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The nudist films of Doris Wishman
Appreciating a badass feminist filmmaker for International Women's Day
When Max Nosseck’s film Garden of Eden (filmed at Lake Como Family Nudist Resort in Lutz, Florida) was released in 1954, it caused a stir: the film was put on the Catholic Legion of Decency’s condemned list and the studio Excelsior Pictures was denied a license to publicly exhibit the film in New York. This led to the court case Excelsior Pictures vs. New York Board of Regents. In 1957, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that onscreen nudity was not obscene, allowing the film to be exhibited and opening the floodgates for onscreen nudity, which led to the return of the nudist exploitation film, not seen since the 1930’s. Leading that return was a short, middle-aged widow named Doris Wishman who had previously worked as a film booker and knew what kinds of movies people wanted to see.
Doris Wishman was born on June 1, 1912. According to IMDB, she directed 31 films over the course of her life, making her one of the most prolific women filmmakers of the 1960’s-70’s and more specifically one of the few women working behind the camera in the adult film industry at the time. She produced all of these films herself, and wrote the majority of them as well. Her filmmaking career (which she began mostly as a hobby after the death of her first husband) started with nudist films, the first of which was 1960’s Hideout in the Sun. She was one of many filmmakers at the time making these quick, cheap nudist films in Florida, but she managed to stand out from the others by not only being resourceful (often reusing sets and footage from other films repeatedly), but by putting a unique spin on almost each one she made. Hideout in the Sun is about a pair of bank robber brothers who decide to lay low at a nudist camp after a heist, a pretty great framing device for the genre. This was followed by what is arguably her most famous feature, 1961’s Nude on the Moon, in which a pair of astronauts land on the moon to find that it looks suspiciously like Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida, and is populated by kooky topless aliens of both sexes. She also collaborated with burlesque dancer Blaze Starr in the romantic Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962).
Wishman directed eight nudist films altogether, two of which are lost. The other six have recently been collected in a blu-ray set called The Films of Doris Wishman: The Daylight Years, the third and final release of her work in a joint effort by Something Weird and the American Genre Film Association. Most of the sun-soaked films are gloriously restored from their original 35mm negatives, and three of the films include insightful commentary, with a personal favorite being queer film historian Elizabeth Perchell’s commentary on 1961’s Diary of a Nudist. It’s a little odd that the films aren’t presented in chronological order on the discs, and admittedly watching these films in close succession reveals just how similar they are, especially when footage is recycled, but it’s still a fantastic set worth getting. These films are comfort food for me, idyllic and gorgeous little escapes when the weather outside is cold and oppressive. The unique gimmicks she employs really helps her films stand out from the work of her male peers.
Wishman’s career changed direction in the mid-60’s as censorship laws became more lax. Nudist films fell out of popularity, so she moved into black and white noir-tinged sexploitation films called roughies, beginning with the amazingly titled Bad Girls Go to Hell in 1965. She was no nudist herself, notably a little bit prudish, and getting into rougher and rougher territory was a change she was reluctant to have to make, but she maintained creative control in these films. She made a couple pornographic films in the 1970’s, which she refused to acknowledge, and released a horror film called A Night to Dismember in 1983. Another notable release was a 1978 quasi-documentary on transgender people called Let Me Die A Woman. Wishman learned about the trans community from Zelda Suplee, owner of the Sunny Palms nudist resort who appeared as herself in Diary of a Nudist. Suplee worked with the Erickson Educational Foundation, founded by Reed Erickson, and put Wishman in contact with Dr. Leo Wollman, who appears in Let Me Die A Woman.
It’s only been more recently that Wishman’s work has garnered more attention. Her films would have fallen totally into obscurity if it hadn’t been for Something Weird picking them up for home video release, turning her into a cult icon. She received a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Underground Film Festival, was interviewed by Jonathan Ross for the Incredibly Strange Film Show in 1989, and appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2002 to promote her final film Dildo Heaven and to give O’Brien and Roger Ebert a lot of grief, months before her death at 90 years old. I highly recommend watching these interviews, as even in her old age Wishman was a witty spitfire.
In the world of exploitation cinema, Wishman was certainly a rare breed as a woman in a field dominated by the male gaze, putting her own unique twist on what would otherwise be tired genre films. It’s a great thing to see that her work has been so wonderfully reappraised and restored in recent years. 🪐
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