Good Pill Hunting

The glory of Valley of the Dolls—the flashy, trashy '67 inside-showbiz epic based on the Jackie Susann novel—is that no one involved seemed in on the joke; they took all the eyelash-batting, pill-popping histrionics seriously. Three years later, Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (playing at the Film Forum in a new 35mm print) added a layer of perspective to the big-haired theatrics. Though Meyer reportedly spent much time on the set discussing "motivations" with his cast, the raunchmeister was clearly leading them on; he knew he was serving up a giant camp tease, the latest in his tit-and-wit epics like Mondo Topless and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

The tug between the nudge-nudge of the dialogue and the large-eyed enthusiasm of the delivery makes Beyond a real pill, one that was rudely dismissed by critics as garbage. But it's fabulous, teddy bear—a psychedelic wow that serves up the free love, plunging necklines, androgynous boys, and lusty lezzies of the era with a narcotized abandon. With a script by future Pulitzer winner Roger Ebert—who knew?—the would-be cautionary tale has a made-up-as-it-goes-along quality, probably because it was made up as it went along. Not a sequel to Valley, the Meyer flick retains the three-girls-on-the-rise-and-fall motif, adding rock music, humor, and some black people. The result is a time-capsule oddity—Laugh-In meets Love, American Style, but darker—that spoofs, celebrates, and derides the swinging culture all at once, blithely traveling from quick-cut party scenes to soap-opera organ-playing and decapitations.

Kewpie-faced Playboy Playmate Dolly Read stars as the Carrie Nations' lead singer, Kelly, who—while tracking down a family fortune in big, bad Hollywood—leads the group from a senior prom gig to superstardom. In a typically daft montage, the proto-Josie and the Pussycats sing the lilting "Come With the Gentle People" on a tour van as a map of their travels is superimposed over their beaming faces. Before you can say beyond, a Shakespeare-spouting fop named Z-Man (John Lazar) takes over their career, prompting all sorts of decadence and betrayals, not to mention more montages. The leering queen—who throws flamboyant love-ins and taunts a scantily clad stud—is so clearly the basis for The Rocky Horror Show's Dr. Frank-N-Furter that some sweet transvestite could probably get sued.

Lazar and Read Carrie on camping.
photo: Photofest
Lazar and Read Carrie on camping.

Details

Beyond The Valley of the Dolls
Directed by Russ Meyer
Written by Roger Ebert
Criterion/20th Century Fox
November 22 through December 5, at Film Forum

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The film's gay content is as deliriously unenlightened (or maybe period-perfect) as in Valley, where mere suggestions of queerness practically drive characters insane. Here, the queers already are nuts—especially Z-Man, who goes on a rampage after demanding to be called Superwoman, unexpectedly revealing a pair of knockers to rival the Playmates'. Still, anyone who tries to impose p.c. strictures on any of this is as crazy as Z-Man (sorry, Superwoman).

When the pot smoke clears, the standout is Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives, a woozy porn actress who seizes on Kelly's disgruntled beau (David Gurian) and coos, "You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime." (Gurian ends up in a wheelchair, just like Tony in Valley.) After more kinky sex, a Nazi's demise, and a guest appearance by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, it's all summed up with a winky moral about the dangers of taking without giving. Well, this movie only gives, baby. Strap it on sometime.

 
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