Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970) – By Matt Singer

Russ Meyer passed away last month, and was remembered
as a pioneering director of independent filmmaking and
a smut peddler — but mostly as a smut peddler. Even
amongst my open-minded classmates in the field of
cinema studies, the general level of familiarity with
Meyer’s work consists of a three words: “big breasted
women.” While its true Meyer had what could be
qualified as a small scientific curiosity in the
physics that dictated the movement of enlarged mammary
glands, he was also a talented filmmaker who was, in
many ways, ahead of his time.

Take, for instance, 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the
Dolls. Hired by 20th Century Fox, a studio on the
verge of destitution, to sequelize and satirize 1967’s
hit Valley of the Dolls, Meyer created a surreal,
daring, and altogether hilarious film which keyed into
the era’s drug-fueled zeitgeist, celebrating and
lampooning simultaneously. According to Roger Ebert,
who co-wrote the film with Meyer after enjoying the
director’s previous work, Meyer, “wanted everything in
the screenplay except the kitchen sink… [it would]
simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a
rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation
picture, a skin flick, and a moralist expose.”
Released within a week of the similarly outrageous
Myra Breckinridge — which included a scene where
Raquel Welch rapes a man while draped in the colors of
the American flag — it separated itself through one
key distinction: it was entertaining.

Like the original Dolls, BTVOTD follows the fortunes
of three fetching young women who come to Los Angeles
in search of success. Kelly (Dolly Reed) is the
leader of the trio’s rock combo The Kelly Affair, and
through a well-connected aunt, she brings the band to
the attention of a superstar music manager named
Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar). He wrests
control of the band from the hunky but whiny Harris
(David Gurian), changes their name to The Carrie
Nations, and fulfills the girls dreams for stardom,
money, and love. There are, of course, prices to pay,
as there are in all cautionary tales, though here
those prices are stretched to improbable limits. The
disconnect between the monumental pathos of the
situations (“I’m going to have his baby!”) and the
mostly air-headed delivery inspires moments of huge
laughter. The result is like melodrama written by and
intended for schizophrenics.

If Meyer didn’t inspire certain elements of modern
editing techniques – jarring jumps cut to a tense
tempo – he at the very least anticipated them. Though
the late 1960s boast some of the most important and
groundbreaking films of the century, even the era’s
edgiest have become dated in certain ways (The
shocking violence of Bonnie and Clyde looks pretty
tame in 2004, for instance), but BTVOTD still feels
both futuristic and timeless. It certainly captures
its period, but it does so in a way that still feels
fresh and unorthodox.

The women in BTVOTD are certainly sexy (and certainly
naked with impressive frequency) but the film is not
about titillating its audience; it’s about shocking
them and surprising them by any means necessary,
manipulating them on a roller coaster of emotions from
laughter to horror. With time, as people forget the
infamy associated with his name, I suspect films like
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Faster, Pussycat!
Kill! Kill! will be picked up as key era texts that
were about more than big breasted women.