Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 44: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is referenced in Life Itself: Because Ebert wrote the screenplay for the film himself in collaboration with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the title is referenced several times throughout the book. On page 212 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls that “Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by Fox, I wonder whether he didn’t suspect that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might be his only shot at employing the resources of a studio at the service of his pop universe of libinous, simplistic creatures. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he explained, should be simultaneously a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially “reviewed” the film, since he wrote it himself, but he did make the following observation in a piece written for Film Comment to commemorate its tenth 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 BVD 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.”

I’ve already written extensive praise for the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, way back in our first year of blogging for this site. I even singled it out as my favorite film from legendary schlockteur Russ Meyer, a dirty old man whose bonkers version of smut is admittedly something I admire more than I should. Not much has changed in my opinion of the film in the four years since I first reviewed it; it’s still the exact type of go-for-broke, sex-crazed nonsense I crave when I’m searching for gems in the trash. Something has changed about the film itself, though: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is now a Disney-owned property, thanks to the company’s recent terrifying acquisition of 20th Century Fox. This is now Walt’s happening and it freaks me out. In an age where gigantic companies like Disney, Amazon, and Apple are gobbling up the entire market of film distribution, I can’t help but worry about the future of weirdo smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Along with fellow X-rated disasterpiece Myra Breckenridge, this is a film that only exists because of a fluke fad when 20th Century Fox attempted to crash in on the loose moral boundaries of The Sex Revolution, back when porn was threatening to go mainstream. A half-century later, we’ve somehow backslid into more protective, Puritanical attitudes toward sexual content, all in the name of being Family Friendly. Major blockbusters are being scrubbed of all overt sexuality so they can be broadly exported to all foreign markets; Apple has been hands-on in censoring sex & violence during production of televised content for its upcoming streaming platform Apple+; human trafficking laws like SESTRA have been used as a flimsy excuse to boot porn from social media sites like Tumblr (and sex workers from the internet entirely); and now the squeakiest of squeaky clean corporate conglomerates own the rights to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Of course, there’s a deliciously transgressive quality to Russ Meyer’s tongue-in-cheek exposé on “the oft-times nightmare world of Show Business” now being in the same canon as Family Friendly #content like Frozen & Moana. By Ebert’s description, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “a camp exploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding,” which might instantly qualify it as the most fascinating specimen in Disney’s collection. Written in a sweaty six-week rush, Ebert & Meyer’s vision of the Hollywood party scene is a nonstop hedonist orgy where “everybody’s a freak.” They pack the screen with every boundary-testing transgression they can muster: open homosexuality, rampant drug abuse, suicide, abortion, public sex, mocking spoofs of the still-recent Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate; etc. Its enigmatic antagonist is an intersex maniac who collects a coterie of horned-up acid freaks and announces things like, “You will drink the back sperm of my vengeance!” Unapologetically horny women recruit potential sex partners with come-ons like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d love to strap you on sometime.” Meyer described his approach in this full-on, shameless commitment to hedonistic excess as “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience,” but even in all of that sensory overload you can clearly make out Ebert & Meyer’s personal, shared fetishistic fixations: mainly gigantic breasts (like, comically large) & classic car grills. This film is everything Disney’s boardroom-directed Cinematic Properties aim to avoid: shameless, alienating smut with deeply problematic moral implications & intimate insights into the personal ids of its creators. That’s why it’s both fascinating and terrifying that it’s now under their control – a conundrum that I’m sure will only become more frequent as they gobble up more of the market.

Ebert gradually distanced himself from the delirious smut of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as he grew older & more tempered (and, not to mention, sober), but I doubt he or Meyer would have been happy with this film landing in Disney’s greedy, culture-crushing hands. One of the wildest indulgences of the film involves 20th Century’s Fox’s theme music scoring a violent beheading during the climactic pansexual orgy, and Ebert’s “Screenplay By” title card accompanies one of the sleaziest images in the film to follow: a sleeping woman forcibly fellating a gun. No matter how much he gradually cleaned up his act, I don’t believe that anti-corporate, pro-provocation rebelliousness ever left him, certainly not enough to support Disney’s flagrant disregard for anti-Trust laws. As thing are, Disney owns adult-oriented platforms like Hulu in addition to its planned “family friendly” Disney+ platform arriving later this year, so I don’t’ think they’ll be locking Beyond the Valley of the Dolls away in the dreaded Disney Vault anytime soon. It’s scary how much transgressive art they could lock away if they chose to do so, though, especially considering how far outside their usual parameters over-the-top smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gleefully treads. At the very least, I doubt they’ll be greenlighting many feverishly over-sexed, direct-from-the-id visions like this in the foreseeable future, and the more screenspace they eat up around the globe the duller the world will be for trash-gobblers like us.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

