How far beyond he Valley of the Dolls? As far as hallucinogenic drugs could take young screenwriter Roger Ebert, apparently. Although Judge Jennifer Malkowski is more afraid that he may have written this without their influence...
"This is my happening and it freaks me out!"
The opening title card of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls explains for legal reasons that this is not a sequel and is "wholly original." I've never seen the original Valley of the Dolls; I think that might be a good thing. I don't know how direct director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert's supposed parody is, but as a stand-alone feature, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is perhaps the most ridiculous movie I've ever seen.
Facts of the Case
SPOILER ALERT! I will be discussing the entire "plot" of this glorious cult classic.
Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Pet (Marcia McBroom) are small-town gals in their own rock band. They and their manager, Harris (David Gurian), hit the road for Los Angeles, where they become a smash hit as The Carrie Nations. They're helped along by rock producer Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John La Zar)—one weird cat who speaks in faux Shakespearean dialogue. All of the new arrivals get caught up in L.A.'s late '60s culture of sex, drugs, and—obviously—rock 'n' roll.
After a long string of various sexual pairings, the film climaxes, so to speak, with a trippy party at Z-Man's. Z-Man, Casey, her lesbian admirer Roxanne (Erica Gavin), and gold-digging pretty boy Lance (Michael Blodgett) take big helpings of all kinds of drugs together. Then Z-Man suddenly flips out, reveals that he is actually a woman, and goes on a killing spree. Things end happily for the surviving characters in a triple wedding.
This bizarre mix of soft-core porn, soap opera melodrama, horror carnage, and rock musical results in a film that is beyond hilarious. The reason that it works is because Meyer told his actors to play this absurd screenplay straight. It's hard to tell whether they realized how ludicrous the screenplay is or not, but the actors play the whole thing as high drama, which is exactly what makes the film so, so funny. The cast is a collection of Meyer's usual women with "bit tits" and "square-jawed" men. Read as the lead singer of The Carrie Nations is comically mismatched with her voice double for the songs, making her admirable attempts to lip-synch pretty futile. Read also slips in and out of her British accent frequently. The Carrie Nations are pretty fun, sounding like a mix of free-love rock and riot grrl wailing.
The whole thing is a crazy, mixed-up showcase for every cultural cliché of the flower power generation. Ebert actually scripts lines like, "Hey man, don't bogart that joint," and "I don't know, like, uh—maybe all you need is love." Here's a sample of the rapid-fire dialogue that goes along with the rapid-fire cutting in the first party scene:
Big Boobed Woman: "Plastics Benjamin" [But if we're looking at any
synthetic material in this nipple close-up shot, it's silicone].
This is also a screenplay that commands about a couple having sex, "Pray, let them joust in peace!," and has one-liners like, "You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime!" Sometimes it seems like Ebert doesn't even realize the comical absurdity of his scripting. During the murder rampage, Casey calls her friends for help, yelling into the phone, "Z-Man's killing everyone!" Pet, who answers the phone, tries to clarify: "Z-Man's killing what?" Is "what" Z-Man's killing really the crucial component of this communication?
Some of the most ridiculous scenes deserve specific attention. The lesbian romance is bizarre, with Roxanne cast as the predator and somehow looking an awful lot like Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers. Their sex scene must be the origin of the confusion about "what lesbians do": Roxanne grinds in the air a full foot above Casey's body. Casey then appears to be in orgasmic ecstasy despite the fact that Roxanne's hands are clearly visible and their bodies are still barely touching. Of course, long, long fingernails abound. Ouch.
There is also a minor character of an old German man who is then implicated as a Nazi (apparently an obsession of Meyer's). In the middle of Z-Man's Manson-esque drug-induced murder spree in the Hollywood hills, he takes time out to chase down and slaughter this old guy on the beach. Stabbing him with a medieval-style sword, he growls, "You beg for innocence while the cry of six million innocents still rings in your ears? They are waiting for you!" This scene is impossibly random.
Finally, there is the long-suffering Harris, who ends up in a wheelchair after a suicide attempt. His paralysis gives Ebert and Meyer an excuse to invent some really awkwardly funny scenarios. Harris tries to participate in the climactic rescue, but can't get his wheelchair out of the car. Then he is miraculously cured just as they have discovered all the bodies, which makes everyone insensitively jubilant. Finally, a recovering Harris is treated to a rugged hike along a rocky, mountain stream…on crutches! So Beyond the Valley of the Dolls wins awards for "most bizarre Holocaust revenge murder," "most earnest look at the challenges involved in fighting crime from a wheelchair," "most insensitively timed celebration of cured paralysis," and "most sadistic recreational activity for someone on crutches."
