There’s a review that has haunted Roger Ebert for 23 years. No, not his own inexplicable four-star appraisal of Thoroughly Modern Millie. And, no, not his shocking two-star dismissal of A Clockwork Orange, which — it serves him right — turns out to be his new wife’s all-time favorite movie. No, the review that Ebert can quote verbatim more than two decades later — and brought up in anger last month at a function at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications — is my negative review of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970, FoxVideo, $19.98, NC-17), for which Ebert wrote the script.
”For some reason,” I wrote in the Chicago Tribune about my archrival at the Chicago Sun-Times, ”Meyer has saddled himself with a neophyte screenwriter.”
I think Ebert has, over the years, secretly believed that I jealously wouldn’t have said I liked the movie even if I did, forgetting that another one of his colleagues, then Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, also trashed the film in print. But what Ebert doesn’t know is that I, too, have wondered if I really hated BVD as much as I said I did, giving it only one star. Triggering my doubt is the fact that over the years BVD has achieved cult status in some circles.
Which is why I never wanted to see it again. What if I liked it? I might have to say so and acknowledge my own pettiness. And then Entertainment Weekly called. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was finally being rereleased on tape after a more-than-15-year absence supposedly caused by some prudes at Twentieth Century Fox; would I review it? The professional in me couldn’t say no. And I must confess I was surprised at my reaction to it the second time around.
It’s even worse than I thought.
I didn’t laugh or crack a smile. I wasn’t sexually aroused. And as bad as Ebert’s screenplay is, Meyer’s direction is just as choppy. The film also looks ugly. And its half-dozen pathetic rock songs play at such length that they serve only as padding to draw our attention away from heavy-handed acting by a bunch of nobodies. Many of the actresses, including Edy Williams (who became Meyer’s wife shortly after the film’s release), look like hard-as-nails female impersonators. The only pleasant face and body belong to former Playboy Playmate Dolly Read, who would later marry Dick Martin of Laugh-In fame.
Back in 1970 I hated the scene in which a guy sticks a gun in a woman’s mouth, fires, and sends blood spurting. Twenty-three years later the scene is still disgusting. Where is the joyful, colorful Meyer of Vixen and Cherry, Harry, & Raquel? He made his reputation as ”King Leer,” a pioneer of skin flicks, but lost his way with violent scenes.
By the way, I told Roger about my general reaction during a break in the taping of our show recently. His reply: ”Millions like it.” But Roger is well known for exaggerating every number he utters.
For those lucky millions who haven’t seen it, BVD tells the story of a trio of female rock singers who fall victim to and triumph over a series of show-business minefields, including various drugs and a pansexual rock promoter with teeny boobs. Party scenes abound, filled with Hollywood effluvia who look as if they would be willing to work for free if Meyer simply validated their parking.
Ebert’s script contains mock Shakespearean passages, which must have seemed clever to a guy just six years out of college. The witty sex talk is on the level of: ”You’re a groovy guy — I’d like to strap you on some time.” Roger gets off funnier lines in casual conversation every day of the week.
Ebert has said he would never again write a screenplay while being a film critic. But that’s less of a sacrifice than it might seem and another reason why I hope he doesn’t give up his day job. D