For film critic Roger Ebert, to his everlasting credit, being the screenwriter of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has never been anything but a badge of honor. The young film reviewer had been writing a year or so for the Chicago Sun-Times when he read an article in the Wall Street Journal which considered at length, and with some degree of seriousness, Meyer’s career and stature as a pop artist. Ebert wrote a letter to the paper praising them for their effort, a letter which was read by Meyer. Soon after, the director contacted Ebert and they became friends. After rejecting two attempts by Jacqueline Susann to sequelize the hit movie Valley of the Dolls, spun from her own best-seller, 20th-Century Fox turned the project over to Meyer, whose sensibility they thought might creatively spark the process of squeezing another movie out of Susann’s tempest-in-a-teapot. Meyer, in turn, asked his friend Ebert to write the screenplay, figuring that no legitimate screenwriter would ever be able to work with him. But when the movie was released in the summer of 1970, though it ultimately made back its $900,000 budget ten times, audiences, who might have been expecting a more straightforward follow-up to the creaky, self-serious 1967 original, seemed confused and put off by Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Imagine the level of their confusion when the movie started out with a title card that spelled out, in no uncertain terms, that what they were about to see was emphatically not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, but instead an original work connected to the first film in name only.) And though the movie did receive the occasional favorable review, the mainstream press was largely dismissive. In fact, one of the most caustic reviews Beyond the Valley of the Dolls received came from none other than Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who made a point of roasting the work of the movie’s neophyte screenwriter. In the late ‘70s and mid ‘80s, Siskel would even, on occasion, use the film’s supposed substandard quality as a club with which to bludgeon his colleague’s taste on their televised movie review program.
None of which ever seemed to bother Roger Ebert. He’s always stood by the film he created with Russ Meyer, either good-naturedly joking about it or relaying with enthusiasm stories about its production and increasing stature as a cult phenomenon, and as an unsung artifact of genuine artistic achievement mined from the early ‘70s, the “golden age” of American cinema. And now it seems that time, and film critics and film audiences, may finally have caught up with Ebert and Meyer. Last week’s DVD release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (in tandem with the straightforward Mark Robson-directed 1967 adaptation of Valley of the Dolls) provides a chance to see the candy-colored Panavision psychedelia, the free-associative montage, and the unbridled energy that powers Meyer and Ebert’s play(boy/Pent)house sensibility to greater advantage than it has probably ever been seen. The movie, which truly is no sequel at all to Valley of the Dolls, takes the previous film’s story of sex, drugs and stardom (and the inevitable crash that follows) as its template, adds the crucial element of rock and roll, and uses it to gently (and sometimes not so gently) satirize the whole idea of seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, not to mention movies about seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood. The plot reads deliberately familiar. A girl rock-and-roll group on the prom-and-wedding circuit (Dolly Read on lead guitar and vocals, Cynthia Meyers on bass, and Marcia McBroom on drums) hit the road to Los Angeles and are taken under the hedonistic wing of the creepy, vainglorious record producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John La Zar). He dubs them the the Carrie Nations, and soon the girls are at the center of a giddy and increasingly dizzying roundelay of sexual pairings, betrayals, jealousy and, eventually, murder. But the plot, though played very straight by the actors (and not so much by the director and writer), serves mainly as an excuse to ride the cultural wave that was cresting even as the film was being made for all the comic-satiric juice that could be squeezed from it, and for showcasing a plentiful array of Meyer-ifically busty women, all dominating, visually and in every manner otherwise, the cast of either bland, overly sincere or irredeemably corrupt males circling them in a dazed orbit.
