‘This Is My Happening And It Freaks Me Out!’ How Roger Ebert Came To Write A Cult Classic

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Roger Ebert was one of America's best and most respected film critics, a perceptive student of classic cinema who became the first person to with a Pulitzer Prize for reviewing movies. Russ Meyer was a movie director who had made a fortune directing low-budget sexploitation movies fueled by his obsession with large-breasted actresses.

So how did Ebert end up writing a movie for Meyer, of all people?

Ebert and Meyer were both friends and mutual admirers, and together they made an off-kilter cult masterpiece, 1970's "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls," once described by Ebert as "the first exploitation-horror-camp-musical." While the movie received punishing reviews on its initial release, audiences went wild for it, and critics eventually developed a sincere appreciation of the movie's over-the-top style and deadpan humor.

Ebert had been a Meyer fan long before they worked together. Meyer made a big splash in 1959 with a "nudie cutie" film called "The Immoral Mr. Teas," about a delivery man who is suddenly blessed/cursed with the ability to see women without their clothes. "The Immoral Mr. Teas" didn't look or feel like a fly-by-night stag film – the color photography was excellent, and it displayed a playful vigor and humor that set it apart from the nudist camp movies and burlesque films that preceded it.

Teenaged Ebert snuck into a showing of the film in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois, and was impressed by what he saw. Ebert followed Meyer's career as he went from "nudie-cuties" to tough black and white melodramas such as "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and offbeat sex comedies like "Vixen." When the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story on Meyer in 1968, dubbing him "King Leer," Ebert wrote an enthusiastic letter to the editor, declaring it was high time a major studio gave Meyer a chance.

Meyer reached out to Ebert, and the two bonded over their shared love of movies, food, and voluptuous women. When a major studio did come calling in 1969, Meyer contacted Ebert and said, "You gotta get your keister out here. It's the big time."

At that time, Hollywood studios were wary of sexploitation directors like Meyer, but 20th Century Fox were in desperate straits. The studio had lost a fortune on two big budget flops, "Star!" and "Hello Dolly," and if the studio brass didn't look fondly on Meyer, the fact his movies made big money on tiny budgets suggested he could help them turn a profit.

Meyer and Ebert were given offices on the studio lot and asked to write a sequel to "Valley of the Dolls," the screen version of Jacqueline Susann's best-selling novel. The assignment quickly changed when Susann, outraged that Meyer would be working with her characters, filed suit against Fox. That was the best thing that could have happened to the picture: rather than coming up with a tale drawn from Hollywood gossip, Meyer and Ebert were free to let their imaginations run wild.

For "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (the ads declared that it was "Not a sequel -- there has never been anything like it before!"), Ebert and Meyer concocted a byzantine tale of an all-female rock band who come to Los Angeles looking for fame and fortune, and discovering all manner of decadence and heartache as they rise to the top. You name it, the movie had it -- hourglass shaped gals with guitars, sexually ambiguous music moguls, kitteny porn stars, conniving lawyers, predatory gigolos, even an escaped Nazi warn criminal turned bartender.

The style of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was gloriously chaotic, full of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and almost any exploitable angle Ebert and Meyer could dream up, and the more crazed, the better. The movie revels in clichés and sends up cinematic conventions even as it embraces them. And even though much of the story edges into broad parody, Meyer never told his cast that the material was supposed to be funny. Ebert recalled one of the actors, Charles Napier, asking him, "You wrote this, Roger. It reads like a comedy to me. But, hell, Russ treats it like Eugene O'Neill."

"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is a movie only Russ Meyer could make, but in Ebert, he found an ideal partner in crime. Not only did Ebert concoct a handful of weirdly memorable characters and gave them inspired and ridiculous situations, the dialogue is as instantly quotable as anything Quentin Tarantino ever put to paper. "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" "You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime." "Furthermore, Susan, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn that all four of them habitually smoked marijuana cigarettes … reefers!" "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!" You can't write stuff like that, but Ebert could and did, and the fact the cast was able to deliver such dialogue with some semblance of sincerity makes one wonder why none of them went on to stardom.

20th Century Fox initially didn't seem to know what to make of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," especially after the film earned an X rating, commonly thought to be the kiss of death. But despite reviews that generally ranged from puzzled to vicious, word of mouth did the trick for "Dolls" -- it ended up grossing seven and a half times its production cost in its first six months of release, and became a venerable cult item that still plays on the midnight movie circuit.

More than 40 years after it was released, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is a movie that refuses to go away, and for good reasons. It's funny, it's lively, it's full of surprises, it's fun to watch, it's clever and lovingly shameless in its celebration of classic films and traditional styles, and the ending punishes all the bad guys while letting the good folks have a big wedding. It's a movie with something for everyone … assuming everyone is just a little bit kinky.