By now, we have all learned about–and, I hope, mourned–the passing of Roger Ebert. The first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, he was also a keen-eyed social critic and a lot of fun to follow on Twitter. Ebert’s life has already been eulogized here and here and here and…if you hit Google, you’ll find plenty more. That is a conversation to which I cannot add.
But I can say thank you. He was funny and thoughtful and eloquent and could write like a total motherfucker (I really need to sit down and study his style). He once said about movies, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Cool. Which is why I need to thank him, not just for his work as a film critic, but how he went about co-writing one of the greatest camp/cult classics ever spawned from human minds, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
It is not a sequel, indeed.
Actually that’s true, it’s not a sequel. It has nothing to do with the book or movie Valley of the Dolls. Written by Jacqueline Susann, the original Valley was a (theoretically) serious, soapy peek behind the showbiz curtains to a world full of chemical dependency. It’s kind of a melodramatic nightmare, complete with swelling organ music and tight close-ups of tear-stained actresses having drug-addled fits, but it was crazy-successful. Apparently, Fox initially asked Ms. Susann to write a sequel and then gave her script the finger, turning it over to Russ Meyer (king of the low-budget sexploitation flick) and his good friend, Roger Ebert. Why they did that? No one knows, and years later even Ebert admitted it was kind of a miracle. It couldn’t be a “sequel” because Jacqueline Susann sued 20th Century Fox over the Meyer/Ebert work, claiming it was so tawdry she didn’t want there to be any connection between her work and theirs.
Whatever, lady. Get over yourself. Their film was better.
It is a murderous, violent, drug-addled flick filled with boobies and eyelashes and self-important people. And it is hilarious. Ebert said that in the six weeks it took to write the movie, he and Meyer spent their time laughing maniacally. Part of the reason this film works so well, though, is that Meyer directed his cast as though it was a serious script. It’s the same reason the character Lina Lamont works so well in Singin’ in the Rain; Jean Hagen knew Lina was someone who would take herself seriously and so playing her straight would create the comedy. This is what Meyer banked on, and the clash of straight performance and WTF dialogue and situation makes us watch BVD with our head tilted a full 90 degrees, as though we are the dog confused by the ceiling fan. As an added bonus, Meyer and Ebert gave the world an impressive list of memorable lines, most notably “This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”, decades before Austin Powers ever uttered it.
(These clips? Probably not safe for work or small children. Consider yourself warned.)
Or this, uttered by the soon-to-be-future-ex-Mrs. Russ Meyer, Edy Williams.
And God knows I need to drive across the country with a map superimposed over my face, singing about “The Gentle People”.
BVD gave the world Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell. Fast forward to 2003 and it becomes strangely, creepishly prescient that the walking freak show-drug swilling-gun (and, eventually, sword!) slinging-murderous record producer was modeled after Phil Spector.
Only perhaps without the bizarre pyramid-shaped breast buds.
I promise, people, if I find a video clip where Z-Man utters the immortal line, “Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” I will without a moment’s hesitation post it. Because really, folks. Roger Ebert wrote that. You hear someone say that, you know that shit’s about to get real.
That’s what BVD is, and that’s what makes it a great movie. It may be dated and cartoonish and bear the marks of rampant substance abuse, but it does so completely unapologetically. That’s how this movie presents itself. The dialogue is often ridiculous and the plot is absurd, the camera work is pure camp. And this movie is all that, joyously. It’s one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had.
So farewell, Roger Ebert and thanks for the crazy ride. You will be missed.