Beyond the valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls By Roger Ebert / 1980

Ebert's Note: "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," a movie for which I wrote the screenplay in 1969, has over the years become a cult film. Although it would not be appropriate for me to review it or give it a star rating, I offer the following observations written for Film Comment magazine on the occasion of the movie's 10th anniversary in 1980.

Remembered after 10 years, "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. And "BVC" was made at a time when the studio's own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.

We wrote the screenplay in six weeks flat, laughing maniacally from time to time, and then the movie was made. Whatever its faults or virtues, "

" is an original -- a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn't know whether the movie "knew" it was a comedy.

Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by 20th Century-Fox, I wonder whether at some level he didn't suspect that "BVD" would be his best shot at employing all the resources of a big studio at the service of his own highly personal vision, his world of libidinous, simplistic creatures who inhabit a pop universe. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he theorized, should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose (so soon after the Sharon Tate murders) of what the opening crawl called "the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business."

What was the correct acting style for such a hybrid? Meyer directed his actors with a poker face, solemnly, discussing the motivations behind each scene. Some of the actors asked me whether their dialogue wasn't supposed to be humorous, but Meyer discussed it so seriously with them that they hesitated to risk offending him by voicing such a suggestion. The result is that "BVD" has a curious tone all of its own. There have been movies in which the actors played straight knowing they were in satires, and movies which were unintentionally funny because they were so bad or camp. But the tone of "BVD" comes from actors directed at right angles to the material. "If the actors perform as if they know they have funny lines, it won't work," Meyer said, and he was right.

The movie was inspired only incidentally by "Valley of the Dolls." Neither Meyer nor I ever read Jacqueline Susann's book, but we did screen the Mark Robson film, and we took the same formula: Three young girls come to Hollywood, find fame and fortune, are threatened by sex, violence and drugs, and either do or not do win redemption.

The original book was a roman a clef, and so was "BVD," with an important difference: We wanted the movie to seem like a fictionalized expose of real people, but we personally possessed no real information to use as inspiration for the characters. The character of teenage rock tycoon Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell, for example, was supposed to be "inspired" by Phil Spector -- but neither Meyer nor I had ever met Spector.

The movie's story was made up as we went along, which makes subsequent analysis a little tricky. Not long ago, for example, I was invited up to Syracuse University to discuss Meyer's work, and the subject of Z-Man came up. (Readers who have seen "BVD" will know that Z-Man is a rock Svengali who seems to be a gay man for most of the movie, but is finally revealed to be a woman in drag.) Some of the questions at Syracuse dealt with the "meaning" of Z-Man's earlier scenes, in light of what is later discovered about the character. But in fact those earlier scenes were written before either Meyer or I knew Z-Man was a transvestite: that plot development came on the spur of the moment. So, too, did such inspirations as quoting a "Citizen Kane" camera movement from a stage below to a catwalk above, or the use of the Fox musical fanfare during the beheading sequence.

They asked at Syracuse if Meyer's use of the Fox trademark music was a put-down of the studio system. Meyer's motive was much more basic: By using the music, he hoped to establish a satiric tone to the scene that would moderate the effect of the beheading and help protect against an X rating.

In the event, of course, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was rated X anyway. There is a story about that. If the movie were to be rated today, it would probably get an R rating with a few small cuts. It was a very mild X. That was because Meyer and the studio were aiming for the R rating. When they didn't get it, Meyer believed the ratings board had felt obligated to give the "King of the Nudies" an X rating, lest it seem to endorse his movie to the Majors.

Because the movie was stuck with the X, Meyer wanted to re-edit certain scenes in order to include more nudity (he shot many scenes in both X and R versions). But the studio, still in the middle of a cash-flow crisis, wanted to rush the film into release. Meyer still waxes nostalgic for the "real" X version of BVD, which exists only in his memory but includes many much steamier scenes starring the movie's many astonishingly beautiful heroines and villainesses.

The visit to Syracuse was a chance for me to see BVD again for the first time in a few years. The movie still seems to play for audiences; it hasn't dated, apart from the rather old-fashioned narrative quality it had even at the time of its release. It begins rather slowly, because so many characters have to be established and such an ungainly plot has to be set in motion. (The story is such a labyrinthine juggling act that resolving it took a quadruple murder, a narrative summary, a triple wedding and an epilogue.) But the last hour has a real kinetic energy, and the scenes beginning with Z-Man's psychedelic orgy and ending with his death are, I must say on Meyer's behalf, as exciting, terrifying and dynamic as any such sequence I can remember. That stretch of "BVD" is pure cinema, combining shameless melodrama, highly charged images of violence, sledge-hammer editing and musical overkill. It works.

And the movie as a whole? I think of it as an essay on our generic expectations. It's an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it's cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message. The strange thing about the movie is that it continues to play successfully to completely different audiences for different reasons. When Meyer and I were hired a few years later to work on an ill-fated Sex Pistols movie called "Who Killed Bambi?" we were both a little nonplussed, I think, to hear Johnny Rotten explain that he liked "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" because it was so true to life.

