Brand new from the Criterion Collection this month is a pair of whacked out features that chronicle the decay of the American Dream in glorious high definition.
Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls is an adaptation of Jaqueline Suzanne's best selling novel about a trio of young women who take a swing at stardom, only to find that it hits back. Three years later, exploitation auteur Russ Meyer trained his expert lens on another threesome (and thensome) of ladies bound for the big time in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this time with even more spectacularly bizarre results that catapulted his sequel into the weirdo hall of fame.
In 1967 the American consciousness was in the incipient stages of revolution. The civil rights movement was nearing its apex, the Summer of Love was right around the corner, and voices questioning the mainstream politics that had mired the nation in an unwinnable conflict in Vietnam were getting louder. However, you probably wouldn't be able to see much of that in the films of a Hollywood system that was desperately clinging to a star system that had lost its validity. When Jackie Suzanne's novel about the perils of fame became a nationwide best-seller, it was only natural that Hollywood picked it up, but director Mark Robson's po-faced attempt to take this ridiculous sleaze seriously left audiences in stitches.
Valley of the Dolls follows three young women, the beautiful but naive Annie Welles (Barbara Parkins), the ambtious singer Neely O'Hara (TV's Patty Duke), and a marvelously sincere - but perhaps a little dumb - model Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Each woman finds her own path to fame, often with catastrophic repercussions for everyone around them.
Small-town Connecticut transplant Annie Welles stumbles into a modeling contract in New York after she's plucked from her secretary job by an advertiser and shoots to fame as The Gillmore Girl in TV spots. O'Hara is introduced being hacked out of a Broadway show by a conniving queen bee, she takes this failure and uses her anger as fuel to power her straight through any competition until she's the hottest singer and actress in the US, but she can't manage the demands of her dream life without the help of her "dolls," prescription drugs that get her up in the morning and back down at night.
Jennifer North, on the other hand, is a stunning beauty who recognizes that she lacks the kind of talent to ever be of value as anything except a pretty face and knockout body. She's the kind of trusting soul who always ends up getting the short end of the stick, and no one gets it worse than her. All three find fame, but none of them really understand how to cope with the demands and one by one, they fall victim to its pitfalls.
When the film was first released it was a critical disaster but a commerical smash. It's the cinematic equivalent of a tabloid rag, only with bouncier breasts and nervous breakdowns live and in living color. Robson's direction of the film takes each of these characters, and their mates, deadly seriously, which leads to one spectacularly campy vignette after another. The Dolls take their tolls on all three of our heroines at some point or another, and it becomes pretty clear realism was of far less concern than good melodrama, and Valley of the Dolls delivers that in spades.
What the film does lacks in tact, it more than makes up for in bombast and even an occasional groundbreaking taboo appearing early in the age of revolution. Discussions of mental illness, drug addiction, abortion, homosexuality, and more are laced liberally throughout the film. While It'd certainly be a stretch to label the film as particularly progressive in terms of its viewpoints on these topics - the mentally ill and drug addicted are forced into sanitoriums in lieu of treatment, abortion is treated as a dirty secret, and homosexuality a cruel joke and insult - the conversations surrounding these topics are frank and if not honest, at least reasonably reflective of the general mood of the time.
Valley of the Dolls is a startling film today. Filled with old Hollywood glitz and glamour, but underlined by its need to show that behind every rose is a thorn waiting to draw blood. However, what Valley of the Dolls intended to be in 1967, is an expose of a corrupt fame machine that was destroying hopes almost as soon as it granted wishes.
By 1970, the sheen was completely off and the world was a very different place. One would be hard pressed to find a more transformative three year stretch in modern American history. All of the ideas that were bubbling under the surface of Valley of the Dolls were now at a rolling boil in America as we had watched our leaders assassinated, the summer of love turn sexuality from a hidden sin to a right of humanity everywhere, and most importantly in this tale, the Manson Murders in 1969 killed America's innocence forever.
It was this tragedy, that coincidentally took the life of Valley starlet Sharon Tate, that is the inspiration for Russ Meyer's sequel-in-name-only, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970. 20th Century Fox wanted desperately to repeat the financial success of Valley of the Dolls, which was their biggest earner of 1967, but times had changed drastically.
Along came Russ Meyer, a fiercely independent director who caught the studio's eye when in 1968 his film Vixen! earned roughly $8 million dollars at the box office on a budget of less than $80 thousand. Meyer was offered the opportunity to shoot a sequel, since Fox owned the rights, but he insisted that he'd only do it if he could do it his way. His way had worked up until that point, so Fox gave him free rein, and thank God they did.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a thematic sequel to the first film, but in no way is it directly related. In fact, the film opens with a title card explaining the fact that this film has nothing to do with the book nor the original film. However, the similarities are as glaring as the differences, and Meyer's vision, along with that of first-time screenwriter young Roger Ebert, is clearly in evidence in every frame.
