Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling directed by Ruth Leitman, screening as part of Hot Docs tonight (Thursday, April 29), 9:15 pm, at the Bloor (506 Bloor West). 70 min. For complete Hot Docs listings, see Rep & Indie Cinemas, page 101. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
In a scene from Ruth Leitman's documentary about girl wrestlers of the 40s and 50s, the Fabulous Moolah stands on the deck at her South Carolina ranch with her tag-team partner, the Great Mae Young. They're dressed in immaculate pantsuits and chunky jewellery, looking like 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 your innocuous grans any more. They're malevolent and magnificent.
Leitman was the first person to think of devoting a documentary to Moolah and her sisters, and she isn't even a wrestling fan.
"I don't watch sports," she explains in her patient Philadelphian drawl on the phone from her Chicago home. "I like to observe people. Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar is about how these women had to use their bodies, their physical strength in an extreme way to survive."
The film is powered by paradox. The women in Lipstick & Dynamite made a living kicking ass, but they still submitted to the authority of Billy Wolfe, the infamous promoter who took half their money and treated them like his own private harem. They referred to themselves as ladies. They dismissed women's liberation.
"It's like they're almost unaware of their own feminist actions at the time. They accept the things they did that relinquished the power they had. On the one hand, they're brutally tough, travelling out on their own. On the other, they're dressed and marketed like pin-up girls."
Leitman started as a photographer, taking pictures of working-class girls and women on the New Jersey shore.
"They would return to this beach town year after year to talk about boys and love and sex and parents. I was photographing them, but I really wanted you to hear what they had to say."
The result was her first documentary, Wildwood, New Jersey, which won her acclaim on the festival circuit in 1994.
Wildwood was followed by Alma, a Southern gothic portrait of a woman's troubled relationship with her mentally ill mother, and Welcome To Anatevka, a film about a troupe of developmentally delayed adults who stage a production of Fiddler On The Roof.
If there's a common thread in her work, it's that her subjects tend to be the opposite of famous.
"I want to listen to people whose thoughts and opinions have possibly never been asked before. People who have lived in a sort of marginal world."
To make Lipstick, for example, Leitman searched high and low for archival footage from the 40s and 50s of women travelling on their own. There was next to nothing.
"These images just didn't exist - or they did, but only in marginal communities, people who travelled in carnivals, women musicians." (See sidebar, this page.)
Several wrestlers from the film - including Ella Waldek, Neko Case's great aunt - are planning to attend the premiere.
Each of the six wrestlers Leitman chose to focus on is captivating in her own way, from the charmingly foul-mouthed underdog Gladys "Killem" Gillem, who went on to become a lion tamer, to the sweetly down-to-earth Ida Mae Martinez, who now works as a prison nurse and has a second career performing as '"the Yodelling 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 Billy Wolfe out of business.
"She learned so much from the people in business who exploited her. And she figured out a way to learn from that and rise above it."
The other women in the film are noticeably ambivalent about Moolah. 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."
As Leitman observes, "People give women a hard time if they're tough in business, if they persevere and are successful, and why is that?"
And Moolah has persevered. Near the end of the film, she describes her elation at being invited back into the ring by Vince McMahon Jr. while she was still recovering from viral pneumonia. In the next scene, she receives a body-slam from one of the Bushwackers and is then carried out on a stretcher. Is Moolah being, maybe, a little too persistent?
Leitman pauses, then answers cryptically.
"We hold documentary to this omnipotent, high standard of truth, but the fact is that it's still crafted.
"I was drawn to this story because it's not all factual. What interests me about documentary and wrestling both is that they're really about versions of the truth - it's like all of this might be true or none of it might be true."
Corn sisters all ears
Maybe it was this side of the film - the side that connects women wrestlers to female musicians - that resonated with Kelly Hogan , Carolyn Marks and Neko Case , also known as the Corn Sisters . Hogan, an old friend of Leitman's from her Atlanta days, offered to contribute some music to the soundtrack, and enlisted Marks and Case to help out. They were so taken with the project that they've been promoting the film at all their shows, including their gig at the Horseshoe last night (Wednesday, April 28).
It's also going to be something of a family reunion. File under bizarre coincidence the fact that Case discovered, while working on music for the film, that one of the wrestlers, Ella Waldek , is her great-aunt. They're going to meet for the first time at Hot Docs.