The Exploitation and Redemption of Laura Gemser

If you’re a fan of trashy vintage B-movies and Grindhouse films, there is no doubt that you are familiar with Laura Gemser. She forged a successful career out of her unearthly beauty, and she is still world renown by die-hard fans to this day. But who was Laura Gemser as a person? How did such a shy and intelligent woman cope with being viewed as a sex icon due to the explicit Black Emanuelle movie series?

On the surface, her life story is a glamorous jet-set tale of stardom in the flower-power & free love era. Underneath the facade of bare skin on celluloid, there was a darker conflict going on in her heart. She enjoyed and despised aspects of her work at the same time. The films she starred in were disturbingly violent and often pornographic, and after awhile she balked at doing such roles. Laura yearned for a legitimate movie career, but was instead offered a steady incline of smut. This is the flamboyantly tragic life story of Laura Gemser.

From Java to Utrecht

She was born as Laurette Marcia Gemser on October 5, 1950, in the tropical city of Surabaya, Indonesia. The country was a Dutch colony for hundreds of years, and finally gained its independence in 1949. However Indonesia’s liberation was far from peaceful, and the authoritarian president Sukarno ruled with an iron fist. The country was in a state of conflict, with communist and radical Islamic sects constantly squaring off against one another. Concerned by the instability, her parents moved the family to Utrecht, Netherlands when she was only four years old.

After graduating high school, Laura attended Artibus Art School to study fashion. And of course, the 5 ft 7″ beauty was immediately noticed for her model good looks. In the early 1970s, she posed for fashion magazines in Belgium and Amsterdam. From the span of 1973 to 1977, Laura appeared on five covers of the Italian erotic magazine Playmen. She also posed for the French magazine Lui and worked with Francis Giacobetti. But it was in Italy where her career would take off and she would become a star.

The 1970s were an era of liberation in all shapes and forms, be it social, sexual, racial or otherwise. There is a misconception that American Hollywood films were at the forefront of everything progressive. This was untrue. In the U.S., bland and ordinary actresses such as Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep ruled the screen with a monopoly and swept the Oscars. In Italy, it seemed that audiences were more ready to accept ethnically diverse actresses.

Italian cinema often cast women of color in the 1970s, such as the Eritrean actresses Zeudi Araya and Ines Pellegrini, Burmese actress Me-Me Lai, African-American actress Ajita Wilson, Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan, Dominican actress Lucía Ramírez, Afro-Italian actresses Carla Brait and Angela La Vorgna, and Jamaican actress Beryl Cunningham, among others. The roles they were given were often of dubious quality (cannibal horror movies, erotic films and violent giallo), but these women became underground stars in their own right.

Spanish magazine ‘Personas’, number 67 from December 15, 1974

La Principessa del Cinema Italiano

In 1974, a 24-year old Laura starred in her first film called Amore libero (Free Love). It was an Italian production shot on the gorgeous French island of Seychelles. Described as an erotic adventure film, it was considered pedestrian and tame compared to her later films. Despite its mediocrity, the movie did the trick and got Laura noticed. Perhaps unaware of what she was in for, she moved to Italy to pursue her newfound acting career.

Softcore porn was rife in 1970s Europe, and the most infamous film of 1974 was Just Jaeckin’s X-rated Emmanuelle, starring Sylvia Kristel. Based on the autobiographical smut novels by French-Thai libertine Emmanuelle Arsan, the film caused a stir in France upon its release and was followed by two more sequels. Laura played a small role in Emmanuelle 2 as a kinky masseuse.

Like a sheep wandering into a pack of wolves, Laura had no idea what she was getting into:

“I wanted to be a model. I was still a little girl. I came to Italy specifically to shoot ‘Amore Libero,’ because someone was impressed by my photographs and therefore made contact with my agency. Even the part I did later in ‘Emmanuelle 2’ was born because the director Francis Giacobetti was a photographer with whom I had already made several nude and fashion shoots. I remember the day when he asked me if I wanted to do a part in the film he was going to make, ‘Emmanuelle 2.’ And I replied: “Why not?” 

Emmanuelle II (1975)

Love, Fame and Scandal

This was a first in a long chain of sleaze films for Laura. In a way, cameoing in Emmanuelle 2 was like selling her soul to the devil. Afterwards, she was offered the lead role in a series of Italian grindhouse spin-offs named Black Emanuelle. The Italians removed an “m” from the name so their French counterparts would not sue. Directed by Bitto Albertini, 1975’s Black Emanuelle turned Laura into a cult film star. He had seen a poster of her while at a travel agency in Kenya, and was mesmerized by her knockout looks.

Despite having limited prior acting experience, Laura was cast in the main role. One of the pros of starring in the film was that it was shot in scenic Nairobi, Kenya. Laura said that she “didn’t really read the script, but they told me I was doing it in Kenya, so I said yes. That’s the only idea– to go to Kenya, and that for me was okay. I don’t care about the script.” One of Laura’s favourite things about her acting career was that it allowed her to travel and to see new places. She had an adventurous and bold spirit, and she brought this carefree attitude into all her performances.

Impossibly beautiful in Black Emanuelle (1975)

She also met the love of her life on the set of the film. Laura’s handsome co-star Gabriele Tinti was infatuated with her ever since spotting her at a production office in Rome, and the two later began a passionate affair while filming in Kenya. She was a Libra, and he was a Leo- it was meant to be! Laura said “it was meeting Gabriele that pushed me to leave my homeland to come and live here in Italy… to always be close to him.

Gabriele was a B-list Italian actor with matinee idol good looks that led the press to dub him “the Italian Alain Delon.” He grew up poor, so this pushed him to have an extraordinary drive to succeed as he grew older. Gabriele starred in dozens of movies each year all across Europe and in Hollywood, and eventually began to foray into erotic films.

Gabriele Tinti and his piercing gaze.

Despite the fact that he was 18 years older than her, Laura loved him immensely. The couple married in 1976 and stayed that way until his death in 1991. Gabriele also starred with Laura in all of her Emanuelle films, except for Emanuelle Around the World. It was strange that they both had such a strong bond despite performing in graphic sex scenes with other actors as well.

Laura and Gabriele had an understanding that while they performed in vulgar films, they still had an unbreakable attachment between them. Indeed you can see the chemistry when they perform together: the couple light up the screen and you could genuinely tell they were in love! Rather than working bum 9-5 jobs, the pair travelled the world and starred in films together. It seemed a small price to pay because it allowed them a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of getting naked onscreen. They were like the Onlyfans thots of their day.

Crazy in love!

While Black Emanuelle may have brought Laura love and a career, it’s technically a terrible film. It is a weird and haphazard porno flick with a cheesy soundtrack and just so many ridiculous moments. It was also tough for Laura to get used to stripping down on film. Her agent complained that Laura could barely pose for a picture, so it would be even tougher teach her to perform in movies.

Director Bitto Albertini claimed “it was difficult to make her act, and she thought it was a game. She didn’t take it seriously at first, then she became pretty good.” The contention may have come from the all the nude sex scenes she was compelled to do. In many moments, Laura looks awkward and downright uncomfortable. But this was her new job, and she steeled herself to it.

Laura and Karin Schubert on set.

Another thing that infuriated Laura was the fact that Albertini had added in hardcore porn footage during the editing stage- without her approval! Laura never performed in hardcore acts on screen, and vehemently refused any requests to do so. Yet Albertini had inserted random stand-in scenes without her permission. This was something Laura would always feel very icky about. She described the nightmare of finding out about what had happened:

“Any excuse is good to get naked. I saw the one– the first Emanuelle, because I was curious. But then I felt baaad, because I didn’t expect to see… I refused a lot of scenes. They put in a stand-in, and I didn’t know. So when I saw the movie, I felt rather bad. There was a scene in a train. I think it was… she was making love with a whole football team. I don’t remember. But, I refused that scene, and they used stand-ins, and– I don’t know what are the scenes… I forgot. Really, I forgot…”

The Misfortunes of Karin Schubert

The beautiful and tragic Karin Schubert.

While Laura always had the leverage throughout her career to refuse hardcore porn, her co-star Karin Schubert did not. Karin was an attractive German actress who starred in French and Italian cult films throughout the 1970s. When the roles dried up and she began aging and facing financial difficulties, Karin’s life turned into a nightmare.

While her role in Black Emanuelle was already embarrassing enough, it was about to get worse. Karin’s son was a troubled drug addict, and it was up to her to pay for his psychiatric treatment. In her 40s, a middle aged Karin posed for nudie magazines. In the 1980s, she was eventually forced to do hardcore porn to pay her debts. She acted in over 20 pornos, and it broke her mentally.

