Doc of the Day: Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 15, 2012

 Meet the original female performers of professional wrestling. They’re rough, they tumble, and they’re a lot of fun.

Poster courtesy of Movie Poster Shop.

 Dir. Ruth Leitman, 2005, 83 min

First off, I’d like to present Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling with the official Days of Docs award for “longest title ever.” What is it about documentary names that attract subtitles? Is there some union byline I’m unaware of that requires a subtitle, something to make sure there’s no ambiguity as to what a movie is about? Imagine if normal films felt this obligation. Citizen Kane: The Rise and Fall of a Media Magnate. Casablanca: Romance and Intrigue in Wartime Morocco. The African Queen: A Journey on a Boat; No Actual African Royalty Involved. It’s so weird when you think about it.

But anyway, the movie. It’s not that good. It has such promising material and subjects to work with, but it badly squanders that potential. There are surely great docs out there about professional wrestling. It’s a world too fascinating on a sociological and anthropological level for there not to be. But you can’t count Lipstick & Dynamite among those great docs. Pro wrestling, with its delightfully weird mixture of athletics, performance art, Shakespearean theatrical modes, and carnival sideshow atmosphere, deserves better than this. What it got in this doc was an almost stiflingly flat portrayal of the field. The women at the center of this doc deserve better than this.

I haven’t yet seen a doc that wastes a cast this good. Despite being in their seventies or eighties, these ladies are still hard as granite, and any one of them could probably break me in half. “The Fabulous Moolah” kept on wrestling in special WWE events until the day she died. More than that, though, they are a complete joy to watch in an interview. They don’t seem to even grasp the concept of ever mincing words, and they elaborate on their vicious pasts with a casualness that teeters between frightening and hilarious. Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillem was my favorite, because she was the oldest and most delicate-looking but by far she swore the most often. Also, because her name is Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillen. Holy crap!

These women were pioneers. During World War II, when the men all went off to fight and other women chose to rivet like Rosie, these gals decided to strap on leotards, adopt ridiculous monikers, and jump into the ring. The sideshow aspect of pro wrestling makes perfect sense when you remember that the sport originally began in, well, sideshows. It wasn’t just men grappling men or women fighting women. There were human versus animal fights as well, and sometimes dwarves got tossed into the mix for good measure (It’s not a good sideshow without dwarves). It was a leery, dirty world, and women’s wrestling in particular faced scorn by more polite society, even banned in several states. And it wasn’t just the more delicate sensibilities of the time at work; old footage of the events reveals them as flinchingly brutal.

And the conditions were even more unpleasant behind the scenes. The women were rarely paid well, were often sexually exploited if not assaulted by their male coworkers and management, and put up with dingy living and travel spaces. In a world where on and off-stage personas seem to bleed together, grudges in the ring often translated to bitterness in real life. Even decades after their active participation, the wrestlers still recount old personal slights with venom. It’s more than a little sad, and turns baffling when you see them meet up at a Reunion and try to act pleasantly with one another. Lipstick & Dynamite tries to pull a girl power message out of this story, but it doesn’t really work. It seems that these women were used far more than they were able to take anything meaningful from their experiences in this sport. Even The Fabulous Moolah, who became a trainer and fight promoter, comes across as more sad than triumphant, trying to relive old glory days that weren’t really all that glorious.

Besides thematic confusion, this doc is hopelessly muddled in its informational execution. I found myself almost nodding off at points, as the movie would digress from one pointlessly minute detail of who did what to whom forty years ago, which has nothing to do with anything else, to another. I kept losing track of who got married to whom and who joined what agency and who got which job and all the beats of the characters’ progress. It’s a hack job of editing; the filmmakers were unable to properly separate the worthwhile material they’d gathered from the useless chaff. It feels like there’s a better, more involving story with these people lurking under or within Lipstick & Dynamite. I wish that was the story we got, and not this stop-and-go, ideologically whacked little thing.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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