J.X. Williams (birthname unknown) was an innovative American cult director known for several notorious exploitation films produced in the 1960s and 1970s. His films are rarely exhibited due to legal issues and the poor condition of surviving prints.
Born in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, he was raised in a working-class Jewish family with strong ties to organized labor and the Communist Party. His father, a set designer for Warner Brothers, was a labor agitator and his activities influenced Williams' early leftist leanings. After dropping out of high school, he took a job in the mailroom in RKO Studios and quickly rose through the ranks to become an assistant in the Writers' Division. Though never credited on any production, he was known to have Dore Schary's ear and would likely have been taken under contract if not for unforeseen events.
Like many screenwriters of his time, Williams had leftist sympathies and was known to frequent meetings of groups with ties to the Communist Party. After these activities were reported, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee during their 1947 hearings on Communist infiltration of the film industry. Mr. Williams refused to testify and, although he did not serve time, the major studio subsequently blacklisted him.
Without means of support, he drifted into petty crime and fraternized with low-ranking members of the Los Angeles crime family. These associations soon brought him in contact with notorious mobster Johnny Rosselli, who took him under his wing. Recognizing Williams' interest in film, Rosselli put him in charge of directing and distributing mob-funded nudie and pornographic films. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of these loops have been lost or destroyed so little is known of this early period of Williams' career.
Over the next ten years, Williams amassed a small fortune as a smut impresario with the blessing of Rosselli. At the same time, he continued to operate in the shadows of legitimate Hollywood productions as a ghostwriter. Williams claims to have penned seventy-two screenplays that became major motion pictures. Although almost no one has been able to verify his claims, a consortium of studios quietly settled a copyright lawsuit filed by Williams for an undisclosed sum.
As the 1960s opened, Williams' debauched years of hard drinking and reckless gambling caught up with him. He found himself in debt to the Mafia and his life was in danger. As a result, he fled to Europe in hopes of directing legitimate films without the stigma of the blacklist. After a few false starts, he produced his first featurette, PEEP SHOW (1965). Hailed by Henri Langlois as the harbinger of an American “Nouvelle Vague”, PEEP SHOW chronicled a mafia conspiracy against Frank Sinatra to addict him to heroin.
PEEP SHOW holds a significant place in cinematic history for a number of reasons. Most notoriously, the film's use of pornographic imagery got it banned from several countries and even resulted in the director's brief incarceration in Rome. More importantly, however, the film tackled a multitude of subjects that did not come into vogue until the seventies. Nearly a decade before Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, PEEP SHOW offered an unrelentingly grim and realistic portrait of organized crime, undoubtedly influenced by Mr. Williams' personal experiences as a onetime "gofer" to Johnny Rosselli and other mobsters in Los Angeles.
Released less than two years after the assassination of JFK, PEEP SHOW was also the first film to explore the dark side of Camelot. Besides tracing the tangled web of theories that may have led to the assassination, the film gives a blistering account of the fixing of the 1960 election and the unholy alliance between Joe Kennedy and La Cosa Nostra. Large portions of the film were made from appropriated footage, predating similar works by Craig Baldwin, Jay Rosenblatt and other avant-garde directors by more than a decade.
Mr. Williams followed a year later with the tawdry I, JEZEBEL (1966). Reviews were mixed, however, and it may have prompted his return to the United States. With the power of the blacklist finally diminishing in the late 1960s, Williams undertook a series of exploitation films that pushed the limits of taste and taboo. This period includes such gems as E.S.P. ORGY (1967), MONDO VIETNAM (1968) and THE PHANTOM OF THE CINEMA (1969).
During the next two years, he struggled with production for THE VIRIGN SACRIFICE (1970), a three-hour long Satanic horror epic. Reputedly, Sammy Davis Jr. was an early backer of the film and a contributor to the soundtrack before a falling out with Williams. After a short but promising stint on the festival circuit, the film was lost and the negative was destroyed in a fire in the lab where it was stored. A film maudit in every sense of the phrase, the film is infamous in the annals of film history for the rampant drug use and violence on the set. As Peter Bogdanovich later observed "Though most people have forgotten the film, few have forgotten its tortured origins. It immortalized Mr. Williams as perhaps the greatest enfant terrible since Erich von Stroheim."
Despite the disastrous undertaking, Williams continued to release films through his Cine-Vision Studios, including KABOOM! (1973), L.A. DEATH TRIP (1975) and YOU AXED FOR IT! (1978). These low budget exploitation pieces were panned by critics but proved commercially successful on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. He spent an increasing amount of time making hardcore pornographic films to fund his productions but his last film, NUNF*CKER (1979) is considered one of the best. Not surprisingly, the title, if not the film, also attracted a great deal of controversy, especially from Catholic groups who picketed the screenings.
J.X. Williams also became a director of early music videos for various punk and new wave groups in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
After a legal settlement in 1981 with several major film studios over copyright disputes, Williams moved to Zurich, Switzerland and retired from filmmaking. He is infamous for his reclusiveness and distaste for the public eye.