Retro review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

  • Director: Russ Meyer
  • Writer: Roger Ebert

Time for a quick cinema pop quiz. What do you get when you cross all of these: a tale of young women trying to break into show business; lots of references to ‘60s and ‘70s culture including pot smoking, free sex and scantily-clad women showing lots of boobs; a noted director of X-rated movies, and a script authored by a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, five years before the Pulitzer showed up on his doorstep? The answer to this riddle is the  trainwreck called “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

Theatrical poster for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Like its semi-namesake, BVD chronicles the dark adventures of young people trying to break into the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, soul-stealing abyss known as show business. Our candidates this time around are an all-girl rock band with their handsome young manager on the West Coast instead of young ingénues trying to infiltrate the theatre scene of New York City. And unlike the original “Valley of the Dolls”, this one features lots of nudity, illegal drugs that flowed freely throughout the ‘60s hippie scene, and a couple of black people who, for a film set in the ‘70s, aren’t cast as the household help.

This film follows the usual behind-the-walls-of-show-business trajectory with the requisite stereotypes: good looking but a not so bright girl band gets involved with assorted hangers-on and other bad element types (crazy rock music producer; porn star partygirl slut who sleeps with any man with a pulse, sort of a precursor to SATC’s Samantha Jones; a black prizefighter with an anger problem; the “square” attorney looking to get his hands on a client’s inheritance while bedding our heroine, et al.) who get hooked on or at least, heavily dependent on drugs (mostly pot and a few pills) and/or drinking, and finally, after everyone has mental breakdowns or physical injuries that result in them seeing the error of their ways, epiphanies for all. Our heroine returns to the man that brung her and they walk off into the sunset –or in this case, a park. (In the original “Valley”, our heroine returns to her New England roots, a little worn out but wiser and certainly more stylish). In between these adventures, we get to see what passes for ‘70s style debauchery including violence—with fistfights that look so staged that they may as well have been marked with a roadmap so everyone knows where to step— that eventually ratchets ups to  stabbings and a beheading, and numerous orgies which include some lesbianism that manage to make sex look boring.

The collaborators: Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert

In its day, this messy film actually got an X rating. Roger Ebert, screenwriter for the project and now a noted film reviewer and columnist, attributes that to the involvement of Russ Meyer, who was then a director known for X-rated fare. But he surmises that if this movie were made today, it would probably only receive an R rating. He’s probably right: by today’s standards, even with the violence, it is fairly tame and merely contains a lot of time-wasting nonsense that, when I wasn’t diverting my eyes in shame that I was actually watching this drivel, was outright laughable.

As a fan of the original “Dolls” and Mr. Ebert, I have to admit that this film kept my attention for its entire two-hours for two reasons only: it spoofs one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the classic “Valley”, and because it was written by Mr. Ebert, whom I have followed for years and admire greatly.

In an article for Film Comment Magazine, Mr. Ebert said that this movie “still seems to play for audiences; it hasn’t dated, apart from the rather old-fashioned narrative quality it had even at the time of its release.” I’m sure that this movie does play for audiences; there’s always an audience for everything, no matter how good or horrible something may be but I have to differ with him on the second point: it is incredibly dated and it shows in the sets, the outfits and hairstyles, and the lingo spoken by these incredibly stilted characters.

For some unfathomable reason, this movie is considered a cult classic by some but, for me, this film borders on totally unwatchable. And that’s the difference between a cult classic and a genuine piece of crap: cult classics are always watchable and considered by some to be real guilty pleasures with the emphasis on pleasure. Crap is just crap no matter how it’s sliced (or edited). And this film is just crap.

The hardest part of enduring this mess was ignoring the desperate cries of my DVR, begging me to rid it of this horror. It was only my curiosity of Mr. Ebert’s involvement that let it roll all the way through.

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