The transfer rendered for this release by Fox Home Video is superlative—the colors pop off the screen and overwhelm you with their audacity just the way they’re supposed to, courtesy of cinematography by the usually workmanlike and stodgy Fred Koenekamp, fresh off of Patton ( !!! ), with an occasional assist from former wartime photographer Meyer himself. And if you watch any part of the movie, or all of it, with the sound off—either to listen to one of the two commentary tracks included on the main feature, or to watch the French subtitles or English SDH titles— Meyer’s fairly radical editing techniques become more apparent and appreciable. For instance, during the movie’s first big Hollywood party set piece (the one in which Z-Man delightedly exclaims, to no one in particular, “This is my scene, and it’s freaking me out!”), you might not notice, underneath the mad cacophony of squealing, shouting partygoers, the only slightly exaggerated fashions, and the driving beat of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the razor-sharp, insistent, almost metronomic montage that Meyer uses to carve the scene up into strobe-light flashes of overwhelming experience, mirroring the disorientation that the Carrie Nations are themselves experiencing as they jump into the Hollywood scene for the first time. The whole movie is edited in a similar fashion, and although Meyer necessarily alternates the rhythms for different scenes, no one scene is ever edited in a precisely classical manner—shots never last too long, but they sometimes don’t last as long as we expect they might, and the Panavision frame is always subject to the intrusion of an unexpected flurry of evocative, and sometimes not entirely thematically connected imagery which keeps us laughing, but also serves to keep us slightly on edge. Perversely, however, when the movie takes us up to and over that edge during the bizarre horror-film denouement staged at Z-Man’s isolated estate, Meyer shifts into a much more rhythmically smooth and familiar style of editing, as if to say the sudden assurances of his style are no assurances at all up against the lurid, unmoored and genuinely shocking horrors that lie in wait for the characters, and for us.
The second disc in the two-disc set has lots of delicious extras, including an above-average “making of” documentary entitled “Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley: The Making of a Musical-Horror-Sex Comedy,” an excellent piece on the music of the film, featuring interviews with songwriter Stu Phillips and the original singer who dubbed Dolly Read’s vocals, Lynn Carey, original screen tests, two other original featurettes, and an exhaustive set of photo galleries. The behind-the-scenes material is well-populated with many of the participants in the film, including Read, Myers and McBroom (to all of whom, it must be said, nature and time have been very kind), Harrison Page (McBroom’s straight-arrow boyfriend in the film), La Zar (who also provides an unsettling introduction to the bonus materials section) and B-movie queen Erica Gavin, who gained a measure of fame and notoriety as the star of Meyer’s popular hit Vixen (1968) and whose last film was Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974).
(Meyer himself died in 2004, and the disc also suffers from the absence of Edy Williams, the statuesque sex queen/self-promoter who Meyer married just after production on BVD wrapped, and who also starred in Meyer’s ill-fated adaptation of Irving Wallace’s The Seven Minutes, as well as about 20 years’ worth of photos from the Cannes Film Festival, where her nude frolicking was a fixture for many years.)
There are two audio commentaries on the feature disc, one of them a very entertaining, party-atmosphere type affair which reunites Read, Meyers, McBroom, Page, La Zar and Gavin. But the real treasure of the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls DVD, aside from the movie itself, is the other audio commentary, recorded by Roger Ebert. The track is one of the best I’ve ever heard— Ebert neither denigrates the film or his contributions to it, nor does he inflate the experience and the film beyond recognition. It is, first and foremost, an excellent opportunity for a learned observer of film to relate his own firsthand experience in making a Hollywood film (even one as relatively outré as this) and to shed some personal light on the public image of one of cinema’s most notoriously ribald and unrepentant filmmakers.
Ebert’s account of his relationship with Meyer and his observations about his character—he often extols Meyer’s professional loyalty and romantic monogamy during the 109-minute running time of the commentary—are fascinating insofar as they run counter to the perceived image of the man from interviews and, of course, the films themselves. They are also unexpectedly moving, and Ebert’s genuine sense of loss in the shadow of Meyer’s death, one not yet two years in the past, runs silently underneath his comments as a mournful subtext. But lest it be portrayed as some sort of wake, the commentary is more readily exuberant in Ebert’s many stories of his adventures with Meyer making the movie, and his sincere appreciation of what Meyer brought to the table in terms of film craft, artistic acumen and, yes, even feminist sensibility.
Ebert reminds those who were unaware (and those who insist on Meyer as a purveyor of zeppelin-centered misogyny) that it was the feminist film critic B. Ruby Rich who first stepped to the plate and defended Meyer on feminist grounds, stating that, despite the obviously pleasing and curvaceous graphic qualities with which they imbued Meyer’s films (and for which they were most likely hired), the fact is that, from Tura Satana to Erica Gavin to Edy Williams to Kitten Natividad, Meyer’s films were almost always about the power of aggressive women over their equally caricatured male counterparts, who were usually represented as sincere but dull-witted beefcake, clueless, weak-kneed milquetoasts or sometimes even misanthropic murderers. (However you feel about the increasingly worn argument about women owning their sexuality in films, it has its roots in Rich’s observations about Meyer’s films, and it’s an observation that came from a time when the notion of owning one’s sexuality as a means to power had some real sociological meaning and was not so conveniently used by some pretty powerful women-- and men-- as a rationalization for their own tendencies toward exhibitionism.)
