Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

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From small town high school dances to trying for the big stage in Los Angeles, Kelly and her rock band move out west in the hopes of making it big.  But Los Angeles has its demons, and the once happy group may become one of them as they're seduced by the allure of pleasure and fame.  Russ Meyer directs Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with the screenplay written by Roger Ebert, and stars Dolly Read, David Gurian, Edy Williams, and John LaZar.

"Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"

In recent times, it feels like any speech or action that is blatantly hurtful or designed to denigrate a specific group gets caught up in the blanket excuse of "satire" when there's the slightest hint of whiplash.  Not that there isn't still good satire being produced, but our world is filled with more groan-inducing observations à la Cinema Sins than the genuinely weird Nathan For You.  Students of successful satire, or those wanting to know what good satire feels like, should give the now-immortal Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a look.

Scripted by Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) and directed by Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems at first glance to be a film beyond taste.  There's a bevy of nudity, some of which was added later when Meyer learned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was going to receive an X rating, a thrilling abandon for linear editing, and dialogue like the "black sperm" line which prefaced this writing.  That line encompasses almost everything I love about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it's ridiculously over-the-top (and a sign the speaker should probably seek a doctor), delivered in an equally absurd situation involving a drug trip gone bad, spoken by an unusual outsider to a living Ken doll caricature.

Even before Ebert and Meyer arrived at this moment we've seen a suicide attempt punctuated with cartoon missile sounds, a super cliched soft-focus slow motion prance through the hills, and arguably cinema's funniest sex scene in the back of a Rolls-Royce.  This is the sort of restlessness I usually see with young directors doing their first big film and getting to play with a larger budget.  Meyer was a practiced hand at this unrelenting style without exhausting most of the audience.

Ashley St. Ives is a sledgehammer in an already high-energy film with actress Edy Williams dominating every scene she's in.

Meyer succeeds because of his keen observations about the culture of the '60s and an impatience with rags to riches cautionary tales like the original Valley of the Dolls.  There's decadence in abundance but everyone seems too stoned or into themselves to take in the pleasures available.  This is hilariously clear when Z-Man (John LaZar) leads Kelly (Dolly Read) into his master bathroom to find a naked man and woman embracing in the tub.  We got a flash of that earlier in the montage of things to come when Kelly convinces her boyfriend/manager Harris (David Gurian) to move to Los Angeles.

But what I wasn't prepared for on first viewing, and now my third, is how unsexy it all is.  That bathtub sex scene we get a flash of only works if the man has a penis three feet in length, or if they're too wrapped up in themselves to notice they're not connecting.  Depending on your taste for sexploitation films, you may be saddened or reassured to know the former isn't the case.  The latter gets more evidence in the funny sex scene between Harris and porn star Ashley St. Ives (the incomparable Edy Williams).  Its cut between another sex scene with now-ex Kelly and the Ken doll caricature Lance (Michael Blodgett).  Ashley thinks of cars as she gets off, with Meyer inserting quick shots of Bentley and Rolls-Royces, but focuses on a light kiss and wire bedframe with Lance.  They're both projecting material images on their partners, not the physical connection.

Subtle juxtapositions like this are easy to miss if you're caught up in the style, as I was my first go-around, but help explain why Beyond the Valley of the Dolls endures.  Another part is in the performances, which are pitch-perfect camp.  Read is the standout here, approaching Kelly with near manic wide eyed optimism while able to switch immediately to sinister seduction then right back.  Williams has the most consistent and assured performance, tasting the weight of her words and positioning herself so that the room matches her energy and not the other way around.  Her reading of, "Come into my den, said the spider - etcetera" , tops her screaming, "Rolls", showing how Williams understands Ashley as someone willing to play a role but on her terms and time.

I love Matron, played by Princess Livingston with the kind of lived-in enthusiasm that folks of a certain age don't get to present often.

There's sincerity in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls even if it's blown up to the same ridiculous standard as everything else.  Petronella (Marcia McBroom) and Emerson (Harrison Page) have a comparatively grounded romance even if "grounded" in this case means soft focus long shots in slow-motion with the two running through a field.  They're sweet together, and the satirical presence of the Muhammad Ali-esque Randy Black (James Iglehart, loving every second of his time) doesn't outweigh the sweetness of their relationship.  I also love the high energy fun of Princess Livingston, disproving the adage that young hippies don't become old Republicans - they just become old hippies having the same fun they had when they were young.

The only part of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls I remain conflicted on involves Z-Man, though that may be because of the dissonance I feel trying to apply today's standards to a film from 1970.  Is it transphobic that Z-Man, revealed to be a woman, turns into a mass killer?  Answering that question with a question, doesn't his first victim - the utter bastard Lance - kinda deserve it in the fictional world of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?  I will humbly submit that I'm grappling with these questions that don't really need my input when more affected voices deserve that weight.  I'll say this much, LaZar is a genuine dramatic force amidst the high octane fun of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and I'm sad he didn't appear in many more films after this.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is successful satire because it has a worldview it wants to satirize, goes all-in on lambasting it, and isn't afraid of a bit of sincerity.  In our irony-laced sarcasm-heavy always connected existence it can be scary to be sincere even when turning the storytelling throttle up to 11.  That's better than offering a limp defense of, "but it's satire" when people respond poorly to terrible jokes.  Own it, like Ashley St. Ives owns whatever room she's in, and roll with those punches into something better.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Directed by Russ Meyer.
Screenplay written by Roger Ebert.
Starring Dolly Read, David Gurian, Edy Williams, and John LaZar.

Posted by Andrew

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