Since the beginning, people have struggled to describe Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and no mere string of words quite captures its narcotic essence. “It’s a camp sexploitation horror musical that ends in a quadruple ritual murder and a triple wedding,” said its screenwriter, Roger Ebert, to Time. “A modern soap opera filmed as if it were a Batman episode,” wrote the Seattle Times’ John Hartl. “A crazy-quilt, hilarious combination of Peyton Place, an Elvis Presley musical, The Guiding Light, the Charles Manson story,” attempted Los Angeles Herald-Examiner’s Richard Cuskelly. “It’s as if Audrey Beardsley had staged a vaudeville style orgy in an asylum,” wrote Lloyd Steele in Movies. “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. God, where to begin? This is a picture so absurdly terrible that it’s nearly great. I really dug it; the hard part is to figure out why,” were the befuddled words of Rolling Stone’s Michel Goodwin.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is all those things and more—more than your eyes can hold, more than your ears can process, more than your nerves can withstand. It’s a movie that spills out of its confines—cinematic cleavage. It is simply the standard by which I judge all entertainment (spoiler: everything pales in comparison). In the words of an extra referred to in BVD’s credits as “Gay Boy”: You’d have to see it to believe it. Of course, I nearly choked.
Putting aside the unanswerable question of what BVD is for a moment, we can say definitively what it isn’t. Per its tagline: “This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it.” Amen, voiceover guy. Originally conceived by 20th Century Fox as a sequel to its highly profitable 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s obscenely popular novel Valley of the Dolls, a threatening lawsuit by Susann, who was incensed that a pornographer like Meyer had been assigned to sully her legacy (because it was so pristine in the first place!), forced Meyer and Ebert to shift gears and produce a film that is merely a spiritual sequel to Valley. “I saw 10 minutes of it… It made me sick,” Susann would say later of BVD.
Her unending capacity for counterfeit astonishment notwithstanding, maybe BVD gave Susann motion sickness. The film moves at a nauseating speed, especially during its first half, as Meyer hurtles image after image after tongue-wagging freak after non-sequitur at you. The movie is, simply, unrelenting. Meyer, who had directed, co-written, shot, and edited his oeuvre as an independent filmmaker before getting his big studio break with BVD, spent about three months re-editing BVD after editor 20th Century Fox took its pass. The result is what Meyer deemed a “punishing rhythm” that had the effect of “pummeling the audience.” Adding to the confusion, ends of sentences spoken by its characters are routinely cut off prematurely, and much of the movie’s early exposition is revealed in a call-and-response rhyming poem set to music that characters Kelly (Dolly Read) and Harris (David Gurian) giddily spit at each other. A bunch of rock songs underscore the action, if only you could make out the lyrics, if only you could figure out what the fuck is happening.
I shit you not: It took me at least four viewings of this movie to realize that it does, in fact, have a sequential plot with a semblance of narrative logic. I spent hours in blissful incoherence and I’m so jealous of people who get to watch this movie for the first (or second or third or fourth) time and experience being knocked on the ass by BVD’s sheer force of delirium. As it stands, I’ve seen this movie over 100 times since first watching it about 20 years ago, and it never fails to mesmerize me. I have a feeling that I will love this movie with all of my heart until the day I die.
The plot follows a rock group, the Kelly Affair, who move to L.A., and are rechristened the Carrie Nations by the record producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar), who was vaguely modeled after Phil Spector and says everything in a sort of Shakespearean verse. In the big city, the band encounters a porno actress named Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams, who went on to marry Meyer)—whose baritone methods of seduction are, in a word, terrifying—along with pill freaks, and juice freaks (and then everybody’s a freak!). Kelly tries to force the hand of formerly estranged Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) into giving a bigger cut of her inheritance than Susan initially (and inexplicably) pledged to her. Carrie Nations drummer Pet (Marcia McBroom) cheats on her law student boyfriend Emerson (Harrison Page) with a Muhammad Ali-esque heavyweight champ. Carrie Nations guitarist Casey (Cynthia Myers) gets pregnant, has an abortion, and then gives lesbianism a try with a busty seamstress named Roxanne (Erica Gavin). Harris ends up a paraplegic. It all culminates in a multi-character massacre that tastelessly echoes the Manson murders in which original Valley of the Dolls star Sharon Tate was killed. As an arch summation of late ‘60s culture, there’s copious amounts of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, though it’s way less explicit than its X rating suggested (Meyer, a breast obsessive, cut nudity in a futile attempt to secure an R rating).
