Documentary Looks Back on Lady Wrestling Pioneers

Don't be fooled by the magnifying glasses octogenarians Lillian Ellison and Johnnie Mae Young use to read the lunch menu at a restaurant in the Time Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

"Have you decided what you're having, Lil?" asked Young.

"No," Ellison said. "But I don't care much for fish, though."

To the untrained eye, Ellison and Young, both 81, look like ordinary senior citizens who are about to enjoy their lunch. But the two longtime friends -- better known to fans as legendary professional wrestlers The Fabulous Moolah and The Great Mae Young -- won't let age and a few wrinkles get in the way of a good bodyslam, as they show in "Lipstick & Dynamite," a documentary about lady pro wrestlers that opened Friday in limited release.

Moolah and Young are featured along with lady wrestler pioneers Gladys "Killem" Gillem, Ida May Martinez, Penny Banner and Elle Waldek as director Ruth Leitman examines the overlooked history of women in professional wrestling through their eyes. "Lipstick & Dynamite" explores the struggles these women endured in the 1940s, '50s and '60s while working in an industry that was -- and in many ways still is -- a man's world. It also explores how some of them adjusted to life after they retired from the ring and how they cope with facing their mortality.

Wrestling Lesson for the Director

Leitman wasn't a wrestling fan before she started working on "Lipstick & Dynamite." She said she became intrigued with the idea of making a film about women wrestlers when a friend who worked at the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling told her about Moolah and Young.

Initially, Moolah and Young -- who live along with retired lady midget wrestler Diamond Lil' on Moolah's estate in Columbia, S.C. -- both resisted Leitman's requests. But they reconsidered after they saw Leitman driving just outside the estate in an apparent attempt to find them.

"She just kept being so pushy that I loved it. I knew she was being sincere," Moolah said. "We keep getting offers from people who want to do our life story all the time. You can't listen to everybody. But when Ruth kept coming to my house, ringing my door, I knew she had to be sincere. I gave her 100 percent of my time."

Leitman was enlightened by the time she spent with Moolah, Young, Gillem, Martinez, Banner and Waldek. She said she developed a respect for the determination they needed to survive in the often sexist and unscrupulous world of professional wrestling, especially in the 1940s and '50s. The women tell stories of male managers and promoters sometimes pocketing money that rightfully belonged to the wrestlers, and of rival female wrestlers who sought to gain an edge by sleeping with promoters. Their recollections provide the most poignant and often unintentionally humorous moments in "Lipstick & Dynamite."

Leitman is already thinking about pursuing a follow-up to the documentary that focuses solely on Moolah and Young.

"Now I feel like I know Lillian and Mae so much better than when I made it [the film]," she said. "There are some things about them that I know now that maybe there is room for a sequel that focuses solely on them."

Moolah, who held the Women's World Championship title consistently between 1956 and 1984 and continues to train female wrestlers, has won respect -- but has also come in for some criticism -- in her long career for her unique role as wrestler, trainer and booker. According to Leitman, she has been criticized for showing some of the same business traits that are perceived admirable in men both inside and outside the wrestling world. Moolah and women like her, she agreed, are often perceived as "bitches."

"It was really important for me to demystify that [in "Lipstick & Dynamite]," Leitman said. "Lillian as a business woman is a great business woman. Lillian as a person is a great person, she's a killer in the ring, and she's professional. And oftentimes, women who are in business, they're just given a really hard time."

Assured of Legacy but Adapting to the Times

Moolah was inducted into World Wrestling Entertainment's Hall of Fame in 1995. Both she and Young are members of Pro Wrestler Hall of Fame, whose museum was based in Amsterdam, N.Y., and is now looking for a new home.

With her carrot-colored hair, Moolah speaks with a slight accent that betrays her Southern roots. And Young, though slightly bowed, has a strong grip that reflects both her 65-year career and her tomboy days when she kicked field goals for her high school's football team. They are aware of their legacy, but don't seem to take themselves too seriously.

Despite their age, Moolah and Young continue to be active in professional wrestling. They make appearances for WWE, often appearing in comedic skits.

Some of their contemporaries criticize Moolah and Young in "Lipstick & Dynamite" for their role in WWE, saying they were tarnishing their legacy as athletes as well as the reputations of other influential women wrestlers. But Moolah and Young insist they have not lost any respect from younger wrestlers.

"You know you got to go with the flow. You don't stay in 1930 all the time," Moolah said. "They [the younger female wrestlers] respect us. They know that we paved the way for them. They know they could have never done what we did as far as taking life like we had to take it. Today, they fly everywhere at Vince's [WWE Chairman Vince McMahon] expense. Back then, we had to sleep in our cars, and we had to be happy with the $10 payoff."

No Sign of Stopping

And Moolah and Young occasionally continue to participate in the ring. In recent years, WWE viewers have seen them in periodic matches, sometimes taking hits and bumps from male wrestlers young enough to be their grandchildren. Moolah withstood an "RKO" -- also known as a Randy Knockout, a neckbreaker-facedrop combination -- from 24-year-old wrestler Randy Orton. Young was slammed through a wooden table from the ring top turnbuckle by WWE tag team The Dudleys.

Yes, pro wrestling is choreographed and wrestlers take measures to protect one another in the ring. But you have to be tough to still be that active in the ring while in your 80s.

"I'm used to that, wrestling with boys," Young said. "Moolah and I tag-team sometimes, and we love taking on the boys. We got a chance to wrestle some good-looking men last weekend, and we beat them in five minutes."

Moolah and Young said they continue to participate in wrestling because they love the industry. If they stop, that might mean they're ready for that great ring in the sky.

And Moolah and Young said they don't have any plans call it quits just yet.

"When you retire, you might as well get ready to drive nails in your coffin," Moolah said with a wink and a smile. "We intend to wrestle until we're 100 years old, and that's not too far off."