Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 26 June 2006
Source Fox DVD
At end of the 1960s Russ Meyer had behind him over a dozen films, each of them cheap and independently financed, and each of them measurably profitable. 1968’s Vixen! would be the pièce de résistance of Meyer’s career up to this point: a $75,000, X-rated exploitation picture that screened in first-run theaters. It grossed millions. Inevitably, Meyer would be approached by a Hollywood studio, and given a more comfortable budget with which to reap more exponential profits.
The result of this short-lived marriage was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and it is somewhat of an anomaly within Meyer’s career. As in many of his films, there are numerous scenarios in which a woman either abuses (both verbally and physically) some man or attempts, often unsuccessfully, to bate her enormous lust. Know that these scenarios are often not explicit; a case in point would be Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a drive-in picture whose obscenity is relayed only via inference and subversion. Although the same describes Dolls, it is an evocation of excess and artificiality that differentiates it from its precursors. These elements are particularly befitting of the era (or, rather, happening) Dolls shamelessly intends to exploit, but it does not characterize the æsthetic demonstrated in Meyer’s earlier films: shoestring efforts marked, in contrast, for their remarkable, even modest efficiency.
Furthermore, if Meyer’s films are considered backhanded demonstrations of feminine empowerment, then this trend isn’t exemplified in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Granted, the overnight success of the Carrie Nations (the all-girl band that ignites the narrative) encourages the manipulation of several men in the film; they are as empowered as Meyer’s other women, only here waging the selfishness, deceit, and manipulation that characterize a loosely-imagined Los Angeles, and in the end the experience changes them. They strive for fame and excess, whereas their prototypes simply wanted great sex or a lot of money. None of them is permanently satisfied, but it is the Carrie Nations that display, for the first time in Meyer’s career, regret. They seem impressionably human and naïve, unlike the invulnerable vixens that dominate his earlier works, and in the end suffer the consequences of their hubris.
Citing the emotional grievance endured by most every woman in this film is not to say the overall scheme depends upon a moralistic formula. More aptly, the conclusion in Dolls is but one of its many frantically inspired aspects. Notice how in the very first party the trio attends at Z-Man’s coastal mansion, each finds a beau (or belle), and each is compliantly introduced to a toxic universe of drugs. Seeing each becoming entrapped in this undercurrent of temptation is, at first, like watching children play with crayons—they don’t seem to believe they’re real rock stars, only taking part in the myth. To this end the film isn’t entirely playful, either, ballasting its joyous first half with grisly violence.
Perhaps Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ anomalous posturing in Meyer’s career is attributable to its screenwriter, Roger Ebert. He met Meyer in 1967, the same year we was hired as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and was approached to pen Meyer’s studio debut despite having no prior screenwriting experience. (Ebert had praised Vixen!, and was perhaps the outspoken proponent of Meyer’s work.) Ebert would only scribe two more films (Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, both for Meyer, both under pseudonyms), neither of which I’ve seen, so it’s difficult to attribute this film’s discrepancy solely to him. Several portions of the script are, however, notably characteristic of Meyer: the entire film is doused in elaborately colloquial slang (“This is my happening and it freaks me out!”), and the epilogue is preceded by a summative narration that moralizes the prior actions. The good guys live (and get married at the end), and the bad guys die because they deserve it. As Ebert notes in his commentary track, Meyer was a staunch conservative in his screenwriting, essentially employing the same trajectory of justice in each of his films.
The film is not only remarkable for how it deviates from Meyer’s already championed pedigree. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was produced by 20th Century Fox at a time when the studio was fledgling (at this time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, MASH, and Patton were either in production or in the can). Meyer was contracted to three pictures, presumably, to return some coin to the bank. This opportunity for a careful, well-poised return on investment would be, instead, a formidable risk, as Meyer was given unparalleled freedom, facilitating Ebert’s recruitment as a neophyte screenwriter and his casting of Playboy Playmates who shared little prior acting experience. A potential failure may not have folded the production company, but may have disreputed it had Meyer’s fame as the proprietor of nudie cuties (from which Dolls clearly stems) sunk the film—it failed to secure an R rating, and was released as an X. As extraordinary as this risk is, it is overshadowed by the success of the film, especially considering how uniformly panned it was by critics upon its 1970 release. Fox got a hit, and Meyer the creative apex of his career.
The film itself is a masterpiece of camp and pacing, but so decidedly disjointed that often in relaying its charms one resorts to citing favorite scenes or lines of dialogue. It is an amalgamation of sex, violence, comedy, music, morality, and satire, so heedless in its intent to juice its every concept that it is convoluted, but not for an instance dull. The same script in another’s hands may have been an hour or two longer—Meyer, however, cuts frantically, lending even more patient exchanges an implicit urgency. Often, a scene will begin before a sentence in the prior one has been completed. Like the voluptuous villains in Faster Pussycat!, Meyer drives a clutch without removing his foot from the accelerator, and you are enraptured by every fleeting destination as he jerks you from place to place. And in no other film does a transvestite kill a Nazi. With a sword. On a beach.