Russ Meyer claimed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to be satire, but no amount of disjunctive editing or hyper-saturated colors can disguise his fixation with the breasts of his female stars, which exceeds unconscious fetish or even knowing obsessive focus; the film could be alternately titled A Treatise on Tits, as its maker wants to forever roam between the largest pair he can find. While Roger Ebert’s screenplay contains overt jabs at Hollywood’s culture of exploitation, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls cannot be called anything but sincere regarding its penchant for buxom female anatomy. This is the living, breathing cine-embodiment of blue balls, a film of pent-up desire for ample flesh comported straight from the pages of Penthouse—and the imagined activity inside the Playboy mansion’s bedrooms.
Upon the film’s initial release in 1970, cinematic “auto-critique” was in a relatively nascent form. Though Andy Warhol established the concept with films like Blow Job and Chelsea Girls, his avant-garde art was being made outside of the mainstream. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, then, is unequivocally the first full-blown iteration of its kind in popular American cinema, a film that dismantles the threat of lascivious behavior and the exploitation of women by maintaining an unwavering hard-on for the very behavior it seeks to liberate from the tyranny of the hard-on. Only Showgirls and Crank: High Voltage have subsequently managed an act this comparably high-wire from within Hollywood’s studio walls.
One might be inclined to label the film dementedly schizophrenic rather than purely demented were it not for its filmmakers’ wild-ass winks to being inside the gates of hell. If cueing 20th Century Fox’s logo theme during a character’s decapitation isn’t a dead giveaway, nothing ever could be. The same goes for the opening credits sequence, which ends in a flash forward, as a yet unknown, caped figure slowly stuffs the barrel of a pistol inside the mouth of a sleeping woman (those wondering where Nicolas Winding Refn came up with a comparable nighttime intrusion for The Neon Demon, look no further). While Meyer refuses the audience a safe space to get comfortable or settle in, his assured direction feels wholly at home in its unblinking, gonzo construction (fact: Meyer obsessively cut out any instance of his characters blinking). The mise-en-scène and shot assemblage suggests an unlikely pairing of Frank Tashlin and Alain Resnais’s aesthetics, as retina-scorching, candy-colored rock n’ rollers are revealed through associative montage and close-ups framing their mouths, eyes, and, of course, breasts sans establishing shots.
The plot borrows so loosely from Jacqueline Susann’s novel that an opening disclaimer ensures its separation, though anyone with functioning eyes and ears will likely know that almost from the jump. As the Carrie Nations, a trio of female rockers, work their way through the Hollywood Hills, they meet up with their fair share of sex, drugs, and Rolls Royces, but the filmmaking couldn’t be less interested in explicitly admonishing these pursuits. As lead-singer Kelly (Dolly Read) first encounters Z-Man (John LaZar), a coke-fueled promoter, Meyer fragments the surrounding party by providing brief flashes of interactions that draw interest away from each character’s psychology and toward the furniture, clothing, and drapery as the star personas. That is, it’s the ‘60s, man, and consumer culture ironically dictates that people be defined by their chosen accoutrements, not the other way around.
The filmmakers are diagnosing the fever of the preceding decade by distilling its essences to their most trenchant forms and then finding a sardonic punchline to articulate their own furor. Sexual revolution becomes a revolving door of deceit and absurd self-interest, whether in the bedroom, backstage, or on the board of directors. When Kelly tries to get Porter (Duncan McLeod), her slimeball financial advisor, to smoke grass and hop into the sack, he puffs at it like a pipe of tobacco and fiddles with the garters on his socks. He’s no hippie; he’s a cash cow propelled by his pursuit of the udders of others.
As history, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls becomes an indisputable touchstone for subsequent works of what might be termed Trojan-horse cinema, where the promise to the viewer of a certain form of pleasure is gradually exploded by the film’s wonky unfolding. There’s nothing oppositional, and thus outwardly political, about the film, because its subversion works from the inside out, violently ripping its way up from the entrails of the belly of the beast. But never its breasts. Those remain forever sacred.
The high-def digital restoration looks excellent from start to finish, with each frame carefully scrubbed of debris and calibrated for consistency. Criterion's remarkable attention to décor and costumes is especially apparent in an early scene at Z-Man's, with intense color saturation and figure clarity throughout. Fox's 2006 DVD was itself superb, but the elevation to the Blu-ray format still makes a considerable difference, even though the transfer presented here isn't a 4K or even 2K scan. If depth of field slightly suffers because of this (several scenes are just a tad fuzzy, which likely wouldn't be the case with a higher-resolution scan), then Criterion has ensured the best possible work from the materials at their disposal. The monaural soundtrack boats impressive depth and range, especially in any of the film's numerous musical performances, and there are no discernible defects with the track.
Carrying over a half-dozen or so extras from the 2006 DVD and adding an equal amount of new ones, Criterion's efforts here might be enough to freak you out. Two commentaries, both on the Fox DVD, make the cut, one with cast and crew, another with Roger Ebert. The former is mostly for diehards, as much of the discussion revolves around recollections of activity on set and after the film became a cult hit. Ebert's commentary, however, spans a wide range of topics, from his intentions with the screenplay, to his puzzlement at Russ Meyer's expectations in the writing process, to memorable one-liners Meyer offered in response to Ebert's inquiries ("Russ, where do you find these women?" and "When they reach a certain cup size, they find me"). Five short documentaries also make their way over from the Fox DVD, which contextualize the film's production and enduring legacy to varying degrees.
Of the newbies, an interview with John Waters proves most essential. Partially speaking about his recollections of seeing the film numerous times with Divine during its initial release and partially explaining his understanding of the film's impact on movies he terms "exploitation-for-art-theaters," Waters jumps around to numerous, fascinating points over the span of a mere half hour. He even recounts one of his first meetings with Meyer, who found a book on his shelf with "melons" written on the spine. Meyer, naturally, was disappointed to learn it wasn't about breasts. Also new is a Q&A from 1992 with members of the cast and crew following a repertory screening, as well as a 1988 episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show on Meyer. Finally, there are numerous screen tests, trailers, an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny, and excerpts from a 1970 account in the UCLA Daily Bruin of a visit to the film's set.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls still seduces like barbed wire in a red dress, and Criterion's new Blu-ray gives this happening a heaping helping of funk with enough supplements to fill a Rolls.