Saturday, February 05, 2011

Passings: Tura Satana--Actress, Icon, Tigress

The Conqueror, a gloriously bad 1956 sword-and-sandal flick featuring John Wayne as Genghis Khan (no, I'm not smoking crack...), brims with ridiculous dialogue, but one line in particular has always stuck with me. It's uttered by Khan/Wayne in classic western-drawl style, and he uses it to describe the object of his desire, the fiery Tartar princess Bourtai (played by the not-very-Tartar-but-admittedly-very-hot Susan Hayward):

"She is woman...MUCH woman."

Tura Satana was one of maybe six women who walked the earth worthy of that bit of minimalist adulation. Satana, who passed away yesterday at the age of 72, was a Japanese-internment-camp survivor, an exotic dancer, paramour to Elvis Presley, and--most importantly--an energizing and world-changing (no lie) presence in some of the most entertaining cult movies of the 1960's and '70's. And she was much woman.

I put Tura under the Petri Dish microscope a couple of years ago, ironically enthusing how nice it was to write about a cult movie heroine who hadn't shuffled off this mortal coil. In the interim, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! blew the top of my head off several times. Screw all the jaded post-post-revisionist balderdash: The movie still roars like Varla's jet-propelled hot rod, and in the lead Satana embodies a full-strength, undiluted physical and sexual power that kick-started the notion of Woman Power years before the feminist movement took hold on a mass level.

That feminine strength got overlooked by the mainstream media back in the day, but Tura's animal charisma, strength, iconic look (jet-black hair in bangs, clad head-to-toe in black, mouthwatering figure poured into black jeans and blouse), and real-woman curves formed the roots of nearly every Tough Chick who followed her celluloid lead. I'll argue to my dying breath that, but for Varla and Tura Satana, there'd be no Marian Ravenwood; no Ellen Ripley; no Bride from Kill Bill; no Xena, Warrior Princess. Anytime a woman onscreen dishes it out as well as taking it, she's following Tura's lead.

Shortly after I wrote my last entry on Tura Satana, I had the great fortune of catching Faster, Pussycat! at Seattle's Egyptian Theater, with Satana in attendance. She was in great spirits, still dressed in black, and pretty much delighted with the local display of adoration. In a pinch, I could (and have) let go of a lot of the collectibles I've accumulated in my life, but my personally-autographed memento of my meeting with Tura Satana (a Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! lunch pail)? Hell, no.

So long, Varla: I'll eat your dust anytime.