Lipstick & Dynamite

on April 08, 2005 by Sheri Linden
This docu's subtitle, "Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling," says it all. Digging into the margins of pop-culture history, writer-director Ruth Leitman comes up with a dynamic portrait of the quintessential tough broads who staked their claim to the spectator sport in the 1940s and '50s, becoming stars of the circuit. Though Leitman's approach sometimes feels scattershot, there's no question that she's chosen fascinating--if not always likable--women as her central subjects, any one of whom would be a worthy documentary subject by herself.

The Fabulous Moolah, the Great Mae Young, Gladys "Killem" Gillem, Ida May Martinez, Ella Waldek and Penny Banner speak with varying degrees of candor in interviews leading up to a reunion. Perhaps the most striking thing about these former distaff gladiators is the extent to which wrestling was a key element of their survival, injuries and unfair compensation notwithstanding. When they hit the road and climbed into the ring, creating a new form of live entertainment with male promoters and impresarios like Vince McMahon, Jack Pfeffer and Billy Wolfe, they were also inventing themselves in a way that wasn't readily available to women at the time. Escaping brutal poverty or abusive childhood situations, they were declaring their independence when they took on the roles of "the angel face" or "the heel" to wage anything-goes battles.

Gillem, the oldest of the bunch, was so fearless she'd take on alligators and bears. Young and Moolah, who is now a manager and promoter, remain active with McMahon's WWE, in circus-sideshow antics that many of their former colleagues and competitors decry as cheapening their accomplishments. Moolah, a tough cookie if ever there was one, proudly catalogues the dirty techniques she used in the ring. As the wonderfully wry Waldek comments, "Whatever the ref didn't see was legal."

Clips from "To Tell the Truth" and "What's My Line?" emphasize the sheer novelty of the idea of women wrestlers, stumping celeb panels every time. Leitman captures the look and feel of the period through well-chosen archival material, but tighter organization could have heightened the impact of these women's stories. Tantalizing or disturbing revelations of personal and marital betrayals and sexual relationships with promoters often go unexplored. If Leitman had stayed with some of those topics longer and gone deeper, these vibrant first ladies might have come into even sharper focus. Directed by Ruth Leitman. Produced by Ruth Leitman, Debbie Nightingale, Anne Hubbell and James Jernigan. A Koch Lorber release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 83 min

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