“This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”
Welcome back to B-Movie Enema’s Russ Meyer Month. We’ve finally gotten to the back end of the month and his 70s features. It also brings us to two features Meyer did with famous Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert. First up, it’s the one the duo is most famous for – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Meyer and Ebert cranked out a treatment that came to 127 pages in about a week and a half. Ebert completed the screenplay in three weeks. It was intended to be a straight sequel to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls. Now, here’s where we start in on the rabbit hole that leads to Meyer and Ebert coming in.
Valley of the Dolls was a 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann and was the best selling novel of that year. To date, it is one of the best selling works in publishing history. It’s about three women who became friends, found fame, got married, take extra-marital lovers, and then turn to drugs to cope with issues that their lifestyles bring. So it’s best known being about fame (both the good and the bad) and chemical dependency. It’s a fairly epic 20-year story that starts in 1945 and ends with each of the girls either mental, addicted to pills (also known as “pink dolls”), or dead from suicide.
The 1967 film starred Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Sharon Tate. For Tate, it would be a relatively break out role as she would be nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. That said, it didn’t get exceptional reviews, but was profitable. In fact, it was profitable enough for there to be a sequel made. Supposedly it was Jacqueline Suzann that gave the title “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” to screenwriter Jean Holloway, but that script was rejected.
She was not happy that Russ Meyer made the film instead.
Okay, so initially, 20th Century Fox was on board for a sequel. That sequel would be called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As an aside, I feel like Fox liked sequels named “Beyond [insert title of original]” considering they did Beyond the Planet of the Apes too. I digress. Patty Duke and Sharon Tate would not be back, but Barbara Parkins was reported to return. Well, Suzann’s husband Irving Mansfield either left the project or was booted by Fox.
Fox hired Russ Meyer because of the success of Vixen! Meyer wanted to use his own script, so he tossed out the Holloway script and worked with Roger Ebert on a new story. Richard Zanuck, head of Fox, gave two edicts – consider budget to make this as cheap as possible and make an R rated movie that is as close to an X rating as possible.
Neither Meyer or Ebert read the novel Valley of the Dolls, but decided to use a formula close to that of the film version. While Suzann was most upset about the use of the title she conceived, I’m sure Russ Meyer coming in wasn’t great in her opinion, but the really didn’t care about the novel or the movie based on that book. Additionally, it was an exploitation pastiche and satire on the original as well. It probably felt kind of insincere or mocking of her work.
Either way, the film was made on a small $900,000 budget. It got an X rating, but Fox seemed okay with that. In fact, if Meyer was given time by Fox, he would recut the film to include MORE nudity since they were getting the X anyway. However, Fox wanted the film out to start making money as quickly as possible. Over the years, it ultimately earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million.
It’s a peculiar little experiment of a film. Ebert himself later said, “I think of it as an essay on our generic expectations. It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, cliches 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.” There were several plot decisions made on the spot because of the very short production window. Even though there was satire in the story and film, and Meyer being often a tongue-in-cheek kind of filmmaker, the cast wasn’t sure if what lines they were delivering were meant to be comedy or not.
That mostly came from how serious and professional and solemn Meyer would speak to the actors about their motivations in each instance. It’s said that Ebert would be approached about it because no one wanted to offend Meyer if they voiced suggestions or asked questions about the seriousness of the script. Ebert said, “The result is that BVD has a curious tone all of its own… from actors directed at right angles to the material.” Meyer did intend this film to be a mish-mash of several things – satire, serious melodrama, rock musical, comedy, violent exploitation film, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of the often nightmarish world of show business.
The result would be an exploitation classic.
The film opens with what is obviously trying to either 1) separate itself from the novel, or 2) any possible anger from Suzann about the change of plans, or 3) make sure people understand this is gonna be a real trip, man, or 4) all of the above.
The movie opens with a girl running for her life while a man in a Nazi unifor is chased by a real groovy guy. Before the credits end, there’s an action scene, tits, a Nazi, and one of our main characters, John LaZar’s Z-Man, sticking a gun in a sleeping girl’s mouth. It smash cuts to a female rock trio performing at a school’s prom to the disdain of some of the school’s teachers. The name of the bad is called The Kelly Affair. The members of the bad are Kelly (Dolly Read), the lead singer, Casey (Cynthia Myers), another guitarist, and Pet (Marcia McBroom), the drummer. They also have a supportive manager named Harris (David Gurian) who is also Kelly’s boyfriend.
