This Is My Happening And It Freaks Me Out: When 20th Century Fox Strapped On Groovy Boy Russ Meyer

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Russ Meyer had had an extraordinarily successful filmmaking career during the 1960s, effectively inventing both the nudie-cutie and ‘roughie’ film, setting the standard for softcore cinema of the time and – almost exclusively within the genre at the time – achieving some degree of critical acclaim as well as huge box office success. His film Vixen, at the end of the decade, was his raunchiest to date – invariably slapped with the new X rating and facing global censorship problems, the film was nevertheless a smash hit. It was only a matter of time before the Hollywood establishment would start to take notice. The result was a short stint with arguably the most traditional and staid of the major studios, where an unexpected free reign clashed with mutual incomprehension. It was a short-lived experiment, and once it was over, Meyer returned to sexploitation (taking advantage of censorship relaxation to make several more explicitly outrageous movies) – though it was clear that his ambitions had been to leverage his way into more mainstream cinema, albeit on his own terms. While Supervixens, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens are all great films – Supervixens one of Meyer’s best, in fact – there is the sense that he was satirising himself by the end of the 1970s – and perhaps it is the real reason why he never managed to make a real movie after the end of the decade, instead devoting himself to the never-ending magnum opus that was The Breast of Russ Meyer. The strange experiment with Fox led to one of the greatest cult movies ever made and a genuine curiosity that is unlike anything else ever made by major studios.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a classic example of the sort of film that you’d never see happening today. A major Hollywood studio, dazed and confused by the social changes and youth culture of the late Sixties, hires a renegade indie filmmaker – a ‘porno’ director at that – to shoot the sequel to one of its biggest hits of recent years (the tawdry soap opera Valley of the Dolls, a film pretty much forgotten by most people who don’t realise that Beyond… is actually, or supposedly, a sequel) and given carte blanche to do what he wanted. The resulting film was slapped with an X rating – not the mark of shame that it would become a few years later, but still not desirable for mainstream cinema – and would become one of 20th century Fox’s most notorious films. Read more or less any mainstream book about movies and Hollywood studios even now and you will see this film and the equally outrageous  Myra Breckinridge, released at the same time, described as major misfires for the studio – acts of desperation that were something that Fox remained deeply ashamed of, and crashing failures to boot. Of course, this is a classic example of film critic egomania. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls actually made a fair chunk of cash at the box office, but critics routinely hype hits as flops and vice versa, their own opinions apparently worth more than the actual popularity of a film.

And so the legend of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has grown over the years. The bomb, the embarrassment, the legendary Bad Film. Those of us who love Meyer know that this is probably his masterpiece (and his own favourite of all his movies). To describe Beyond… as a Bad Film is like saying that Airplane! is a lousy disaster movie. It’s entirely missing the point. There is nothing accidental in this movie. Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert knew exactly what they were doing here, making a film that pastiches the histrionics of the lurid, trashy soap opera that spawned it (Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann, not exactly a towering literary giant, was so aghast at this film that 20th Century Fox were forced to add a pre-credit disclaimer stating that the film had no connection to her novel).

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But they also satirise just about everything happening at the time – the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll counter culture, Hollywood, the sexual revolution and everything else – famously, they added scenes reflecting the Tate-La Bianca Manson murders. Scenes were added as they went along, with no regard for whether they made narrative sense, because in the insane world of this movie, everything and nothing makes sense simultaneously. Meyer came up with a rock musical, a skin flick, a horror movie and a high camp comedy years before people understood what high camp comedy actually was.  The resulting film is one of the most unique,  astonishing, jaw-dropping films ever made. Every line of dialogue is astonishing; every performance cranked up to 11; every shot and every edit in the classic Meyer style of fast, fast, fast, tight (and oddball) close-ups (eyes, mouths, breasts), all backed with Stu Phillips’ amazing score – the songs are better than most ‘legit’ late Sixties pop – and of course, The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

There’s little point synopsising BVD (as fans routinely call it), given the myriad twists and turns the plot takes. At its most basic, it’s the story of rags to riches, with the corrupting influence of the LA music scene at its heart. The Kelly Affair – what a great band name – are all girl trio Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella “Pet” Danforth (Marcia McBroom), managed by the naïve Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), Kelly’s boyfriend, and looking to make in big in LA. Moving in with Kelly’s heiress aunt Susan (Phyllis Lake), they are soon introduced to the LA party scene, and fall under the influence of rock Svengali Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar), who changes their name to The Carrie Nations  – another great name – and sets them on the path to self destruction. Mixed in with this are gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), porn star Ashley St James (Edy Williams), shifty lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin), boxer Randy Black (James Iglehart) and law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page). Oh, and Meyer favourite Charles Napier is along for the ride too.

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Quite how anyone thought that this was serious is anyone’s guess. The deliriously kitsch dialogue, ludicrous, outrageous ending and the epilogue in which everything is cleared up with a hilariously preachy voice-over should all be clues that Meyer and Ebert were poking fun at Hollywood soap conventions and youth culture. I’m sure the kids got it, but clearly it was too sophisticated a satire for the Hollywood squares.