Finally, the film ends with a long montage of each character, accompanied by narration explaining their moral transgressions. About Casey and Roxanne, the narrator says in fake tolerance, "Casey and Roxanne: light and shadow. Theirs was not an evil relationship, but evil did come because of it." Even minor characters like Aunt Susan are judged strangely, "Susan Lake: perhaps too pure. Excessive goodness can often blind us to the human failings of those less perfect." When the credits finally roll, Ebert explains that, "All the bad people are dead and all the good people are married." The misplaced moralizing at the end would work well as satire, but unfortunately is the most earnest part of the film. As Meyer explained once, "anyone who transgressed in terms of American morality had to die."
This DVD release is part of Fox's "Cinema Classics Collection" and the company goes all out for this bizarre "classic" that once so embarrassed them that they left its production out of the studio history entirely. The picture looks great, with the garish colors and spot-on focus well preserved. The sound quality is less impressive, rendering the dialogue quite muddy. The two-disc set comes in one standard-size case with blue plastic, which is then housed in an outer slip case. A commentary track with a wide assortment of cast members is a real fun trip. The gang reminisces about making the film, knowing Meyer, and life in the 1960s, with plenty of juicy innuendoes about sex and drugs. The track is littered with fun exclamations like, "Oh my God, look at her tits!," and amusing right-on-the-money questions such as, "How many montages are there in this movie?" One of them even makes the major understatement that the dialogue "was not conversational." Summing up the entire film when commenting on one line, someone says: "It was so bad it was great!"
What should be the crowning jewel of this DVD release, an unimaginable full-length commentary track by screenwriter Roger Ebert, is slightly disappointing. For all of us who've ever exclaimed, "WTF?!? Roger Ebert wrote this movie?!?," we now have his commentary to help us revel in that laughable fact for two hours. Those who have ever balked at one of his reviews and then found out with delight that he scripted this ridiculous, ridiculous film will not get the satisfaction of seeing him squirm much here. Ebert, like the other critics interviewed for the featurettes, regards the movie as a brilliant parody. He even seems to like the dry, reductive moralizing narrative that ends the movie as an earnest wrapping up that gives it an "epic" feel. He claims that Meyer scripted that whole section and implies that he did it as a sincere ending, calling it "unashamedly old-fashioned in its intention and its delivery." He seems charmed by the way he wrote the characters to "immediately say exactly what's on their mind" and lay out their motivations—a quality I could easily imagine him attacking in other reviews. Whether you think the film is genius or garbage, the fact that Ebert tries to do a dry historical-academic spiel as his commentary track is pretty silly. Luckily, he breaks from that formula many times, getting sidetracked by just how silly the movie is. At one point, he launches into a socio-historical explanation of the "sexual milieu" of the '60s, but then sighs and refreshingly finishes, "They had a lot of sex, let's face it." the When the boxer character comes into the party, Ebert lapses into exasperated critic mode, saying impatiently, "He was inspired by Muhammad Ali, I guess. I don't know," then seems to remember that he, for once, is the one responsible for the content of the film and laughs, "I guess I should know, I wrote the screenplay."
Disc Two is packed with five featurettes, three theatrical trailers, two casting sessions (the first with Michael Blodgett and Cynthia Myers, the second with Harrison Page and Marcia McBroom), six photo galleries with more than 300 photos, and a brief introduction by John "Z-Man" La Zar. He frighteningly intones, "BVD is on DVD. BVD is on DVD. BVD is on DVD." A couple of the photos confirm the rumor that this was Pam Grier's first film. I never managed to spot her in the party scene where she supposedly appears, but she is clearly visible in three or four of these production stills. Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the longest featurette, at about 30 minutes. Its production values are quite high and it has interviews with lots of cast members (many surprisingly well preserved 36 years later), Ebert and other crew members, and film critics who love the movie. They treat us to some good stylistic analysis of Meyer's auteur filmmaking. We also find out that Meyer got along well with Ebert because "The man loves tits." The rest of the featurettes are shorter and topical: one on the music, one on the cultural context, one on the lesbian love scene, and one in which the cast and crew picks the "best of" in categories such as best lines and best breasts. We even get a set of four groovy lobby cards! Stuff like this used to give audiences a souvenir to make their movie-going experience into something tangible way back in the early 20th century. I have to admit I let out a little gasp of delight when I found these cards inside my DVD box, so I guess that marketing tool still works.
Critic David Ansen of Newsweek articulates the difficulty of evaluating Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and what makes the film so memorable: "It completely scrambled my notions of what's a good movie and what's a bad movie. Because it rides that thin line between being absolutely wonderful and absolutely awful."
Guilty. So, so guilty. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and beyond so-bad-it's-good. This one is "so bad it's great!"
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