Sunday, April 10, 2022


Like “Myra Breckinridge”, a film I have written about three times without its charms ever growing on me [link] [link] [link], “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is an X-rated film released in June 1970 by 20th Century Studios, when it was still named 20th Century-Fox. 

Both films satirise the new Hollywood evolving from the implosion of both the Classical Hollywood era of cinema, and the 1960s in general, both films making good use of their rating, plunging into subject matter, nudity, language and violence brought in from the fringes of the film industry, when mainstream studios need to make money. The films are also closely linked due to their often being paired as a double bill both in cinemas and in subsequent discussions, having been released within a week of each other.

It has been remiss of me not to take “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” into account when considering “Myra Breckinridge”, especially when its reputation has made it much easier to find: my DVD of “Myra Breckinridge” was a lucky eBay purchase of an out-of-print release from 2005, while “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was a prestige Blu-ray release from Arrow Films, a UK release including extras used by The Criterion Collection.

Watching the film was by turn bewildering, overwhelming and exhausting, perhaps on purpose, as a kind of drug trip. You either remain on edge for every moment for fear of missing something, or you just need to have the film wash over you. All the time, there is a sense of dread hanging over the hedonism throughout, beginning, as the film does, with a shooting inspired by, and reminiscent of, the killing of Sharon Tate, star of the original “Valley of the Dolls”, perhaps the only time a film’s climax is shown in the opening credits.

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is successful in its having been made by a confident filmmaker, with rapid editing, and humorous music by Stu Phillips, holding the film together. This is a marked contrast with “Myra Breckinridge”, its use of clips from Classical Hollywood films having turned from a motif to a sticking plaster during the production. Sex and nudity are also used much more freely and naturally, although this is because the maker of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was well-versed in their use in cinema.

The film was co-written, produced and directed for 20th Century-Fox by Russ Meyer, the usually independent maker of small-budgeted sexploitation films like “Supervixens” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Marketed on Meyer’s name, it stars a cast of unknowns, although Charles Napier, Harrison Page and Pam Grier, an extra in a party scene, went on to have long careers. 

The other writer was the film critic Roger Ebert, a frequent collaborator with Meyer who turned out to be best placed to satirise Hollywood. With Meyer having originally been hired to direct a straightforward sequel to 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls”, Ebert and Meyer took only its framework of three women coming to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, but only finding sex, drugs and violence, and stretching it as far “Beyond” it as possible. 

As Ebert wrote for “Film Comment” magazine in 1980, the film was as intended to feel as much of a fictionalised exposé or real people as the original, but without having personally encountered such types, becoming “…an essay on our generic expectations. It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, 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 operate emotions.” At the same time, the story was made up as Ebert and Meyer went along, to use existing studio sets, “which makes subsequent analysis a little tricky”, like making Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, a music originally based on Phil Spector, into a woman in drag by the end, without any indication of this earlier in the film.

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was very much a Russ Meyer film with a larger budget, featuring much sex and nudity in line with his films’ recurring use of these to satirise and subvert the conservative attitudes of older generations to them. Having said that, Meyer shot X-rated and R-rated versions of scenes, expecting to need to meet the R rating usually required by a major studio... except that 1970 was the year that the Academy Award for Best Picture was won by an X-rated film, “Midnight Cowboy”. Having received an X rating, which could have been reduced to an R with only a few cuts, Meyer wanted to add in more X-rated versions of scenes to take advantage of having the rating, but the rushing of 20th Century-Fox to release the film prevented this. Meanwhile, “Myra Breckinridge” received an X for both sex and sex changes, but it was resubmitted in 1978 and changed to R with a few cuts – “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” remains both uncut, and rated X, now NC-17.

What came to mind when watching “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is how it appears to be about the “degenerates” that are in the background of “Myra Breckinridge” – the people that came in from outside to usurp Classical Hollywood, sweeping it away, and making new types of films more relevant for their time, like “Midnight Cowboy”, “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie & Clyde”. Both “Myra Breckinridge” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are films of their times, but the latter is more successful in reflecting its time, because the former hates it.

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