Meyer and his films were, according to Ebert, “in the sex genre, but not of it.” He makes the revealing observation here that sex in a Meyer film is less erotic than it is more like the roaring and crashing of a destruction derby, as likely to be interrupted by incongruous imagery or bizarre camera angles than enhanced by sexy lighting or mood music. (At one point Read and Michael Blodgett are seen lying on a bed from a low angle through a transparent mattress—their naked bodies visible through bare bed springs upon which they are apparently, for this shot only, laying in assumed discomfort.) Ebert believes that it was this famous breast obsession and his boundless taste for sexual subject matter that kept Meyer alive and flourishing as one of the premier and genuine American independent filmmakers. Sex was a primary Meyer field of interest, but it was also a vehicle for approaching social satire. And sex sold. The fact that the returns on Meyer’s inexpensive films were always far greater than their budgets insured that he could keep control of what it was he wanted to do and make sure the film reflected exactly what it was he wanted it to be. And even though the ratio of nudity and lovemaking scenes in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is relatively low compared to some of the director’s other films, it could be the work of no other director and serves as a giddy compendium of his concerns.
However, Meyer did not operate in a vacuum. Ebert explains that Meyer was, as a director-writer, probably most influenced by the rampant pneumatic exaggeration and corny humor loose in the universe of Al Capp— in fact, the critic cites Li’l Abner as a direct influence on the only other completed Meyer-Ebert collaboration, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. But even more than the spirit of Al Capp (which was, in Ultra-Vixens, mixed-up to great effect with a spirited take on Thornton Wilder as well), Ebert points out several times during the commentary just how old-fashioned and pictorially simple, yet not simpleminded, Meyer’s visual grammar is, and he compares it (while terrific examples of what he’s saying run past on the screen) and the performances in the film to those of the silent cinema. Ebert doesn’t use this evidence—lap dissolves, contrapuntal imagery existing within the same frame to establish character relationships outside of the narrative, exaggerated movement and very straight line delivery, or even that montage style, which Ebert says positions Meyer in his mind as the logical heir to Sergei Eisenstein— to somehow inflate Meyer to the status of an Eisenstein or a D.W. Griffith. Instead, he merely points it out to emphasize how enraptured Meyer was by the simplicity of pure storytelling techniques, regardless of whether they were “hip” or not, and leaves us to discover on our own just how much more than single-minded, raucous soft-core pornography Meyer’s films could be because of those techniques.
Ebert’s audio commentary on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is extraordinarily relaxed. It achieves with apparent ease the kind of intimacy that you just know others who attempt this format would be exceedingly jealous of; this is undoubtedly due to Ebert’s level of comfort with speaking and his ability to arrange his thoughts coherently and with momentum. But he also brings to the track that elusive just-you-and-me-sitting-around-talking vibe to the proceedings—not a slight achievement, considering the commentary is a solo act—and he is remarkably unguarded when it comes to some of his personal observations. He says he always wondered whether Fox wasn’t ashamed of the movie, not only during its theatrical run, but in the time since that release (the movie has never, until now, been very easy to see), and he admits he always thought it might make a good Broadway musical. (Stranger things have happened on this front, like the stage musical version of Carrie.) And the tunes performed (lip-synched) by the Carrie Nations are genuinely terrific pop gems-- even my four and six-year-old daughters love to sing along with "Come with the Gentle People," "In The Long Run" and "Look On Up From the Bottom." (No, they haven't seen the movie. I play the soundtrack CD for them in the minivan. Please reconsider calling Children's Services.)
Press play to see the "Come With the Gentle People" montage from Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
He also reacts with bemusement over inserting the 20th-Century Fox theme music over the graphic beheading of one of the film’s main characters (“How we got away with that is something I’ll never understand”) and addresses one of the mysteries surrounding Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that has always concerned me—the credited appearance, but apparent absence, of Pam Grier. BVD is, according to IMDb, the first movie in which the celebrated star of Coffy, Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown ever appeared—she’s credited during the final roll as “Fourth Woman” and is supposedly roaming about somewhere in the first big party scene. But being the Pam Grier enthusiast that I am, it’s always been a point of frustration for me that I’ve never been able to spot her in the film. And Ebert, bless his heart, can’t figure out where the hell she is either! He’s even concerned enough about not knowing where to look for her that he mentions it more than once. More than likely she was the victim of that familiar cutting-room-floor syndrome, but it is odd that even someone as closely connected to the movie as Ebert, who was on the set, has no idea how Pam (here Pamela) Grier fits into the enduring mystique of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Of course, if anyone knows the whereabouts of Ms. Grier on this DVD, I’d love to know about it, and so would Mr. Ebert, I’d wager.)
