In Life Itself, the 2014 documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, his long-time television producer is asked about Ebert's screenplay for the notorious 1970 Russ Meyer soft-core exploitation film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
"The most impossible question for me to answer," she says, "is how on earth did Roger Ebert write ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'? Or be interested in writing such a script? Or be involved with Russ Meyer?" She concludes, "I have no answer."
A former male drinking buddy of Ebert, asked what it was that the film critic loved about Russ Meyer's movies, hesitates momentarily, pondering his reply, and then replies eloquently: "Boobs." Yet another female producer puts it this way about Ebert's involvement with "Dolls": "The fact that there were large-breasted women involved was probably a plus."
After watching Life Itself, a truly marvelous film on its own, I decided to finally check out Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a movie I'd heard about but had never seen. Slapped with an X-rating on its initial 1970 release, it never got a wide release, especially in the Texas hinterlands of my youth.
Conceived as a sequel to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, which in turn was based on the dreadful best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann (the 50 Shades of Grey of its time), Ebert's script follows a rock trio called the Carrie Nations (three well-endowed girls, all bad actresses) from nobodies to overnight wonders in Hollywood. The movie features a number of musical sequences, the girls bouncing and lip-synching energetically. Their non-musical interludes include lots of trysts with assorted studs and other big-breasted women, much ingesting of dope (one of the girls actually says, "Hey, don't Bogart that joint!"), totally spurious dramatic moments, and a climactic bloodbath involving an ex-Nazi, a sword-wielding transvestite and other idiocies.
The dialogue features one gem after another, such as this one (mouthed by Edy Williams, who was then Mrs. Russ Meyer): "You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime." Or these jewels, both courtesy of the film's villain (a salacious record producer modeled on Phil Spector): "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" and, even better, "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance."
Because it's beyond awful, the film has naturally acquired a cult following. The flagrant T&A, along with the hilarious hairstyles and fashions, absolutely capsulizes the late '60s, and though the really, really bad actors take themselves very, very seriously, it's hard to believe that Ebert and Meyer (a good technician even at his worst) did not have their respective tongues firmly in cheek.
In a 1980 article in Film Comment, five years after winning a Pulitzer Prize – the first film critic to do so – Ebert described his earlier, only movie as "an essay on our generic expectations. It's an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it's cause-and-effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message."
I think he's more succinct and accurate in Life Itself when he describes his co-venture with Russ Meyer as a "delirious adventure." Of course it was. Beyond the 1960s with lots of big-breasted bimbos in Hollywood – it must have been a helluva kick!