Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Director: Russ Meyer
Screenplay: Roger Ebert (story by Roger Ebert & Russ Meyer)
Stars: Dolly Read (Kelly Mac Namara), Cynthia Myers (Casey Anderson), Marcia McBroom (Petronella Danforth), John Lazar (Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell), Michael Blodgett (Lance Rocke), David Gurian (Harris Allsworth), Edy Williams (Ashley St. Ives), Erica Gavin (Roxanne), Phyllis Davis (Susan Lake), Harrison Page (Emerson Thorne), Duncan McLeod (Porter Hall), James Iglehart (Randy Black), Charles Napier (Baxter Wolfe), Henry Rowland (Otto)
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Year of Release: 1970
Country: U.S.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Beyond the Valley of the DollsThe 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.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary from 2003 by screenwriter Roger Ebert
  • Audio commentary from 2006 by actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar, and Erica Gavin
  • Episode from 1988 of The Incredibly Strange Film Show on director Russ Meyer
  • Q&A about the film from 1992 featuring Meyer, Ebert, LaZar, and Read; and actors David Gurian, Charles Napier, Michael Blodgett, and Edy Williams, with host Michael Dare
  • “Beyond the Beyond” video interview with filmmaker John Waters
  • “Above, Beneath, and Beyond the Valley” featurette
  • “Look On Up at the Bottom” featurette
  • “Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder” featurette
  • “The Best of Beyond” featurette
  • “Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene” featurette
  • “Memories of Russ” featurette
  • Screen tests
  • Trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Glenn Kenny and excerpts from a 1970 article in the UCLA Daily Bruin about a visit to the film’s set
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2016

    Like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was put out by 20th Century Fox in a very nice special edition DVD back in 2006, but Criterion’s new Blu-ray marks the film’s debut in high definition. The new HD transfer was made from a new 35mm interpositive struck from the original 35mm camera negative, with Criterion applying subsequent digital restoration. The resulting image is clean and sharp—a solid improvement over the DVD, which was quite good 10 years ago. I noticed in particular how much brighter the image looks, with the film’s candy colors popping with more intensity than I remembered. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred from the 35mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored, which gives us a clean, solid one-channel presentation that is understandably flat and limited in terms of scope. The film’s various songs have definite punch, although not a whole lot of depth.
    According to numerous sources, Criterion has been pursuing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for years, and many thought that, after 20th Century Fox released their special edition DVD in 2006, it would never happen. Well, here we are, and the good folks at Criterion have definitely proved their adoration of this cult classic with one of the strongest and most diverse array of supplements I have seen in some time. First off, the disc includes virtually all of the material from the 2006 DVD. This means we get two audio commentaries, a solo track by screenwriter Roger Ebert and a group affair that includes actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar, and Erica Gavin. We also get five retrospective featurettes from that DVD featuring interviews with members of the cast and crew: “Above, Beneath, and Beyond the Valley,” “Look On Up at the Bottom,” “Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder,” “The Best of Beyond,” and “Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene.” Also from that DVD we get 7 minutes of screen tests and several trailers, although the six photo galleries that included more than 300 images are not included.

    In addition to all of that material, Criterion has assembled more than two hours of additional supplements, starting with a highly entertaining half-hour video interview with filmmaker John Waters, who offers his own experiences with Meyer’s films and his unique take on BVD. There is also quite a bit of material from the archives, starting with a 1988 episode of the The Incredibly Strange Film Show about director Russ Meyer (38 min.); a Q&A about the film from 1992 featuring Meyer, Ebert, LaZar, Read, David Gurian, Charles Napier, Michael Blodgett, and Edy Williams, hosted by Michael Dare (49 min.); and “Memories of Russ” (8 min.), a series of brief interviews with actors Charles Napier, Harrison Page, Erica Gavin, and Haji, along with Meyer collaborator Jim Ryan, from 2005 about their experiences working with Meyer. The insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Glenn Kenny and excerpts from a 1970 article in the UCLA student newspaper about a visit to the film’s set.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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