The name ‘Zsa Zsa,’ as in Zsa Zsa Gabor, has a cool, sexy sound when spoken. Those two softly ‘zshusching’ syllables (apparently she thought it so nice she named herself twice) are like the sound of silk sliding off a bed; it’s aphrodisiacal onomatopoeia. And ‘Zsa Zsa’ rhymes with ‘la la,’ which recalls ‘ooh la la,’ a phrase that, for Americans at least, conjures up all sorts of deliciously imagined bedroom antics. We wonder how much of Zsa Zsa’s effect on the public consciousness, before there was even sight or sound of the lady, is tied to her name. In a country accustomed to Joans, Marys, and Normas on the silver screen, Zsa Zsa must have seemed like an exotically guilty pleasure. Ooh la la, the film-going audience probably murmured, just what might be behind those doubled syllables? It’s to Zsa Zsa’s credit that she doesn’t disappoint. Few public figures have been more ooh-la-la-ish than her delectable self.
Zsa Zsa is often called the ultimate celebrity-type in that she’s famous for who she is, not for what she’s done—though, in glancing at her very private-in-public career, you might say she’s done plenty. But we shouldn’t discount her cinematic effect—onscreen she’s a camp-goddess delight, a charming bubble-shaped blonde with a sexy Bela Lugosi accent, who’s oblivious to whatever is happening around her. The words in her mouth (called ‘the script’), the other creatures near her (‘the actors’), the sequence of events (‘the plot’), the furniture and rooms (‘the sets’)—those are merely the elaborately gilt costume jewelry meant to set off her paste-diamond fabulousity. She may have consented, when signing the contract, to appear in a movie as something called a ‘character,’ but she’s always pure Zsa Zsa. Most of her film roles have been cameos anyway, in which she basically plays herself—brief glimpses of a goddess daintily stepping down from the heavens in spaghetti-strap sandals, to enrapture us with her fabulousness.
The Zsa Zsa effect came into full play when our goddess did an actual, real, whole part in what is probably her best-known film, the 1958 widescreen sci-fi camp classic Queen of Outer Space. We need to linger here and amplify on that camp label. There are camp movies and then there are movies that the Gods of Camp have blessed, like the Fairies from The Sleeping Beauty, with special gifts—films like Cobra Woman, Berserk!, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (which you can read about at our earlier post here). In such company is Queen of Outer Space. What’s not to like? From its borrowed props and costumes (hand-me-downs from several other 50s sci-fi films, including Anne Francis’ miniscule mini-skirt from Forbidden Planet) to its self-parodying lines (a fuming Zsa Zsa declares, “I hate her! I hate that Queen!”), the film achieves a camp Nirvana that’s like a blast into space itself. Oddly, Zsa Zsa is not the title character here. She instead plays a Venusian scientist who laments the absence of men on her planet. That sounds like something she would have bewailed in her offscreen life, almost too good to be true; it adds yet another layer of gloss to the film’s already giddily campy aura.
As the above scenario suggests, the film’s regressive sexual politics are also a big camp stand-out. Its plot—four sex-starved guys crash-land on the planet Venus and meet a fascistic female society just waiting for a few good men—is basically a fourteen-year-old male’s wet dream. But dreams are often the flip side of nightmares; there’s a sense of protesting-too-much in the film’s worship of the priapic principle. A Jungian undercurrent of fear and fantasy seems to have been roiling in the 1950s collective American male unconscious regarding men-less women. Films like Cat Woman of the Moon and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars also feature horny Earthmen encountering outer-space Amazonian collectives that stoop to be conquered. Perhaps these films represent a delayed anxiety reaction from World War II, when U.S. men went to Europe and Asia and women were left to run the home front: Men must have wondered what they would find on return. What’s a given in these movies is that the alien Amazons are always young and gorgeous. No one ever lands on a planet whose denizens all look like Edna May Oliver. We think that’d make for a great film, and we’re waiting for the filmmaker brave enough to do it (at last, a good use for CGI), but to date, as far as we know, it hasn’t happened.
