The “queen of the nudies” buttons her green suede coat and orders the photographer back another 10 feet: After a lifetime behind the camera, director Doris Wishman is in no mood for pictures. In town last week to promote a screening of three of her films, including a fallen-woman cautionary from 1965 called Bad Girls Go To Hell, the Miami-area resident had come to Los Angeles not to honor her past but to plot the future. Although she hasn't shot a movie in over a decade, exploitation cinema's most famous woman director is on the prowl for investors for a stack of her scripts, including a teenage shocker called Each Time I Kill that sounds just right for Wes Craven.
Perhaps best known for the nudist-camp pictures she made in the early '60s, Wishman has been in the film business some four decades. “I was working in New York in distribution for Joe Levine,” she says. “My family was in Miami and I was commuting every weekend and spending a million on phone calls. Finally my husband said, 'I can't take this anymore, we're going to move.' We moved from New York in June, and in January Jack died. I used to go to bed and pretend that I had a date with Jack, that we were going to meet – you know, sick thinking.” To distract herself, Wishman made the remarkable decision to become a movie director. “It was a challenge,” she says. “I needed that to get my mind off of Jack.
“So my sister gave me $10,000, which was a great deal of money, and I shot. And oooh, it was horrible stuff. I thought, 'What am I going to do?' Finally I had to tell her, and she gave me another $10,000. Everybody said, 'Are you crazy?' You know what my sister said? 'Well, if it's therapy for Doris, I don't care if I get my money back.'”
Wishman re-shot her first film, Hideout in the Sun, and “this time it was really good.” Since 1960 she's made 24 features; she owns the rights to only one (three others remain lost). About 10 years ago, reeling from a lab crisis with A Night To Dismember, Wishman made the cataclysmic decision to sell 20 of her films for $2,000 apiece. As a consequence, although her work is now available on video, she sees not one cent of the proceeds.
A delicately furrowed beauty who claims to be in her early 60s, Wishman has recently embarked on a tentative comeback after having been rediscovered working in a lingerie shop. The upshot has been a smattering of interviews and revival screenings, as well as a return of sorts to filmmaking – a feature Wishman shot on beta video about five years ago and has yet to finish editing. “It's about three girls who live together,” she explains, “and each one is out to seduce her boss. That's basically it. There's a peeping Tom and he has a fantasy that is very interesting, which I'm not about to disclose.” The movie is called Dildo Heaven.
When she's on the road, Wishman is always accompanied by Michael Bowen, a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate who's temporarily abandoned his dissertation in order to shepherd her around the country and help write her memoirs. It's not been easy for either of them. “As far as I know,” Bowen admits later, “she's broke.” Back in Miami, Wishman lives with her sister in an apartment stuffed with two housefuls of furniture. She says she's a pessimist, but clearly holds out hope that someone will soon begin treating her more like a director than a charming relic. So does Bowen. “I fundamentally believe that if Doris is given the opportunity she'll make an interesting film.”
Inevitably, it comes down to who you know. At one point, Wishman turns to me and asks: “Do you have any connections?”