I was very sad to learn yesterday of the death at age 73 of a true grindhouse legend and an early icon of female empowerment. I had the good fortune of having a couple of longish chats with Tura Satana, the legendary star of Russ Meyer’s 1965 grindhouse tour de force, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and other light classics of exploitation cinema. We both appeared in my friend Cody Jarrett’s women-in-prison opus, “Sugarboxx,” though she actually got to speak. She enjoyed talking about the old days and I certainly didn’t mind listening.
One-quarter Japanese, Filipino, Cheyenne-Indian, and Scots-Irish, her story included a childhood stay in Manzanar, one of the internment camps where all Japanese-Americans on the West coast were illegally forced to spend World War II. She was a victim of a childhood rape who, she said, eventually tracked down all her attackers. That anger would later find an outlet in her work, to say the least.
Her performing career began with notoriety as an exotic dancer and martial artist. A gig posing erotically for photographs by aging silent comedy superstar Harold Lloyd led Lloyd to suggest a career in movies. She eventually made a brief appearance in Billy Wilder’s “Irma La Douce” and that was followed by her bone-crunching interpretation as the villainous/anti-heroic Varla in Russ Meyer’s insane mix of sexual innuendo and, for the time, shocking violence. She would likely have appeared in later Meyer films, but she was unwilling to do the kind of nudity that was his usual calling card. A certain amount of tragedy followed her later in life and her 1970s career was cut short by a bullet wound, her children, and a second career as a nurse.
Tura wasn’t Dame Judi Dench, but then Dame Judi is no Tura Satana. She was one very cool, very brassy woman who held an audience’s attention in a way that was entirely unique to her and entirely unforgettable.