Gladys "Killem" Gillem, Ella Waldek, Ida May Martinez, Penny Banner, Lillian Ellison, Judy Grable, and The Great Mae Young all reached the squared circle during the '40s and '50s via divergent paths, yet Lipstick and Dynamite's subjects share common experiences with parental and spousal abuse, cheating husbands and exploitive managers. Unfortunately, Leitman's objectives don't include examining the motivating forces behind these women's unusual careers; she's so taken with humorous anecdotes about their experiences on the road and in the ring that the film quickly reveals itself as simply a collection of similar war stories. Female wrestlers operated on the industry's fringe, mostly working for one promoter (an authoritarian womanizer named Billy Wolfe) and little money or fame, and the director fawns over their rough exteriors - now in their seventies and eighties, they still cuss like barroom drunks and egotistically boast about their once-formidable toughness - with only skin-deep interest in tying their stories together with a coherent narrative thread. And when it comes to investigating the link between wrestling's choreographed reality and these ladies' desire to escape their unpleasant lives through extravagant personas (like so many performers, the first thing many did was change their immigrant names), the film falls flat on its face.
As any long-time WWE aficionado already knows, the most famous of these buxom bruisers was The Fabulous Moolah, a tough-as-nails wrestler (still working today in her 80s) with the face of a bulldog and the swiftness of a dancer, and Leitman elucidates how Moolah (real name Lillian Ellison) shrewdly took control of her own destiny by expanding into promotion and talent cultivation/management. Moolah's path from cotton-picker (earning one penny for every pound she picked) to worldwide celebrity is juxtaposed with that of Gillem's, whose less-celebrated career began with bear-wrestling and lion-taming at carnivals but ended without much notoriety. However, thanks to Lipstick and Dynamite's disinterest in contextualizing its subject's exploits in a historical framework, Moolah's impressive (as well as her contemporaries' less-lofty) achievements can only be moderately appreciated. Although they clearly bucked traditional notions of female docility and domesticity, these often-fascinating women are never located in a wider cultural perspective. In the end, Leitman is most successful at conveying how such "tough broads" - despite the creepily obsessive fans shown flaunting their trivia knowledge - were viewed primarily as a sideshow to the male-headlined fan base. And in the end, her documentary functions on much the same level: It's a minor novelty film about minor novelty acts.
Aka Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Ruth Leitman
Starring: Lillian Ellison as Fabulous Moolah /Herself, Gladys Gillem as Herself, Mae Young as Herself, Ida May Martinez as Herself, Penny Banner as Herself, Ella Waldek as Herself, Lou Albano as Himself, Freddy Blassie as Himself, Eric Bischoff as Himself, Cyndi Lauper as Herself (archive footage), Bill Cosby as Himself (archive footage) (uncredited), Betty White as Herself (archive footage) (uncredited)