Matt Cimber: Burlesque, Butterfly and Blaxploitation

We promise we aren’t going through a “Jayne Mansfield’s husbands” phase; it’s just that Matt Cimber’s birthday falls less than a week after Mickey Hargitay’s. And that’s the end of the streak; I can’t imagine ever being inspired to do a post about her first husband Paul Mansfield. What triggers inspiration? Why, angles of interest, and believe me Matt Cimber’s got plenty. He’s like some kind of combination of Ed Wood, Vince McMahon, Russ Meyer, Tommy Wiseau, and, what the hell, Jose Quintero. He is responsible for several projects with cult followings, or ones that are otherwise notorious. I’d long known about one or other of these things, but only recently did I reattach the various pieces so I could get a look at the whole Frankenstein puzzle. The complete picture is pretty jaw dropping.

Born Thomas Vitale Ottaviano in New York’s Little Italy in 1936, he was initially known professionally as Matteo Ottaviano. He began his career as an Off-Broadway stage director in his early 20s, studying with Michael Chekhov and directing works by writers like Tennessee Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He worked with John Steinbeck on the 1959 revival of his 1950 Broadway flop Burning Bright (his third “play-novelette”, following Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down). This production helped bring attention to future star Sandy Dennis. He also directed the American premieres of Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy.

He met Mansfield while directing her in a Yonkers production of William Inge’s Bus Stop. The pair became involved and Cimber took over her management, marrying her in 1964. He is associated with the campy, outre work of her late career such as 1963’s Promises Promises, in which she went topless, as well as The Fat Spy and Las Vegas Hillbillys, both in 1966. Mansfield’s last film was Cimber’s first as director, a drama called Single Room Furnished, which got a very limited release in 1966, and a wider one in 1968 following Mansfield’s death. At the time of Mansfield’s fatal crash, she and Cimber had been divorced for several months.

Single Room Furnished did not catapult Cimber into the ranks of Hollywood film directors. He made several X rated movies in 1970 and ’71 under a variety of pseudonyms and then broke into blaxploitation in his slouch toward legitimacy, with The Black 6 (1973); followed by The Candy Tangerine Man (1975), a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s; and Lady Cocoa (1975), a Coffy rip-off starring Lola Falana. Next came the lesbian themed The Gemini Affair (1975), followed by That Girl from Boston (1975) adapted from a a novel by Robert Rimmer (author of The Harrad Experiment, which we wrote about here) and starring Mamie Van Doren, Cimber’s first suitable stand-in for Mansfield.

I caught his jaw-dropping film The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976) on Criterion recently, a sort of poetic horror sexploitation art film, penned by the legendary Robert Thom, and starring no less than Millie Perkins of The Diary of Anne Frank, who was Thom’s wife. This one is due to develop a cult following I believe, especially in light of its mythological mermaid and feminist witch themes. It looks like a home movie, but there ain’t nothin’ in the world like it.

After this, somehow or other he got the wherewithal in 1979 to direct the post-World War II revenge film A Time to Die, starring Edward Albert, Rex Harrison, and Rod Taylor, and based on a Mario Puzo novel. The film as Cimber shot it was apparently not up to the standards of the producer, who added several new scenes without Cimber’s involvement, and didn’t release it until 1982. Meantime, there was this:

Butterfly (1981) is easily Cimber’s best known film, though that’s a pretty low bar, and I don’t think I had heard of it or seen it until about 20 years or more after it was released. It is widely regarded as one of the worst and most bizarre movies of all time, though there all sorts of factors to make it of unavoidable interest, e.g. it is based on a James M. Cain novel, has a score by Ennio Morricone, and contains one of the last dramatic performances by Orson Welles. At the heart of it, however, is what Cimber knew best: sexual exploitation. It stars Pia Zadora, previously known best (by aficionados like me anyway) as one of the kids in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Backed by her millionaire husband Meshulam Riklis, this is Zadora’s unambigious showcase, featuring scenes of nudity and incest, along with some rather rudimentary acting by its star. To plug the film there were billboards in Hollywood, and a naked photo spread in Playboy. Interestingly, I was aware of the Pia Zadora jokes at the time, but not of the movie, so I guess that was a campaign that backfired. The film also stars Stacy Keach, Lois Nettleton, James Franciscus, Stuart Whitman (whom we recently wrote about here), Ed McMahon, June Lockhart, and Cimber regulars Edward Albert and George Buck Flower.

Nothing daunted, in 1982 there was a follow up to Butterfly, also directed by Cimber and starring Pia Zadora, called Fake Out a.k.a. Nevada Heat. This one featured Telly Salavas, Desi Arnaz Jr, Larry Storch, Buddy Lester, and Sammy Shore.

After these two movies did not set the world on fire (although the world might have liked to have set the movies on fire) Cimber returned to something like his previous level of production. He directed a 3-D martial arts movie called Tiger Man (1983) starring Don Wong, and two Spanish action films starring Laurene Landon, Hundra (1983) and Golden Hair and the Fortress of Doom (1984). But the fabulousness is not over yet…

Cimber was to work with Meshulam Riklis again, this time as the television director of the original GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (1986-89). David McLane was the creator and producer, Riklis was the backer, and Cimber actually directed the show. Marc Maron’s role on the recent Neflix series appears to be based on him.

After this: some years of mystery. He is rumored to have directed the documentary An American Icon: Coca-Cola, the Early Years (1997), which I think might be this movie. I deduce that this was an industrial that was released on home video in 2003. He directed a visitor film for the U.N., and a pilot for an unsold Larry King series called Peace for Profit (2008). In 2006 he made a Holocaust drama titled Miriam starring Ariana Savalas, Telly’s talented daughter. The 2017 launch of the Netflux GLOW series has put him back in the spotlight of late. You’ll find lots of recent video interviews with him on Youtube.