But to get back to Zsa Zsa. She’s really why people watch the film. It’s certainly why we watch it. We just love her in it. Wafting through its tacky-glam pink sets like a goddess on a cloud, she seems blissfully unaware that there’s a film happening around her. In no sense does Zsa Zsa ‘act’ here. Her dialogue is merely an excuse to grab center screen, while her eyes stray from the other actors to look at the only audience that matters—the Cyclopeian gaze of the camera. She makes love to it, with lips parted, chest heaving, and eyes smoldering with unfeigned passion, in a way we bet her nine husbands could only envy. And it’s all to us, those wonderful people out there in the dark, whom Zsa Zsa is directing this love. Watching her is like an endorphin jolt. On those days when you’re feeling low and blue and think that no one cares a jot about your existence, we recommend watching this film. You can thus reassure yourself: There’s somebody who loves me.
And why shouldn’t Zsa Zsa love you? You’re there to observe how marvelous she is. Which she well knew. Zsa Zsa might not play the Queen, but she rules the film. The other actors had to wear second-hand duds, but Zsa Zsa, according to the film’s DVD commentary, demanded, and got, her own designer; she knew her worth. Even if you’re not familiar with the film itself (if that’s the case, you must come from that Edna May Oliver planet we mentioned above), you’ve seen its poster images of Zsa Zsa spread-armed like a resplendently red-chiffoned Nike of Samothrace. Zsa Zsa has a new costume for almost every scene, and it’s almost always chiffon. (This film must be a wow at chiffon-manufacturers’ conventions.) Her first appearance has her in a body-hugging white number as she wields a hot test tube in her lab; later, leading the Revolution against the wicked Queen, she opts for basic black accessoried with diamonds and an Uzi. We sense a fashion statement in the making here. But no matter the color or cut, each dress allows Zsa Zsa to sneak a nude leg through a slit in the fabric and provocatively pose it, as if, à la Claudette Colbert yanking a skirt roadside, she’s trying to hitchhike her way through the plot. Here’s a drinking game suggestion: Take a slug every time Zsa Zsa bares a gam. If anyone’s still conscious by film’s end, do let us know.
Maybe Zsa Zsa does look incongruous in this film, but it’s not just because she’s Zsa Zsa. It’s because, in the midst of one type of camp fest, that of 1950s sci-fi schlock, she really belongs in another. The movie’s other, younger actresses (many of whom, like Zsa Zsa, were former beauty queens) exemplify the emerging post-WWII feminine ideal. Long-legged and broad-shouldered, they really are Amazonian. And they move like warriors, chins down and shoulders thrown back as they head toward the pre-feminist wars (though they still run like girls, taking mincing little steps on the balls of their feet). Whereas, by today’s body-mass standards, Zsa Zsa is definitely zaftig. Like Mae West, she’s a throwback to an era where sex was less about flaunted bodies and more about fleshy innuendo. Her own sexual politics are geared toward old-fashioned suggestiveness, as she crafts a persona of the calculatedly allusive come-on. Zsa Zsa doesn’t engage directly but seems ever to be sidling sideways—eyes, mouth, and, yes, that leg—as if about to slip into an offscreen bedroom, promising spicy pleasures to come. Yet she’s always in control. That smile that half-curls, like a lopsided boomerang, on her lips tells us that here is a woman confident of her glamour and the power it gives her. In a better world Zsa Zsa’s true domain would have been the Hollywood Biblical Epic. As a bejeweled courtesan leading the rapidly-falling-from-grace hero into Sin on the Grand Scale, all while reclining horizontally on a zsh-zshusching silk-covered bed, she would have been in her element. What a pity she never worked with DeMille.
But, dahlings, if we can’t have Zsa Zsa in the Bible, then we’ll take her in outer space. Any which way she appears is fine; while a little Zsa Zsa is always a treat, a lotta Zsa Zsa is about the best there is. For way out here, in our own gauzily chiffoned camp Empyrean, Zsa Zsa will always be Queen.
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the trailer for Queen of Outer Space. Zsa Zsa (“the most talked-about woman in the world!”) is mistakenly called the Queen here: