“A book nobody wants to publish. The type of project I specialize in,” said Jimmy McDonough of his planned future work in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. By then he’d already written one-of-a-kind biographies of Neil Young (Shakey), sexploitation legend Russ Meyer (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws), and “First Lady” Tammy Wynette (Tragic Country Queen), the latter two of which were optioned by David O. Russell, though adaptations have yet to materialize.
But it was his debut, The Ghastly One—a heavily personalized portrait of Times Square fringe-dwelling trash auteurist Andy Milligan, published in 2001 while the warts-and-all Shakey was being held up in litigation by Young—that really established McDonough’s proprietary cultural niche. Time magazine hailed it as “a masterpiece,” and cult filmmaker John Waters has frequently cited it as one of his all-time favorites. (From Waters’s blurb for the 2020 re-release: “Andy Milligan is one scary man… this feel-bad book makes me feel good by asking the all-important question, ‘Can a genius be untalented, too?’”)
“I wish you could’ve met June,” McDonough poignantly personalizes at the beginning of his latest opus of oddball Americana, The Exotic Ones: That Fabulous Film-Making Family from Music City, USA. (Thankfully, somebody did want to publish it.) This time around he’s utilized his particular set of skills—exhaustively researching the forgotten and ignored, and never shying from inserting himself into his biographies, bringing to mind the photographer Minor White’s quote “All photographs are self-portraits”—to preserve the legacy of the Ormond Organization, a small family trio from Nashville.
Comprising mother June, father Ron, and son Tim, the Ormonds tenaciously journeyed from Depression-era vaudeville to Hollywood’s margins, making Lash LaRue Westerns before churning out drive-in exploitation schlock. (McDonough’s book takes its title from their bizarro 1968 flick, The Exotic Ones, also known as The Monster and the Stripper.)
To delve into the Ormond oeuvre is akin to the labor of a truffle-hunting pig—you have to patiently sniff through a lot of crap to access the gems. Of 1953’s infamously awful Mesa of Lost Women, for example, even June concedes: “It’s as lousy a thing as I’ve seen—almost as bad as the Ed Wood pictures—but it made a lot of money.”
However, you can also land on a sublime entry, such as for Please Don’t Touch Me, from 1963—a jaw-dropper about bridal frigidity. In fact, happening upon a black-and-white 8-by-10 from this particular movie is what hipped McDonough to the Ormonds in the first place, compelling him into a pre-Internet, obsessive rabbit hole: “Stacked dame in lingerie hovers over shirtless man with a lit cigarette … ‘AND AFTER THE CIGARETTE, WE’LL—’ emblazoned above their feverish heads. This, obviously, was the greatest movie still of all time, and it lit a fire in my mind. I had to find out more,” he recalls.
After surviving a private-plane crash while en route to one of their premieres, the Ormonds were spiritually awakened and decided to eschew secular showbiz altogether in favor of making strictly religious pictures. Of course, the family’s filmmaking sensibilities remained intact, and the Godsploitation features they made with, in particular, Mississippi Baptist preacher Estus Pirkle were perhaps even more outrageous than their non-religious output. (The truly wild The Burning Hell, from 1974, managed to make millions through the God-fearing circuit, even though it was never exhibited at a legitimate cinema.)
McDonough’s work on The Exotic Ones dates back to before the publication of his profile of the obscure Ormond clan for Film Comment, in 1987. (Ron died in 1981, so it’s McDonough’s extensive old interviews with the terrifically candid matriarch, June, who passed away in 2006, that serve as the heart of the book.)
Almost four decades later, this incredibly extensive volume arrives weighing more than 10 pounds and packaged as a deluxe Bible. Presented by cinephilic Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s byNWR label (which brought The Ghastly One back into print after nearly 20 years) and released to coincide with Powerhouse Films’ From Hollywood to Heaven: The Lost and Saved Films of the Ormond Family, a restored retrospective Blu-ray boxed set, this is a monumental achievement of esoterica.
It’s exhilarating when such a longtime labor of love actually comes to fruition, focusing on the kinds of figures mostly thought to be unworthy of focus. (A movie based on the Ormonds’ story is begging to be spearheaded by Ed Wood screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, or maybe even Danny McBride’s gang post–Righteous Gemstones.)
A richer picture of America emerges through the chronicling of lives such as these, particularly in the hands of a passionate portraitist as gifted as McDonough, who sums up early on: “For me, Ormond movies evoke faded midwest American postcards—country stars doing local furniture store commercials … rickety Ferris wheels glowing in the summer night..... This wild country I vividly recall, one that comes back to me like a whiff of cotton candy when the winds in my mind blow just so.”
Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts