Beautiful Trash Part Deux: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) starts with the disclaimer that it is in no way, shape, or form a sequel to Valley of the Dolls (1967). The movie declares that it is entirely its own piece of work and should not in anyway be considered part of the movie or book bearing the title Valley of the Dolls. The fact that they happen to look incredibly similar has more to do with the fact that they came out within three years of each other, and not because of shared source material. Besides, how different can you make the common story of people achieving fame then crashing and burning?
The truth is that, while the movies share a style, they vary wildly in content. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls looks more like Caligula (1979) in its intensity. Seen as it was written by Roger Ebert, I feel safe in saying that the movie at least does its part in showing the fun, enticing, ultimately destructive sides of hedonism.
The three lead women of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – Kelly, Casey, and Petronella (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, and Marcia McBroom respectively) – are in a rock group called The Kelly Affair, that is managed by a boyfriend named Harris (David Gurian). The Kelly Affair goes out to L.A. in order to insert themselves into the world of Kelly’s famous actress aunt, Susan (Phyllis Davis). Through Susan, they attend parties and eventually meet rock producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) and start to make it big with their newly minted band Carrie Nation. ("Boring Confusing Name" was already taken, I suppose.)
Susan’s financial advisor Porter (Duncan Mcleod) is very suspicious of the band, thinking they’re here to dupe Susan out of money he wants to embezzle. If anyone knows that song “Smoke Two Joints” by Sublime that opens with a man talking about a young lady living in squalor and smoking marijuana cigarettes, that’s Porter fretting over the no-good longhairs who have shown up. We watch Harris’ downward spiral into drug use, various infidelities, Porter try to figure out swindling, and a female porn star who won’t take no for an answer. Right around this mark is when the parody really starts to make itself known.
Z-Man is is constantly throwing parties where poorly looped dialogue tells the basics of what’s going on: who’s got drugs, who wants to get laid, who’s sleeping with whom. This is when the story splinters into the huge swath of chaos that ultimately leads to nothing. Everyone’s cheating, lying, doing drugs, unable to sexually perform because of drugs, suicide is attempted, lesbian affairs blossom, all sorts of things happen. Then it all kind of just gets wrapped up. Not in perfect little bows but in quick burst climaxes, like when you watch one of those HBO shows with too many story lines.
But that’s not the end. In fact, we see a glimpse of the end right in the beginning with a bunch of people running around at a Roman themed costume party and Z-Man brandishing a huge gun. The opening scene cuts away just as Z-Man shoves the gun barrel into the mouth of a sleeping Roxanne (Erica Gavin), a lesbian clothing designer, and she opens her eyes, screaming at the sight. When we finally get there after sitting through this entire movie, the ending is something to behold for a lot of wrong reasons. For starters, there’s the reveal that Z-Man is actually a woman living as a man. How do we come about this information? Someone rips open his shirt in a struggle and we see terribly fake-looking breasts. Z-Man then slaughters everyone, including Roxanne whose entertainingly gory death may remind some of the opening scene of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960). Z-Man is killed, and the remaining cast members are summoned to the house by a frantic phone call. The last shot is the three surviving couples (though you probably won’t really remember who was with who because there was a lot of people and swapping) all getting married at city hall together.
Before we unpack the tricky issue of the bizarre ending, we should start with what really makes Beyond the Valley of the Dolls so different from Valley of the Dolls. The seventies were a great time for downer movies, and despite this film coming out in the late 60s, the framework was still obviously there. Main characters are not always the good guys and the ending, before the jokey and almost Shakespearean epilogue of marriage, is about people not being able to save their friends. The drug use was also shown in more detail, and the addiction, though still hammy overacting due to the nature of the parody, was extreme and debilitating.
Valley of the Dolls was about girls becoming women in various industries: one of them had to be the angel, one of them the star, and one of them the tragic whore. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has no angels whatsoever. The best you can call some of them is naive; this isn’t the starry-eyed kids of the pre-Vietnam sixties, setting out to make a name for themselves. It’s the druggies and the rockers and they’re here to party because fuck you, old man.
While it is an attractive film in its own right, it’s not as beautiful as Valley of the Dolls. It teeters more on the trash side of the beautiful-trash spectrum. It’s far more entertaining, however, and has some moments that are sheer guilty pleasures. That said, it’s hard to ignore the strange ending. I’m not sure if it’s offensive to trans people since I’m not sure if Z-Man is really supposed to be trans, or if it’s a drag thing or what the hell it all means. If someone from the trans community wants to give it a watch and let me know, that’d be appreciated.
The bizarre, unnecessary nature of the reveal of Z-Man is what makes it so confusing. It doesn’t seem to mean much of anything that Z-Man was a woman. Or was assigned female at birth, or however he identifies. It has zero to do with anything at all, and it doesn’t even seem shocking. If there was a purpose maybe it would have had any impact. If there had been a scene where Z-Man talks about sexism in rock or something, then maybe there would be some force behind this punch. As it is, it’s just a strange extra detail that has no impact on the story. Like a kid throwing as much glitter as they can on a project to distract from the kind of shoddy job they did.
There’s still more fun to be had in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls because of its absurdity and those wonderful sixties touches are there: a whole montage of Harris and Kelly bantering over moving to LA done with quick cuts and entirely in rhyme, Strawberry Alarm Clock playing themselves, and practical blood effects that look more spectacular than they should. Roxanne’s death is a striking scene that I rewound several times. It’s the way the old blood effects move, like it’s made of mercury and forms shapes inside its viscosity. Others may not find that scene quite as appealing though, understandably. From the perspective of beautiful trash, death is always a tricky hand to play right; even when it’s done perfectly, it’s still going to upset someone.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is way heavier on the trash but the beauty is certainly there. The colors stay sixties bright and everyone looks completely gorgeous even at their worst. Just ask Roxanne. It’s a windier road to follow and you can pick a story line or two to outright ignore. Not like it matters anyway. Let’s not pretend any of us are watching anything like this for the plot and simply enjoy the view.