To the average movie going fan, the name Russ Meyer is synonymous with campy movies, big breasted women and of course, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The cult movie director’s filmography reads like a greatest hits of seventies softcore exploitation movies, including cult favourites such as Vixen, Mudhoney, Mondo Topless, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Meyer dedicated his life to mercilessly skewering American values, so much so that his tombstone (he died in 2004) reads ‘King of The Nudies’ and ‘I Was Glad to Do It’.
The ‘70s musical melodrama Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is easily his best-known movie, and his only ‘mainstream’ movie, for a given value of mainstream. 20th Century Fox was looking to capitalise on what we now call the ‘counter-culture’ era, a time when the youth of America were told to tune in, turn on and drop out. This period inspired movies such as Easy Rider and The Trip, and though, by the 1970s, the whole thing was starting to collapse under the great weight of people looking to cash-in, Fox was still determined to exploit the genre for every cent. Fox had already commissioned and distributed Valley of The Dolls in 1967. Though it was a commercial success, the movie (which is based on Jacqueline Susann’s incredibly successful novel of the same name), was universally panned by critics. Valley of The Dolls tells the tale of three young women who head out into the big city to make something of their lives, only to become addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs (known as ‘dolls’ in the slang of the era). Valley of The Dolls also featured actress Sharon Tate in various stages of undress. The movie was re-released in 1969 following Tate’s tragic murder and was yet again very successful.
Fox’s fortunes were at an all-time low, and they were willing to do whatever needed to be done to stay afloat. The execs wanted a sequel to Valley of The Dolls, and Meyer had a reputation for creating movies that appealed to the demographic Fox wished to exploit. What they desired was something of a sequel, but with more blatant titillation and scandal. The original pitch was for more of the same, but slightly racier. What they got was a scathing parody of the state of American culture, written by world famous film critic Roger Ebert. Meyer was aware at the time that this might be his only chance of having a shot a big budget movie, and requested that Ebert produce something the critic would later say ‘should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose’. It’s certainly that. The movie was so detached from the original brief that Fox had to flyer most of the publicity material with a note saying ‘This is not a sequel - there has never been anything like it.' They weren’t kidding.
The plot starts off along familiar lines; we have three young women; Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella ‘Pet’ Danforth (Marcia McBroom). Fresh-faced and fairly naïve, the charismatic Kelly had formed a rock band with her friends (the band is called The Kelly Affair because it’s all about Kelly). The girls begin as all sweetness and light though this swiftly changes when the group heads to LA to find their fortune and to hook up with Kelly’s rich Aunt.
After an incredibly debauched party, which features music from quintessential hippy band Strawberry Alarm Clock (who pretty much play all their hits in this movie), the girls are exposed to the flamboyant and eccentric Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John Lazar), a Svengali-like manager who was allegedly inspired by Phil Spector. Although Meyer and Ebert admitted later that they had not met Spector when they made the movie. Z-Man takes over from Kelly’s boyfriend as their manager and renames the band The Carrie Nations. The name comes from historical figure Carrie Nation, the hatchet-faced anti-fun protestor who spearheaded alcohol prohibition in the 1900s. Subtle.
From that point on, things pretty much head on a downward spiral. Kelly’s boyfriend drifts away, finding himself in bed with the predatory porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). His story then descends into a blend of both horror, drama, and camp comedy. Meanwhile, The Carrie Nations continue to take America by storm, despite being fuelled mostly by drink, drugs, and an awful lot of sleeping around.
It all ends in tears, of course, but in the most ridiculous of ways. The end (which we’ll avoid spoiling just in case you’ve not seen it), starts with characters wearing costumes from the ‘60s TV show version of Batman and ends with a brief spot of ultra-violence. The movie then attempts to deliver a moral message, despite the actual themes of the movie being nothing of the sort. It is a film about excess, fame and making very poor life choices. It’s also littered with drug taking and lots of nudity; as well as some hilarious dialogue.
Each ridiculous plot twist and turn is played straight-faced. The director knew that for the joke to work, it would have to be played straight by the actors, and this works brilliantly. Some of the acting is a little wooden, but we don’t come to a movie like this for the powerful performances.
One of the things that make Beyond The Valley of the Dolls so memorable is the soundtrack. Much of the score is composed by Stu Phillips, who is better known for his work on the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, as well as being one of the many creative minds behind The Monkees. The actresses in the movie were chosen for their acting and aesthetic talents, rather than their ability to sing, so all of their performances were lip-synced. Vocals were provided by Lynne Carey, who also appeared in cult TV shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Wild Wild West. Meyer would later confess to Ebert that he hoped that enough musical content would help the feature avoid the dread ‘X’ classification that would mark it out as an adult film. This plan failed completely, but it did make for an amazing soundtrack.
The legend goes that upon hearing that movie had received an X rating anyway; Meyer attempted to sneak back into the editing room to add more nudity; mostly centred on bare-chested ladies. The studio (which was short on cash at the time) actively blocked him from doing so, as they just wanted the film out in cinemas as swiftly as possible. Fox’s plan did work. For a movie made for just shy of a million dollars, the feature has grossed roughly $40 million over the years, though this includes DVD sales and the like. Despite this, Meyer would only get to make one more movie for Fox, the infamous clunker The Seven Minutes, which flopped because it simply wasn’t as exciting as his first effort for the studio. Undeterred, the breast-obsessed director would go on to produce further cult movies.
Though Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the most popular of Meyer’s movies, it’s also probably the most atypical. For a start, the main characters are more stereotypically attractive, the actresses involved were mostly known for their modelling work at the time. The director had a famous penchant for powerful, almost Amazonian women, and many of his movies feature curvy ladies who shatter gender stereotypes in a way that’s kept film studies and sociology students busy for decades. Though very few would claim that Meyer’s movies were feminist in tone, much of his work was as thought-provoking as it was exploitative. Dolls doesn’t find this balance at all, being pretty much all about the exploitation from the word go.
It’s a highly quotable film and has gone on to influence many media types. The Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten even tried to re-unite Meyer with Ebert to make a punk rock movie, Who Killed Bambi? The feature was never finished, and allegedly, Rotten unimpressed Meyer by claiming that Dolls was incredibly true to life. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has frequently been compared Dolls simply because of the way it shows excess and corruption, and, of course, the Austin Powers series of movies ape several scenes from Meyer’s body of work, including Dolls. References to the feature are used as a badge of honour in many ‘alternative’ style video games, comics and indie movies.
The words ‘cult classic’ are over-used these days, but that’s exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is. A superior movie from an era when the cult aspect of filmmaking was still in its infancy. Watching the movie is a crazy hip ride and one you should go on at least once in your life.
Arrow Video release a features-packed Blu-ray edition of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS in the UK on September 5th.