Karin and Laura in Emanuelle Around the World (1977)

Having already suffered sexual abuse in her youth, Karin attempted suicide three times yet she survived them all. She was then interred in a psychiatric hospital. She lamented I have neither family nor friends, neither money, nor future. I wanted to die because I missed everything. For people, I am a whore.” She now lives in an isolated area of Germany; faraway from the media and alone except for her pet dogs who keep her company.

The King of Sleaze

Thankfully, Laura never fell into the trap that poor Karin did. It was the constant love and support of Gabriele Tinti that kept her strong throughout her career. Black Emanuelle was a smash hit, and Laura signed a contract with director Aristide Massaccesi AKA Joe D’Amato for five more films. If you’re a geeky cinephile, you’ll definitely be familiar with the infamous D’Amato. He was the most well-known exploitation film director in 1970s Italy, and churned out hundreds of low budget films that left audiences in awe of how perverse and depraved they were.

Joe D’Amato and Laura Gemser in Venice, on the set of Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976)

D’Amato really knew how to sell a film: just add copious amounts of sex and gore. Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle looked like a joke compared to D’Amato’s sequels. He directed every genre of film possible, from horror to fantasy to westerns to straight up porn. And quality wise, you couldn’t exactly say his movies were good. But they were shocking and attention-grabbing, and the charming and goddess-like Laura Gemser became his most valuable asset.

Laura was his muse and inspiration. The camera adored her, and D’Amato captured her at her best angles. He described Laura as a shy, wonderful and sweet person who was very private and liked to keep her life hidden from the media. While the Emanuelle character she portrayed onscreen was very kinky and hedonistic, the real life Laura had a very committed relationship with Gabriele Tinti.

Ely Galleani and Laura Gemser in Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade (1978)

Co-star Ely Galleani said Laura was sometimes hard to work with because she seemed “very upset” during their lesbian lovemaking scenes. Indeed, Laura would go on to say that “it’s hard to make love with a [woman]. I mean, it’s… it’s really hard. But, you know, you get paid for it, so you do it. You just do it!” So despite the Sapphic scenes she performed in onscreen, Laura was not bisexual in real life.

D’Amato depicts Emanuelle as a strong, independent, and promiscuous photojournalist who travels the world and gets down with almost everyone she comes across, be they male or female. Cue in lackluster sex scenes every five minutes and feature some horribly dated and corny musical scores by Nico Fidenco. He was certainly no Ennio Morricone.

The bella donna in Venice, on the set of Emanuelle in America (1977)

Emanuelle is also extremely oversexualized, and is shown to enjoy gangbangs and group sex- and even gang rape! Wtf. In the post AIDS era, these films come off as very twisted and obscene. The only redeeming properties of the Emanuelle films are Laura Gemser and her many interesting co-stars. If not for her, these movies would be discarded as nothing more than repetitive, abject trash. Laura said herself that:

“It seemed like one long, long movie that didn’t end. You know, it was always the same story, the same things happens.. I was a journalist… a photographer… and they always sent me out to to find some drug criminals. There was a lot of drugs, right? And then.. there was always the same situation… always had to get myself undressed to get something… I don’t know….

Bloody & Extreme Grindhouse Cinema

Then why did she continue doing the sordid Emanuelle films? Well the fact that she was able to travel to Thailand, Morocco, Hong Kong, New York, Venice, Washington, San Diego, Egypt, India, Iran and China could have contributed to it. Most of the films were garden-variety and forgettable, but two 1977 classics stand out for their offensive and wildly violent plots: Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals.

In Emanuelle in America, Laura plays a journalist who goes undercover to bust a snuff film ring. There is an array of nauseating scenes; such as horse bestiality, orgies and random, terrible hardcore porn inserts. 1970s Italian filmmakers had a serious problem with exploiting their stars. D’Amato had tried many times to make Laura film hardcore porn scenes, but she always gave him a resounding NO!

Emanuelle in America (1977)

Penthouse magazine founder and producer Bob Guccione had cut porn scenes into Tinto Brass’ 1979 disasterpiece Caligula without telling anyone, much to the chagrin of stars Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. After watching Caligula in theaters Malcolm said “I felt like a woman after she’s been raped.” This strongly echoes Laura’s sentiments about her own films.

The worst parts of Emanuelle in America, however, are definitely the hyper-realistic, gory snuff film scenes. For some reason, D’Amato thought it would be a good idea to include graphic torture in a literal porno. The film was seized by an Italian court because they thought the disturbing footage was real, and one of the traumatized actresses in the snuff scenes sued production but lost the case. The things Italian directors got away with back then were mind-blowing. The horrific sequences inspired David Cronenberg’s amazing 1983 classic sci-fi body horror flick Videodrome, so at least it was good for something in the end.

Laura and Gabriele. This is probably my fave Emanuelle outfit.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, mondo movie Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals was even worse. Just look at the title. Thankfully, this film had no hardcore porn inserts. But it was still marketed as an erotic film, despite the fact that it was literally about cannibalism. Another one of D’Amato’s bright ideas. His vomit-inducing film went on to inspire Ruggero Deodato’s even more nauseating and infamous 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. I strongly advise you not to watch these two back to back.

The plot is trite: Laura the journalist and Gabriele the anthropologist go on a cute New York date to discuss cannibals and to make love, and then D’Amato cuts to them watching a tribal castration scene. It didn’t make for a good romance movie, but it did give the film an air of bizarre infamy. The duo then head out to the “Amazon jungle,” which is really just the forests of Lazio, Italy. Racism ensues (the “native” tribe is played by Filipino tourists!), as well as graphic scenes of cannibalism, gutting and dismemberment. Skip the popcorn when you watch this one.

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

Going Mainstream

With movies like these under her belt, is it any wonder Laura grew disillusioned with her career? She did have a few roles in some “respectable” movies, such as the 1977 Terence Hill and Bud Spencer comedy film Crime Busters, and the 1976 Hollywood disaster flick Voyage of the Damned. Director Stuart Rosenberg said he wanted an actress who looked Cuban, and personally chose Laura for the role. She called the experience “unreal.” Unfortunately, she had no lines and just played Orson Welles’ arm candy. Laura gave a fascinating account of him in an interview and said he was:

A big guy (laughs)… he walked very badly because of his size. I remember that he spent his days locked in his room, he never wanted to talk to anyone. Even when Faye Dunaway went to look for him because she wanted to talk to him, Orson drew back, he didn’t want to meet her. Poor thing, she came to the set on purpose because she wanted to talk to him. But Orson would lock himself in the room after the take.

Orson Welles and Laura Gemser in Voyage of the Damned (1976)

The least awful D’Amato film starring Laura was 1976’s Black Cobra Woman. This was the closest he ever got to making a decent movie, and the presence of Hollywood star Jack Palance added a little class to the production. And unlike the terrible musical scores the other Emanuelle films had, this one had a pleasant soundtrack by maestro Piero Umiliani.

Black Cobra Woman is a strictly softcore film that doesn’t have any trademark disturbing D’Amato scenes (other than a snake being skinned alive and eaten at a Chinese marketplace). Set in Hong Kong, Laura plays an exotic snake dancer who is wooed by sugar daddy Palance. In the film, Laura performs sensual snake dances and looks effortless while doing it. In real life, Laura had a fear of snakes and one even defecated on her when she was handling it!

Nothing comes between a girl and her snake ♥

The Private Life of Laura Gemser

It’s tough to find an interview of Laura from the 1970s, but I managed to discover a rare newspaper clipping from that era. The article is in Spanish and was an interview done when she had a stopover at El Prat airport in Barcelona to meet a movie producer (this is a rough translation btw I did the best I could). In the clipping, Laura reveals that she wants to stop getting naked on camera because “everything has a limit” and that she has other plans for the future. Surprisingly, she says that she has studied archaeology, and even passed two pharmacy courses as she wanted to pursue a medical career.

We also find out that she is bilingual and speaks five languages (Dutch, Indonesian, English, Italian, and I’m not sure of the other one). When quizzed about the upside of the Emanuelle film series, Laura admits it gave her “fame and a comfortable economic position.” The reporter also mentions that she is happily married to Gabriele Tinti, who accompanied her on the trip. This is all very interesting because not much is known about Laura’s private life outside of her film career, so it’s fascinating to see she had other ambitions that sadly never came true.

B-Movie Extravaganza

Laura’s career slogged on into the 1980s as she starred in trash films of all genres: sexploitation, women in prison films, nunsploitation, sex comedies, an erotic biopic on Caligula, more pseudo-Emanuelle sequels, a martial arts flick with Toshiro Mifune, Sonny Chiba and James Earl Jones, a zombie movie, horror, fantasy, and other questionable films I don’t recommend watching. The girl had to make a living somehow.