After the gig, they decide to go out to Hollywood. There’s an interesting bit with Kelly and Harris going back and forth with descriptions of Hollywood from the pros and cons. It seems like Kelly is kind of starstruck or at least have a high desire to make it there. Harris seems to be a little more “real” about how it’s a weird town and a place that doesn’t have any class or is a sell out kind of place, etc.
When they get to Los Angeles, Kelly finds her estranged aunt, Susan. Susan is an heiress to a huge fortune. Susan’s uptight lawyer, Porter, doesn’t want her to give Kelly a third of the inheritance. Susan invites Kelly and her friends to a party where the incredible “Z-Man” will be attending. At the party, we hear “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock who makes an appearance in the film. We also hear all the people at the party’s bizarre hippie conversations. It’s like an R-rated episode of The Monkees. I love it.
Kelly is introduced to Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell who is a very flamboyant and very well-connected producer. He shows her around the various people at the party and how they use their talents to integrate into situations. John LaZar is deliciously over the top in this role as Z-Man. He speaks in combinations of older, sort of Shakespearean speak and 60s lingo. He is this perfectly smooth hippie who is so smarmy and androgynous that he could be anything and anyone from one line to the next. He’s fascinating.
Z-Man is loosely based on Phil Specter. That’s going to be important for later.
Each of Kelly’s friends have conversations with the attendees at the party. Harris talks to a busty, oversexed actress, Ashley St. Ives, who desperately wants him because he kind of blows her off in his search for Kelly. Pet has a literal run in with a waiter, Emerson. He’s been kind of reamed out by his boss, but he’s more than just a waiter. He’s a law student. Casey gets into a spat with Porter who is a combination of patronizing to her for being dressed sexy and thinking her a hippie, but also has a great deal of fun with the knowledge that she is the daughter of a senator and spends her time in a rock band. However, she does makes friends with Roxanne (Erica Gavin) who takes quite the shine to Casey and wants to design something for her to wear.
Z-Man learns that Kelly is a singer in a band, so he has The Kelly Affair (a name he hates by the way) get on stage and perform for the party. The party digs them. Strawberry Alarm Clock digs them. Everyone digs them. Z-Man loves them. He renames them The Carrie Nations. Right away they start recording an album and their star rises. However, there is behind the scenes turbulence between manager Harris and producer Z-Man.
After a performance, Kelly and Pet love the praise Z-Man heaps on them and the excitement of being famous all of a sudden. Casey, on the other hand, only really appreciates the support and compliments from Roxanne. Pet and Kelly plan go to another party at Z-Man’s, but Casey doesn’t like that lifestyle. Also, Harris is feeling left out.
Ashley St. Ives tries again to pick up Harris, but this time, he decides maybe it’s not such a bad idea to let her drive him home. He’s down in the dumps. She’s wearing hardly any clothes. She’s into him. His girlfriend is probably doing drugs and having a good time and giving Z-Man a Z-job (I don’t even know what that means, but it probably is very, very dirty). Why not hang out with a super sexy actress? She asks for a goodnight kiss and he gives her a peck on the cheek, but she puts her hand on his cock and they go to town in the backseat of her Rolls Royce.
She gets off screaming, “There’s nothing like a Rolls! Not even a Bentley! A ROLLS!”
At Z-Man’s party, Kelly has sex with sleazy actor Lance Rocke. He tells her she needs to get her hands on some of Aunt Susan’s money. He tells her that Porter is trying to get his greasy mitts on Susan’s money. Porter Hall thinks Kelly’s doing all this just to get at the money. Based on Lance’s suggestion, Kelly asks for half the inheritance from Susan.
Harris is unable to resist the siren call of a hot chick in a Rolls. Kelly is kind of losing her mind to all the fame and partying at Z-Man’s. Poor Casey is shy and doesn’t like the scene she’s been thrust into. At least Pet is finding love with Emerson. Emerson is played by Harrison Page. He was Niles in Vixen! as well as a fairly popular TV actor later on and he’s a life member of The Actor’s Studio.
This stuff with Pet and Emerson is kind of sweet and the most “real” and engaging part of this movie. I feel like there might be purpose in that. Somebody has to get something good out of this. Emerson and Pet are kind of outsiders in a way because she’s grounded and supportive, but he wants to be something more than he appears. It’s very earnest.
Porter calls Kelly to apologize for how he acted when Kelly came to see Susan. He plans to sweet talk her. He draws up a contract saying that if she immediate ceases her pursuit for inheritance, she’d get $50,000 immediately. She causes him to spill a drink on himself. She decides to sweet talk him back by inviting him back to her place to smoke some pot. She takes off her clothes and climbs into bed to seduce him, but he’s so square he carefully removes his clothes and hangs them carefully before slowly getting into bed with his boxers, undershirt, and business socks on.
Harris and Ashley go to the beach where she tries to make it with him, but he just wants to fuck in a bed like everyone. She likes fucking in weird places and he’s just not into it. So she suggests that maybe he’s gay. He goes inside to see Lance and Kelly making out, so he grabs her, kisses her and starts a fight with Lance, but he’s drunk and stoned. Lance easily beats the crap out of Harris. Kelly leaves angry at Lance. Harris leaves emasculated. Not to mention, Casey is nowhere to be found as she doesn’t go to any of these parties at Z-Man’s.
Pretty much everyone is in the dumps except for Pet.
Speaking of Pet, she gets a pep talk from a champion boxer and friend of Lance that people worry too much about yesterday and tomorrow and don’t spend enough time thinking for the moment. I think he is trying to bed her. Anyway, Z-Man sarcastically congratulates Lance on being a brute and beating up Kelly’s boyfriend. When Lance says she’s been sleeping with him, Z-Man’s response about whether or not she’s come through with cash yet reveals that Lance only sleeps with women to get their money. Z-Man then offers Lance to “switch hit” since both of them appear to be lonely tonight.
Harris goes to Casey’s place to be with a friendly face and talk about how Ashley insinuated he was gay. He says he doesn’t know if it isn’t true. He mostly feels down. She tells him that he just needs a downer to chill out. Casey makes the point that everybody’s a freak about something, but I guess it’s cool…? Just… Chill? Anyway, I think Casey’s on pills. Why all the hot chicks pill poppers?
That’s not the only problem. Sweet talkin’ Muhammad Ali guy did end up sleeping with Pet. At her and Emerson’s place. And they are still in bed when he comes home from his study session. She kicks the champ out.
Jesus, man… Don’t go to Hollywood. Shit sucks out there. People doin’ pills, trying to take inheritance. Running people down with their cars… Wait, what?
Jesus fuck, guys… Goddamn, that guy fucks Emerson’s lady, then hits him with his car. DEFINITELY don’t go to Hollywood!
The next morning, Casey sees Harris in bed next to her and flips the hell out on him. mean he asked if he can sleep with her, but she was not not into the idea. I think he even tries to say nothing happened that she didn’t agree to, but maybe I’m reading things all wrong (and yes I TOTALLY had issues reading this scenario, details later). Anyway, the whole band is fucked. But who cares, they are selling records, playing shows, Z-Man is pleased. It’s just like a fucked up Hollywood fairy tale.
You know what I find fascinating about this movie? You practically see NOTHING of The Carrie Nations rising to stardom. Their stardom from the point of view of the public is practically non-existent. Sure, they did that show and people applauded, but none of the normies said anything to them. It was just the “in” crowd praising them. We’re just seeing what the so-called famous and mostly fake people think of them and how most of them are eating it up. Not Casey, but she’s got some other hang ups.
That definitely creates a divide as they all start to lose each other to the ego trip that seems to emanate from Z-Man’s presence outward.
Someone pays the price. Harris, at the bottom, is losing his girlfriend. He’s seemingly separated from his friends (Casey and Pet). He’s struggling with intimacy, and potentially his sexual identity. He’s impregnated Casey. He’s just lost. When the band is playing on TV, Pet suggests they play the song we heard from their performance at the senior prom at the beginning as a tribute to Harris. As they play, he attempts suicide by throwing himself from the rafters above them. It doesn’t kill him, but it doesn’t cause any less guilty feelings from Kelly. He’s likely going to be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.
Casey tells Roxanne that she’s pregnant and that goes over about as well as standing under an elephant’s ass when he has diarrhea. Roxanne says she knows someone who can get rid of the baby. Casey says she wants to keep it because it’s probably the only kid Harris will be able to father. Roxanne then says that she was raped and why would she want to keep a baby from a night she has no memory of. She then brings up her father’s career in the senate. She thinks because only Pet and Kelly know about it, they likely will not offer up that information. So Casey goes to a clinic and gets the abortion so that Roxanne can put the moves on her.
I’m… I’m beginning to think Roxanne is not a good influence.
