| The most shocking thing we see in Russ Meyer’s mondo-bizarro satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is also the first thing we see: the 20th Century Fox logo, in full color and CinemaScope, complete with trumpeting fanfare. I imagine Meyer in the editing room, laughing to himself and looking over his shoulder, thinking, “Are they really going to let me do this? Is this really happening?” The very fact that Meyer, a Signal Corps cameraman-turned-Playboy photographer who virtually invented the so-called “nude cutie” genre, was allowed to make virtually any film he wished with a major studio’s budget and resources is testament to the teetering nature of the old Hollywood system at the end of the 1960s, when all the guaranteed properties of the previous decade were bombing, sexual and cultural mores were shifting, and the old guard was being replaced by upstart cinephiles.|
I could go on, but instead I’ll defer to Roger Ebert, who at the time was a rising film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times who Meyer sought out to pen the script. On the occasion of the film’s 10th anniversary in 1980, he wrote in Film Comment,
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems more and more like a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum. At the time Russ Meyer and I were working on BVD I didn’t really understand how unusual the project was. But in hindsight I can recognize that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits.
The film is, of course, a non-sequel to the notorious camp classic Valley of the Dolls (1967), which had been a major hit for Fox several years earlier despite a savage critical reception. The author of the novel on which it was based, Jacqueline Susann, had suggested several ideas for a sequel, none of which caught on, and instead Fox executives decided to gamble on Meyer, who had been making financially successful exploitation films for more than a decade at that point, his two biggest hits being Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) and Vixen! (1968). They gave him the title Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (sans exclamation point, unfortunately) and let him do whatever he wanted with it. Meyer, ever the maverick independent, made the most of this unlikely opportunity by churning out a fantastically twisted, utterly unpredictable, and gloriously over-the-top satire of Hollywood debauchery and the decadence of celebrity. Ebert, who was one of the few film critics who had written positively about Meyer’s films, was brought on board to write the screenplay, which he did in a feverish six-week period.
The story borrows the basic structure of Valley of the Dolls, following the trials and tribulations of three young women as they navigate the highs and lows of newfound celebrity. In this case, the three women—Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom)—comprise an all-girls rock band that hits major stardom once they move out to L.A. and come under the control of music producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar), much to the chagrin of Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), the band’s nice-guy manager and Kelly’s soon-to-be-shoved-to-the-margins boyfriend. Rechristened “The Carrie Nations” (one of the film’s best jokes, which most people today will have to Google to understand), the band becomes an instant sensation in the Los Angeles music scene, which is fueled by Z-Man’s debauched parties that draw all manner of pornographers, freaks, hippies, druggies, and other archetypal Southern California denizens. Kelly discovers that she is the sole relative of Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a fundamentally decent heiress whose money is managed by the nefarious Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), the movie’s resident stiff whose conservative appearance and arch hypocrisy make him public enemy number one. Kelly gets involved with the handsome, but vacuous and narcissistic Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) while Harris is pursued by the absurdly breathy porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams).
Ebert packs the story with various twists and turns, betrayals and sudden turns of fortune, not to mention conflict between virtually everyone on screen. Although she at first appears to be a classic “nice girl,” Kelly quickly proves to be an opportunist who is more than ready to move on to whatever seems best at the time. Casey seems positively baffled and lost in her newfound celebrity, and while Pet meets and becomes romantically involved with Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), an aspiring law student, she can’t help but cheat on him with Randy Black (James Iglehart), a constantly shirtless boxer with anger management issues. Meanwhile, Kelly is in constant conflict with Porter, who despises hippie culture, and Harris sulks on the sidelines as Z-Man takes over Kelly’s life.
It is all very protracted and melodramatic and arch, and while Meyer directs everything to be played straight, it is clear that he and Ebert planned for the film to be an absurdist satire of the highest order. The first lines of dialogue we hear spoken in the film are “A disgrace. Absolutely disgusting,” from a lisping, uptight chaperone at a high school prom, which cues us to how we should view the film itself—a gleefully purposeful disgrace. The key is the film’s dialogue, which is so intentionally overloaded in every way that it cannot possibly be taken seriously, even though the actors give it their all, investing every bizarre line with as much seriousness as they can muster. In this way, it doesn’t even matter that almost no one on screen can actually act (two of the three main characters are played by former Playboy Playmates) because the howler dialogue resists any and all attempts at genuine feeling. The worst the acting is, the better the performance because nothing exiting the characters’ mouths sounds like anything anyone would actually say; Laurence Olivier couldn’t sell it if his life depended on it. It is at all times performance, clearly written, which is what makes it so fantastically hilarious. The film is a veritable cavalcade of memorable lines—Ashley St. Ives telling Harris, “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on some time,” or Z-Man proclaiming with wide-eyed delirium, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!,” or Kelly spitting at Porter Hall, “Up yours, Ratso!”—and it all adds up to an utter and complete sense of artificiality. The high point of it all is Z-Man, a slightly androgynous freak who speaks in a faux Shakespearean iambic pentameter while prancing from character to character, needling them and greasing the path to the film’s eventual climax, part of which we see behind the film’s opening credits. A sword is drawn, a head is lopped off, and a Nazi is skewered in an absolutely bizarre send-up of the recent Manson murders, an utterly tasteless display that has to be admired for its sheer audacity.
Meyer had always excelled at mixing sex and violence, although he reserves most of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the former. The film is rife with copious coupling, although given the director’s penchant for nudity and his obsession with buxom women, there is surprisingly little on-screen skin. Perhaps he was genuinely aiming for a more market-friendly R-rating, although the MPAA slapped it with an X, perhaps because they just didn’t know how else to warn audiences about what they were in for. For all his obsession with the female body, Meyer was not a simplistic voyeur, but rather a daring artist who was willing to employ all manner of experimental techniques to his films: rapid editing the sometimes employs almost subliminal inserts, canted camera angles, garish color, wild juxtapositions. At times the film looks like a soap opera, at other times like an Italian horror film, at other times like a proto-music video. Of course, a lot of viewers didn’t get it during its theatrical release, especially those who showed up thinking they were in for another one of Meyer’s nudie cuties, and that disjunction is central to the film’s warped genius. Like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond is a howler of a movie, with the crucial difference being that Meyer and Ebert intended it that way.
Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick
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