Purportedly, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) was the filmfelt was his most successful work. It was certainly his most profitable movie, and has the most extensive cult following.
Its origin is well known. Upon learning that Meyer’s Vixen (1968) brought in six million dollars on a budget of seventy-five thousand, Fox Studios signed the director to a three-picture deal, with each budgeted at one million. The studio desperately needed a profitable venture, after the expensive flops Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly(1969). Meyer was assigned scriptwriter Roger Ebert to make a spoof of the studio’s Valley Of The Dolls (1967). After Mark Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trash novel had proven to be a surprise hit, Fox was taking no chances, counting on the Dolls name to bring in audiences.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is only loosely related to its original source, and it was hated by both studio and Susann (who unsuccessfully sued to stop its release, fearing it would harm even her reputation). Fox insisted that Meyer insert a disclaimer, informing viewers that BTVOTD was not related to the Susann original. In hindsight, the studio’s misgivings are puzzling, since the movie is exactly what they ordered: a big budget Russ Meyer flick that became an instant cult phenomenon. While best viewed as a time capsule, BTVOTD is better than the pedestrian film it parodies. Valley Of The Dolls was directed on cruise control. Comparatively, BTVOTD has the vigor of a tawdry cartoon, supplied by its twenty-seven-year-old scriptwriter and a middle-aged perverted artisan.
Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are “The Kelly Affair,” a trio of buxom rockers who, in their “Josie and the Pussycats” van, travel from sleepy Texas to the wild and wooly Los Angeles in hopes of success. At a party, thrown by a bell-bottomed Caligula, the hexagon of singing mammary glands are discovered by the androgynous Z -Man (John Lazar, channeling Phil Spector), who redubs them “The Carrie Nations.” With their rapid success comes drug addiction, avarice, harlotry, lesbianism, abortion, alcoholism, transsexualism, porn stars, and Nazi orgies.
Visually, the film is a 1970 smorgasbord of primary colors, beautifully captured by cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. Accompanying the eye-popping visuals is catchy musical kitsch. The editing, like the plot, is episodic. As in the best of Meyer, the appeal of BTVOTD lies not in its narrative, but in its self-conscious camp. Comparisons to Chuck Jones cartoons are apt (as he would do again in 1975’s Supervixens, Meyer throws in Wile E. Coyote sound effects). BTVOTD hurls the viewer into an unexpected psychedelic, psychotic comic strip of a finale, which still divides the film’s fan base. It is unlike everything that precedes it. The ill-fated Sharon Tate was amongValley of the Dolls’ leads, which makes the nihilistic Charles Manson-styled massacre of BTVOTD a shrewdly tasteless finale worthy of John Waters.
BTVOTD is a celebration of counter culture trash. Despite its excesses, garishness, and plethora of broken taboos, its appeal will be dependent on the audience’s receptiveness to drug-induced soap opera pacing. For some, this is the director at his most accessible. Undoubtedly, BTVOTD is an essential entry in the Russ Meyer oeuvre, but it is debatable as a good starting point.