Notably, the shift to a major studio barely slowed Meyer down.  There were several things that his films were known for – big breasts, heightened melodrama, fast cutting, strong violence – and all are present and correct here. In fact, BVD seems to be the culmination of Meyer’s filmmaking journey, a style he had been developing from his early nudies through backwoods sex dramas like Lorna, exploitation cinema like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (if people think that working with Fox had forced him to be uncharacteristically restrained with sexual scenes, remember that Pussycat has no nudity at all) and softcore camp like Vixen.

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Seen now, it’s amazing just how great this film remains. A 1970 pop culture movie ought to be dated – and certainly, the music and fashions here are of their time – but this film was so far removed from anything else at the time, it remains in some sort of stylistic limbo. We’re more used to the idea of the camp satire now, of course, and so it’s easier to see the genius at work here  – though notably, it remains lost on many critics who seem to take it at face value and continue to declare it a ‘bad film’.  The cast are all fantastic – the Meyer regulars, in smaller roles, all bring that sense of Meyer excess to the film (Edy Williams gets what might be the best line of dialogue in any film, ever – “you’re a groovy boy, I’d like to strap you on sometime”) and the main cast all seem in on the joke too – John LaZar’s performance as the crazed Z Man (“this is my happening, and it freaks me out!”) and the final shocking, ridiculous revelation of his secret should have been signal enough to viewers that this was not to be taken entirely seriously. English actress Dolly Read – who went from Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire to Playboy playmate – is impressively sexy in the lead, but it’s Cynthia Myers – all big hair, big boobs (39DD – no wonder Meyer cast her!) and stunning curves – who is the most memorable thing in the film. When I saw this film theatrically a couple of years ago, there was an audible intake of breath from men and women as Meyer shot her silhouetted, naked. If they don’t make films like this anyone, then it’s probably fair to say that they don’t make women like this either. I’m not sure that they made them very often even then.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the great counter culture movies of all times. Actually, let’s go further – it’s one of the best films ever made, a glorious one-off collision of pop culture, sexploitation and Hollywood mainstream. I’m not sure how it actually ever got made, but I’m forever thankful that it did. Pure cinema, pure excess and pure genius. And, of course, pure Meyer. For his next project, this freedom was no longer something that he had, and The Seven Minutes suffers accordingly.

 

The Seven Minutes sees Meyer tamed somewhat – he still manages to throw in ridiculously stacked women, gratuitous (if clothed) breast close-ups and finds room for appearances by Charles Napier and Edy Williams, and his signature editing style is still on display, but the outrageousness and the nudity is dialled back considerably.  It’s probably the closest we got to a mainstream Russ Meyer film.  Nevertheless, this adaptation of Irving Wallace’s novel is clearly a story close to Meyer’s heart, dealing as it does with ideas of obscenity and sexual freedom. In this film, a young man is accused of rape and an ambitious (and corrupt) state prosecutor sees the case as an ideal vehicle to push the anti-pornography campaign that he hopes will help propel him up the political ladder. As the boy had read erotic novel The Seven Minutes, his alleged rape (which we know he is innocent of) is used in an obscenity prosecution, with young lawyer Mike Barrett (Wayne Maunder) fighting an uphill battle against vanishing witnesses and the manipulative prosecution to save the book and its publisher Phil Sanford (Tim Selleck) from conviction.

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The film gets a little bogged down in court procedure and dearly needs a touch of BVD madness to liven it up, but it’s actually a rather good drama when taken at face value. It’s gripping, entertaining and notably still very relevant today (exchange paperback novels for internet porn and you can see the same arguments being played out today by politicians and the press). Meyer, who had his fair share of legal and censorship problems with his own work, does the right thing by the story rather than turning it into another satire, and had this been a hit, it’s interesting to speculate just where his career might have gone afterwards.

But the film was a box office failure, and Fox were not going to indulge a maverick pornographer any more if he wasn’t making them money – many of the old Hollywood guard – including those who had clout at the company – had been vocally critical of Meyer’s hiring in the first place, and as the X-rating quickly became almost entirely associated with porn, no one was going to go to bat for the sort of wild projects that were Meyer’s meat and potatoes. As he wryly told me once, “they come along and paint over your name in the parking lot”, and Meyer was back in the indie sector, where perhaps – as a virtual one-man-band filmmaker – he was more at home. But clearly, it must have stung to be discarded, and Meyer’s career took a definite hit. His planned next project was Foxy, which fell through when censorship issues scared off investors, and instead he made Blacksnake, less sexploitation and more regular exploitation – tame by Meyer’s standards, but outrageous and kitsch by anyone else’s. It would be a few years before he returned triumphantly with the cartoonish Supervixens – effectively Meyer on steroids. But BVD remained the film he was most proud of, and rightly so.

DAVID FLINT

BUY BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS AND THE SEVEN MINUTES

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