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“The ultimate Russ Meyer film has already been made: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Something special happened with that film . . . I’d never be able to approach it again.” – Russ Meyer

A lot of people would argue that the ultimate Russ Meyer film was made years earlier in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but I tend to side with Meyer himself on this issue. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his masterpiece, a grand manifesto of of the sex-crazed vitriol the director had been cultivating for more than a decade, a vicious satire attacking the “oft times nightmare world of show business”, a relentless display of the maniacal violence Meyer had used as highlights in his past work drawn out to a full length feature. Critics hated the film. A lot of Russ’ longtime fans hated it even more, citing screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) as a deathblow to the high camp value of Meyer’s oblivious earnestness the same way Tommy Wiseau’s self-awareness has ruined everything he’s touched since The Room. I disagree with that sentiment, though. Ebert did not ruin the Meyer aesthetic. He just complicated it with an over-the-top sense of ironic humor that added an extra layer of absurdity to what was already pretty knowingly ridiculous to begin with.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: “It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.” Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘ frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.

Buried somewhere under Meyer’s trademark mania is a story about an all-female rock band called The Carrie Nations getting corrupted by wicked Hollywood types as they try to Make It Big. The small town girls are destroyed by Los Angeles’ unwholesome cocktail of sex, drugs, murder, suicide, abortion, and pansexuality. What’s far more interesting than the band member’s individual downfalls, however, are two absurd party sequences that bookend the film. Hosted by Z-Man, king of the Hollywood weirdos, these ragers are sickeningly phony & psychedelic, a hateful portrait of Los Angeles’ excess at its most damnable. Even Z-man himself can’t seem to handle these soirées. In the opening party, where a cast of hundreds dance to The Carrie Nations and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Z-Man exclaims, “This is my happening & it freaks me out!” At the film’s concluding party, a much more intimate affair where two same-sex couples pair off for psychedelic drug-fueled lovemaking, Z-Man reveals himself to be an androgynous, sex-crazed supervillain named Superwoman and attempts to murder everyone within reach while proclaiming things like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” I feel deranged just describing that unraveling, let alone watching it. This film is admittedly incomprehensible, but damn, what a ride.

With a $1 million budget & an inflated runtime that dwarfed any of the films the director had made prior to its release, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer going for broke, rightfully fearful that he may never have the opportunity again. The film was produced by Fox studios, but with a hands-off approach that left Meyer free reign to make what pretty much amounted to a big budget indie film under a major studio banner. Much like Myra Breckinridge, Fox’s other X-rated sex comedy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was panned by critics. The difference is that it made money, tons of money. Ten times its original budget, in fact. Meyer somehow made a crowd favorite while sticking to his authorial vision, something he had mostly ditched for modest success in his then-recent, high-profile indie Vixen!. He even populated the film with past players from his oeuvre, including Vixen!‘s Erica Gavin, Fanny Hill‘s Veronica Erickson, and the wonderfully strange Princess Livingston, who brought  lot of proto-John Waters cool to early Meyer productions like Mudhoney & Wild Gals of the Naked West.

Despite rampant nudity & occasional sultry lines like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime,” Meyer had found success while striving for a nasty, hateful vision instead of outright sexiness, something that had made his past work so interesting. Ebert pounded out the entire script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in just six weeks, but by doing so he had managed to tap into something truly special in its loopiness & in its hateful take on Los Angeles as a scene, even poking fun at then-recent tragedies like the Sharon Tate/Charles Manson murders. And because Meyer made sure none of the actors knew that the film was intended to be a comedy, a lot of the campy charm from his past work rolled over to this change in direction in a humorously sinister way.

After revisiting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the dozenth time or so, it’s hard to imagine what the rest of the director’s catalog has to offer me, as I’ve never ventured further into the back end of his career before. As Meyer put it, the ultimate Russ Meyer film had already been made. Where was there left for the director to go but down, down, down? I guess I’ll find out soon in future titles like Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, with peak Meyer perfection now surely in the rearview.

-Brandon Ledet