks, they're still putting the camera in a chokehold, refusing to go gentle into that good night.
The movie opens with a segment from What's My Line?, in which the panel is directed to guess the profession of Ella Waldeck, a prim-looking blonde. I won't tell you if she and a subsequent To Tell the Truth contestant, "The Fabulous Moolah," managed to fool their respective panels. But the very idea of a woman wrestler seems difficult for the likes of '50s black-and-white TV personalities, with their lacquered hair and jewels and gray suits—at least, a woman wrestler in an age without the Las Vegas glitz, when it was all so delectably seedy. Women entered the ring in the '40s when the men were at war. They were still wrestling when the men came back and their status changed.
You watch Lipstick & Dynamite and, as Walter from The Big Lebowski would put it, enter a world of pain. The chips on these women's shoulders have been pumped up from years of snarling rivalry (then, as now, the stuff of crude melodrama), bad pay, sundry fractures, and the outcast life. And yet the life force burns through. You won't believe the ancient Gladys "Killem" Gillem, who boasts that she wrestled dirty and was always a "tough son of a gun." Age has withered her something fierce, but that fighting spirit is undimmed. ("I slept on the ground with a good man and a bottle of whiskey and somebody really loved me for what I was," she reports, of her post-wrestling life.) And then there is Moolah, the one who made it big as both a wrestler and a manager (taking 25 percent), the one with the manse and the menagerie that includes a sweet, dependent midget wrestler who showed up at her door and was promptly adopted. Resented by many for her somewhat naked avarice, she emerges nonetheless as a champ.
We hear (and, distressingly, see) the young woman, groomed for a top spot, who is killed in the ring. And we hear about those who finally turned to alligator wrestling and lion taming to stay in show business. Leitman's camera maintains an appreciative detachment that lets each personality emerge. When these "ladies" meet in the end in a Gulf Coast reunion, you're glad that there is someone there to capture it. What a gutsy, sad, glorious life it was for the women warriors of Lipstick & Dynamite, who not only seized the day, but wrestled it to the mat... 3:42 PT
Last week, I asked for suggestions for a comedy CARE package for Woody Allen, in an attempt to remind him (yes, probably in vain) that comedy can be more than a diversion to take one's mind off the approach of death—that the great comic works can teach us much about life and handle subjects nearly as wrenching as tragedy. (Beyond the laughs, the difference is that in comedy the characters glimpse the abyss but do not tumble in.)
On this bleak day, it's easy to envision a farce about a person in a persistent vegetative state with a semi-liquefied cerebral cortex and no hope of recovery—easy because we've been living through a farce for the last two weeks. In the same way, Alexander Payne's acid Citizen Ruth (which no one nominated for Allen's package, strangely) is a grimly funny look at the politics of abortion. As someone who is illiberally conflicted about that procedure (I find myself both pro-choice and anti-abortion), I realize that Citizen Ruth did not give us the full picture. But I was grateful to see Payne dive into the maelstrom and demonstrate that comedy and farce can dig deeper than made-for-TV morality plays.
The greatest satires—from Aristophanes to Swift to that incendiary modern clown Dario Fo—use the form to expose hypocrisy. Even the seemingly frivolous bedroom farces of Feydeau traffic in the subversive message that whatever our public discourse, marriage has historically been anything but sacred. (Newt Gingrich, Randall Terry, and countless divorced guardians of morality should never be allowed to forget the gulf between their public declarations and private behavior.)
By far the No. 1 suggestion for Allen was Sullivan's Travels. I know it's heretical, but I find it the least interesting of the major Sturges comedies, precisely because it does a hairpin turn into solemnity and ends with the sort of sentimentalization of comedy (as something to take our mind off our woes) with which Woody Allen would agree. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that idea—only that at a key point in the narrative, Sturges uncharacteristically loses the delicate balance he maintains in his masterpieces, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, TheMiracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. [Correction: Yikes! How could I have left out Unfaithfully Yours?]
Many suggested something by Billy Wilder, especially The Apartment. I agree, although I enjoy his "serious" films—especially Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard—more because they're laced with wit.