Kelly McNamara: Dolly Read
Casey Anderson: Cynthia Myers
Petronella Danforth: Marcia McBroom
Harris Allsworth: David Gurian
"Z-Man": John Lazar
Lance Rocke: Michael Blodgett
Ashley St. Ives: Edy Williams
Roxanne: Erica Gavin
Susan Lake: Phyllis Davis
Baxter Wolfe: Charles Napier
Emerson Thorne: Harrison Page

20th Century Fox Presents A Film Produced And Directed By Russ Meyer. Screenplay . Running Time: 109 Minutes. Classified NC-17.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls by Peter Sobczynski

By all rational standards, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” should have been one of the all-time disasters in the history of Hollywood. For starters, it was originally conceived as a cash-in sequel to one of the dumbest and crassest films ever made, 1967's “Valley of the Dolls” (itself based on the equally dumb, crass and successful Jacqueline Susann best-seller), though the final product would have absolutely nothing to do with the original. Later, after attempts at writing a straightforward screenplay (including a couple of attempts from Susann herself) fell through, someone at the studio had the idea of hiring Russ Meyer, the fiercely independent skin-flick auteur who had made a mint with the cheerfully sleazy likes of “The Immoral Mr. Teas,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and “Vixen,” to make his big-studio debut with the project. To assist him, Meyer turned around and hired some ink-stained wretch out of Chicago by the name of Roger Ebert to help him write the screenplay. Somehow, all these disparate elements managed to come together and the resulting film remains one of the damndest things ever made–a goofy, grisly, screw-loose combination of sex, drugs, psychedelic rock and lurid excess that still has the power to blow minds 35 years after it first appeared.

Although the idea of attempting to summarize the astoundingly byzantine plot is a terrifying notion–there are David Lynch films that are easier to recount–I will try to give newcomers a taste of what they can expect from “BVD” (as it is affectionately known). Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Pet (Marcia McBroom), the members of an all-girl rock trio (imagine the missing link between Josie and the Pussycats and L7), head out for the glittery lights of Hollywood so that the band can seek fame and fortune and Kelly can collect a share of an inheritance from her long-lost aunt, glamourous fashion designer Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis). Once they arrive, they are taken under the wing of flashy music producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) and quickly become the toast of the town. Before long, the once-innocent girls (okay, semi-innocent) are swept up in a wave of drugs, sin and depravity–Kelly forsakes longtime boyfriend Harris (David Gurian) for sleazy movie star Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) while fending off the lurid advances of her aunt’s sleazy lawyer (Duncan McLeod), Casey finds herself the target of seduction by the sexy lesbian Roxanne (Meyer regular Erica Gavin), Pet finds love with handsome law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page) but risks it all for a roll in the hay with heavyweight champion Randy Black (Jim Inglehart) and Harris finds himself in the clutches of the man-eating hedonist Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). All of these plot threads–and a few that I haven’t mentioned–all come together in a final act that is so luridly over-the-top that “Grand Guignol” doesn’t come close to describing it adequately. Without exaggeration, I can assure you that the finale involves, among other things, a crippling accident, a miraculous recovery, a mass murder vaguely reminiscent of the antics of the Manson family, Nazis, a triple wedding and the shocking discovery that there is more to Z-Man than meets the eye.

Those of you who have never seen the film before are probably thinking that there is no possible way that any film could possibly live up to the expectations created by such a description–I know I felt that way before I finally got a chance to see it for the first time. Not only does it live up to those expectations, it actually manages to exceed them. Instead of allowing himself to be second-guessed and defanged in the way that so many iconoclastic directors do when they first attempt to work within the studio system, Russ Meyer charged in full-speed ahead and came up with a work that had all the things that made his films unique–a whiplash editing style, bizarre humor and an approach to erotic material that manages to suggest a lot while showing comparatively little (this may be the mildest of all the films tagged with an NC-17 rating)–with the addition of a glossier style that fit perfectly with the story he was telling. The screenplay cooked up by Meyer and Ebert is a hilarious satire of practically every Hollywood cliché you can think of (even throwing in a weirdo homage to “Citizen Kane” at one point) which is made even funnier by the fact that most of the actors seem to believe that they are in a serious movie. (The exceptions to this are LaZar and Williams, both of whom start off cranked up to 11 and proceed to go even further as things progress.) And while one can certainly laugh at the hilariously outdated fashions and slang (which probably came across as over-the-top even back in 1970), it isn’t “camp” by any means–this is a film that belongs in a category all by itself.

Although a box-office success when it was released, “BVD” has had a checkered life in the years since–for a while, Fox seemed embarrassed by the title (along with its even-more lurid contemporary “Myra Breckenridge”) and it didn’t get a major VHS release until 1993–but this amazing 2-disc DVD makes up for all of that with a package that will exceed the wishes of even the most devoted fans. The first disc features two commentary tracks, one by Ebert and the other with Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar and Erica Gavin. Ebert’s talk is a fun and breezy history of the creation of the film and if there is a flaw to it, it is that many of the stories he tells will be a little familiar to the hard-core buffs. The cast commentary may not be particularly profound or enlightening but it is fun to listen to them as they confront their collective past with equal parts humor and disbelief. The second disc features several short documentaries that offer a general overview of the film, detailed looks at specific aspects (such as the music and the sexual material) and observations on its enduring cult appeal, some of the original screen tests for the stars, trailers and a few hundred still photos chronicling every facet of the film (including the Good Parts). Even if it had been released in a bare-bones version, it would have been worth it to get a “BVD” DVD but this set is a happening that will freak everyone out. (Fox is also releasing the original “Valley of the Dolls” on DVD this week in an equally overstuffed package–it is amusing enough as camp but “BVD” beats it like a gong.)

Written by Roger Ebert. Directed by Russ Meyer. Starring Dolly Read, Cynthia Meyer, Marcia McBroom, John LaZar and Charles Napier. 1970. 109 minutes. Rated NC-17. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $29.95.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls