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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: “My Happening”

There’s a 1985 song by the British post-punk band the Fall called “L.A.” One of the hookiest tunes in the band’s oeuvre, it begins with an insistently pulsing bass line that’s doubled by a near-disco synthesizer, after which a drumroll introduces an elliptical guitar riff that all but undulates. The lyrics, delivered in a characteristic alternation of whine and sneer by Mark E. Smith, consist of a few random-seeming, barely intelligible muttered phrases, and the scatting of the letters L and A, punctuated by Smith’s syncopated “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” gaspings. About halfway through the song, guitarist and second vocalist Brix Smith can be heard, near the back of the mix, proclaiming, “This is my happening, and it freaks me out.”

Despite its minimal verbal content, the song—ironical, faux-psychedelic, but still hallucinatory, indolently repetitive—is an exemplary postmodern evocation of Los Angeles as a concept. That is due in no small part to Brix’s incantation, whose lyrics originated as dialogue in a very LA movie.

“I didn’t like the line; I didn’t think it was hip,” actor John LaZar admitted in 2006. He continues, “It’s the line that’s gonna go on my fucking tombstone.” “This is my happening, and it freaks me out” is an exclamation by LaZar’s Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, a titan-of-teendom record producer and star maker, in this film, a 1970 self-proclaimed nonsequel to 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. A remarkably complex pastiche of the hilarious, the harrowing, and the (deliberately) confounding, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was concocted by skin-flick pioneer Russ Meyer and critic turned novice screenwriter Roger Ebert. As to the hipness of his line, LaZar was, it turns out, right and wrong simultaneously. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a movie about which one can frequently be right and wrong simultaneously. This is a feature, not a bug.

The 1967 film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s juggernaut novel Valley of the Dolls was critically lambasted on release but performed better than well enough at the box office to count as a sequel-worthy success for Twentieth Century-Fox. But 1967 was also the year of the disastrous Doctor Dolittle, a musical whose ill effects for the studio are chronicled in John Gregory Dunne’s 1969 The Studio and Mark Harris’s 2008 Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. For as much frank content as the movie version of Dolls could muster (it didn’t come anywhere near that of the novel, of course), it was still an Old Hollywood product. The 1969 box-office success of Easy Rider, a counterculture testament produced in the style of a Roger Corman B movie (up to a point, at least; its fraught, lengthy postproduction notwithstanding, it was still a low-budget picture), solidified a message that was difficult for studio executives to process: that something was happening, and they didn’t know what it was. (The girls who swooned over nightclub singer Tony Polar in Susann’s world may not have been the target audience for the New Hollywood, but part of what makes Beyond the Valley of the Dolls such a peculiarly enduring joke is that the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the band we see playing one of Z-Man’s “happenings,” is about the most inauthentic “psychedelic” band studio money could procure. Talk about an Exploding Plastic Inevitable.)

As Easy Rider’s Dennis Hopper traipsed around town, reportedly poking venerable director George Cukor in his slight chest and bellowing “We’re gonna bury you,” soon-to-be-ousted Fox head Richard Zanuck (who, ironically enough, was only two years Hopper’s senior, and had been active in Hollywood for no longer than the actor-director) went searching for the new and hip and cheap. Meyer showed up mostly on his “cheap” radar. A World War II combat photographer who later shot the first eight of Playboy magazine’s year one Playmates, Meyer’s early years as a feature filmmaker were spent applying technical expertise and a skewed wit to nudie pictures. He soon developed a unique brand of erotic melodrama—his aesthetic was, he more than once pronounced, built around “big bosoms and square jaws”—which reached an apotheosis with 1968’s Vixen, the story of a spite-filled quasi nymphomaniac. That film earned praise from a few mainstream film critics (including the Chicago Sun-Times’ Ebert, who’d been finding distinction in Meyer’s work since well before this) and broke box-office records. While packed to the gills with scintillation, the picture was still rather far from “hip.”

However. As an unsigned 1970 article in Show magazine put it: “Although hard-core fans hail Vixen as the artistic peak of Meyer’s career in skin flicks—which spans at least an admitted twenty films—Richard Zanuck saw something else. If Vixen grossed $6 million on a production cost of $70,000, then at the same ratio $2 million (a piddling sum for the studio that produced Cleopatra; Hello, Dolly!; and Tora! Tora! Tora!) would yield a cool $170 million.”

Zanuck’s wooing of Meyer coincided with difficulties in developing a Valley of the Dolls sequel. The executive dangled the title Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in front of Meyer, Meyer snatched it, called his now buddy Ebert, who arranged for a leave of absence from his newspaper gig. Meyer installed Ebert at the Sunset Marquis, making sure he got a second-floor room: “I don’t want you being murdered by any of these Satan worshippers,” Ebert would recall Meyer telling him.

Easy Rider wasn’t the only thing shaking up Hollywood in 1969. A series of murders initiated by Charles Manson, one of whose victims was none other than Valley of the Dolls costar Sharon Tate, had roiled the town since early August of that year. Manson himself would not be apprehended until December, and it would take some time after that to unravel the actual chain of events. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls opens with a scene of unease and potential violence occurring beneath its bright yellow titles; memorable images include a caped figure running around the grounds of a mansion, and the barrel of an automatic pistol being inserted into a beautiful woman’s sleeping mouth. This, as it happens, is a preview of the movie’s climax, in which a trip cum potential orgy, shot in a style reminiscent of Mario Bava’s 1964 Blood and Black Lace, turns into an occasion for semiritual slaughter.

The lip-smacking tastelessness and/or irresponsibility of ostensibly exploiting real-life tragedy for a jokey melodrama parody is arguably ameliorated by the film’s ingenuousness. This is a charitable reading, obviously. But Meyer’s earlier pictures can be seen as examples of kidding on the square. A longtime fan of the comic strip Li’l Abner, he was making live-action cartoons, but it is clear that he didn’t feel intellectually superior to his own product. Ebert, while possessing some of the qualities of a Chicago wise guy at the time, was also a young and eager Hollywood outsider. The latter’s account of the creation of the movie describes an attitude of anything-goes exuberance, not calculated mean-spiritedness.

That bright yellow opening text also includes the disclaimer that the movie is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, a move made necessary by Susann’s vocal (and eventually litigious) displeasure with her franchise falling into Meyer’s lap. (In point of fact, early versions of the Ebert/Meyer script had Dolls’ Anne Welles as a character; her name was later changed to Susan Lake; Phyllis Davis, in that role, bears a marked resemblance to Barbara Parkins, who had played Anne in the 1967 film.) With portentous music underscoring the point, the producers aver that, like the earlier film, this one will explore “the oft-times nightmare world of show business.”

From this disclaimer on, every widescreen frame of the movie explodes like a pop-art canvas come to life, with the soundtrack sharing in the exuberance. The sound of a woman’s scream shifts to that of a wailing soul songstress, future Mama Lion leader Lynn Carey (the daughter of Hollywood stalwart actor Macdonald Carey) dubbing the vocals for Dolly Read. Dolly, a former Playboy Playmate, plays Kelly Mac Namara, the leader of an all-girl rock trio (a sort of ur–Josie and the Pussycats, as it happens, to be named the Carrie Nations by Z-Man) that soon sets off to Los Angeles to escape the prom circuit and find stardom. There, they are drawn into the world of Kelly’s youthful fashion designer aunt Susan. Yes, the structural similarities to Susann’s tale are pretty easy to parse. But Meyer and Ebert, if anything, hew more closely to the conventions of Hollywood melodrama in their scenario than Susann herself did. They include a contested inheritance, greed-headed gigolos, “genius” (and imbalanced) impresarios, and more. But these tropes are presented in an entirely distinctive fashion. Ebert observes, in a commentary included in this release, that Meyer’s visual style owes a great deal to silent pictures, which is true. But the extremes he pushes in the context of a late-sixties picture give Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a breathless exhilaration that’s still largely unchallenged, even by today’s chaos cinema. It’s in part because his camera rarely moves; except when panning for the entirely utilitarian purpose of following a character out of a room, or tilting in to get a better view of some voluptuous flesh, Meyer keeps the frame stable. However, he cuts like a madman. The “Let’s go to Los Angeles” montage bears a slight resemblance to the opening of 1966’s The Swinger, directed by George Sidney (whose overall zippiness suggests a larger affinity with Meyer, and whose 1957 Jeanne Eagels contains some pre-echoes of Valley of the Dolls itself), but the way Meyer carries on for the rest of the picture is relentless.