On the set of 1982’s Violence in a Women’s Prison, the no-nonsense Laura clashed with her haughty co-star Lorraine De Selle. She had some harsh words for her:

“She was someone who put on incredible intellectual airs. But she was a pseudo intellectual in my opinion. I mean if you make a movie like “Violence in a Women’s Prison” you can’t be an intellectual… you can’t be a busy theater actress when you’re shooting such bullshit. In short, the story is what it is, it’s definitely not Shakespeare… let’s have fun, right? “

With Mónica Zanchi on the set of nunsploitation film Sister Emanuelle (1977)

In 1980, Laura recorded a song called “Crazy Eyes (And We’ll Love Again)” in Germany and surprised everyone with her vocal talents. She had a beautiful singing voice and it was a shame she didn’t record more music because that track is actually very dreamy and well produced! It was also bizarre that Laura’s voice was dubbed in almost every film she ever appeared in, despite the fact that she spoke good English but with a slight Dutch accent.

In 1983, Laura co-starred in the cheesy hit American TV movie Love is Forever with the king of corniness, Michael Landon. The director and producers forced Laura to hide her identity on set:

This was at the behest of the director and the production. They didn’t want my ‘erotic’ past to connect with the film, which was a story for the whole family. So they gave me the name of Moira Chen, but it didn’t help because everyone wrote: Moira Chen is Laura Gemser (laughs). Hall Bartlett, the director, was an American who wanted to change my life. It was a little bit nasty… He was a moralizer. It forced me to deny even in the face of evidence. When in Thailand people said to me: ‘Are you Laura Gemser?’ I had to say: ‘No… no, I’m Moira Chen’. It was embarrassing.

Stills from Looking Good with Laura Gemser, a weird 1980s workout video.

Laura tried to turn a blind eye to the hardcore porn that was being inserted into the films she made with D’Amato, but then she realized these scenes were literally being filmed right there on a parallel set. At least she had a sense of humour about it:

“I’ve always believed that Aristide [Joe] made porn films at the same time as ours. But not that these were scenes to be included in the films themselves. I realized it late, on the set of 1982’s ‘Caligula the Untold Story.’ There is a scene in that film in which Emperor Caligula, David Brandon, and I walk to a bedroom. As we walk, a long, incredible porn scene starts, and after half an hour of wild sex, the scene resumes with us entering the bedroom. I remember when I saw Aristide, I said to him: ‘Fuck, Ari,’ this bedroom was really far away!”

Caligola… la storia mai raccontata (1982)

Laura Gemser: Goblin Costume Designer

From 1988 onwards, Laura worked on Italian low budget D-movies as a wardrobe and costume designer. After all, she was an ex-model who had studied fashion in college. She worked on D’Amato’s films as the two had a close friendship throughout their careers. Most famously, she helped create the costumes for 1990’s Troll 2, often called the worst movie ever made. The film was shot in Utah with an all-Italian production crew. None of them spoke fluent English except Laura, which caused the shoot to be a total mess.

She did her best with the low budget, creating goblins out of Halloween masks and burlap sacks. Ever the penny pincher, producer D’Amato would go on to re-use these costumes in 1982’s Ator: The Fighting Eagle. Even so, Troll 2 was a disaster that was universally panned, and the special effects were mercilessly mocked. It is tragic that this movie is associated with Laura, but at least she had fun on set.

Laura at work on the set of Troll 2 (1990)

And she didn’t have to strip naked on screen anymore! Phasing out her acting career was like a breath of fresh air for Laura. She described the discomfort she felt the first time she had to disrobe:

“The first few times I had to undress in front of the camera were a traumatizing moment… but then I got used to it. Sure, everyone on the set looks at you like that (she widens her eyes and sticks out his tongue, panting like a dog), then it’s a bit embarrassing, but if you take it as a job, it all goes away. You say: I have to do it, they pay me. And frankly, I didn’t do particularly rough scenes, even if once, in Italy, it didn’t take much to cause a scandal…

Notti porno nel mondo (1977)

When my first Emanuelle came out, there was this big poster with me on it, and I was naked ’til here… and they censored it. They took it down, and so people were curious to see it… So nowadays, you see everything… I mean, even in TV you see everything. In those days it was rather… How do you say it? Uh, scandaloso… [I got] a little bit tired of doing this, and I was trying to do some other kind of movies. But… I had that label on me, and it’s very hard to get out of it. So I said ‘I hate it,’ so I stopped doing it.”

The End of Love

Another factor that contributed to the end of Laura’s acting career was the death of her beloved husband Gabriele Tinti. With him by her side, Laura was full of confidence and strength. But when he passed away in Rome on November 12, 1991, she was heartbroken. He was only 59 years old, but he was a lifelong smoker who died of a myocardial infarction before leaving on a flight to France to star in a new film. The couple had been married for 15 years. Since they never had any children and her family was split between the Netherlands and Indonesia, Laura was left on her own.

Laura and Gabriele in Hong Kong, 1976.

Laura and Gabriele were both enigmatic and mysterious people who kept their personal lives out of the public eye. But in 2016, Laura agreed to be interviewed for a documentary on his life called Come in un film: La Vera Storia di Gabriele Tinti. In this film, she recounts rare info about his life. He was originally named Gastone, and was a poor boy from the Bolognese village of Molinella. When he became famous, Gabriele returned home in a white suit and sports car, which the poverty-stricken villagers soiled with their own blackened hands and clothes.

Even though he was 20 years younger than her, Gabriele seduced legendary Italian actress Anna Magnani in the 1950s and she fell madly in love with him. He was also married to Brazilian actress Norma Bengell for seven years during the 1960s. Gabriele was an attractive and charismatic playboy, but Laura was the woman who had stolen his heart. In the documentary, Laura tears up talking about him and remembers him fondly and with great love. She had Gabriele buried in his hometown of Molinella, in a grave next to his father’s.

Electric chemistry: the couple in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

After his death, Laura disappeared from the screen, but continued designing costumes until 1993. To those who asked her why she retired, Laura joked about not wanting to play “Emanuelle’s grandmother” because she was now in her 40s and a widow. Laura and Gabriele had lived together at a villa in Saxa Rubra, a solitary village 14 km away from Rome. They had a small wooden house with a wild garden set in a fairy tale landscape. After his death, she found life there to be lonely and painful, so she moved to a different location in Rome.

Retirement and Isolation

The last time Laura was spotted at a public event was at Joe D’Amato’s 1999 funeral, which she was said to have become emotional at. Despite all he put her through in those weird movies he made, Laura still had a soft spot for D’Amato. Nowadays, the man would be #metoo’d in a minute. She had given a compelling account of him in a 1997 interview:

On the set of Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976)

“In my opinion Aristide is a born actor, a comic actor, because he has this face that makes you laugh immediately when he speaks. At the time I didn’t understand Italian well, but every time this funny little man said something to me I inevitably burst out laughing. I had a really good time with Aristide…

Today it would be unthinkable to make films like those… Working with Aristide was an adventure. He did everything: he was the director, the cinematographer, the producer -and an actress very often also had to be a costume designer and a seamstress. In the last period of our collaboration I was a costume designer because I had had to learn how to do it already when I was shooting the other films. Everyone had to be able to do a little bit of everything.

Gabriele, D’Amato and Laura in 1976

But thinking about it was funny and Aristide made me laugh a lot… laughing is important. He always had such agitation on him… he was always anxious and he forgot everything on time: his shirt, his shoes, a mess like few others! A great professional but also a great mess. When he got angry then I don’t tell you!

Aristide, however, did not get angry a lot, usually he always did it with irony. The few times he really got angry I went away because then it was unbearable: he screamed, cursed and so on and so forth… One thing that Aristide and I have in common is that we fall asleep everywhere, we sleep easy. It also happened to me in the breaks between takes. But he too was no less.”

A rare still from The Lost City, a D’Amato film that was never completed.

Laura now lives a quiet life somewhere in Rome, far away from all the movie cameras. She is in her 70s, and she rarely takes interviews. In 2000, director Alex Cox interviewed her in A Hard Look, a documentary on the Emanuelle films (I have transcribed the interview into different sections of this article). She was still pretty and glowing at the age of 50, but seemed disappointed and conflicted about her acting career.

In 2016, Laura appeared in the Gabriele Tinti documentary. And in 2018, Severin Films released a short interview with Laura called I Am Your Black Queen as a featurette on a DVD release set of hers (yet I can’t find it… RIP). Information about her is scarce, but I raked up as much as I could from Italian cinema sites. She proves to be a tantalizing enigma for fans who want to get to know more about the real Laura Gemser.

Laura discusses her late husband in Come in un film: La Vera Storia di Gabriele Tinti (2016)

Unlike many other actresses who crumbled in the face of fame and abuse by the film industry, Laura managed to hold up under all kinds of pressure and bow away gracefully from the screen. Countless starlets succumb to suicide, substance abuse, botched plastic surgery, poverty, mental illness, and other afflictions. Yet even as a widow, Laura managed to keep herself together and settle into a private life in Rome.

