The Authorized Tura Satana Documentary Will Tell the Queer Icon’s Unbelievable True Story

The Authorized Tura Satana Documentary Will Tell the Queer Icon’s Unbelievable True Story

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Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of the true classics of cult cinema. None other than John Waters said, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is, beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” Much of that comes from the absolutely unforgettable performance of Tura Satana as Varla, the badass bisexual gang leader of three burlesque dancers who kidnap and murder.

Faster, Pussycat! is a dark, twisted crime story about strong women — and Tura Satana was the perfect choice to star, as she was that strong in real life. In fact, director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Jack Moran knew at her first audition that she was Varla. Thankfully, unlike the character, Satana generally stayed on the right side of the law — but cross her at your peril. (After all, she once said she could do what Varla did … and who’d be dumb enough to test her?)

If Faster, Pussycat! were the only thing she was known for, Tura Satana would still be a legend. But she worked with Billy Wilder and Harold Lloyd, turned down a marriage proposal from Elvis Presley and exacted revenge on her rapists. Now her long-time manager and friend Siouxzan Perry is producing a new documentary to tell her story.

From Burlesque to Film

Satana’s career started as a burlesque dancer, and her beauty and figure made her a popular model. One of her most famous early supporters was the silent film star Harold Lloyd. He photographed her — his work was later published in Hollywood Nudes in 3-D — but more importantly, he gave her the confidence to go into show business. In an interview with Jimmy McDonough, she said, “I saw myself as an ugly child. Mr. Lloyd said, ‘You have such a symmetrical face. The camera loves your face. … You should be seen.’”

Her debut film was Irma la Douce, the second Billy Wilder film to star Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. The film is about a cop who falls in love with a prostitute — Satana plays Suzette Wong, one of the other prostitutes MacLaine’s title character works with.

After that, Satana made appearances in a Dean Martin film (Who’s Been Sleeping in my Bed?) and a couple TV shows (the legal procedural Burke’s Law and the spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) before landing the role of Varla.

Satana proved to be indispensable to the film. In addition to her outstanding performance, she was the main drive behind Varla’s characterization. Many of Varla’s best lines were written by Satana, and the character’s martial arts skills were Satana’s idea, based on her own abilities. Russ Meyer, talking to McDonough, said, “She and I made the movie” — and, according to Faster, Pussycat! costar Haji, Meyer wasn’t one to give credit freely.

Despite her outstanding performance, Faster, Pussycat! bombed on its initial release. Satana never worked with Russ Meyer again, making two low-budget films with Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Ted V. Mikels before leaving acting in 1973 until 2002.

A lobby card for The Astro-Zombies by Ted V. Mikels

Tura Satana’s Tragic Early Life

Focusing on Satana’s film career does a disservice to her fascinating life. She was so skilled at martial arts for a tragic reason. Before her 10th birthday, she was gang-raped by five men; the men were not prosecuted — rumors allege the judge had been bought off. (She later found out that the police officer who helped her was the cousin of one of her rapists.) Satana was sent to reform school “for tempting those boys into raping me. I was classified a juvenile delinquent.”

Thankfully her rapists didn’t go unpunished. After training over the next 15 years, Satana tracked down each rapist and got her revenge. (She never gave details, but we can only assume her revenge was a truly righteous beatdown.) She told McDonough, “I made a vow to myself that I would someday, somehow get even with all of them. They never knew who I was until I told them.”

Satana first married at 13 in an arranged marriage to John Satana, who was then 17. Their marriage lasted nine months, after which she moved to Los Angeles. She began dancing as a minor — she was only 15 and had a fake ID — and soon became popular at the Trocadero. It was there where Harold Lloyd first met her. (Lloyd did not know she was underage.)

Tura in Burlesque Magazine, 1957 (Tura was 19 when this photo was taken.)

Tura Satana’s Romances With Elvis and More

Satana moved back to Chicago, where her parents lived, and started dancing at the Follies Theater. It was there she claimed Elvis Presley saw her perform, and the two started dating. According to an interview with Pamela Des Barres, Satana claimed she had to teach Elvis how to kiss. Before her instruction, he kissed like a “wet fish.”