We again follow three young girls on the road to stardom, but this time the trio is a rock band called The Kelly Affair. The girls are not so demure as Annie Welles and Jennifer North, they grew up three years later in a world were sexuality had become a right, and screwing around was not only accepted, but expected.
The girls, Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom) drive out to Los Angeles to make their way and they are promptly scooped up by Andy Warhol surrogate Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell. Z-Man is the king of the teenage rock 'n roll scene and he quickly molds the group into pop superstars, much to the chagrin of their old manager - and Kelly's high school flame - Harris Allsworth (David Gurian).
Much like Valley of the Dolls before it, Beyond is a tragic tale of the trials and travails of stardom. Unlike its predecessor, Beyond is completely unafraid to go, well, beyond what we'd expect and what the viewer would probably deem reasonable. Remember those ground-breaking taboos that Valley of the Dolls broached way back in 1967?
By 1970 it wasn't enough to show the dangers of pills, we'd gone beyond the cautionary tale straight on through to the other side of the looking glass. The sins and vices of three years before were the virtues of the modern gal by Beyond's release. What was admonished against by Robson and Suzanne and their hand-wringing cautionary tale was now celebrated, and not in any normal way, in the way that Russ Meyer and his looney-tunes braintrust Ebert thought they should be celebrated.
While Mark Robson had a long and storied career, his was a workman's life. He directed many a classic, to be sure, but his career was built on working within the constraints of the Hollywood system. Meyer, on the other hand, blazed his own trail, and in doing so became probably one of America's first true auteurs. It takes all of ten seconds to recognize Meyer's handiwork on screen. The spastic editing, the tack sharp focus, the never-ending whip-smart dialogue, the attention to details of the female form, and the complete and unabashed commitment to a singular vision make Meyer's films unlike anyone else's.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls marks the commercial apex of a career that would be the envy of any independent filmmaker these days. In addition to the film's commercial success - it was Fox's highest grossing film of 1970 - it was also the first time Meyer had access to what seemed like unlimited resources after years of scraping together films on modest budgets.
Sadly for us, Meyer only got that opportunity once more, with his Fox follow-up The Seven Minutes, and that film was an incredible flop that had the studio sending Meyer on his way. Luckily for humanity, Meyer was able to parlay his Fox windfall into one more CinemaScope feature in plantation exploitation feature, Blacksnake, but after that it was back to the trenches of low budget quickies.
It's bee several years since I had watched these two films one after the other, but revisiting them on Blu-ray from Criterion brings back all of the giddy memories of discovering these gems in my misspent youth. The films have never looked or sounded as good as they do here, and it's breathtaking to think that they were only filmed three years apart. I mean, there's not any reality in which Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would have ever looked realistic, but it desn't even look as though it was shot on the same planet as Valley of the Dolls. If you have three and a half hours or so to spare, I highly recommend doing these two back to back, it's a trip you won't forget any time soon.
Both discs look at sound great. Valley of the Dolls is on Blu-ray for the first time and Criterion have done their typical solid work here. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released in the UK by Arrow Video earlier this year, and there are some very minor differences, but I'm satisfied with both discs in terms of the transfer quality.
Extras on these releases depend heavily on the most recent DVD special editions that came out in 2006, which is fine with me because those collections were stellar. Valley features an archival audio commentary from star Barbara Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca (named after a character from the book), as well other tons of other archival material from the time of the release and various revivals.
An interview with a friend of Suzannes's, Amy Fine Collins, is very solid, as is a great new video essay from critic Kim Morgan. There is an episode of TV series Hollywood Backstory which talks a lot about the film's genesis and production inclouding the failed casting of Judy Garland. We also get a gret essay from critic Glenn Kenny.
Beyond duplicates a ton of the material from the 2006 DVD, all of which is excellent. Most exciting to me is the archival commentary with Roger Ebert, whose voice is so nice to hear after all these years and whose perspective on the film is unbeatable, and a second commentary with the actors.
There are also several featurettes on the film and its production, exploring the taboos that Meyer and Ebert broke regarding the representation of black middle class characters on film, alternative sexuality, and the film's breakneck pacing and spectacularly bizarre plotting. Criterion adds a couple of new pieces to the puzzle with a great John Waters interview, an episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show from the UK about Meyer (previously available in the now out-of-print Arrow Films DVD box set), a Q&A from a 1992 screening of the film featuring Meyer in fine form before he tragically succumbed to dementia, and a batch of 2005 interviews from our pals at Severin Films with several Meyer regulars like the legendary Charles Napier and Haji, one of the stars of Meyer's black-and-white motorcycle gang action thriller, Faster, Pussycat! Kill!... Kill!
These are amazing collections, completely worth your time and money. Grab them!