She enjoys craftsmanship, and makes her own furniture out of recycled material. Laura still designs her own clothes as well, and often sells them at the grand market of Porta Portese by the Tiber river. She is a very low-key and a level headed person, which is remarkable considering all she’s gone through.

Laura seems to want to distance herself from her smut career, and that is understandable. The Emanuelle movies truly were exploitation in many more ways than one. They were films that exploited Laura herself, and forced her to do unimaginable acts (everything shy of actual penetration) onscreen. She is a wonder to watch in movies; as she is extremely gorgeous and slender with long black hair, a stunning smile and the It quality of a star. Yet the content she was forced to do was way beneath her.

She was an intelligent and unique woman who deserved much better than the sleazy roles she was given. There is a feeling of wasted talent when reflecting on her filmography. Laura was much more than just her pleasant face and body, and her acting ability and beauty as a person shine through in the gritty grindhouse films she drifted above. To her fans, Laura Gemser will always be a bright and glorious diamond glittering in the rough of 1970s erotic B-movie cinema.

The Glamour and the Suffering of Marisa Mell

It is said that beauty is a gift bestowed only upon the truly blessed. For Marisa Mell, this initial blessing eventually turned out to be a bitter curse. She was a dazzling sex symbol and a style icon in the swingin’ 1960s, but her career later dissolved into poverty and tragedy.

She was born on February 24, 1939 in Graz, Austria as Marlies Theres Moitzi; later changing her name to one that was easier for non-German speakers to pronounce. Marisa was stunningly statuesque at 5’8″ tall and had a perfect body to match. Her face was structured like some ethereal Roman goddess; with mesmerizing green eyes, prominent cheekbones and a defined square bone structure. There are many gorgeous women out there, but Marisa was special. She just naturally had that It quality and hypnotic screen presence. It was obvious that she would be a star, and the Queen of B- Movies.

Rise to Fame

Marisa’s father abandoned their family when she was young, and she was smothered by her mother’s attentions. They resided in a housing complex inside the school grounds where her mother worked. Marisa appeared in her first film in 1954, at the age of 15. She was educated at a nunnery, and briefly attended a school of commerce in Graz. From 1958 to 1963, she was married to an Italo-Swiss man named Henry Tucci, but there is zero information on what type of person he was or what their marriage was like.

As a child, Marisa idolized Greta Garbo. After seeing Garbo’s 1936 film Camille, Marisa decided she too wanted to become an actress. She admired Dorothy Dandridge and found her beautiful, and had a crush on German actor Curd Jürgens. Some of Marisa’s hobbies were painting and studying archaeology. Her childhood was described as lonely. She often wore black, and girls admired her beauty from afar. Marisa was never seen without a man on her arm because she hated being alone.

Soon enough, Marisa went to Vienna and attended the Max Reinhardt drama school for four years to learn how to become a stage actor. The first time her lifelong friend Erika Pluhar saw her, she thought “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl. In the movies maybe, but never so close and real… I envied her haughty untouchability, this insurmountable aura of beauty. ” Eventually, Marisa was offered more film roles.

She played in a ton of mostly forgotten West German movies that no one has seen (including Edgar Wallace Krimi pictures), and was then cast in legendary British director Ken Russell’s trashy 1964 comedy flick French Dressing. Russell (a talented director when not harassed by penny-pinching producers) knew that his first feature film was garbage, and later described the production as “a very unhappy film as far as I was concerned.”

French Dressing (1964)

Regardless, the film got Marisa noticed outside of Austria. She was the new Germanic Brigitte Bardot. When she was invited to the 1963 Buenos Aires film festival, she tried to seduce Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Unfortunately for her, Anthony was gay and more attracted to Julian Mateos, her Spanish arm candy. She was living the good life. But due to a freak accident, her success was almost prematurely botched.

Calamities and Bad Luck

In 1963, Marisa suffered a horrible car accident while shooting in France. Comatose for six hours, she almost lost her right eye in the horrific collision, and required extensive surgery for two years to repair her damaged lip. Due to good surgical work, the effects were almost un-noticeable. She was said to have a curled upper lip after the accident, which somehow made her look even more beautiful. Marisa believed she survived because “God was on my side.”

Applying make-up on the set of Casanova ’70 (1965)

After recovering, she returned to acting, moved to Italy and became a well known B-movie starlet. While filming the 1964 western The Last Ride to Santa Cruz on Spain’s Gran Canaria island, an athletic Marisa fell off her horse and suffered an intense nosebleed. She was rescued by a male passerby who immediately fell for her.

Marisa enjoyed the sunny climate and chic jet-set lifestyle of Rome over the austerity and gray cold of Austria. Her highest profile production at the time was Mario Monicelli’s light-hearted 1965 comedy Casanova ’70. She starred alongside Marcello Mastroianni, Virna Lisi and Michèle Mercier. She also played in the 1966 thriller Secret Agent Super Dragon, a lame James Bond knockoff that has the dubious honor of being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and having a 2.3 rating on IMDB.

From the flopped live performance of Mata Hari.

That year, Marisa was chosen to star as famed WWI spy Mata Hari in a lavish $800,000 Broadway musical adaptation, directed by Hollywood icon Vincente Minnelli. She was spotted by his wife Denise, through her photoshoots in magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

After a disastrously embarrassing 1967 preview in Washington, the entire production was sacked. Lady Bird Johnson was in attendance that evening, and had sponsored the performance. Only later did the Minnellis realize that Marisa could not sing, and neither could she speak English. She had spoken to Denise only in Italian, and she was said to have gotten the role after having a lesbian affair with her.

Critic Ken Mandelbaum wrote that “the show ran well past midnight, scenery collapsed and the virtually nude Mell was accidentally spotlighted during a costume change.” Theater programmer Max Woodward, who witnessed the performance, stated that “at the end, she’s tied to a pole. And then after they shoot her, she reaches up and scratches her nose.”

Yikes. The debacle effectively ended Marisa’s chances at a Hollywood career, and she fled back to Italy to escape the backlash. She claimed that she didn’t want to become the property of any Hollywood studio anyways, because their restrictive “contract was a whole book. I think that even to go to the toilet I would have needed a permission.” Previously, in 1964, she had refused a lucrative seven year Hollywood contract.

On the set of Danger, Diabolik (1968)

Regardless, the failure stayed in Marisa’s heart forever. Whenever Europeans asked her about her time on Broadway, Marisa would lie that Mata Hari was a great hit in order to save face.

Success in Italy

In 1968, Marisa starred in what is arguably her best known film: Mario Bava’s campy action-crime extravaganza, Danger, Diabolik. Based on the Italian comic book series (fumetti), the film was Italy’s flashy and psychedelic answer to Batman, and featured a hip soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

Marisa and John in a promo shot.

Marisa was cast as Eva Kant, the sexy and stylish girlfriend of the Italian criminal mastermind Diabolik; played by handsome and chiseled American film star John Phillip Law. Together, the two made a formidably attractive onscreen couple, and had electric chemistry that kindled a brief love affair offscreen.

The Eva Kant character was supposed to be blonde, so Marisa donned a very high-quality wig to play the role. Unlike the Eva of the fumetti, who dressed more conservatively and wore her hair in an up do; Marisa’s adaptation of the character called for more slutty and revealing outfits and long, flowing, golden hair. The film was an instant hit and a cult classic, and so was Marisa.

Marisa Mell and John Phillip Law make out on a pile of cash in Danger, Diabolik (1968)

Initially, Catherine Deneuve was cast, but she was fired after a week of filming. Mario Bava lamented how she was too much of an “ice princess” and not sexy and uninhibited enough to play the role of Eva Kant. John Phillip Law said that she was nice, but they had no sexual chemistry.

Ironically, Catherine refused to perform the famous scene where she and Diabolik make love on ten million dollars of cash; but later starred in the explicit 1967 Luis Buñuel film Belle de Jour. It was of no matter, as Bava would find a new actress. His initial choice was Italian actress Marilù Tolo (fashion designer Valentino called her the love of his life), but producer Dino De Laurentiis liked Marisa much more. And so, the rest was history.

The lovers share a passionate onscreen kiss.

John Philip Law said that when he and Bava saw Marisa, “we knew everything was going to work out. We fell into each other’s arms on the first day, and had a really great relationship on — and off-screen, after a while.” The photogenic pair shacked up together, and even adopted a stray black kitten found on a beach in Anzio whom they named Diabolik.

The flame was fickle, and their affair ended after shooting wrapped. John was a notorious playboy, and Marisa wasn’t short of lovers herself. Fun fact: Diabolik the cat eventually became the property of Jane Fonda, and she took him back to Paris with her after she co-starred with John in the 1968 sci-fi cult classic Barbarella.

