The Sharpest Claws
Published: December 28, 2011
Tura Satana was known to most for a single role—but what a role. As the unrivaled star of Russ Meyer’s 1965 cult classic film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she tore across the screen at the wheel of a speeding sports car and made mincemeat of dumb hick himbos, alternately bedding and beating them to death. Her severe bangs, kohl-dark eyes, yawningly low-cut black top, and leather boots made her a literal icon, but her character’s sexual/physical confidence and fuck-you-Jack attitude impressed themselves on the brains of generations of trash hounds and grrrls as well. Meyer, a purveyor of schlock titillation, had unwittingly created a proto-feminist heroine; pop-culture-wise, if the film and Satana’s character had not existed, somebody—the Cramps, Quentin Tarantino, somebody—would have had to invent them.
Satana came by her outrageous screen presence honestly. Born Tura Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1938, she was the daughter of a Filipino-Japanese actor father and a half Native-American circus performer mother, an unusual heritage that shaped her exotic-anywhere good looks. The family relocated to the United States in 1942, just in time to land Tura and her father in a Japanese internment camp in California for the duration of World War II. Her voluptuous figure blossomed early, and when she was 9 years old and living in Chicago, she was gang-raped by five teenagers. During her tumultuous teenage years, she learned martial arts (at the behest of her father, so she could defend herself), joined a girl gang, spent time in reform school, and began a career as an exotic dancer. A brief arranged marriage left her one important legacy: the legal name Tura Satana.
She soon moved to Hollywood, where she dated Elvis Presley, among other notables. While still dancing, she won a smattering of small movie and TV roles (e.g. a bee-hived prostitute in 1963’s Irma la Douce) before Russ Meyer, ever on the lookout for buxom talent for his exploitation flicks, cast her as the star of his new movie. He typecast her, in a way, since her character, Varla, was a go-go dancer and the leader of an ad hoc girl gang, but Satana’s physical brawn (she was nearly 6 feet tall) and no-nonsense combativeness proved perfect for the character too. She not only stood up to Meyer’s hapless male characters, she stood up to their creator—in an interview for a documentary film on director Ted Mikels, she recounted getting so mad during an argument with Meyer on how to shoot a scene that she punched a wall, breaking her hand. Faster, Pussycat! wasn’t a hit on its initial release, but her sheer forcefulness onscreen, not to mention her character’s mold-breaking badassness, made the film a slow-burning cult smash.
Satana landed a few more acting gigs, either small parts in bigger projects or starring roles in shoddy exploitations before she gave up acting, and then dancing. While her life after her minor fame as a performer was not without drama—she was shot in the stomach by an ex in the mid-’70s and broke her back in a car accident in 1981—she lived quietly for the most part, working as a nurse and in hotel security while settling down with her third husband, a former police officer. She also made the usual rounds of fan conventions and fanboy interviews, game and forthcoming to the last. She died Feb. 4 at age 72, but thanks to Meyer, she will always be kicking ass in brutal black and white on some screen somewhere.
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