John Waters’ 1977 movie, Desperate Living, was the follow-up of his most successful films to date, “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.” It’s $65,000 budget provided a larger and more professional crew than the earlier films, and a “marquee star” budget line that was ten times more than the last.
Divine would have been the logical star choice. He had been his star on at least three of his earliest black and white movies, but the history of his not doing Desperate Living is murky. Some say Divine was busy performing live on tour. Others say that he and Waters were on the outs over money, and Waters wanted to prove he could do a successful movie without Divine.
In either case, Waters went on a star search to replace Divine. He found Liz Renay, who was a minor celebrity in the 1940s and 50s, and a counter-intuitive choice for a late 1970s cutting-edge underground movie.
Liz was a real trooper in John Waters’ Desperate Living. As a 51 year-old seeming has-been from the 1950s, in many ways, she was about as disconnected from the average Baltimore-bred Dreamlander as you could imagine. In others, she was spookily appropriate and progressive. Liz was a classic high-class broad who hung out with gangsters and gamblers who blew big money on champagne cocktails, mink coats, diamond necklaces, and only rode in limos.
When she was just twenty her stunningly beautiful face, big blonde hair and voluptuous figure, brought her immediate success as a model and stripper in New York City’s WWII era. She found it easy to earn money, especially after winning a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest in Hollywood, and began to attract wealthy men who were happy to spend big on big-busted blonde trophy girlfriends.
A typical Liz Renay painting-- two dimensions, eye-popping colors, and sexual innuendo, they sold for a very respectable $5,000 in the 1950s-60s.
Liz was no dumb blonde though. She knew the skin game and used it, but also authored several popular books (the irresistible “My First 2000 Men” was her first). She was a prolific painter whose work sold well, though they were unremarkable in their flatness that recalls Elvis-on-black velvet paintings sold in abandoned corner gas stations throughout the South. That most of her work featured nude, nubile blondes stretched out on silk sheets certainly were part of the appeal.
Liz’s most notorious bo was Mickey Cohen, a flamboyant gangster and ex-boxer who helped create the post-war Las Vegas gambling boom. Cohen’s penchant for violence (he once unloaded .45 caliber pistols into a hotel lobby ceiling) and sleazy associations with movie stars, liquor scams, and sexual extortion rings made him a popular subject of the press.
To the 1970s generation, Liz was most famous for her "streak" down Hollywood Boulevard.
Liz’s closeness to such genuine and notorious sleaze attracted Waters to Liz. But wait, that’s not all. Lying in court to protect Cohen in one of his numerous trials, Liz actually spent three months in Terminal Island Prison near Los Angeles. This was the home of 1960s icons, Charlie Manson, his acolyte and attempted Gerald Ford assassin Squeaky Fromme, and Timothy Leary. To John, that was real cred.
Desperate Living’s extreme low-budget shooting conditions were the exact opposite of Liz’s earlier diamond-studded life, in some ways even worse than prison—cold, muddy, rainy, hideously long hours, terrible food, etc. It was quite different from what she expected a movie would be, especially with her experience in Hollywood.
John always dressed her in the skimpiest outfits to show off her curvy 1950s body, and extreme boob job. But in the forty-degree weather, she shivered like a young puppy, and was always wrapped in blankets, between scenes, even on the indoor sets. She lost a lot of her glamour there.
Liz confided to me that she had never worked on such a shockingly low-budget movie, and didn’t know it was possible to make a movie in such dingy and lousy shooting conditions—no heat, no green room, no dressing room, no caterer or crafts services, and she thought of walking out in the beginning. But she would have felt like such a heel by stiffing this earnest, bedraggled, hopeful crew, and its pathetic movie sets made of junk from the streets– so she stayed. One very cold and rainy day on the exterior Mortville set, she told me she couldn’t remember ever seeing her breath before, and was quite amazed by it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be mortified.
The money was good– for her, about $10,000 for two weeks, plus John saw that she had a nice hotel. She was very kind, and never wanted to tie up a PA to take her to the set. When I tried to reimburse her for the cab fare she paid to get to the Fells Point “studio, “she refused. No one on the young movie crew had heard of her, and couldn’t understand how this hopelessly out-of-fashion 50’s sex bomb could replace Divine as John’s major draw.
That is, except John, for whom Liz was the ideal star—huge bust, plastic surgery-young, a real, published writer, and fine arts painter, with strong ties to the underworld, and even an honest-to-god jailbird. Couldn’t do better than that.
The official cast and crew portrait for Desperate Living. John and Liz are in the center.
Liz got into the Low Budget Hell swing of things pretty quickly. A bitchy, complaining celebrity she was not. Her sweetness won everyone over quickly, and they treated this blonde bombshell granny with kindness and respect. At the end of the day, we got to know that in her heart she was a rebel and progressive who was a tough cookie and leveraged her sex appeal into one of the earliest examples of women’s liberation. Liz Renay did not join a movement; she was a movement.
Liz was born in 1926 and died in 2007, at the age of 80.
Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.” Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.