Virna, Ursula, Marisa and Claudine.

Marisa’s next film was 1968’s Anyone Can Play, a romantic comedy in which she co-starred with Virna Lisi, Ursula Andress and Claudine Auger (the latter two were famous Bond girls). Despite the cast of classic beauties, the film was a flop and faded into oblivion.

With 1969 came Marisa’s second most famous film; a giallo by infamous horror gore-exploitation director Lucio Fulci called Una Sull’altra (One on Top of the Other). While Fulci’s later films were mostly bloody and disturbing, this one was tame and restrained in comparison, and extremely well made. The film also has an outstanding jazz soundtrack by Riz Ortolani.

Marisa Mell gives Jean Sorel a bj in Una Sull’altra (1969)

In this giallo classic, Marisa stars in a suspenseful double role, and again dons a glam blonde wig to play her character. It is very reminiscent of the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, and explores the nature of infidelity, lascivious sexuality, morality, fate and mistaken identity.

In some countries, the film was released under the skeevy title Perversion Story. Her co-star was dashing French actor Jean Sorel, and the pair had fantastic chemistry onscreen. While he does not appear on Marisa’s long list of lovers, I bet my life that they smashed irl.

Looking like a perfect 10 on set.

Dating a Bad Boy

In 1969, Marisa also suffered a miscarriage. The child had belonged to her boyfriend, an Italian nightclub owner, drug dealer, mobster and producer with aristocratic roots named Pier Luigi Torri. He was like the real life Diabolik, except uglier. Marisa and Pier Luigi dated on and off for six years from 1965 onwards, and he was her longest boyfriend.

Through Pier Luigi, Marisa accessed a world of wealth, parties, drugs, glamour, power, intrigue and excitement. He was a jet-set member of Roman high society, and an eligible bachelor whom many gold-diggers wanted to nab. He occasionally produced films; many of them being softcore pornos.

With her sugar daddy Pier Luigi Torri.

He could often be seen driving his Ferraris and Rolls-Royces around Monte Carlo casino, and gambled away millions of lira at a time. He owned several villas and beachfront properties, as well as one of the most luxurious yachts in the world. When Prince Rainier of Monaco propositioned Pier Luigi for his yacht, he turned the Prince down. From then onwards, Rainier had a flaming hatred of him.

It is presumed that Marisa met Pier Luigi through her friendship/fling with fellow Austrian actor Helmut Berger. Berger himself was having a gay love affair with director and nobleman Luchino Visconti, who was a permanent fixture in the Roman aristocracy. To be anybody in Italy, you had to navigate the complex social web of who’s who.

Pier Luigi, his producer friend Bino Cicogna and a man named Vassallo all co-owned Number One nightclub, the hottest place to be in Rome. Cocaine circulated freely among the clientele, some of whom came from the most prestigious families in Rome; as well as entertainment industry and political names.

In December of 1971, Bino was found dead in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had supposedly committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head and sticking it in a gas oven, due to his despair over pending criminal charges and an addictive cocaine habit. But Pier Luigi suspected foul play.

Soon after, Number One nightclub was raided by cops and busted for cocaine. There is no doubt that Marisa used coke as well, but who didn’t at the time? As the cops began to close in on Pier Luigi, Roman tabloids went wild trying to link Marisa to the scandal.

In 1971, he fled Italy on his yacht to avoid the criminal charges pending against him. He escaped to Monaco, but bitter Prince Rainier ratted him out. After an arraignment in Nice, France, he was allowed to leave. Pier Luigi then escaped further to London. It is thought that his and Marisa’s relationship cut off around this point.

Marisa in The Devil’s Ransom, a 1971 film that Pier Luigi Torri produced as a starring vehicle for her.

She stood by him however, until he was arrested once more in London for a $300 million dollar scam. Pier Luigi then ingeniously escaped Scotland Yard by crawling outside through a bathroom ventilation shaft, and then scaling the rooftops to safety.

He vanished for 18 months, but was re-arrested in New York 18 months later. Though he was extradited back to Italy and sentenced to seven years in prison, he never served any time. Pier Luigi went on to marry a different woman, had two children, and died in 2011 at the age of 85.

The troubled couple dine at a Roman restaurant.

Where does this wild crime drama leave Marisa? The relationship took a major toll on her. Pier Luigi had a violent and abusive temper and often beat her. That could possibly be why she had a miscarriage in 1969. Regardless, she wanted to marry him and settle down. But that never occurred because he was too busy being an international criminal. The fiasco also murdered her reputation.

Thotting Around Europe

Still, Marisa did not learn her lesson and continued to date or have one night stands with many sleazy fellow actors. Her list of lovers is long and varied, and includes Alain Delon, Warren Beatty, Helmut Berger, Stephen Boyd, Robert Evans, Michel Piccoli, John Phillip Law, Roman Polanski, and even the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And these are just the ones worth noting.

The two undoubtedly would’ve made a great couple, except I think Marisa has better bone structure than Alain.

Her love affair with Alain Delon seemed to have been mostly one-sided. In her 1990 autobiography Coverlove, Marisa discusses the hook-up in gratuitous detail. Delon, however, never even mentioned Marisa in his own book. The two met in 1962 on a plane to Yugoslavia. She was immediately attracted to Delon, and described him as “passionate and animalistic” in the sack.

Unfortunately, Delon was a massive lothario (read: manwhore), and Marisa turned out to be just another notch on his list. But hey, this was the guy who broke Romy Schneider’s heart. Hilariously, Marisa claims to have had sex with Delon leading up to the press conference announcing his engagement to Francine Canovas (later known as Nathalie Delon), and after it!

Poster art for Marta (1971)

Seduced and Abandoned

In 1971, Marisa met Stephen Boyd, the man who was perhaps the love of her life. Stephen was a handsome Irish rogue best know for his iconic role in the 1959 sword and sandal epic Ben-Hur. He was eight years older than Marisa, and had already broken a lot of women’s hearts.

She gave a detailed account of their passionate romance in her book, and described it as “so difficult, strange, beautiful and sad that I can hardly bear to think of it.” The pair first met on the set of the 1971 psychological thriller Marta. Marisa described the meeting as electric, and claimed upon first glance she realized that he was “the man of my life.”

Stephen Boyd treated me like a piece of prop! she complained.

Stephen, however, did not feel the same way and ignored all of Marisa’s advances, much to her chagrin. Even though the film had many sex scenes, she could not get Stephen to react. Marisa said the experience wastorture. I spent eight weeks showing him only my best side – sweet, cute, seductive, open, mysterious – everything! It was no use.

Stephen resisted Marisa all the way through the filming of Marta with a will of iron. She was pissed, and never wanted to see him ever again. After all, which man in his right mind could resist Marisa Mell? Six months later, the pair returned to Madrid to shoot another film called The Great Swindle.

Historia de una traición (1971)

Marisa gave up her attempts to seduce Stephen. This time, it was his turn to try and put the moves on her. He began courting Marisa, and sent her roses and asked her out. She couldn’t resist, and jumped at the chance to go on a date with Stephen at a flamenco bar.

His glances made her “weak in the knees,” and she said that helooked like a god.” After the date, they spent the night at Stephen’s place. It was clearly a satisfying lay, since Marisa described him as “just so awesome in his passion, his tenderness and his masculinity that I completely lost my head.”

Stephen admitted that he had initially rejected Marisa because he was scared of getting involved with a “dangerous woman” like her, and that he had just gotten out of difficult love affair. And yet, he snapped and proposed marriage that very same night. They decided to have a Gypsy wedding, probably for the shock value of it.

The couple went to a Gypsy camp in the morning, and rode in horse-drawn carriages. Marisa wore a silk dress and Stephen wore a linen shirt, and the observers sang and danced flamenco by a fire. During their wedding ceremony, the pair took a blood oath. A priest cut their wrists with a dagger, and mingled their blood together to bond them as husband and wife. 

The altar of Sarsina Cathedral, where they received an exorcism.

 Eventually, they realized that their relationship had become too obsessive, so the superstitious pair went for a ritual exorcism at the 10th century Cathedral of St. Vicinius in the Italian village of Sarsina. The couple apparently felt that they had been “possessed by an evil demon. Our demon was our passion. A Catholic priest blessed them and recited the exorcism rites.

Marisa didn’t care if people thought they were crazy, and remarked “sometimes love is like a deadly disease, sometimes it makes you feel that you are damned for all eternity. Trying to explain the reasons for this is impossible. There are things in our lives that are too high for our philosophy.

