Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling

Ruth Leitman's generous, slyly tough-minded documentary about the pioneers of female wrestling features an all-star lineup of rough-talking, no-nonsense broads who escaped circumscribed futures picking cotton, caring for aging parents and waiting tables for lives of down-market glamour. They paid for their freedom in chronic injury, sexual harassment, financial...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Ruth Leitman's generous, slyly tough-minded documentary about the pioneers of female wrestling features an all-star lineup of rough-talking, no-nonsense broads who escaped circumscribed futures picking cotton, caring for aging parents and waiting tables for lives of down-market glamour. They paid for their freedom in chronic injury, sexual harassment, financial uncertainty and loneliness, but they're not whiners. The girls, as they call themselves, took their lumps, gave as good as they got and survived to tell the tale. Some fared very well: Pint-size Southern firecracker Lillian Ellison, "The Fabulous Moolah," parlayed wrestling celebrity into a lucrative career managing, training and booking other girls and lives in upper-middle-class comfort with her longtime partner, notorious "heel" Johnnie Mae Young and midget wrestler Diamond Lil. Feisty Gladys "Killem" Gillem, by contrast, never rose beyond a paycheck-to-paycheck living and wound up wrestling 'gators and bears; but even brain damaged and poor, she lived her life her way and doesn't care who knows it. For all the showboating in the ring, they wrestled as hard as they lived. Whisky-voiced, Washington-state raised farm-girl Ella Waldek fled the drudgery of beet harvesting for the roller-derby jammer, then discovered wrestling; she's still haunted by the memory of tackling a fledgling wrestler who went into the ring complaining of a headache and died after the match. Limber Ida May Martinez was abandoned by her mother, rejected by her grandmother and grudgingly raised by an aunt and uncle; wrestling was her path to self-esteem. Penny Banner grew up in a rough St. Louis neighborhood and started strength training to protect herself from the thug who tried to rape her. Young brawled her way out of Sand Springs, Okla., shocking the prim-and-proper girls who obeyed promoters' dictates that they should wear pretty dresses, heels and nail polish outside the ring with her mannish clothes, cigar smoking and foul-mouthed cussing. The shrewd, level-headed Ellison started out playing cheesecake sidekick "Slave Girl Moolah" to novelty wrestler the Elephant Boy. With the exception of Young and Ellison, who continue to make novelty appearances in WWE-sponsored events, none of the women has anything good to say about the T&A world of contemporary female wrestling. They hung up their boots and bathing suits for marriage, motherhood and other careers (including nursing and private detective work); their nostalgia for the fun, friendship and glitz is colored by vivid memories of shattered relationships, exploitation and tragedy.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Ruth Leitman's generous, slyly tough-minded documentary about the pioneers of female wrestling features an all-star lineup of rough-talking, no-nonsense broads who escaped circumscribed futures picking cotton, caring for aging parents and waiting tables fo… (more)

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