Finally, the commentary track fills in some space within the mythology surrounding the infamous Meyer/Ebert film that never was, a collaboration with the Sex Pistols on a little number called Who Killed Bambi?. Ebert is brimming over with entertaining stories here regarding the film’s conception, Meyer’s and his interactions with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, and the ultimate fate of the film, some of which can be seen in Julien Temple’s subsequent Sex Pistols films The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and, more extensively, The Filth and the Fury. The stories titillate curiosity about what such a collaboration might have looked like, and it’s interesting to imagine what those who thought Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was as low as pop culture could stoop might have thought about seeing Sid Vicious shooting up on screen and rendered in Russ Meyer’s vivid, lurid stylizations. But for Ebert they are also opportunities to revisit Meyer’s memory in a way that a lot of people, even those intimately acquainted with his work, might not have to capacity with which to imagine him—that is, as a creative force beyond the world of exaggerated zaftig beauties and impudent social satire, a world entirely of his own making.
Ebert ends the commentary, appropriately enough, on an even more personal note, one which reinforces his admiration for Meyer as well as pride in his own creative involvement in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He says that when people ask him about the movie, about what he thinks of it—the underlying subtext of the question being, how can he possibly defend such trash—he always responds that it would be inappropriate, since he is, after all, the writer, for him to review it. “But,” he says, “I will say this—unlike a lot of movies, it doesn’t bore me!” Taken out of context, that comment could be read as a coy dodge, an attempt to avoid dealing with the legacy of a director who trafficked in (some would say) sexually exploitive imagery depicting an unrealistic and degrading portrayal of female beauty and attitudes. But coming as it does at the end of Roger Ebert’s excellent, informative and entertaining audio commentary on the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls DVD, it can really only be read as an honest tribute, an expression of amazement at being involved with a movie that was once seen only as a work of ill repute and slim justification, but that has blossomed with the passage of time and actually superseded the original Valley of the Dolls, which remains a stodgy, silly and uninteresting movie, in critical estimation and cultural value. (Richard Corliss, film critic for Time magazine once called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls one of the 10 best films from 1968 to 1978, and all indications are he stands by that assessment.)
The audio commentary on the DVD for the 1967 original film features star Barbara Parkins and the E channel’s Ted Casablanca chatting cattily about the dull fashions (Parkins is saddled, as is the whole film, with a dreadful beige color palette), Mark Robson’s unimaginative, “technical” direction, and, of course, the other actors—Sharon Tate is commented upon with reverence, while Parkins greets the first appearance of Patty Duke with, literally, a hiss and a feline yowl, while Casablanca laughs. It’s a commentary that reflects the singular value of the 1967 film— that as a camp object to be denigrated and revered simultaneously—and it grows tiresome very quickly. Ebert’s commentary, however, and that of the actors on the second commentary track, reflects the richer vein of cinematic value to be tapped, and added to, in considering the historical context and significance, as a film and pop culture signpost, of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, as well as Russ Meyer’s inventive directorial style. These are subjects worth taking notice of, and this splashy and happily indulgent new DVD package from Fox gives aficionados and virgins to the Meyer experience plenty of opportunity to indulge in them. It’s Z-Man Barzell’s line, but Meyer might have said it too, had he lived to see this digital monument to one of his most enjoyable, well-regarded movies: “Glad to see my audience in such happy dalliance. Pray, let them joust in peace!”
For further reading on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Cinebeats features some links to interviews with some of the movie’s stars, as well as information on a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls road tour via Erica Gavin’s official website. Meanwhile, Eric Henderson has written a informative review of the movie and the DVD on the virtual pages of Slant, and That Little Round-Headed Boy tells the story of the movie’s music in a terrific post entitled ”All Hail the Original Riot Grrrrls: The Carrie Nations”.
(Both Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls (1967) are now available on DVD at all the usual places in gorgeous two-disc Cinema Classics editions from 20th-Century Fox Home Video.)