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."

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