‘This Is My Happening And It Freaks Me Out!’ How Roger Ebert Came To Write A Cult Classic
'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'
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.
Director Russ Meyer (Photo: Everett Collection)
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.