|This week, we remember Niva Ruschell.
A few months back, I received an email informing me that my friend, actress Niva Ruschell, had passed away in early May of this year.
|The wonderful Niva Ruschell.
And it binds me to Niva.
Fortuitously, she told me of her love of Ed Wood, viewing him as a genuine outsider artist and not a figure of derision. In my research, I found out that Niva had unwittingly collaborated with Ed! Back in 1976, she played the role of Candy in the pioneering blaxploitation adult film, Tongue. She was also the film's associate producer and co-writer. An excerpt from Tongue was turned into a silent 8mm loop called "Lube Job" as part of the Foxy series, with subtitles penned by Ed Wood! When I informed Niva of this, she was almost as ecstatic as I was.
Niva wrote about the making of Tongue in the closing chapters of her wonderful 2011 book And Hollywood Be Her Name: Basically a True Story. She also discussed the film with Peter Flash in a 2019 interview for the website Adult DVD Talk. I supplied some background information about Tongue's post-production for that article. But Niva's career was not limited to this one feature. She also appears in one of the foundational classics of blaxploitation cinema. As the prostitute who famously deflowers the title character in Melvin Van Peeble's watershed independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, she uttered a quintessential line that was also employed in the film's radio advertising: "You sure got a sweet sweetback!"
When Vinegar Syndrome released a new scan of Sweet Sweetback on Blu-ray in 2018, I was again looped in. Niva was interviewed as a bonus feature on the disc, and I wrote some of the questions. Although most of my queries fell outside the scope of the interview, I still received a Special Thanks credit. In the liner notes, I am credited right next to Niva. That may seem small to you, but it truly warms my heart.
|Niva and Greg are thanked, side by side.
When Niva and I last spoke, I reminded her that the carousel on the Santa Monica pier—Sweetback's opening scene was shot upstairs above it—was also featured in the opening credits to the classic sitcom Three's Company. Niva roared with laughter. I neglected to mention that the pier was also the exterior location of Swedish Erotica loop #20, "Pier Passion," featuring subtitles by Ed Wood.
Tongue was Niva's perfect construct, a first-ever melding of blaxploitation and porn, with more than a hint of Fellini. When I pointed out to Niva that Quasi (Al Poe), the mute protagonist of Tongue, exclusively heard a frog's voice, she laughed. And when, during our last conversation, I said that I imagined Niva being guided by that same frog's voice throughout a "making of Tongue" feature, she burst into laughter again.
During the summer of 2015, my longstanding flirtation with Ed Wood became a full-fledged romance when I started reading the previous articles in this series. After pestering the author with some of my esoteric research, he invited me to write an article of my own. Five years on, the work remains for me a daily and satisfying highlight. From the jump, I suddenly found a new world of relationships opening to me; likeminded, like-directional people. In November 2015, for instance, I was brand new to Facebook, and it was Ed Wood who brought me there. A rather nebulous name, Jacques Descent, was associated with Ed Wood on a few films. I found him on Facebook and messaged him, asking about Ed Wood and the "lost" film Operation: Redlight.
Jacques and I became fast friends, and he soon after told me that he had completed the post-production of Tongue. I then researched the film, and though Jack and Niva had never met, I contacted her. She remained duly proud of Tongue. In late 2019, after seeing the Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name —penned by the same men, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)—she emailed me and declared that the making of Tongue was not a documentary but a feature.
Niva ended one of her first messages to me with , and that smiling, sunglass-wearing emoji became de rigueur in our conversations. We dubbed it "SuperCool."
I hope I can one day succeed in telling the story behind the making of Tongue. I do feel some residual guilt, however. I went months without reaching out, oblivious through the summer that Niva had passed. In early May, she took ill with flu-like symptoms, dying in a mere two days. Although she was not tested, she was exposed to COVID-19 and it was the presumed cause of her death. Her last two text messages to me, dated April 25, 2020, end:
"I can breathe easier now..."
"We are safe and trust you and your family are as well."
May you rest in peace, Niva. No one else ever made me feel so smart or so funny.