 Soon after the exorcism, Stephen fell ill and decided to end the relationship. He had a high fever, but doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong with him. They believed it was a psychosomatic disorder caused by their love affair. He told Marisa “I must leave you, for I know full well that one day you will go. I could not endure it. She cried and begged him to stay, but he left on a flight to Belfast and she never saw him again.

 After Stephen’s death in 1977, she claimed that his spirit often spoke to her from beyond the grave. She explained that “we both believe in reincarnation, and we realized we’ve already been lovers in three different lifetimes, and in each one I made him suffer terribly… But sometimes I have the feeling that he is speaking to me – from another world.

Marta (1971)

I like the supernatural/occult touch to their romance, but it most likely dissolved due to Stephen’s inability to commit to Marisa. He was a player who constantly bragged about being an individualistic bachelor, and was not yet ready to be tied down by marriage. Nevertheless, the year-long fling was quite intense while it lasted and Marisa never forgot him and the memory of their ephemeral love.

A Fading Star

It was obvious by now that Marisa had bad luck with men. Should she have just avoided these toxic romances and focused instead on building her career? She once proclaimed that “movies are my life, and my life is a movie.” But she was also dismissive of her profession, stating “I have a higher goal than making one stupid picture after another.” Whatever that goal was, it never materialized.

Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (1972)

In 1972, she played a small role in Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a gory yet dull giallo that has since become a B-movie classic. While it was not exactly Lenzi’s finest work, the film has some gruesome death scenes that stand out. Marisa is murdered by a killer wielding an electric power drill in the movie’s bloodiest sequence.

By the late 1970s, Marisa’s career hit a steep decline. She continued to star in films until her death, but most of them were D-list movies that were way beneath her talent level. Although she was only in her 30s, she appeared ten years older than her actual age. This was most likely caused by excessive drug use and hard living.

La belva col mitra (1977). The bisexual Helmut once said that Marisa had a very pleasant androgynous face, and would’ve made a beautiful man.

In 1977, she starred in her last notable film: Beast with a Gun AKA Mad Dog Killer, a shockingly explosive crime thriller that bordered on exploitation due to its violent and sexual content. She starred alongside her former lover Helmut Berger; who gave a hilariously over the top yet masterful performance as a sick and depraved criminal on the loose. They were still close friends offscreen, and often partied together.

The film was based on the antics of Italian mafioso Renato Vallanzasca; a criminal so perverse he once decapitated an informer during a prison riot. The movie perfectly captures the maniacal spirit of its subject, and is fast-paced and action-packed with an awesome soundtrack by Umberto Smaila.

Helmut Berger literally deserved an Oscar for his performance.

Beast with a Gun was classified as a “Video Nasty” in the U.K., and declared an obscene film that could be confiscated by police if it were to be re-released in theaters. Quentin Tarantino later lifted the soundtrack and used some clips of Marisa and Helmut in his supremely unoriginal 1997 movie Jackie Brown.

Sadly, more tragedy struck that year in 1977. Marisa became a mother-to-be once again at 38 years old. She was photographed by paparazzi in Rome while heavily pregnant, and was accompanied by her Afghan Hound Rocco and actor Gianni Macchia. She looked to be in the late stages of pregnancy, yet she was still smoking cigarettes. Strangely, Marisa believed that Rocco was in the incarnation of somebody she once knew and had telepathic powers.

On November 26, 1977, Marisa gave birth to a premature baby girl she named Louisa Erika, after her mother. Sadly, her baby died the very same day. Marisa was heartbroken, and never attempted to have a child again. Neither did she ever reveal the identity of the father. Louisa Erika was buried in Rome’s Camposanto Teutonico cemetery; a graveyard reserved only for those of German descent.

A Dismal Downfall

Marisa’s life was on a steady downhill course. In the 1980s, she was almost a nobody. She was in her 40s, and producers now considered her too old to be a lead actress. She struggled to find work, and became mired in poverty and depression. Marisa drank and used drugs, and appeared in porno mags to churn out an income.

Marisa appeared in a 1983 edition of Men magazine, a hardcore publication.

She was never shy about showing her body for money, but these were not the glitzy and tasteful Angelo Frontoni Vogue photoshoots she had started off with early in her career. These pictures were more on the vulgar side, and she was ashamed that she had to resort to nudie mags to make an income. In 1986, a cynical Marisa reflected back on her life and looks, stating that “I was never proud of my beauty, I was rather bothered by it. It was a tragedy. Every man wanted me, but no man wanted to keep me.”

Despite all her attempts to do so, she never found true enduring love. The whole world had wanted her, but when she grew old she was cast aside. When she lost her looks, she lost everything. Yet she was confident in herself and refused to get plastic surgery; something which is very admirable and rare in this day and age.

She was forced to return back to Austria so she could receive some much-needed welfare money. Italian porn directors had offered her roles, but Marisa refused to take that dark road. Outside of nude modelling, she tried to make money in other ways but wasn’t too successful at it. She was still friends with Helmut Berger, and he would often ring her doorbell late at night which annoyed her.

Marisa did poetry readings, starred in low budget independent movies, sang (she was terrible at it), and made art. She painted and drew, but her exhibitions were not very popular. In Christmas of 1991, mere months before she died; Marisa was back in Vienna and so desperate for money that she took a job as the cook of Father Laun, a pastor from Kahlenbergerdorf. When she died penniless, this kind priest paid for Marisa’s grave.

The artist and her works.

At Death’s Door

A lifelong smoker, Marisa was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1991. She received many different treatments including chemotherapy, but none eased her symptoms. Some female friends took her a on a trip to India to cheer her up, since she was fascinated by eastern spirituality. Marisa enjoyed herself immensely, and began wearing saris back in Austria. She also started worshipping the Indian saint Sai Baba.

Marisa was a superstitious woman, and used alternative medicine to try and cure her cancer. She enjoyed parapsychology, tarot readings, necromancy and fortune telling. She was also a classic Pisces, stating that “I believe in astrology but I don’t need it…It ruins your nerves if you take it daily.” Marisa continued to have flings with younger men like a cougar until her health prevented it.

During a palm reading in the 1960s.

On May 16, 1992, Marisa finally succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 53 and died alone at the Viennese Wilhelminenspital. Her funeral was attended only by a few close friends. None of her former film colleagues showed up, or the many people she once knew in Italy. In the end, she had nobody who was truly there for her. It was a sad ending to a once illustrious life.

Actress and friend Christine Kaufmann remembered Marisa as “a strong woman with who you could eat spaghetti with at home, but could also appear with at high end cocktail parties where she would wear fragile golden shoes because she had very beautiful small ankles with a stunning face.” Sounds ideal.

Her gravestone at the Kahlenbergerdorfer Friedhof cemetery, courtesy of The Marisa Mell Blog.

Though most people only cared about her looks, Marisa was an intelligent woman on the inside. She enjoyed the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean de La Fontaine and Honoré de Balzac, and her favourite novel was Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. She read poems by the medieval German lyricist Walther von der Vogelweide, philosophy by the Chinese Taoist Lao-Tze, and of course, she was into Friedrich Nietzsche.

Her favourite artist was Modigliani, and her most-loved classical piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Marisa was also a great cook, had a sizeable record collection (she liked Edith Piaf and The Beatles), and loved vodka and Winston cigarettes. Her favourite films were Bergman’s The Silence and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim.

In an interview from the 1960s, Marisa dismissed her sexpot image and described herself as “a very good girl” who is “shy, sensitive, ambitious, intelligent and good-natured.” Her dream role was to play Anna Karenina. She had yearned to becoming a serious actress, but was more often chosen for “sexy” roles. In her school days, she had considered herself an existentialist and wanted to become a philosopher. And instead, she is now beloved by geeky cult and exploitation fans for her exciting and glamorous B-movie roles and knockout face and bod.

Marisa’s close pal Erika Pluhar gave a touching eulogy for her deceased friend:

“You died in poverty. But maybe a little richer, I think, than when you were paid large salaries. When your body was being exploited and you didn’t have the strength to resist and look for love instead of competing. Who is the most beautiful in the whole country, this eternally pernicious question ruined your life too.”

Beauty made Marisa into a pop culture icon, but it also destroyed her. The callous Roman film industry she had worked for and gave all her youth to had discarded her once they considered her to be too old. She was an attractive mature woman and still a fine actress, but she wasn’t given the chance to prove it in her later years.

Marisa Mell was a gorgeous, smart and multi-talented actress who also partied hard and had a self-destructive streak. She loved with passion and gave all of herself to her relationships and performances. Sadly, her acting career fizzled out and she died of the terrible cancer that ravaged her body; alone and forgotten in a Viennese hospital.

Audiences now remember Marisa for her vibrant onscreen presence and striking one-in-a-million looks. But we should also remember who she was outside of her films, and the way she suffered and struggled with quiet strength and dignity. Marisa Mell is a tragic B-Movie Queen for the ages; the Austrian princess of sleaze, charisma, and style, and there will never be anyone like her again.