Unfortunately, their relationship was not to be. Satana says their relationship ended when he proposed marriage but she turned him down. In an interview with the Sun-Times, she said, “I told him if anyone knew about us being engaged it would cost him his career. I tried to give him his ring back and he told me to keep it. He said, ‘You will always have part of me with you.’ And I still have it. It’s a solitaire diamond, about three carats.”

It should be noted that her story is disputed. Satana doesn’t appear in any of the major Elvis biographies, and as Chicago magazine discovered, the timelines don’t quite add up. Of course, neither of these definitively prove it didn’t happen, as memories are malleable: Satana could have accidentally fudged the dates or details. She also claimed she met him in Biloxi, Mississippi — Chicago could have been an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

Likewise, as Satana pointed out, there’s a stigma against sex workers. It’s likely a public relationship with a dancer and stripper would have damaged Elvis’s career in the 1950s. Either way, it’s unlikely we’ll know the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt … and besides, it’s a great story.

Elvis wasn’t Satana’s only famous affair: she said she also slept with Frank Sinatra, and that Tony Bennett and Rod Taylor (from The Birds and Zabriskie Point) fathered her two daughters. (She also claimed that Bond girl Ursula Andress was the first woman to make a pass at her.)

Tura Satana’s Influence on the Queer Community

Satana’s life and work made her a great icon for the queer community. She was a huge influence on John Waters, who later befriended her. Like Waters, Peaches Christ similarly champions her work — including screening Faster, Pussycat! in San Francisco with Satana present. Peaches Christ even sells Faster, Pussycat! on her site as one of “Peaches’s Picks.”

When asked why she thought she had such a large following of gay men, Satana said:

Varla is someone who is entertaining them, and they are wishing that they were Varla. One of my gay fans wrote me and said, “If I were a woman I would love to be Varla, because she knows what she wants and she goes after it.” I think that basically is true for a lot of people. Guys and women. The women feel that Varla has the power and the drive to continue on. She’s going to keep going for it until someone kills her. She has the incentive to go after it.

Though perhaps documentarian Perry says it more succinctly. The queer community loves Tura “obviously for her ‘over the top’ looks and style … but more importantly, her attitude!”

And of course, it’s not just gay men who love Satana. Her take-no-prisoners attitude made her a feminist icon as well. Noted feminist, lesbian critic B. Ruby Rich is a fan of the film. Though she originally thought it was mere exploitation — “just short of soft-core porn” — upon rewatching, she loved it, echoing Waters’ assertion that Faster, Pussycat! “ages like fine wine.”

Faster, Pussycat! is also frequently a touchstone for queer (and queer-adjacent) culture. The Janet Jackson video for “You Want This” owes a large debt to the film. The B-52’s song “Funplex” features a shoutout, as do the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Riverdale.

TURA!: The Authorized Tura Satana Documentary

The upcoming documentary TURA! will tell Satana’s authorized story. Cody Jarrett is directing the film; he also directed Satana’s final film role, Sugar Boxx. YOMYOMF, Justin Lin’s foundation for supporting Asian-American artists in film, is also involved. In addition, YOMYOMF has a weekly “Tura Thursday” feature on its site promoting her legacy.

Not only is the film authorized by Satana’s estate, it was her deathbed wish that the film be made. With an endorsement like that, it’s unsurprising the Kickstarter rewards include some interesting Satana memorabilia. In addition to the standards — posters, T-shirts, DVDs and downloads of the finished film — you can also get a reproduction of Satana’s script for Faster, Pussycat, complete with hand-written notes, original autographs and one of her bras, complete with a certificate of authenticity.

As Perry says, Satana’s legacy has lasted so long for a simple reason. “She touches something in many different types of people. She was and is empowering for women and men alike from all walks of life.”

We can’t wait to see TURA!, so we urge anyone with the inclination and money burning a hole in their pocket to back this Kickstarter. And if you’re not convinced, we’ll let Perry have the last word on why Tura Satana was so important:

She took a horrific childhood and turned it around to become a heroic figure. Turning the negative into a positive, even though she fought all her life for everything. She was always very generous of her time, her money and love for everyone she met. 

She was a woman who absolutely “shattered the glass ceiling.” In those days she did all her own stunts, created her own characters, wrote most of the dialog in an era when women never even attempted that.

She was totally ahead of her time. She was the first Asian-American Burlesque dancer, she was a true martial arts black belt and a role model for so many women to this day!

The TURA! Kickstarter ends on April 11.

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