“A one woman revolution of ass kicking…” I can’t remember who said that, but it’s the best description of Tura Satana I’ve ever heard. Satana would have turned 73 today had she not passed away earlier this year on February 4 from heart failure.
Some of you may be asking, “Who is Tura Satana?” Which essentially means you have been denied the pleasure of watching her amazing performance in one of the essential classics of cinema. A film hailed as a masterpiece by everyone from director Quentin Tarantino to critic Roger Ebert. A film Hairspray director John Waters proclaimed “The greatest film ever made. And the greatest film that ever will be made.” A film that features the best kickass lead performance by an Asian American woman ever committed to celluloid. Period. End of discussion.
Yes, I’m talking about Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Starring the one and only Tura Satana.
Great artists often have a singular obsession. For William Faulkner it was the American South. For Alfred Hitchcock it was cool blondes. For Russ Meyers it was boobs. And Faster Pussycat is nothing if not a loving tribute to boobs and the tough broads attached to them. And no one comes tougher or busty-er than Satana’s Varla, the leader of the all-female, cleavage-baring gang the Hellcats, that exists in this movie to raise hell, fuck with anyone who has a penis and rob an old man of his secret stash of cash.
The film actually works on many levels, but what really elevates it above other “exploitation” flicks is Satana’s surprisingly adept ability at comedy. Like all the great films about boobs, Faster Pussycat is essentially a comedy (in this case, cleverly disguised as tit-ilation). Satana’s comedic timing is impeccable, especially her ability to come back with drool one-liners as when she says to a gas station attendant who is ogling her while talking about his desire to explore America: “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”
Satana was born in Japan as Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi to a Japanese/Filipino father and an American Indian/Scottish/Irish mother. The family soon moved to the U.S. where Satana and her family were interned at Manzanar following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, her family moved to Chicago where Satana was harassed by other children on a regular basis for developing breasts early and for being Asian. When she was nine, she was gang raped by five men while walking home from school. The men were all found “innocent” by a judge who had allegedly been bribed. So Satana studied martial arts and over the next 15 years, tracked down each of her rapists and beat the shit out of them.
She joined a gang, got married at 13 (and soon divorced), pregnant at 19 and became an exotic dancer. It was while modeling nude for silent film comedian Harold Lloyd that she found her way to the movies when Lloyd encouraged her to do so by telling her how “the camera loves your face.”
Satana appeared on various television shows and played a prostitute in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce before being cast by Meyer and screenwriter Jack Moran in Faster Pussycat—the film that would make her a cult icon. Much of her character came directly from Satana herself, including her make-up, costume, use of martial arts and the idea for the now classic “death by spinning tires” scene. (she definitely had a style of her own as my fellow Offender Alfredo previously pointed out)
She continued to act in projects afterwards but none would equal the impact of Faster Pussycat. However, her real-life exploits rivaled anything she did in a movie: Satana turned down a marriage proposal from Elvis Presley (though she kept the ring), she was shot by a former lover in 1973, studied nursing and worked in a hospital, worked as a dispatcher for the L.A. Police Dept. and broke her back in a car accident.
Over the years, her status as not only a cult icon, but also a feminist icon has grown—having been reclaimed by new generations of women as the pioneer she was. This line from Faster Pussycat spoken by one of the male characters about Satana says it all: “Women! They let ’em vote, smoke and drive–even put ’em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!”
It’d be great to also see her acknowledged by the Asian American community as one of our pioneers. I remember back in college in an Asian American studies class when the T.A. asked for examples of pioneering Asian American women in the arts. I brought up Satana’s name. The T.A. dismissed her by saying, “A whore is not a pioneer. A pioneer is someone like Amy Tan who actually did something worthwhile besides lying on her back.”
I told this story to Russ Meyer when I interviewed him a few years later. “That T.A. was an ignorant bitch,” was how he replied. I clarified to Meyer that the T.A. was actually a guy. “Like I said, he was an ignorant bitch. Tura was very proud of being Asian and talked about it all the time. I think she was always a little sad that her own community never really accepted her.”
So today I’d like to make this small gesture to acknowledge Tura Satana as the Asian American icon that she is and wish her a happy birthday! Wherever she is, I’m sure she’s still kicking ass.