“Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls” is Meyer and Ebert’s happening, and it freaks us out

The cheeky send-up of the ’60s music industry screens at UW Cinematheque on July 19.
Five women, including members of the band The Kelly Affair / The Carrie Nations, stare down at the camera with varied expressions from a raised wooden platform. They're dressed in colorful late-1960s attire.
Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) and Roxanne (Erica Gavin) look down from a raised wooden platform.

The cheeky send-up of the ’60s music industry screens at UW Cinematheque on July 19.

A trio of young women in the band The Kelly Affair (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom) head to Los Angeles with their tour manager (David Gurian) to try to make it in the music industry, but are met at every turn by every deliberately overexaggerated, melodramatic trope. This is a fairly simple way to describe the splendor of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’ (1970) colorful, kaleidoscopic headrush. The film is more concerned with parodying every element of ‘50s and ‘60s melodramas—going one step further than the original 1967 Valley Of The Dolls, from which it takes its name—than telling a coherent story.

Drug addiction, infidelity, abortion, lesbianism, disability, nymphomania, along with thinly veiled caricatures of contemporary figures like Phil Spector, Muhammad Ali, Raquel Welch, and Erich von Stroheim (okay, so, he wasn’t exactly contemporary even then), all get their due before the film whisks us away to another hilarious scene. 

Beyond was directed and co-written by Russ Meyer, which means that it prominently features something that’s maybe not as American as apple pie, but certainly in the top 10—big boobs. Meyer was a successful independent producer of “nudie cuties” that would play in adult-only theaters in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Eventually someone at 20th Century Fox saw how much they were grossing relative to their budget and decided to bankroll a project vaguely based on one of their own properties (which became Valley Of The Dolls).

Meyer recruited renowned film critic and fellow big-breast enthusiast Roger Ebert to write the script with him, in what would be his only credited screenplay (although Ebert did work with Meyer a few more times under the pseudonyms Reinhold Timme and R. Hyde). Along with their shared sense of humor that went over executives’ heads, Ebert’s deep knowledge of film history and Meyer’s technical know-how of shooting a film on time and on budget helped elevate the B-movie-type material. (The whole process was almost made into a film itself, Russ And Roger Go Beyond, but was permanently shelved at the height of the #MeToo movement.) Not that Meyer or Ebert had first-hand knowledge of the hippie subculture. All that talk of sexual liberation seemed nice, but the rest was hard to parse; though they were maybe unwittingly prescient in having one of their hippie characters proudly declare, “I’m a capitalist!”

The actors in the film generally don’t mug or strive to give comedic performances either, so we’re left with a cultural game of telephone where the people involved have varying degrees of understanding of the implications of what they’re creating. As the character of Z-Man (John La Zar), the scheming parody of Phil Spector, proudly declares—“This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”—we don’t always have to have a complete understanding of our surroundings to enjoy them. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is a testament to trying things out, if nothing else. And you can try the film out at the free screening this Wednesday, July 19, at 7 p.m. at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall).

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