Synapse // 1978 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // January 31st, 2006
All true! All real! See a man become a woman before your eyes!
For years the only woman director working in the twilight world of "adults only" filmmaking, exploitation auteur Doris Wishman is one of the most fascinating figures in American cinematic history. Standing toe-to-toe with industry kingpins David F. Friedman, Russ Meyer and Harry Novak, Wishman gained notoriety by unleashing her own depraved spin on nudist colony flicks, roughies, and campy spoofs throughout the 1960s. As cult films continued to push the boundaries of sex and good taste in the 1970s, Wishman evolved too, cranking out the "penis with a mind of its own" horror story The Amazing Transplant, a film that eventually set her on an increasingly lurid course that culminated with the grindhouse shockumentary Let Me Die a Woman. An unflinching, thoroughly sleazy peek at the "forbidden" world of transsexuals, Let Me Die a Woman is the film we might have gotten if Ed Wood hadn't twisted the intended sex change picture Glen or Glenda? to suit his own transvestism; a gender-bending mishmash that stitches together subject interviews, softcore sex scenes and surgical stock footage in a cynical package guaranteed to offend all sensibilities.
The film begins as Leslie, a post-operation transsexual, looks directly in the camera and says, "Last year, I was a man." She discusses her troubled life, her difficulties with gender identity, and the final realization that she was a woman trapped in a man's body. Narrator and real life physician Dr. Leo Wollman then takes over to explain the difference between transvestites, homosexuals and transsexuals, as he presents a clinical view of the phenomenon known as "gender dysphoria." The doctor introduces the viewer to several different pre-ops -- both men and women -- who display all for the camera and talk about how others react to their plans to cross the gender line in an odd group therapy session. Scattered throughout the lecture are several "dramatic" vignettes of pre-op transsexuals taking showers and rolling around on beds with other men to illustrate various points (more or less). Towards the end of the film, Wollman takes a frank look at the sex change operation itself and the expected results, before briefly returning to Leslie, who talks about transsexual pioneer Christine Jorgensen, and how becoming a woman truly saved her life
What an experience this film is -- Let Me Die a Woman seems completely out of step with time, perched somewhere between a 1940s venereal disease roadshow film, the "mondo" boom of the '60s, and bottom-of-the-barrel '70s softcore porn. Despite adopting the psuedo-medical tone of the early sex education flicks -- this film is also a pitch for a paperback book about transsexuals -- Let Me Die a Woman is the very pinnacle of shameless sexploitation; an exceedingly strange entry on Wishman's already suspect résumé.
It shouldn't be too surprising that Let Me Die a Woman is often blasted for its totally insensitive portrayal of the transgendered community, but that's really to be expected -- this isn't PBS material, just a fetid shocker designed to send a late night 42nd Street audience of hustlers, addicts and trash film fans into a seat-slashing, rafter-swinging rage. Even viewers today will be squirming in their chairs as the abrasive and barely likable Wollman reads his medical insights directly off cue cards hidden behind the camera, and thrusts a steel pointer at sensitive areas of his naked subjects -- all intercut with non-explicit bump 'n' grind, and leering shots of female hormone-enhanced breasts. Though the incorporated medical stock footage of the sex change operation was slightly less graphic than I had anticipated, it's certainly not for the faint of heart, with bloody scalpel incisions and extreme close-ups of surgically reconstructed genitalia.
And yet, despite the film's sordid parade of human degradation, some of the interview footage with star transsexual Leslie actually raises some issues pertinent to the gender dysphoria lifestyle, even as Wishman's heartless inserts undercut it. Reasonably well-spoken (and less unsightly than Wollman's patients), Leslie managed to bring a flicker of insight to the proceedings, and her comments about being forced to drop out of school, begging doctors to help her, and the unbelievable pain of the operation do give the viewer something to think about when they aren't being assaulted by the film's intense imagery
First and foremost, though, this is still a Doris Wishman film, and all her filmmaking trademarks are on display: surreal cut-aways, dangerously out-of-sync dubbing, and barely competent camerawork that often has difficulty keeping Wollman's talking head in frame. Allegedly, penny-pinching Wishman even stole some of Let Me Die a Woman's completely gratuitous sex scenes from one of her other, more risqué efforts, giving hardcore stars Harry Reems and Vanessa Del Rio "unofficial" cameos that they probably weren't too happy about.
Presented in a cheekily named "Transgendered Edition," Synapse has put together another incredible DVD that elevates Let Me Die a Woman from seedy, voyeuristic entertainment to a fascinating historical document. Featuring an uncut print taken from the original 35mm negative, the film looks just great, with only minor source artifacts distracting from bold, bright colors and excellent detail. The soundtrack is also better than expected, with a clear mono mix that more than gets the job done. Synapse's consistent commitment quality continues to put them at the very top of the cult DVD heap.
The main extra on the disc is a commentary by Wishman biographer Michael Bowen -- and Leslie herself! It's a must-listen track that not only details the production of the film, Wishman's career and Leslie's life as a woman these past three decades, but it even manages to offer a much more balanced view of gender dysphoria than the film itself. Bowen, who got to know Wishman shortly before she died in 2002, is an expert on the first lady of exploitation, and he more than satisfies with his thorough, well-researched comments. Also on board are a handful of trailers and an alternate opening sequence that dates the film as 1971. In the disc's accompanying liner notes, Bowen expounds on the date discrepancy, but it's just as incredulous that the film could be played in a theatre in 1978 as it could in 1971.
There's not a great deal of mainstream appeal in Wishman's transsexual "freak show" -- it's badly directed, atrociously acted and intentionally offensive. As a strange sexual document of the 1970s, however, fans of outré cinema will be hard pressed to find something as weird and wild as Let Me Die a Woman, a film that is essential viewing for Wishman aficionados and shockumentary hounds.
Guilty as sin!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Rare alternate opening credit sequence
* Audio Commentary from Doris Wishman archivist Michael Bowen and star, Leslie