Monday 3 April 2023

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Director: Russ Meyer
Writer: Roger Ebert, based on a story by Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer
Stars: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John La Zar, Michael Blodgett and David Gurian

Index: The First Thirty.

It has to be said that Pam Grier didn’t shine in her debut movie but it was hardly her fault. The only line she was given was cut and so she decorates the background of a single scene for a measly two seconds, half of which is stolen by the gentleman who bobs up in front of her. It took me frame advancing through an entire party scene to even find her. She’s highlighted by the arrow in the first image overleaf just in case she’s still elusive.

And that’s it for her in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Needless to say, she has no influence whatsoever on the quality of this picture.

I’ve seen this film before but I’m amazed by it afresh every time I watch it again. Sure, it’s an exploitative cash-in by cult filmmaker Russ Meyer on the success of Valley of the Dolls, an immensely popular book by Jacqueline Susann that became an immensely popular movie that was, shall we say, critically unacclaimed.

But it was written by a certain Roger Ebert, a nobody at the time who incurred the wrath of his future screen partner, Gene Siskel, who ranked it amongst his worst films of the year, pointing out: “boredom aplenty is provided by a screenplay which for some reason has been turned over to a screenwriting neophyte.” He may have been a neophyte but he was happy to parody everything, not merely Valley of the Dolls but the entirety of Hollywood.

And, quite frankly, as much as he admits it’s “pure movie without message”, it’s also ahead of its time, enough so that it shocks us. There are black characters everywhere but nobody cares about skin colour. There are obviously gay characters too, both male and female, and sexual encounters between each. Eccentrically flamboyant Z-Man is a transsexual who clearly paved the way for Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And one other character, initially ablebodied, has scenes in a wheelchair after the script rolls over him. While I was just a gleam in 1970, I don’t remember it being at all this diverse on screen.

Perhaps some of it’s due to Meyer being the director. Certainly, this fits a lot more with his other work than I recall, as irreverent as his later boob-obsessed pictures, with many of the same tropes, and with his recognisable habit of rarely moving the camera but suggesting motion through clever rapid fire editing.

Mostly, I feel, it’s due to Ebert having carte blanche to make an exploitation picture for a major studio, 20th Century Fox. If they were to let him do this, then why not do that and that and, well, everything else? So he did, which is why the title is so appropriate. The core of the story is the same: three young girls seek fame in Hollywood and things may or may not end well for them. But it’s more in every way, far beyond what we expect a studio to be OK with. That goes double for the ending, created after the Manson Family’s infamous murder spree, which feels acutely shocking for 1970.

The three girls here constitute a rock band, initially called the Kelly Affair. Unsurprisingly for Meyer, two of them are Playboy Playmates while the other easily could have been if she had been interested. Dolly Read, the Playmate of the Month for May 1966, is lead vocalist and guitarist Kelly MacNamara. Cynthia Myers, of the December 1968 issue, is bass player Casey Anderson. That leaves Marcia McBroom, a dancer and bona fide actress, as drummer Petronella Danforth.

There’s also an unofficial fourth member of the band, Harris Allsworth, who’s both Kelly’s boyfriend and their manager, not that he gets to remain either for long after they encounter the Z-Man. That’s Ronnie Barzell, a producer influential enough that the Strawberry Alarm Clock perform at an extravagant party that he throws in his house. That’s cool, man. He was apparently based on Phil Spector, which only makes the final scenes even more prophetic.

John LaZar is as wild as could be imagined in this role, delivering all his hip dialogue in the vein of a Shakespearean actor, and it’s easy to see how anyone would soon be forgotten once he’s in the picture. He collects cool people and Harris just isn’t cool enough, which opens the door for porn star Ashley St. Ives, in the lovely form of Edy Williams, soon to be the second Mrs. Russ Meyer, to steal his attentions.

Z-Man is impressed by the Kelly Affair, most especially Kelly herself, so he signs them and renames them to the Carrie Nations, at which point the sky’s the limit. However, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get that high in a film that’s as full of exploitation excess as this one, and it shouldn’t count as a spoiler that not all three make it out alive.

Originally, this was meant to be an entirely serious sequel to Valley of the Dolls, but it went through various incarnations before the twin subversives of Meyer and Ebert were brought on board. Even now, it’s a movie that could be taken seriously for maybe half of its running time. Eventually, though, it’s so eager to leap into overblown soap opera land that even the most na├»ve viewer ought to acknowledge how it’s veered into parody and, at that point, they ought to realise how everything before works just as well as parody, merely without being as blatant about it.

Suddenly every scene is comedy gold, with a suicide attempt, surprise pregnancies, even an abortion. “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” is not a line you expect from a mainstream movie, especially given the next events. But here, it fits rather naturally with a caped Superwoman, a Nazi in full uniform and a shocking decapitation.

Of course, there’s a happy ending suitable for a soap opera, even if it’s merely for a select few of an ensemble cast so busy that it’s easy to get lost early on. And, just because, there’s an overblown moralising narration to wrap up the wrap up.

Not everything works here, but enough of it does to let us get whisked away into a world of Hollywood parties, where everyone you see is someone. He’s a gigolo actor. He’s a villainous lawyer out to fleece the heroine’s aunt. He’s a surprise appearance of an old flame. He’s the heavyweight champion of the world. You get the picture, darling?

And, somewhere hiding in the background, are other people. Coleman Francis, director of The Beast of Yucca Flats, ended his career in a bit part, while Pam Grier began hers. Unless you blink and miss her.

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