Take the scene about thirty-two minutes into the movie, a post-gig interlude that shows Z-Man continuing to usurp former Carrie Nations manager (and Kelly’s boyfriend) Harris. Z-Man gloats while Harris, who has turned into a sad sack since arriving in Los Angeles and gets glummer by the minute, sits on the steps of a fire escape, trying to resist the blandishments of sex-hungry Ashley St. Ives. The sequence packs twenty-three shots into forty-two seconds. I say Meyer cuts like a madman, but each sequential shot is calibrated for maximum engagement. Reverses between characters turn medium close-ups into close-ups. He scrupulously cuts on movement, then cuts back quick enough to see a particular movement completed. One gets the impression of an ardent still photographer with a syncopated thumb pushing the film-advance lever at a rhythm that aspires to capture everything.

This approach practically demands a cornucopia of sensational content. Ebert obliges with a barrage of “Did I really hear that?” dialogue: “You’re a groovy boy; I’d like to strap you on sometime,” Edy Williams’s Ashley says to David Gurian’s Harris within seconds of their meet-cute. There are more incidents ripped from the headlines: amorous strongman Randy Black’s encounter with some domestic shrubbery was inspired by a minor bougainvillea imbroglio involving footballer Jim Brown. And of course, the film has numerous and varied erotic encounters—where the movie version of Valley of the Dolls excised a key lesbian relationship from the book, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls unabashedly goes there with an affair between Carrie Nationer Casey (Cynthia Myers, another onetime Playmate) and a character played by Vixen’s Erica Gavin. Finally, there are completely arbitrary plot twists. While quite a bit has been read into the revelation at the film’s climax that Z-Man has been, as rotter Lance Rocke so bluntly puts it in the film, “a broad all along,” Ebert’s recollection of his contrivance, as described in his memoir Life Itself, is fairly nonchalant:

One day, at about page 122 of the screenplay, an inspiration struck. I entered Russ’s office dramatically.

“I’ve got news for you,” I said. “Z-Man is a woman. He’s been a woman all along.”

“I like it,” Meyer said.

Writing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in their 1983 book Midnight Movies, Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman cite a particularly spiky objection to the movie: “‘Middlebrow trash with a homophobic attitude,’ Vito Russo notes accurately of BVD in The Celluloid Closet, although he might have added that the film’s strange relationship to heterosexuality—while one of apparent proselytizing, and even prescriptive advocacy—is no less delirious and demented.” In his commentary for the film, Ebert himself frequently cites, with pride, an account of it by feminist critic B. Ruby Rich that praised the lusty, take-charge sexuality of its female characters. Just as “This is my happening, and it freaks me out” is both one of the hippest and one of the unhippest lines in movies, the loud indeterminacy of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the relentlessness of its inauthenticity, is what makes it such a dizzying art object. The cheerful nihilism of two Hollywood outsiders permitted to play with what Orson Welles once called “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had” yielded an irreproducible result—a result that mortified Twentieth Century-Fox’s executives to the extent that they felt compelled to practically disown the film, even after it became a substantial hit. That the movie business has never seen such a thing happen before or since says quite a bit about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ proper place in American cinema.

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