Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Most definitely not a sequel to Fox's film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls even carries a pre-title disclaimer to this effect.  To be sure, the studio had every intention of creating a sequel to what had been a hugely successful release, but a lawsuit launched by Susann against Twentieth Century Fox, alleging that the film had damaged her reputation, proved to be a fly in the ointment.  (The suit was settled several years later, in Susann's favour.  Unfortunately, by that time she was dead).  So, the title was kept, but anything else which might connect the film with the original was junked and the project handed to nudie movie king Meyer who had just signed a multi picture contract with Fox.  (In the event, it was only to last for two films - while Beyond the Valley of the Dolls proved a hit, Meyer's follow up, The Seven Minutes, was a flop).

It might seem strange that a major studio like Twentieth Century Fox should have offered a contract to a schlock film maker like Russ Meyer.  But the fact was that in the late sixties and early seventies, Hollywood's biggest studios were floundering around, badly out of touch with popular tastes. particularly the youth market.  They were desperately trying to tap into the latter and find the new 'big thing'.  Meyer's low budget movies, full of big breasted women and insane plotting, had found a degree of popular and critical success.  Most of all, they seemed 'zany' and youth orientated, so Fox were prepared to give him a chance, in the hope that he could give them that elusive 'credibility' with modern audiences.

In the event, Meyer was an inspired choice to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which, with a script by noted film critic Roger Ebert, emerged as a delirious parody, not just of the original film, but also the whole Hollywood sex and scandal sub-genre, (which included such titles as Peyton Place).  Meyer captures perfectly the glossy look of such movies (helped immensely by Fox's De Luxe colour processing), with the various sub-plots playing out against some familiar exteriors on the studio back lot.  But best of all the way the movie relentlessly satirises the whole way in which Hollywood liked to depict youth and the entire 'swinging scene'.  This is a film where people really do describe things as 'groovy' and use phrases like 'I don't dig' - all delivered perfectly straight-faced.  Much of the action centres around those 'swinging' showbiz parties beloved of middle aged film makers of the era, usually hosted by pop impresarios like the film's 'Z-Man', and flamboyant fashion shoots involving bizarre costumes and lots of naked female flesh.  Several frenzied montages - a technique often employed in would be 'swinging' movies - are used to link together sequences, providing a slightly surreal contrast to the seemingly 'realistic' events unfolding around them.

Superficially, the film's scenario bears some resemblance to that of the original:  a trio of young women (in this case a girl band) travel to LA in search of fame and fortune, but whilst achieving it, to a degree, also find themselves drawn into the seedy side of showbiz, including drugs, sex and porn.  The difference is that Meyer and Ebert exaggerate every scene and character to the point of ludicrousness.  The band's Svengali-like producer, Z-Man, for instance, is a full on weirdo encompassing aspects of Phil Spector and Charles Manson in equal measures, with a penchant for literary quotes and a flamboyant dress sense.  He also has a barman called Otto who is, we're told, actually Nazi war criminal Martin Boorman.  A vaguely Mohammed Ali-type World Champion boxer is portrayed as insanely macho, jealous and violent, trying to run down a rival in his car and later beating him senseless.  The wealthy Aunt of the main character has a lawyer who is stereotypically corrupt and villainous (even carrying the name of an actor who used to play such roles) while her rediscovered former fiance is ludicrously square jawed and decent. 

The plot throws in every cliche imaginable for this type of film: sexy parties, self absorbed porn stars, jilted lovers, unplanned pregnancies and back street abortions, not to mention a lesbian affair.  All of it is shot by Meyer in the style of classic Hollywood movies, using their typical visual shorthand to depict love affairs, passion, despair and every other imaginable character interaction.  It all builds to a Manson-inspired climax in which Z-Man goes mad during a party/orgy at his mansion and starts murdering the guests.  During the mayhem it is revealed that Z-Man is actually a woman ('You were a chick all along - an ugly chick!') and the heroine's wheelchair bound boyfriend regains feeling in his legs after a death-struggle with Z-Man.  An epilogue features an amazing voice-over summarising the fates of the various characters, ('Otto - an ending at last for Martin Boorman?') in the portentous, moralising manner of thirties and forties movies and climaxs with a triple wedding at a courthouse.  All done with straight faces.  

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might not be be actual sequel to Valley of the Dolls, but it is certainly a spiritual one.  It pushes the kind of material found in such pictures to the limits of credibility and beyond, exposing the true ridiculousness of Hollywood sensationalism.  It is a glorious essay in pure schlock and, if you can't find a place in your heart for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls then, really, there is no hope for you.  I would caution, though, that pure Russ Meyer fans might be disappointed by the lack of enormous breasts in the film.  Not that there aren't plenty of breasts on display, but they are all of the normal proportions.  (I recall seeing an interview with Meyer on BBC2 many years ago in which he is asked, by Mark Cousins I think, what the significance of the huge breasted ladies who were a trademark of his films might be, to which Meyer responded: 'They make my dick hard'.  Which is difficult to argue with, really).  The film is currently part of Talking Pictures TV's regular late night rotation, so, for now, is readily accessible.



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