“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Don’t get too hung up in classification of good and bad, because truly interesting is where it’s at.” — Quentin Tarantino
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is fascinating. At first glance this film appears to be nothing more than a camp classic. But if you look closer, it is something even better. I can’t say that it’s “so bad it’s good.” Rather, it’s so bad it’s great.
The plot is constructed out of clichés and the cultural climate of the late 1960s. Three young women decide to move to Los Angeles to find success with their band The Kelly Affair. Once in L.A., famed record producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell adopts them and renames their group The Carrie Nations. The women then have to deal with what a title cards calls “the oft-times nightmare world of show business.”
This film’s pleasures can’t be approached from a binary of bad or good. A lot of the things that people might say are “bad” about this movie are actually the things that its fans love. Take this tasteless line from Barzell, which was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls screenwriter Roger Ebert: “Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” That line is vulgar and over the top. But it’s also funny, and the earnestness with which Barzell says it is true to his character’s anger.
The technical style of this film is interesting. You might not be wrong in thinking that director Russ Meyer cuts too fast or too often. But you also wouldn’t be wrong if you think that his editing style is idiosyncratic and contains moments of excellence. The montage where the members of The Carrie Nations talk about moving to Los Angeles is simultaneously hilarious and a little bit brilliant.
Not all of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has aged well. It has a tender and ahead-of-its-time depiction of a gay relationship, but also has homosexual characters who are stereotypes. Two of its African-American characters are relatively well-written, but another one feels like a caricature.
Nevertheless, this movie is definitely worth watching. It is too strange and entertaining to be dismissed as “bad.” Rather, it straddles the line between terrible and transcendent from minute to minute. To paraphrase Barzell, it really is a happening, a fact that could freak anyone out.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed five short films.