The Ecstatic Rise and Bitter Fall of Barbara Bates

Hollywood: it chews you up, and then spits you out. This proverb was never more true than in the case of Barbara Bates; a psychologically fragile Old Hollywood actress who managed to withstand several career disappointments, until a final tragedy drove her to grim suicide.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1925, Barbara always had a gift for glamour. She was a dark-haired, shy and demure enchantress, who modelled as a teen and studied ballet, eventually winning a beauty contest that changed her life. The prize? Round trip tickets to Hollywood, of course.

In 1944, Barbara and her mother went to L.A. in search of fame and glory. Two days before they were due to return home, they met a publicist for United Artists studio named Cecil Coan.

Barbara was only 19-years old, and Cecil was 45 and married with four children. None of this deterred the pair, who began a torrid affair that unexpectedly turned into a successful 22 year marriage. He divorced his wife as soon as possible to marry Barbara, 26 years his junior. Despite the initial creepiness of the pairing, they were deeply in love and would stay together until Cecil’s death.

Immediately, Cecil began working his magic and turned Barbara into a budding starlet. In September of 1944, Barbara signed a contract with Universal Pictures.

Cecil had introduced her to producer Walter Wanger, who was looking to cast “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his upcoming picture Salome Where She Danced. Barbara received a role as one of the seven dancing girls, alongside Yvonne De Carlo. She seemed set for stardom, but her career would stall in the next few years.

In 1947, producer William T. Orr convinced Barbara to dye her hair blonde. After she did, however, he told her, “You are not the blonde type. Be yourself.” Asshole, much?

Blonde Barbie

At this time, she also began pin-up modelling on the side to make some extra cash. Shy and reserved Barbara resented doing sleazy cheesecake shoots, but they caused her to catch a thirsty Warner Bros. rep’s eye, and she received her first big role alongside Danny Kaye in the 1949 musical comedy The Inspector General.

Sadly, much of her part was lost on the cutting room floor. To add insult to injury, Warner Bros. tried to force Barbara to go to New York to promote the release of The Inspector General, but she was too proud to submit to the studio’s whims and they fired her. An exasperated Barbara then attempted suicide, but the studio managed to cover it up and hide this from the press. This was the beginning of a repeated series of suicide attempts by Barbara, prompted by either personal or career lows.

Barbara (middle) pretends to play chess with Julie London and Daun Kennedy in a 1945 pin-up

In 1949, she discussed the ins and out of being a star with a newspaper. She described how:

 “Every Hollywood newcomer goes through a sex school. They have regular exercises to bring out your…uh…fire. They told [drama coach] Sophie Rosenstein to ‘put some sex into me.’ She did. Sophie made me throw back my shoulders and stick out my chest.

Then I had to sit in front of a mirror and breathe deeply—for hours and hours… They want you to become conscious of your body and to…well…to throw your curves at the world. And all the while you’re supposed to be thinking sexy thoughts. They don’t tell you what. That’s one thing they leave up to you.” 

If that sounds grotesque to you, you’re not the only one! Barbara was already in a unstable state: she was known to suffer from depression and mood swings from the very start, clearly due to untreated mental illness. Instead of being honest with her about realistic career goals, various Hollywood studios treated Barbara like a cheap floozy, giving her only tiny insignificant bit parts as a meager reward for signing on with them.

Barbara had also developed a reputation of being difficult on set. Jeffrey Hunter, who co-starred with Barbara in 1952’s Belles on Their Toes, claimed that she was “very disturbed. I felt uncomfortable in her presence and felt she was a very troubled young woman.” However, Ray McDonald, who starred alongside her in the 1953 Mickey Rooney musical All-Ashore, claimed that “she was easy to work with but had moods of depression.”

In May of 1949, another sleazy yet typical Hollywood incident occurred: Notorious lech Harry Cohn (head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958) offered to sign a contract with Barbara on one condition: she divorce her husband. She refused. He called her two nights later, and drunkenly invited her to his yacht. She refused again.

In E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers, he describes how Harry Cohn “was said to have verbally or physically raped every woman that ever worked for his studio.” Harry was a known pervert who was rumored to have forced the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak to sleep with him in order to be cast in starring roles. His track record makes Harvey Weinstein seem chaste in comparison, and would be definite cause for a #MeToo hashtag in the 21st century.

However, it was the late 1940s, and since Barbara refused to play Hollywood’s licentious game of casting couch bingo, she would never gain the big-name stardom she had always dreamed of.

But alas, there finally came a small light at the end of the tunnel: Barbara managed to land a contract with 20th Century-Fox, who cast her in the biggest picture of 1950, the Bette Davis classic All About Eve.

Barbara in All About Eve

Barbara’s role was minor, but it was the one she would always be remembered for. The Hollywood Reporter described her memorable appearance in the final scene as “sum[ming] up the whole action and point of the story. It’s odd that a bit should count for so much, and in the hands of Miss Bates all the required points are fulfilled.”

With the money from her big role, she bought a 51-foot yacht named The Bayadère, which cost $45,000 (adjusted as $480k for modern inflation). Barbara spent 8 months learning how to sail and navigate the yacht at a Coast Guard School. Hollywood did have a few perks after all! The studio even installed a radio-telephone on the yacht to enslave contact her at all times.

Barbara had a few more notable roles left: the 1950 cheesefest Cheaper by the Dozen, and the brainless 1953 Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedy The Caddy. She was frustrated with these moronic films, lamenting to gossip columnist Erskine Johnson on how “I thought great things were going to happen [after All About Eve]. So far—nothing. They keep casting me as a 16-year-old; I can’t seem to get up to 20.”

Enjoying a sandwich and coke on her yacht

Then came her dream role: Barbara was screen tested for the suicidal ballerina character in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 comedy-drama Limelight. As a former childhood ballerina, she would have been perfect for the part. Chaplin was delighted with her audition, and offered her the role himself.

Unfortunately, dictatorial Fox refused to loan Barbara out to United Artists to film the picture, due to the fact that they resented Chaplin for his supposed communist ties. Barbara was left heartbroken and destroyed after losing the role of a lifetime.

After this, Barbara’s career tanked. She was fired from the 1954 sitcom It’s a Great Life for “erratic behavior.” What set her off? Well, let us examine an interview Barbara gave columnist Lydia Lane on the set of the TV show, just months before she was canned:

 “I have had such trouble keeping thin. I dearly love anything sweet—especially chocolate—and to say no really takes discipline. But it isn’t healthy to be dieting all the time… The thing to do is find the weight at which you are comfortable and level off.

I keep a check by weighing in every morning, and if I’ve gained even a pound, I start cutting down. I have a calorie chart which I carry in my handbag and this helps me limit myself to 500 calories a day until I’m back to normal. I haven’t had to diet for quite a while, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

On the set of Rhapsody (1954)

500 calories a day? Who wouldn’t feel like shit on this diet? Obviously, Hollywood has an obsession with thinness and actresses are required to stay in shape. But this was eating disorder territory, and it was no wonder poor Barbara was losing her mind from the pressures mounting all around her.

Out of work and desperate, Cecil arranged for Barbara to go to England and sign on with the Rank Organisation in 1956. The studio felt she was too old at the age of 31, and advertised her as being a 24-year old. She was cast in a few films, but suffered a nervous breakdown and health issues which caused her to abandon the sets while filming. Many suspected that Barbara attempted suicide once again. Nevertheless, she was fired by Rank in 1957, and was forced to return to the USA.

She played in several TV commercials to make some quick cash, as the couple had lost money due to bad land investments in Spain. Barbara’s old friend Rory Calhoun landed her a final movie part in his 1958 western Apache Territory. Her last TV appearance was in a 1962 episode of The Saint. An unceremonious end for a troubled career.

In 1960, the couple converted to Catholicism and moved to a modest Beverly Hills apartment. Throughout her chaotic life, Cecil had proven to be an unmoving rock of support for Barbara. He was her manager, agent, husband, lover, best friend and closest confidante for most of her adult life. Tragically, Cecil was diagnosed with cancer, and the last sane threads of Barbara’s life quickly unraveled.

She put aside her career to loyally care for the ailing Cecil, but the stress of being his constant nurse caused Barbara to snap. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists, but survived yet again. These were very dark times for her, and the final straw was when Cecil died in January of 1967. She was at his bedside, romantic and steadfast until the very end. But when Cecil passed, something in Barbara died with him.

If she was already suicidal even in the presence of Cecil, now she was completely lost. Feeling aimless, Barbara left California for good and returned home to Denver. To her credit, she did attempt to rebuild a life: she attended a secretarial school by night, and worked as a nurse’s aide in the daytime. She was also a dental assistant at one point, and often volunteered at church.

