DVD Review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

beyonddvdSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Russ Meyer | CAST: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett, Edy Williams, Erica Gavin
RELEASE DATE: 9/27/16 | PRICE: Price: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: four featurettes about the film, separate audio commentaries by cast members and Roger Ebert, John Waters interview, Q&A with Meyer and the cast, Incredibly Strange Film Show about Meyer, “Memories of Russ” featurette
SPECS: NC-17 | 109 min. | Comedy drama musical | 2.35:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Everyone can satirize the Sixties at this distance — Woody Allen’s Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes is only the latest manifestation of America’s fascination with that era. But to have successfully lampooned the period while it was happening was rare indeed, and Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is without question the finest spoof of the Sixties made during the Sixties.

It is also an incredibly subversive work, because Meyer and his scripter-friend Roger Ebert crafted a film that was initially supposed to be a rock ’n’ roll knockoff of Valley of the Dolls but instead is by turns a broad lampoon of “sincere” Hollywood melodramas (with messages about things like substance abuse), the aforementioned sharp satire of Sixties pop culture and a flat-out bizarre thriller involving gender-switches, lesbianism and a Manson-like Hollywood murder spree.

BVD, as its fans refer to it, wasn’t on VHS for the longest time and then made its debut in a pan-and-scan version. Fox released a letterboxed laserdisc, and in 2006 the film made its DVD debut in a two-disc set from Fox, which was loaded with supplements. The Fox edition went out of print several years ago, with the film winding up in a “quad” budget release from Fox with the original Valley, All About Eve and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (!).

This Criterion two-disc set improves upon the Fox release, as it contains a newly restored edition of the film, plus the original set of Fox supplements and several new featurettes. The Fox supplements include a trailer with Meyer directing his cast in a photoshoot, as well as four featurettes that contain the thoughts of the surviving cast members and various pop culture writers.

beyondthevalleyofthedolls1_optThe first audio commentary features a group of the film’s actors and the second is by Roger Ebert, who interestingly sidesteps the fact that the wunderkind rock producer character “Z-Man” who becomes a crazed murderer in the film’s finale was based on Phil Spector (who had been arrested for the murder of Lana Clarkson by the time Ebert recorded the commentary).

The new supplements gathered for this release are truly special, focusing on the unique talents (and famous mammary obsession) of Meyer. The featurette “Memories of Russ” made by Severin Films includes comments from a quartet of his performers, including two of the actors he used most often (who have both sadly died since they participated in this doc), Haji and Charles Napier.

The always-funny John Waters offers his thoughts on Russ and BVD in a detail-filled half-hour interview segment. Waters discusses the two audiences who went to see Meyer’s films: middle-aged, working class men who found the movies “whackable” and people like Waters and his friends, camp fans who were frequently under the influence of chemical stimulants.

The most interesting reflections from Waters are his belief that Meyer and Ebert were depicting “California hippies” who were a different breed than those found in the rest of the country, and that the cast were not in on the joke and seem to be playing their roles in a completely deadpan manner, which makes the film even funnier.

A video of a Q&A that followed a screening of the film at UCLA in 1990 is also present. Meyer, Ebert and several members of the cast — including Edy Williams, with whom Meyer had an acrimonious divorce — talk about the film. The fact that the Z-Man character was based on Charles Manson is discussed, as are Meyer’s unusual methods of direction.

Perhaps the most entertaining segment is a full 1988 episode of the UK series The Incredibly Strange Film Show devoted to Meyer. Host Jonathan Ross presents a great “101” about Meyer’s work as he interviews Russ and many of his performers (and, of course, Ebert).

There are treats for the hardcore Meyer fan in the show, including a sequence from the never-finished “Breast of Russ Meyer” film project personally narrated by RM himself — “The Breast…” was a magnum opus that was bandied about by Meyer for nearly two decades. This episode is a rarity in the U.S., as it was not included when the Discovery Channel ran the series in the early 1990s, as Meyer refused to let clips from his films be seen on TV in any context.

BVD was released by Criterion in tandem with a similarly generous two-disc package for Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls. Included are, again, a newly restored version of the film and all of the informative and interview-packed supplements from the 2006 release of that film, plus new extras produced by Criterion. These include interviews with journalist Amy Fine Collins about the film’s costumes and author Jacqueline Susann, a video essay by film historian Kim Morgan and footage from a 2009 tribute to Patty Duke at the Castro Theater.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”