There is no separation of church and state for movies. Very often, the same men and women who make the art critique it as well. From its earliest days, many of the cinema’s greatest thinkers were also its greatest filmmakers, and much of the history of film is also the history of people who wrote about film — and then made some of their own.
The ethical implications of this behavior often makes people uncomfortable. If you’re creating your own movies, how can you fairly judge your competition? The closer the critic and the artist get, the harder it becomes for the critic to write honestly about the artist. Who wants to slam their friends’ movies? No one.
These are fair questions to ask, but when critics become filmmakers I’m generally less interested in what it means from an moral standpoint and more interested in what it reveals about them, both as critics and as artists. I find it fascinating when critics make art about their lives as critics and moviegoers — like Peter Bogdanovich, whose “Targets” concludes with a harrowing and symbolism-drenched sequence in which a mad gunman fires actual bullets (and therefore “real” horror) at a drive-in theater audience watching an old fashioned horror movie. Or C. Robert Cargill, whose “Sinister” also explores horror movies’ psychological impact on the people who watch them.
At first glance, film critic Roger Ebert’s contribution to the world of cinema, the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s 1970 movie “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” does not contain any overt nods to the life of a critic or a film lover. None of the characters are critics or writers, and at no point does anyone onscreen pause to watch a movie within the movie. But looking at “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” again the week after Ebert’s death — at a time when I’ve also been spending a lot of hours away from this blog reading Ebert criticism — I’ve started to see the shadowy bits of Ebert’s authorship amidst the movie’s broad comedy, musical numbers, and exploitation. In many ways, the movie confirms all the values that Ebert cherished and promoted as a film critic. To the eye of this Ebert fan, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is almost a piece of film criticism by example.
Consider these memorable Ebert quotes about movies and about life (itself), and how they’re reflected in the content of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
Ebert: “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it is about it.”
“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” opens with a long disclaimer, stressing that the film is “not a sequel to ‘Valley of the Dolls,'” the popular 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann and the 1967 film adaptation of it directed by Mark Robson. 20th Century Fox had the right to make a movie called “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and after rejecting several potential screenplays by Susann, they hired the so-called “King of the Nudies,” Russ Meyer, to make the movie instead. Meyer had recently struck up a friendship with Ebert, and so he invited him to co-write “BtVotD.” In his DVD commentary track for the film, Ebert describes how he and Meyer settled on their approach to the material:
“We looked at the movie, ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ in a screening room at Fox. Neither one of us ever read the book. Basically we just decided to take the same elements and treat them in a satirical fashion. The Jacqueline Susann novel is about three young women who come to Hollywood, who achieve fame in the movies and are brought low by sex, drugs and not quite rock and roll.”
Robson’s “Valley of the Dolls” is, for a movie about sex and drugs (and not quite rock and roll), almost impossibly stiff, tedious, and turgid. “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” on the other hand, is freewheeling, frenetic, goofy, funny, and sexy. If what these two movies were about was all that mattered, then “Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” would be equally good (or bad) movies, because their whats are identical — three young, attractive women drowning in show business quicksand. It’s the hows that make them different, and make “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” superior. Instead of blandly translating Susann’s soap opera to the screen, Meyer and Ebert produced an outsized satire of that soap opera. Instead of turning away from its camp excesses, they amplified them.
(It’s worth noting I’ve linked to Ebert’s use of this famous quote from a review of Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” — another example of the same premise refashioned by two different directors into two entirely different movies. How, not what.)
Ebert: “Why should America, which dominates the global movie business, have no practical, workable, usable adults-only category? Why must every major studio movie be made available to those under 17 (with the obligatory ‘adult guardian,’ blah, blah)? Why is it necessary for this movie to be available to people under 17?”
Throughout his career as a film critic, Ebert was a tireless crusader against what he saw as the flaws in the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system. He believed Hollywood and audiences were actually harmed by MPAA ratings, because the X (and later the NC-17), which was supposed to allow directors to make movies exclusively for adult audiences, were so badly stigmatized by porn that few theater chains would show — and few newspapers would accept advertisements for — movies that carried them. He believed the public was hungry for smart adult content, and he often campaigned for the creation of an “A” rating that would belong to non-pornographic art films that were not appropriate for children.
How appropriate, then, that Ebert’s movie, would be an X (and later NC-17) rated movie for adults that wasn’t pornography. Like most of Russ Meyer’s movies, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” contains nudity and even a couple softcore sex scenes (which, by today’s standards, seem almost humorously quaint). But “BtVotD” has a point (and a point-of-view) beyond titillation, including strains of satire, drama, and horror. If the MPAA ever creates an A rating, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” should be its first symbolic recipient.
(Another what/how difference: Robson’s straight “Valley” adaptation — his adaptation of this famously soapy novel about sex and drugs — is rated PG-13.)
Ebert: “Life always has an unhappy ending, but you can have a lot of fun along the way, and everything doesn’t have to be dripping in deep significance.”
Ebert’s take on James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” might explain “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”‘ otherwise inexplicable ending — which shifts the film’s tone from cheeky Hollywood tell-all to graphically violent horror movie, and kills off several of the main characters by decapitation, impalement and gunshot. Actually, it almost sounds like Ebert’s describing “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” instead of “Terms of Endearment” — as if he was pitching his idea for the movie to a studio executive who wasn’t too interested in deep significance.
Ebert: “My requirements for movies are so simple. All I ask is that the characters be of reasonable intelligence — at least smart enough so that I could spend half an hour with them with slight interest. If not intelligent, then they should be kooky, or stupid in some original way, or even sexy will do.”
Again, these words sound like a description of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” as much as an attack on an obscure movie Ebert hated entitled “The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them.” Some of the characters in “BtVotD” are very intelligent — particularly the Phil Spector-inspired record producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell — and others are kooky (like Edy Williams’ sex-crazed Ashley St. Ives, or the random old lady dancing at Z-Man’s house parties in a bright orange wig) or stupid in an original way (like Michael Blodgett’s Lance Rocke, the dopey, scheming man-whore who ensnares one of the film’s heroines) or sexy (the film’s heroines).
Ebert: “So many movies are extruded like sausages. Grind up everything that’s usable, stuff it into the casing of a marketing campaign, package them six to the weekend, pull them off sale after they begin to spoil. These films were not disposable.”
This tribute to the films of Ebertfest 2009 gives a clear sense of what Ebert wanted as a critic: movies that were new, different, and built to last. “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was made in the Hollywood studio system but it was no sausage. Or, if it was, it was a much different kind of sausage — artisanal, made with organic ingredients, and produced delicately by hand. It’s no cookie cutter skin flick — even though it’s sending up “Valley of the Dolls” and a dozen other cautionary showbiz tales, its look, tone, and style are all uniquely its own. And even if the movie was made as a satire of late ’60s and early ’70s youth culture — the drugs, the music, the free love — its appeal goes beyond time sensitive jokes. Meyer’s old-fashioned camera work and modern montage techniques, blended with a demented sense of humor, some quotable lines, and a few crazy plot twists add up to a movie that has endured far longer the stuff it was designed to mock. This film — and its writer — were not disposable.