What does this tell us? Barbara was dead broke. Cecil’s hospital bills must have drained her Hollywood fortune. Being relegated to the boring common life of a wageslave after starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in films and purchasing half a million dollar yachts was disastrous.

At the end of 1968, she remarried: to a sportscaster named William Reed, who also happened to be a childhood friend. The marriage did not seem to be very romantic, and was most likely just an arrangement of convenience to prevent the onset of late-age loneliness.

So here was Barbara: back in her hometown, aging, married to a man from her youth, her Hollywood career totally faded; as she worked obscure random jobs to rake up pitiful sums of cash she would have laughed at in her days as a top actress.

It was all too much.

On March 18, 1969, Barbara’s mother returned to their suburban home, and found the garage was locked and sealed from the bottom. Upon unlocking the door, she found Barbara dead in the front seat of her Volkswagen. She had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 43.

This came after a mere four months of marriage, indicating Barbara’s unhappiness in her newfound relationship. There are also reports that she was pregnant at the time and that this may have set her off. She was quietly buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Colorado.

Barbara once said “I have no illusions about being a star. Every time I did something really important, they ended up cutting it.” This was an accurate summation of her life and career: she lived a brief, painful and beautiful existence full of heartbreak and malady. Hollywood had drained her and then tossed her aside when they deemed her too old, mentally ill, and washed up. She was the victim of the monstrous machine of cinema, but she managed to free herself with death.

Karen Lancaume: A Tale of Suicide, Sex and Violence

Karen Lancaume was a French porn star who despised her profession and committed suicide at the age of 32. To be fair, not many female porn actresses enjoy their job: 69% of women in the sex industry report suffering from PTSD. For a sensitive and intelligent woman like Karen, her psychological wounds proved to be fatal.

She was born in Lyon to a wealthy family who would later disapprove of her career choices. Her real name was Karine. Her mother was Moroccan, and her father was French.

Karen was raised in the placid and serene countryside, spending much of her time with her brother and several pets. Her existence was sheltered, but as a child, the shy girl enjoyed playing in the forests and exploring nature.

She graduated college with a Communications degree, and considered a career in advertising. Karen lost her virginity at the age of 17.

The path she went down was antithetical to the promise of her youth. Attractive, educated, and rich; she was not your stereotypical “bimbo” pin-up queen. What forced her hand into the adult film industry?

It all began when she started working weekends at a nightclub to pay off her college debts. It is odd to note that her wealthy parents didn’t help her out financially.

When she met a disc jockey named Franck Ceronne at the club, Karen fell head over heels and the couple quickly married. He promised her a life of domestic bliss with several children. Unfortunately, the pair somehow managed to amass crushing debts and were struggling to pay them off when Franck came up with a bright idea: they should start filming pornos for quick cash.

At first Franck promised Karen that they would only make adult films together, and she would not have to engage with other men on screen. The couple quickly discovered that Franck could not perform in front of a camera, and he wasn’t sizable enough phallic-wise to impress producers.

Karen was then pressured into having sex with other partners on screen. She would later go on to say that “a man who truly loves you would never make you do that.”

The couple divorced in 1997, and Karen continued filming porn to pay the bills. Porn producers and directors adored her. She rose to stardom; working with the biggest names in the European adult film industry, and was even nominated for a Hot d’Or award.

Karen wrote of her work: “Double penetrated at a freezing 5 ° C, followed by an ejaculation. Covered with sperm, soaked, dead cold, no one handed me a towel. Once you have shot your scene, you’re worth nothing.” The lack of empathy she faced on set only fueled her distaste and disillusionment.

In 1995, Karen was gang raped: “I went to buy cigarettes at two in the morning after work, and three guys trapped me.” This was no doubt a brutal experience which scarred her psyche. Sex had become a tool of suffering in her life, which others used to brutalize and punish her for being attractive.

In 1999, almost four years into her porn career, Karen received an offer that would change her life. Writer and former sex worker Virginie Despentes was looking for someone to star in her new and explosive film project Baise Moi (Fuck Me), and required actresses who would consent to perform unsimulated sex scenes.

Virginie approached Karen and a fellow porn actress named Raffaela Anderson at Cannes Film Festival after seeing them in a documentary. She immediately knew they were perfect for the role, with co-director Coralie Trinh Thi noting how: “These two were really different from the other girls. The little one, Raffaela, was very funny. The big one, Karen, looked like she could beat someone up.”

Raffaela’s character is raped during a scene in the film, and it was emotionally difficult for her to perform since she had already suffered assault in real life, just as Karen had. She was raped by two men who recognized her from her adult film career. Outrageously, the public prosecutor told Raffaela not to complain about being raped, since she was a porn star and therefore deserved it.

Raffaela and Karen on set

The plot of the film centers around two angry women who go on a gory killing spree. There is even a a rather interesting scene where an abusive male bar patron is sodomized with a gun. Baise Moi was cathartic for its two stars, functioning as a satisfying rape-revenge movie in which the perpetrators receive scathing doses of violence in return.

For anyone who’s seen it, Baise Moi is unforgettable. It isn’t the type of film to win any awards, but it is a classic of the New French Extremity movement. It caused a massive controversy upon its release, and was initially banned in Australia, Canada, Singapore and the U.K. for its excessive depictions of sex and violence.

Critics were flabbergasted, calling the film “Thelma and Louise on crack.” To be quite frank: Baise Moi makes Natural Born Killers look like a children’s cartoon. French right-wing parties associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen attempted to have the movie banned, but it was finally released with an X-rated certificate for 18+ audiences.

The iconic bar scene

Karen’s performance was powerful and charismatic: she was tall, dark, gorgeous, intimidating, and great with a gun; the personification of badassery. Audiences, however, were not prepared to see two former porn stars headlining a film. Director Virginie Despentes claimed that:

“The real problem is that Baise-Moi is a film about violent ‘lower class’ women, made by supposedly marginal women. The mainstream doesn’t want to hear about people with nothing, the disenfranchised, the marginals, taking up arms and killing people for fun and money. It happens, of course, but we’re not allowed to acknowledge it.

Then there’s the question of the actresses. Of course it’s fine to have porn films and porn actresses, but when you put them in a naturalistic drama that causes all kinds of problems. Why? Because you’ve destroyed the idea that they are sexual toys and brought them to life.

We really took the brunt of a lot of prejudice and paranoia. We didn’t realise just how much fear and hatred it would arouse, but it definitely stoked up a lot of nasty stuff. Not least because it’s about poor, non-white women. In France, there’s real conflict between the white majority and the Arabic population.

Our two lead actresses both have African roots – one is half-Moroccan, the other half-Algerian – and in France, don’t harbour any illusions, it’s visceral, this problem. A lot of people really don’t want to see two North African women who have been raped taking up arms and shooting European men. That’s a little too close to historical reality.”

Despite starring in an attention-grabbing incendiary film in which her performance was praised, Karen’s acting career never really took off. She was tired of porn and done with the industry, but she could not shake off the restrictive shackles of her past. The six years she spent doing adult films had taken its toll on her.

In an interview, she railed against gender inequality: “Why are women grabbed by the ass and not men? All we ask for is understanding, equality. In porn, guys enjoy the mouth of girls, the woman takes it on the face. Baise Moi, it’s the opposite.” Karen eventually wanted to write an autobiography about her life in the adult film industry, but sadly she never got the chance to.

On January 28, 2005 at midnight, Karen committed suicide in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Paris, with the aid of sleeping pills and alcohol. She left a note addressed to her mother, writing only the words “too painful.”

The final scene of Baise Moi

It was a week after her 32nd birthday. She died alone on a Friday night, with her friends returning later that weekend only to find her deceased. They claimed she had been in a good mood, and shown no signs of wanting to harm herself.

Associates described Karen as somber and introverted, often dressed in black. Virginie said of her; “She’s the only girl I knew whose big dream was to be a housewife. The first time she told me that, I preferred to put it aside, but knowing her better, I understood that it existed as a dream. It was her thing. We do not always do what we want.”

Karen had dreams that lay way beyond her porn career: to star in mainstream films, to fall in love, to have children, to write a book about her life, and to live with financial security and happiness. She did not manage to make these dreams materialize, and gave in to the psychological torment which had plagued her for years.

When you search “Karen Lancaume” on the internet, you are flooded with hordes of obscene photos and videos. Where are the stories of her life and humanity, outside of the pornographic industry?

In death, Karen deserves to be respected, regardless of what she did for a living. This written piece is a tribute to her life, and a lamentation for the things that could have been.

Let us end with the words of her friend Virginie, who said that Karen had “a sweetness, an incredible femininity. And at the same time one felt she was ready to take an ax and destroy a wall.”