Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: the First Ladies of Wrestling directed by Ruth Leitman. An Ultra 8 Pictures release. 75 minutes. Opens Friday (July 29) at the Royal. For times, see page 109. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
There's a scene in Ruth Leitman's documentary about girl wrestlers of the 40s and 50s in which The Fabulous Moolah is hanging out at her ranch with her tag-team partner, the Great Mae Young. They're dressed in immaculate pantsuits and chunky jewellery, looking like ordinary suburban grannies fresh from the salon. As Young eggs her on, Moolah describes how she used to keep a spoon handle tucked in her bra when she was wrestling.
"I would gouge people's eyes, stab 'em in the throat. I was bad."
She winks. They both laugh uproariously. Suddenly, they're not peaceable grannies any more. They're malevolent and magnificent.
That's the kind of film this is, full of contradictions and surprises and dark, rowdy humour.
Through interviews and stock footage, Leitman traces a genealogy of loyalties, rivalries and scandals between six of the surviving ladies of mid-20th-century wrestling. Any one of them could probably carry a documentary on her own - from the charmingly foul-mouthed underdog Gladys "Kill 'Em" Gillem, who went on to become a lion tamer, to the sweetly down-to-earth Ida May Martinez, who now works as a prison nurse and has a second career performing as The Yodeling Grandma.
But the Fabulous Moolah stands out among them like a sphinx in a bingo parlour. After years as a wrestler, Moolah became a promoter, eventually putting her chief rival, the Svengali of ladies' wrestling, Billy Wolfe, out of business. The other women are noticeably ambivalent about her; finally, one of them blurts it out: "I can take that kind of treatment off of a man, but I can't take it off of a woman."
There's the paradox that drives this film, and hoists it above the merely sensational: even in the sideshow world of 50s wrestling, the transgression of gender had its limits. The more physical power these women had, the more economic power they relinquished, sneering at "women's lib" even as they toured around the country on their own, joining Billy Wolfe's harem even as they made a modest living kicking ass. It wasn't just the concealed shank, although that didn't hurt. Moolah made money, so Moolah was bad.
Makes you think, in a bloodthirsty, hair-pulling way.