The whole world knew when Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died. Likewise with Osama bin Laden, Elizabeth Taylor and Steve Jobs. When sideman’s-sideman Clarence Clemons, screen icon Elizabeth Taylor and irascible essayist Christopher Hitchens died, Facebook lit up with bursts of YouTube memorial vids and R.I.P. messages, as a plugged-in world mourned in synchronicity.
Then there were those whose deaths didn’t cause such a stir – lesser-known figures whose impact on our lives was measured less in Twitterverse mentions and hashtags than in quirky cultural contributions, underappreciated musical legacies or maybe just quiet dedication to their crafts. They shaped the world we live in, sometimes in more significant ways than the famous and infamous whose faces filled up our newsfeeds, status updates and inboxes all year long.
This is our annual tribute to those dearly departed who, whether you noticed them or not, helped give our world some character.
Russ Meyer scream queen
Tura Satana was known to most for a single role – but what a role. As the unrivaled star of Russ Meyer’s 1965 cult classic film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she tore across the screen at the wheel of a speeding sports car and made mincemeat of dumb hick himbos, alternately bedding and beating them to death. Her severe bangs, kohl-dark eyes, yawningly low-cut black top and leather boots made her a literal icon, but her character’s sexual/physical confidence and fuck-you-Jack attitude impressed themselves on the brains of generations of trash hounds and grrrls as well. Meyer, a purveyor of schlock titillation, had unwittingly created a proto-feminist heroine; pop-culture-wise, if the film and Satana’s character had not existed, somebody – the Cramps, Quentin Tarantino, somebody – would have had to invent them.
Satana came by her outrageous screen presence honestly. Born Tura Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1938, she was the daughter of a Filipino-Japanese actor father and a half Native-American circus performer mother, an unusual heritage that shaped her exotic-anywhere good looks. The family relocated to the United States in 1942, just in time to land Tura and her father in a Japanese internment camp in California for the duration of World War II. Her voluptuous figure blossomed early, and when she was 9 years old and living in Chicago, she was gang-raped by five teenagers. During her tumultuous teenage years, she learned martial arts (at the behest of her father, so she could defend herself), joined a girl gang, spent time in reform school and began a career as an exotic dancer. A brief arranged marriage left her one important legacy: the legal name Tura Satana.
She soon moved to Hollywood, where she dated Elvis Presley, among other notables. While still dancing, she won a smattering of small movie and TV roles before Russ Meyer, ever on the lookout for buxom talent for his exploitation flicks, cast her as the star of his new movie. He typecast her, in a way, since her character, Varla, was a go-go dancer and the leader of an ad hoc girl gang, but Satana’s physical brawn (she was nearly 6 feet tall) and no-nonsense combativeness proved perfect for the character, too. She not only stood up to Meyer’s hapless male characters, she stood up to their creator – in an interview for a documentary film on director Ted Mikels, she recounted getting so mad during an argument with Meyer over how to shoot a scene that she punched a wall, breaking her hand. Faster, Pussycat! wasn’t a hit on its initial release, but her sheer forcefulness onscreen, not to mention her character’s mold-breaking badassness, made the film a slow-burning cult smash.