I am leaving so much out, including its two epilogues, one Nazi, and additional depictions of queerness that range from voyeuristic to astonishingly retrograde.
Meyer had his cast of mostly unknowns from his stable and the pages of Playboy play Ebert’s just-below-hip and way-below-the-belt dialogue straight. From Jimmy McDonough’s intensely entertaining Meyer biography Big Bosoms and Square Jaws:
The big secret to Meyer’s direction on Dolls? None of the actors were told the movie was supposed to be funny. “You create the greatest satire in the world if you direct everybody at right angles and don’t say it’s a comedy, just play everything straight. If you try to make it funny, it doesn’t come off,” RM told David K. Frasier decades later. “Two actors on Dolls understood—John La Zar and Michael Blodgett.” The rest were left to stumble around in the dark. A baffled Charles Napier would confront Ebert with the observation, “You wrote this, Roger. It reads like a comedy to me. But, hell, Russ treats it like Eugene O’Neill.”
Throughout his life, Ebert was adamant that he wrote Dolls as a parody, thus the bombardment of negative reviews it received upon release were from squares who just didn’t get what its high-minded creators were going for. There’s probably a lot of truth to that, but the thing about chaos is you don’t get to control it, even when it’s “lovingly designed” as McDonough contends in his Meyer bio. (Ebert also recalled that he made up the story as he went along, which explains the utter preposterousness of at least one third-act reveal.) I like this reading of the film’s humor by Heathers director Michael Lehmann:
It’s meant to be funny and it is funny, but what’s so great about this movie is that it’s funny in the ways it was meant to be funny, and it’s funnier in the ways it wasn’t even meant to be funny, and it’s made by people who think they’re clever enough to be making something funny in a way that nobody else will know.
I mean, this movie can barely maintain a consistent tone, let alone keep a straight face, let alone have the British Dolly Reade speak in an American accent for longer than a minute at a time.
Overall, Dolls reads most strongly as a parody of the very concept of communication. It is a gleeful embodiment of what Susan Sontag described in “Notes on Camp” as “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” It also reminds me of what Umberto Eco wrote about Disneyland in Travels in Hyper Reality: “Here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.” No one would mistake Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for “high culture” or “good taste,” and yet it achieves a singularity that so few movies that are lauded with those designations ever pull off—BVD’s constant obscuring through performances discordant with it script and that “pummeling” editing reflects the disorienting nature of life, which provides no clear narrative structure in the moment. Via a blatantly synthetic nature, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls emerges with a realness that trumps most pop culture offerings. Just as Kelly says while taking in Z-Man’s bacchanalian shindig hours after arriving in Los Angeles: In a scene like this, you get a contact high, and BVD’s twisting of reality creates a visceral druggy experience unlike any movie I’ve ever seen.
“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls deliberately garbled my distinctions between good and bad,” wrote David Ansen in his review that ran in Boston’s The Real Paper. “It was at once gaudy, cartoon-style parody and far more outrageous than the genres it mocked.” It’s so disorienting that it can routinely flash forward to scenes that you’ll later watch play out in context without spoiling a thing—its climax plays during its opening credits.
The prestigious revival company Criterion is releasing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on Blu-ray today, alongside its squarer, less exciting, but still pretty fucking fun predecessor Valley of the Dolls. That cinephile endorsement is not bad for unenlightened trash that made its ailing studio a tidy profit while producing exactly zero stars. Meyer would go on to direct one more picture for Fox (the flop 1971 adaptation of Irving Wallace’s novel The Seven Minutes) before retreating to his life as an independent sexploitation auteur. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls thus remains preserved in amber, a movie that could only happen once, exactly when it did. Forty-six years after its release, “There has never been anything like it,” is still the most accurate, succinct encapsulation of this film.
[Note: All screenshots, gifs, and clips come from the 2006 20th Century Fox DVD release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and don’t reflect the new, decidedly prettier Criterion transfer.]