Published Aug 01, 2005Before the WWE, Trish Stratus and the concept of "Diva," the likes of the Fabulous Moolah and Gladys "Killem" Gillem were pioneers in walking the line between sex object and instrument of pain. They were, as the title goes, the first ladies of wrestling, and this fascinating documentary gives them space to reminisce about former glories and vent about the abuse that came on the side.
Predictably, none of the participants are shrinking violets, and they're more than frank about the liberties taken by various male promoters. The picture painted of sleaze king Billy Wolfe in particular seems irredeemably corrupt, even by Vince McMahon standards, and his cruel manipulations of they players won't so much raise your eyebrows as blast them through the ceiling. But though those looking for unproblematic ass-kicking proto-feminists will be in for a rough ride, the fierce pride with which these women take in their achievements (and the passion with which they approach old wounds) proves to be brilliantly charismatic and undeniably moving.
One can quarrel with director Ruth Leitman's chaotic approach: though she knows that she's got some killer camera subjects, she relies too much on their testimony and too little on background that might place their remarks in context. But if the historical overview is catch-as-catch can (and the actual wrestling footage is unavoidably muddy), the women - from canny self-promoter Moolah at the top to the wounded trailer-park denizen at the bottom - give you all the material you need to be held by some alternately heartbreaking and triumphant personal stories.
At the end of the day, it all seems to have been worth it, and considering the crooked machinations outside the ring, that's nothing short of miraculous. (Ultra 8)