Archive for June 17, 1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

June 17, 1970

Here it is, finally, on DVD: the movie so many of us had been waiting to see since we first heard Roger Ebert had co-written it. What had the most famous film critic in history done when given license to weave his own fantasies on the big screen? Something pretty fucking weird, that’s what. And certainly not without entertainment value.

An in-name-only non-sequel to the so-bad-it’s-good melodrama Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls plays as if Meyer and Ebert took all the clichés of the earlier film, cranked them up to 11, and morphed it into a satire of what 20th Century-Fox might’ve done if it were consciously chasing the hippie audience. And those kinds of films abounded in the late ’60s, when every studio wanted its own Easy Rider. Such films as End of the Road and Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, all but forgotten today except by die-hard cult-flick fanatics, were the agonizing result. BVD is best seen in that context — as a hip young film critic’s bemused take on Valley of the Dolls rewritten as a funkadelic freakout.

The movie follows three female rockers — Kelly McNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) — who catch the eye of fey impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar), who renames them the Carrie Nations. Their star rises fast, bringing with it the usual problems of excess. The overheated plot is the film’s least worthy attribute, having been cobbled up more or less on the spot anyway; Ebert has remarked that the narrative got itself so tangled that it had to be resolved with a climactic murderous rampage and a triple wedding.

Seen today, BVD is most notable for its sheer heedless energy and its bottomless thirst for winking camp. Ebert was 27 at the time, Meyer twenty years his senior, yet it feels like the work of a much younger director. The hyperactive editing scheme leaves the film’s contemporaries in the dust, but since the compositions are always rock-steady, we’re always well-oriented in the action (scattershot Avid junkies like Michael Bay would do well to learn from this). Lavishly hued, and surprisingly low on nudity (there’s some, but it’s always matter-of-fact), BVD earns the comparison one IMDb reviewer drew to Disney cartoons. It’s had an undeniable influence, too; retrospectively, I detect a little of it in Boogie Nights, a lot of it in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I had fun mentally casting the modern remake: Cillian Murphy would make a fine Z-Man; Lindsay Lohan would be a perfect new Kelly. But really there’s nothing wrong with the cast here, all of whom understand what kind of film they’re in and stay over the top with aplomb (particularly John LaZar’s teasingly perverse Z-Man, clearly the film’s highlight). The general mood is antic, a party atmosphere, until things turn rabidly bloody at the end and we get a laughably stentorian narrator sealing the film with the moral we’re supposed to take away.

Sure it’s ridiculous; sure it’s bizarre. But I can’t call it a bad film, since all its eccentricities (including the groovy dialogue) were obviously lovingly placed there. The film is its own defense — it doesn’t need Ebert or anyone else to go to bat for it. It aims to be a colorful slice of eye-boggling, seamily plotted entertainment laughing at its very status as a major studio film, and on that level it more than succeeds.4

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