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The Lasting Impact of 'Sexy Nurse' Exploitation Films

In 1970, Stephanie Rothman directed an "exploitation" film for the notorious low-budget producer Roger Corman. The result, "The Student Nurses," subverted the genre with a feminist message and went on to become a cult hit—but Rothman's career never...

by Craig Hubert
Mar 11 2016, 4:20pm

A scene from "The Student Nurses." Courtesy of New World Pictures

Stephanie Rothman's The Student Nurses, first released in 1970, is what many people would call an exploitation film. The second project produced under the banner of cheapo-film maestro Roger Corman's New World Pictures, the low-budget cult film was a relative success at the box office and spawned a subsequent cycle of nurse-themed films, all of which Rothman had nothing to do with.

But what kept The Student Nurses relevant while so many of the other films produced by Corman have become incredibly dated is the way Rothman blatantly subverted the pulpy genre she was working in. The routine plot focuses on four young nurses coming of age within the stifling professional and personal atmosphere of the Age of Aquarius, when male doctors and dope-smoking bikers were more alike than they may have seemed. Rothman was forced to include nudity and violence in the film to satisfy Corman's specifications, but once that was out of the way, she and her husband Charles Swartz wrote an incredibly robust story of female struggle in the workplace, complete with detours into abortion rights, the chauvinism of hippie culture, and revolutionary activism. It was a canny bait-and-switch: People came for the cleavage promised in the poster, and walked out having watched a film that defiantly engaged with feminist politics in a way not seen in a major motion picture at the time.

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It was a mode of working that Rothman would use for the rest of her short career. Rothman began as the only female filmmaker alongside contemporaries such as Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich at Corman's previous company, American International Pictures, where she directed the beach party film It's a Bikini World. She eventually made one more film for Corman, 1971's The Velvet Vampire, before leaving to help establish Dimension Films with Swartz, where she would direct three more films, including Terminal Island in 1973, before attempting to branch off on her own. The Working Girls, released in 1974, would be her last film.

Ahead of a revival of The Student Nurses, beginning March 11 at the newly opened Metrograph theater in New York, Broadly spoke with Rothman about working with Roger Corman, the benefits and disadvantages of making genre films, and why she is disappointed when her films are described as exclusively feminist.

BROADLY: You began your career working with Roger Corman right out of college and spent a number of years working with him. What was the experience like at the beginning? Did it change over time?
Stephanie Rothman: My experience working for Roger constantly changed. He put me to work doing anything that needed to be done: I directed a couple of second units and got additional pickup shots for films he was financing; I supervised some of their editing; and when there was time, I read new script submissions. After a few months of this, he asked me to edit footage shot by two different directors, write a new unifying narrative, and shoot and cut together about a half hour of new scenes. He hoped to sell the final result to television, but to his surprise and mine, it first played as a second feature in theaters before going on TV. After that, I directed my first complete film for him, a beach picture [It's a Bikini World, released in 1967], which I co-wrote with my husband Charles Swartz, who also produced it.

Did you feel like a lot of opportunities were unavailable to you at the time?
Outside of working for Roger, there was nothing available to me. I was grateful and amazed to be working for him.

How involved were you with feminist discourse at the time?
If you mean as an activist in the women's movement, my activism was making my films. As far as books that influenced me, I would say works by two women: Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. But I didn't need to read about the greater freedom and opportunity given to boys and men because as I grew up I experienced it, and it made me a feminist long before second-wave feminism came along.

I have always regretted that I couldn't have progressed to making films without those limitations.

When you moved to New World Pictures, what were the initial conversations around The Student Nurses like? Was there a lot of input from outside the production?
I was told that the regional sub-distributors who were co-financing the film with New World wanted a film about student nurses. It had to have enough nudity and sex to go to the outer edge of what constituted an R-rating in those days. They also wanted a bit of violence thrown in. Other than that, the content was my choice. Roger read and approved the final script and then went to Europe to direct a film of his own. He was the only one outside the production who had any involvement in it, and because he was away he gave no further input until he saw the rough cut. On the whole he was pleased, except he thought the film could have been a bit more "raunchy."

Did the film see any changes after Roger said it needed to be more "raunchy"?
Additional changes to make it more "raunchy" would have required shooting more film footage, which would have required more money. Roger wasn't interested in that, and Charles and I would have strongly resisted it.

Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve with the film?
Yes and no. Given the constraints of time and budget, I think I achieved a lot, but by no means all of what I wanted.

What couldn't you achieve?
I would have made it, but not as an exploitation film.

What were the benefits for you at the time for working within genre films? Did you feel you had more freedom?
The overarching benefit I had was the freedom to make a different type of film each time and to use different visual styles to tell each story. Leaving aside the beach picture, I was able to make a coming-of-age story; a vampire tale; a sex farce; an island prison story; and one about both unemployment and underemployment. The other benefit is that I got to address issues of political and social conflict that few studio films were concerned about at the time.

Were you bothered by some of the limitations of that type of filmmaking?
Yes, the requisite need to have a lot of nudity and the struggle to avoid making it gratuitous and instead an integral part of the story. The shooting schedules were always very short, rarely more than 17 days, and I had to consider how much actual film stock I could shoot because it was a big part of the budget. Then there were the equipment limitations, which also existed because of cost. In my entire career, I only got to shoot on a soundstage two days. There were times when shooting on live locations was so much more difficult than being able to shoot on a stage would have been, and it consumed time that could have been better spent. I have always regretted that I couldn't have progressed to making films without those limitations.

A few years after The Student Nurses, you left Corman and New World and helped start Dimension Pictures. Were there struggles in starting your own film company at the time?
No, Dimension Pictures had outside financing, and the same sub-distributors who co-financed films at New World wanted to finance films made by me. At Dimension we proposed the topics to the sub-distributors, and as long as they had the exploitation film elements that they wanted, they accepted them.

My activism was making my films.

Why did you eventually stop making films?
After leaving Dimension I sold two screenplays and was signed to direct them, but the directing part never occurred. After that I unsuccessfully tried to find work for ten years in film and television, and after that—I just stopped trying.

Have you been surprised by the second life many of your films have experienced, and especially by the fact that feminist film critics have acknowledged them?
My films were never entirely forgotten. There was ongoing interest in them in Europe in the 90s and 2000s. I was invited to some festivals where they were exhibited, and they also were shown at some revival theaters in Germany. In addition, there have been some book and magazines pieces written about them there. But the renewed interest in them in America is a surprise and deeply gratifying.

In the past there were a few feminist critics that were interested in my films, but I know of no recent recognition. Critics correctly see my films as having a strong feminist viewpoint, and I am very pleased about that, but it disappoints me when they describe them exclusively as feminist, because I tried to have a conversation with viewers about many other issues as well.