After 30 days in the pokey for assault, the boxer comes back to basically rape Pet in front of Emerson to say thanks. Pet tells him to get out of there or she’ll cut him. He does eventually leave, but goddamn that is a nightmare scenario, isn’t it? This guy could come back time and again to beat up Emerson and rape Pet. Someone is gonna die there just because a boxer with a temper and a mean sense of humor wanted some poon from Pet.
Now, here’s where things get weird… Z-Man calls Lance, Roxanne, and Casey over for a private party. His bartender is wearing a Nazi uniform like we saw during the opening credits. Roxanne and Casey are given Batman and Robin costumes. Lance is in a leopard speedo. Z-Man is in a costume calling himself “Superwoman”. He also has drugged everyone with wine and peyote. They all sit around drinking and smoking dope and it turns into a cross between a fucking gross hippie party and something out of Fantasia.
After the party, Roxanne and Casey have hot, hot lesbian love. In other room, Z-Man is trying to seduce Lance. Despite the refusal, Z-Man doesn’t stop trying by trying to jerk Lance off. He then tries kissing Lance, but nope. Lance isn’t having it. Z-Man swears vengeance. Z-Man ties Lance up. In the other room, Casey slips on a robe and goes outside. Z-Man reveals he is actually a woman in drag this whole time. When Lance calls her ugly, Z-Man decapitates Lance.
The film comes full circle back to the credits. Casey saw what Z-Man did and ran away and tries to hide. Z-Man’s bartender sees the mess and runs away but is killed on the beach. Z-Man returns tot he house and goes into the other bedroom where Roxanne is sleeping and puts the gun into her mouth, but is confused by Casey’s absence. When she wakes up and screams, he pulls the trigger killing Roxanne.
Casey calls Harris, Emerson, Pet, and Kelly for help, but Z-Man sees she is trying to call for help. He chases her around the grounds while her friends rush to help. They pull up just as he finds Casey and shoots her in the head killing her too. Kelly, Pet, and Emerson wrestle with him and he shoots and injures Pet. In the struggle, Z-Man is killed. Pet discovers Casey’s body, and Lance’s headless body. In all the crazy that happens, Harris can start feeling his legs again. Harris, now on crutches, spends some time with Kelly, while a narrator explains what each character learns. A comedic epilogue concludes the film with a triple marriage for Pet, Kelly, Susan, and their guys.
Holy fuck this movie is weird, man. It is exactly what studios chased when counter-culture started doing business at the box office. It’s nearly impossible to describe what this is without maybe 10,000 more words, but it’s best stated as being multiple films in one. Meyer wanted all these various genres for his movie. He wanted to satirize the types of films like Valley of the Dolls. Also, he wanted to spoof stardom, overnight success, and Hollywood itself.
He also wanted to have a rock musical that fits the time. That’s what the first act of the movie is. He then wanted to have a melodrama. That is your second act even down to having music similar to soap operas. The final act is that violent exploitation film that is meant to mirror the darker side of Hollywood that everyone just saw with the Sharon Tate murders. Basically, everyone thinks of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but no one knows that there’s drugs, violence, and murder underneath it.
It’s a truly fascinating film that works an awful lot like a head of lettuce that continuously peels away layers revealing more and more bitterness.
But without a doubt, it’s John Lazar that steals the show. Every single moment he is on screen, you are hanging on every word. He’s one of the most interesting characters and performances of any movie maybe ever on this blog. You don’t know if he’s just egotistical, a narcissist, or on a horrible trip. Hell, he might even be Satan for all we know. He tempts Kelly and seemingly ruins lives around him while holding all their secrets too. He’s a combination of just wanting to be free and being apocalyptic and it’s brilliant.
It should also be pointed out that he was, as I mentioned earlier, based on Phil Specter. He was a brilliant producer who threw the best parties and the guy everyone wanted to be associated with… Until he murdered someone. Specter was convicted of second degree murder in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in 2009. That was a huge deal and I’m sure Roger Ebert watched that whole thing unfold and thought, “Hmmm… I guess I was on the nose with that comparison.” Ebert claims he didn’t really base characters on anyone but archetypes, but accepts what others found in the characters.
In the end… If there’s one poignant message that this film wants you to leave with, it is this:
Maggie Marie from Mudhoney is one hip chick, man.
We have one more to go for this Russ Meyer Month… And it’s another Roger Ebert co-written script! We close out with a Russ Meyer nazisploitation flick with 1976’s Up! so be sure to come back here in one week for the big conclusion.