Saturday, June 28, 2014

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Much as i love Valley of the Dolls -- and i do, enough that i've shown it at screenings and based Oscar parties on it -- i love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls even more.
Largely because it is like the original but more. More bodacious ta-tas, more big hair, more fabulous outfits, more ridiculous dialogue, more bad acting, more drunk scenes, more kinky melodrama. And you read that right: Roger Ebert, beloved film critic co-wrote this masterpiece. And, trust me, it is a fucking masterpiece. If you have not seen this movie, your life is poorer for it.
In the fashion of the original Valley of the Dolls -- as well as other girl-power masterpieces such as How to Marry a Millionaire, The Heroic Trio and Sleater-Kinney, not to mention Charlie's Angels -- it's the story of three women and a shared goal.
This is Kelly, lead singer and guitarist. Like all lead singers/lead guitarists, she is narcissistic and unreliable and preoccupied with getting laid. She also has an inexplicable British accent that comes and goes. Kelly is played by Dolly Read, better known to Playboy readers as Miss May of 1966. She later married (and divorced and then married and divorced again) Dick Martin, of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

This is Casey, the bass player. Like all bass players, she was hired for aesthetics/backstory rather than musicianship and digs whatever kind of downers you can give her, man. Casey is played by Cynthia Myers, best-known as Playboy's Miss December of 1967. I saw her on a Russ Meyer TV show several years ago and damn if she has not changed. Well-preserved and/or i want the name of her plastic surgeon.

 This is Petronella, aka Pet, the drummer. Like all drummers, she doesn't understand the concept of consequences and is mostly interested in getting high. Pet is played by Marcia McBroom. McBroom was the daughter of prominent Civil Rights activists, Stokely Carmichael was her cousin and Katherine Dunham and Duke Ellington were family friends. She was also in Jesus Christ Superstar, got over this shit and is now a history teacher in New York City.

At the opening of the movie, the ladies and their band, the Kelly Affair are playing some kind of school dance. For those of you who wonder how a Russ Meyer film passes the Bechdel test, it happens right here, where the girls spend about three minutes talking about hauling equipment and scoring dope.

But enough of that, time for the traveling across the map montage! The Kelly Affair and their manager, Harris, a sad sack who is also Kelly's boyfriend, head out for Los Angeles. Apparently Kelly's aunt is there and she owes Kelly some inheritance. Also L.A. is where it's at for musicians, man. Remember, this was before the internet, so people had relatives they hadn't communicated with in over a decade and there still was a music industry.

Kelly finds her Aunt Susan in her over-the-top 70's fashion studio -- an appropriate profession, given the series of sensational outfits in this flick. Despite the "This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it" billing, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was originally intended as a sequel to Valley of the Dolls. The Aunt Susan character was actually Anne Welles and Barbara Parkins originally signed up to play her. Then things went south. I think someone read the script...
Anyway, Aunt Susan whisks Kelly off to a party thrown by music producer and Hollywood it-boy Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell, a sort of Phil Spector figure with a pseudo-Shakespearian line of patter. This party scene stands out as one of the best party scenes ever filmed.


Yup, you read that right. The second Austin Powers movie stole a good half-dozen lines from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls verbatim. I guess they figured Ebert wouldn't get noisy about asserting ownership. I would have though: That shit is timeless! Another steal? Look closely at Kelly's palazzo-pant jumpsuit. It's the same one worn by Sharon Tate in the original Valley of the Dolls.

So, the rest of the girls (and boy) show up, the band plays a song (with some help from the Strawberry Alarm Clock), Z-Man decides to sign them after changing their name to the Carrie Nations. Sad Sack is kind of upset, but is also easily distracted by porn star Ashley St. Ives, played by Edy Williams, aka Mrs. Russ Meyer.
Yup, another steal.

Also, if you have not yet adapted yourself to the unique rhythms and editing of a Russ Meyer film, please do so quickly. Everyone just sort of recites their dialogue and the camera cuts as quickly as possible from person to person to object to person to boobs to person to object to person to boobs to boobs to boobs. Meyer had a thing about actors blinking, so he would cut away every time anyone's eyes shut for even a fraction of a second.

So, the Carrie Nations' careers kick off in a big way. Kelly tosses Sad Sack aside professionally for Z-Man and personally for vapid gigolo Lance Rocke. Sad Sack takes up with  Porn Star. Casey is the victim of some really heavy-handed pickup attempts and takes up with predatory fashion designer Roxanne. Pet hooks up with a waiter/law student who knows where she can score some weed.

Sad Sack starts getting so hammered that he can't get it up anymore and Porn Star leaves him. Law Student is so busy studying that Pet starts making eyes at a Muhammad Ali knockoff. Kelly and Gigolo keep scheming to get a bigger chunk of the inheritance. Casey is popping dolls and huffing grass. What next, you ask? A lot of things. Amazing things. You'll have to watch the movie to find out, but i can promise you that all of this happens...

There's a peculiar irony that arch-chauvinist Russ Meyer wound up making a number of films that are now considered pseudo-feminist masterpieces. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is no Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill, but it does have three women who write their own songs, make their own decisions and bang whoever the hell they want. Sure, they're bubbleheaded hedonists, but no more so than anyone else in the film and less than most.

 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a critically panned flop when it came out, ending Russ Meyer's brief Hollywood majors career. However, it has since become one of the cult classics, an over the-top-piece of camp genius that must be beheld to be believed and whose influence can still be seen today.

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