In the cinema as in life, truth in advertising is a rare occurrence. Long ago, one movie featured the most honest and accurate marketing campaign in history – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. “This is not a sequel – there has never been anything like it,” the posters and trailers proclaimed for Russ Meyer’s madcap satire of a rock ‘n’ roll trio’s rise to stardom at the end of the ‘60s/dawn of the ‘70s.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t just a cult movie, it’s the greatest cult movie ever made – featuring, as the trailer proclaimed, “love, rape, murder, dope, grass, abortion, suicide – something for everyone.” And boy, they weren’t lying. This movie literally has it all, and it’s all amplified to 11. As a matter of fact, the film’s actors are so straight-faced in its lunacy that many people have a hard time deciphering whether or not Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is actually satire, which is one of many reasons why it’s an amazing film to behold. By the graces of the cinema gods, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is finally getting the treatment it deserves with a deluxe Blu-ray released by the Criterion Collection, the finest purveyors of cinematic classic on home video.
When Russ Meyer arrived at 20th Century Fox in 1969, he was coming off the biggest hit of his career with Vixen. Meyer was an independent filmmaker through and through, self-producing his own films that he wrote, shot, edited, and directed himself. Of course, he was mainly known for his one obvious obsession – buxom women. The profit margins of Meyer’s films did draw the attention of the studios and the director teamed with a young film critic named Roger Ebert to develop a sequel to Jaqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. But these two outsiders amplified all the camp of the original story and infused it with counterculture that was sweeping across America throughout the late ‘60s, even topping off the film with a Manson-esque conclusion.
The story itself is rather simple, it’s the complications and characters that make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls so oddly complex. Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella (Marcia McBroom) make up The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band seeking superstardom by making the move to Los Angeles with their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend Harris (David Gurian). Upon their arrival in Tinseltown, Kelly seeks out her estranged aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), who has inherited a fortune and plans to share it with her recently reunited niece. Susan takes Kelly and her bandmates to a party at Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell’s (John LaZar) expansive mansion, where they’re introduced to a collection of freaks and weirdos all scraping by in the sleazy world of show business. There’s the greedy and underemployed actor Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), who uses and loses women as quickly as their bank accounts run dry; Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams), the porn star with voracious sexual appetite; Roxanne (Erica Gavin), the kindhearted fashion designer; Emerson (Harrison Page), a waiter and law student with a romantic eye out for Petronella; Randy Black (James Iglehart), the rage-filled womanizing boxer loosely modeled on Muhammed Ali; and Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), the attorney for Susan Lake who has a dubious moral code. Relationships are built and crumbled amidst a culture that passes people around like burned down joints – discarded once their usefulness has been expended. Everyone thinks this is the place to be, but there’s a lot of pain once you’re Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Most of the attention paid to Russ Meyer’s films are focused on the curvaceous women that he placed front and center in practically all of his movies. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is no different, with a number of buxom Playboy Playmates in starring roles. But the sexuality of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls never really matches its reputation. As Ebert notes in some of the special features of the Criterion disc, Meyer blends extremely absurd comic humor in the sexy moments. Nothing really emphasizes this more than the scene where the pornstar Ashley St. Ives is about to have sex with Harris in the back of her Rolls Royce. As the passion grows, she exclaims that sex in the back of the Rolls is an unparalleled experience, not even matched by a Bentley – her orgasmic exclamations of “Bentley” are matched with quick edits emphasizing the grill of the luxury car. This is just one aspect of the quirky comedic elements blending with Meyer’s sexual aspects that runs throughout his filmography as well as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
But while distracted with what’s right in front of you, it’s amazing how easily Meyer’s amazing skills as a photographer and editor are overshadowed by the sexual elements that fascinated the director. One of the most famous edits in the history of cinema is in Lawrence of Arabia; Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence stares in to the flame of a match, and when his breath extinguishes the flame, the film cuts to the rising sun over the expansive desert. The opening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has an edit that is equally impressive, if not even better. After gazing upon the curvaceous figure of a sleeping Erica Gavin, a gun slowly enters her mouth. Her eyes open in shock as the barrel of the gun goes deeper in her mouth. She screams – then Meyer cuts to Dolly Read’s visage in the midst of screaming a part of her rock ‘n’ roll number “Find It.”
Meyer uses editing to convey his story with a breakneck pacing, further emphasized by the quick montage that precludes the move west for Kelly and the rest of her band. As they discuss the pros and cons of Los Angeles, Meyer shows images that represent their varied points of view, even employing wildly exaggerated lenses to further highlight the twisted world of Tinsletown. Another observation from Roger Ebert in the special features that really helps explain Meyer’s unique use of editing is that the director used constant editing as a means to obscure some of the questionable acting abilities of his cast that were usually hired more for their physical attributes than their talent.
The special features on the Criterion edition of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are a blend of old and new features. A number of the documentaries that appear on the disc are from the 2003 DVD edition that is currently out of print. They feature interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as getting commentary from enthusiasts like writer Nathan Rabin and artist Christopher “Coop” Cooper. There are two audio commentary tracks, one from 2003 with Roger Ebert and another from 2006 with the members of the cast. There’s also a unique documentary and interview with Russ Meyer from a British program The Incredibly Strange Film Show from 1988 that examines the career and legacy of Meyer’s films. A fascinating essay by critic Glenn Kenny explores the history and impact of the film, and there are a number of archival pieces that further expand upon the film. The real high point of the special features is a brand new interview with John Waters about Russ Meyer and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The legendary director puts a personal spin on the film and Meyer’s influence on his own works. As only John Waters can do, he gives an interview that is both incredibly personal and funny, and also very informative about Meyer’s context in the exploitation movie marketplace.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was one of two Russ Meyer movies made within the Hollywood studio system, the other being The Seven Minutes (which I’ve never been able to track down). Despite the fact that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a smash at the box office, 20th Century Fox always had an odd relationship with the movie, always pretending that they never made this madcap classic. For over 40 years, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has alternated between barely available and out of print on home video, but that’s about to change now that it has finally found its rightful spot among the Criterion Collection. Sure, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls toes the line between trash and art, but no other movie is adept at toeing that incredibly thin line. It’s a dream come true for fans of Russ Meyer and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is now part of the Criterion Collection, and the Blu-ray set certainly doesn’t disappoint. This is actually happening and it freaks me out.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
A gorgeous restoration overflowing with great special features, the greatest cult movie ever made, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, joins the Criterion Collection in an amazing Blu-ray set that honors the crazy legacy of Russ Meyer’s subversive classic.