“This is my happening, and it freaks me out,” is what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ freakiest cat playfully expostulates. Independent producer and public titillateur Russ Meyer’s first film to be bankrolled by a major motion picture studio was only one of two completely cracked, vandalizing-cinematic-vaults movies that 20th Century Fox financed in 1970 in an effort to recover from white elephantitis of the Hello, Dolly! kind. And both critically-drubbed misunderstood-masterpieces actually featured significant creative input from, wouldn’t you know, film critics. It’s hardly shocking that the films’ respective worth can practically be boiled down to the worth of said critics. Myra Breckinridge is a bloated gas, a cheerfully dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. The critic involved? Rex Reed, a man who, whether writing reviews that come off as society columns or shrieking “Where are my tits?” at the top of his lungs, always gives off the impression that he’s the only one in the room who didn’t really get the joke. Or that he might be the butt.
Roger Ebert, who wrote the screenplay to BVD well before winning a Pulitzer, may have collected some of his most “scathing” movie reviews in a collection titled I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, but I can hardly think of a less irascible critic. No critic grades so promiscuously toward the top of his rating scale (like Victoria Jackson on SNL pointing out that one star was still “pretty good”). Why, he even melted the iced buttercube in Vincent Gallo’s polluted mouth. Whereas pairing Michael Sarne and Rex Reed was like watching one kid tell another that a king beats a pair of queens, putting Ebert with Meyer turned the good-natured male gaze into a three-dimensional prospect. Maybe the overall geniality can be blamed on the fact that its target, Fox’s own original Valley of the Dolls, is perhaps one of the squarest, droopiest camp classics ever. (Even running on Aldrich autopilot, Agnes Moorhead could tap dance circles around Neely O’Hara’s bloodshot eyes.) One of the original Dolls’ characters famously sings, “Love is a flower that lives for an hour, then withers and dies.” Where do you go from there but up?
Meyer’s three buxom beauties head westward for their inevitable corruption. But corruption, in Meyer’s world, mostly boils down to not being able to perform in bed to the standards of your chesty partner (especially if you happen to be a family executor trying to cheat a distant niece out of her rightful inheritance). Or pretending to be a boy so that no one will find out that you’re really a (gasp!) flat-chested woman. Meyer and Ebert’s crucial spin on Jacqueline Susann’s archetype is that women are the undisputed champions of the universe: they run shit, and if there’s any deflowering to be done on their person, at least they remain in charge of their own debasement. In one quietly show-stopping sequence, Edy Williams’s pneumatic porn star Ashley St. Ives stands on a beach, straddling her dewy, inadequate sexual conquest, and Meyer’s P.O.V. shot of her curvy figure towering against the night sky brings visions of the 50 Foot Woman. Both Dolls movies are sexually reactionary movies in the way they hand over the reigns to the opposite sex (Susann to fags like Ted Casablanca, Meyer and Ebert to the collective areola). But at least in Beyond everyone’s having a good time. As his overactive jump cuts prove, Meyer directs films as though he’s perpetually on the cusp of a fantastic orgasm.
At least until the strangely touched-in-the-head climax, that is, when Beyond really earns its stripes as a full-on freak-out. Referencing the Manson Family murders would be bad enough in the context of the rest of the film. Harm to oneself isn’t harm at all, as the hilarity of the mid-film suicide attempt (accompanied by Wild E. Coyote sound effects) proves. Harm to others is another scene entirely. But referencing Manson’s atrocities when the film you’re satirizing actually starred one of his victims? That freaks me out. At the same time, the ending also serves as a Kent State-esque coda to the ‘60s and the beginning of a nightmare in the same way that the Village People’s Can’t Stop The Music celebrated the “promise” of a brave, new, gay 1980s by dancing to “the music of the future.” Retrospect is a beautiful lens through which to view camp, maybe the only lens. Well, in the case of Russ Meyer films, retrospect and an expensive pair of peeping binoculars.
Practically flawless. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a critical disaster upon its release, but it made Fox a mint, so I guess you could hardly expect them to rush the negative to the acid bath. But neither would I have expected them to have kept a copy this pristine. Meyer's carefully candified colors absolutely pop off the screen with crystalline clarity. I thought I was watching the lost film from Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy. The sound (available in a remixed stereo and original mono) is only one cup size smaller in value. The musical numbers sound remarkably live. Overall, this might be one of the best-looking transfers of a vintage movie I've recently seen.
Ebert recorded his commentary track some years back and advertised it as being part of a forthcoming Criterion disc. Fox eventually must've wised up to the selling potential of the disc, and I'm glad to say they were similarly smart enough not to jettison the work I'm positive Criterion is responsible for putting into the two-disc set. Two commentary tracks accompany the film's first disc. First is Ebert's, which is probably the best commentary track I've heard from him. He's far enough along that he can take great pride in his responsibility for co-creating the film (if nothing else, it gives him the opportunity to spit on the grave of Siskel, who passive-aggressively mocked Ebert's script by calling him a "neophyte" and refusing to write Ebert's name). Amusingly, it takes Ebert a full half-hour to get around to mentioning the fact that Meyer likes big-boobed actors. The second commentary comes from a quintet of actors from the film: Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers (two of the three starlets), Erica Gavin (who plays the film's morbid lesbian Roxanne), Harrison Page (the goody-goody black law student) and John LaZar, the film's most infamous player and an almost unmistakable influence on Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter. There's a whole lot of joviality here, at least up until the scene when LaZar plants a big wet one on the flaxen, tawny Michael Blodgett, prompting Page to make loud overtures on behalf of the double standard of bisexuality. The second disc is packed with stuff that probably wouldn't have been broken up if Criterion had put the disc out. There are five or six featurettes that would've made a solid hour-and-a-half "making of." They're almost overproduced, looking like any given original production on VH1, but at least they include interviews with some of the cast and crew who weren't involved on the commentary tracks, notably Blodgett and the third lead actress Marcia McBroom, who tells an amusing anecdote about how Meyer assured her that she, among all of his leading ladies, had the smallest bust by far. On top of that are trailers, screen tests, countless production stills, and a leering introduction from LaZar that probably belonged on the first disc.
The original Valley of the Dolls was a Bentley. Meyer and Ebert's Beyond is a Rolls. There is nothing like a Rolls. Not even a Bentley.