Sunday 4 March 2007

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) Russ Meyer

I'm a big Russ Meyer fan and I've long looked forward to watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls again, because it never seemed to fit with the rest of his films. There are the early nudie cuties like The Immoral Mr Teas, which I haven't yet seen; the black and white cult classics from the late sixties like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Mudhoney which feature Meyer's patented large breasted women mostly covered; and the rest of his films, made later and in colour and with far less clothes. And then there's this one. I saw it early on, didn't get it and in hindsight couldn't see how it fit.

Well this time through it makes far more sense and, while it still fits in a category all its own in Meyer's filmography, it doesn't quite stand entirely alone. There's a lot more nudity than I remembered, though it's far from the focus that it would become in later films and the dialogue, particularly John Lazar's, is deliberately outrageously theatrical and often sounds very similar to the narration of later Meyer movies ('And you, the infamous Ashley St Ives, high mistress of carnality, what thinkest thou of our fair minstrels?') There's the wonderful editing that Meyer always excelled at, and early uses of other Meyer fetishes like Martin Bormann, superhero capes and sex amidst the wilds of nature. There are also Meyer regulars like Charles Napier and Haji in small roles and even Pam Grier in a role as a partygoer tiny enough that I couldn't find her.

The film has nothing official in common with Jacqueline Susann's megablockbuster novel and subsequent Oscar-nominated film Valley of the Dolls, but it does feature three young ladies trying to make it in show business. These three are a rock group who head off to Hollywood to make it big as the Carrie Nations. However they are drawn instead into a maelstrom of sex, drugs, violence, homosexuality, rape, abortion , transsexuals, Nazis, wheelchairs and death. That's the sweep of the plot which is far more important than the details.

Delightful red headed band leader Kelly McNamara is the focus for much of it. She starts out the girlfriend with manager Harris Allsworth but once in Hollywood quickly meets Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell, the cat who seems to run all the scenes in town, and so gets introduced to golden haired actor, egomaniac and money grabber Lance Rocke who helps her into all sorts of trouble trying to screw her aunt out of half her million dollar inheritance. For his part, Harris gets picked up by porn star Ashley St Ives who wants to screw him everywhere but in the bedroom but ends up attempting suicide on live TV. Neurotic senator's daughter Cynthia Myers who plays rhythm guitar finds the bottle and the pills and a lesbian affair with a fashion designer but still ends up pregnant. Black drummer Pet Danforth falls in love with a decent law student but still ends up in bed with a heavyweight boxing champion who runs over her boyfriend with his car.

Yes, everything happens and that's precisely the point. Meyer and co-writer Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) didn't write this as a serious drama but as an antidote to all the overblown dramas that were being churned out at the time. The title is very apt indeed, and the script and editing are simply superb. The acting is variable, because half these people aren't really actors anyway. John Lazar (later in Meyer's Supervixens and excellent in Deathstalker II) is the most obvious actor. He's joyously outrageous and appears as I imagine Freddie Mercury might have played Mick Jagger's part in Performance.

The Carrie Nations are Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom. Dolly and Cynthia were Playboy Playmates and Marcia was a fashion model. They all appeared in other films but never as the focus. Harris Allsworth was David Gurian's only film appearance but he made the most of it. However many of the rest of the cast were already or would become Meyer regulars. Edy Williams, who plays the porn star, was Meyer's wife at the time, and this wasn't her only film credit for him, just like Erica Gavin, Charles Napier, Haji, Henry Rowland and many others. If only Roger Ebert had become one of those regulars too.

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