Friday, September 23, 2016

The Criterion Collection goes classy -- with a Blu-ray/DVD release of a couple of "DOLLS"

In the latest (Vol. XLI, No. 4) issue of that fine, politically savvy movie magazine Cineaste, amongst the letters to the editor on page 3, comes one from Alan Mark Bishop of Vero Beach, Florida, that takes the magazine to task for not giving a great filmmaker like Terrence Malick his due, as well as for covering too much of the output of  The Criterion Collection such as, in Mr. Bishop's own words, "odd bits of junk like Bitter Rice and Gilda."

For any movie-lover who could possibly not know this, Criterion is a company that has given the home video market some of the best films ever, from all over the world, in the best transfers ever. The company also, occasionally, descends a bit to offer "classics" of the cult and camp variety. Well, Mr. Bishop, hold your nose -- and breath -- for here comes the Criterion release of a couple of films that just might raise Bitter Rice and Gilda into the pantheon by comparison:

Yes, I'm writing here of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, the film manufactured in 1967 out of the uber-famous-in-its-day-and-said-to-be-enjoying-a-current-renaissance novel by Jacqueline Susann, and its 1970 follow-up (though in no way a "sequel"), BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, directed by the then-king of soft-core, Russ Meyer, and written by none other than our famous (though not as famous back then) film critic Roger Ebert.

Trust Movies had long imagined he'd seen Valley of the Dolls, but as he began watching this new Blu-ray from Criterion, he realized with a shock that he never had. He'd only seen brief moments from it over the years that his spouse of nearly three decades, had called him in to view. Spousie does some really fab imitations of its various actors and songs, and I strongly suspect (but cannot absolutely prove) that the film's popularity comes from and now rests almost completely in the minds of hearts of our gay population, worldwide. The film has become a "classic" of gay camp. Unintentional camp, at that -- which is always the best kind.

Set in the same time frame as its release, the late 1960s, an era when great change was afoot, the movie actually harks back to the repressed 1950s in its feeling and spirit. As flatly and flabbily directed by Mark Robson (who did much better by Peyton Place), it tracks the fortunes of its three protagonists, Anne (the beautiful Barbara Parkins, above), Neely (an atrociously miscast Patty Duke, below), and Jennifer (played by a better actress than we imagined at the time, Sharon Tate, shown two photos below).

As the movie very slowly moves along, it becomes more and more repetitive, tiresome and boring, until one wants to scream, Get the fuck on with it! It's particularly tone-deaf and visually bananas about what a Broadway musical (or maybe a Broadway 'review': it's impossible to tell what the movie-makers had in mind here) might look and sound like.

Nothing in Broadway's past, present or (one hopes) future ever resembled this number in which Susan Hayward (or probably her dubbed voice), below, sings about growing some tree, as a multi-colored 50s-modern chandelier rotates in a manner that appears to be obscuring at times the view of her from the very audience for whom she's supposed to be performing.

But all this, I guess, is part of the "fun" and what makes the movie the camp-fest it remains. There are some wild and funny (unintentionally, of course) scenes along the way, involving everything from drugs and ambition to naughty sex that destroys the sanctity of love and marriage. (No? Yes!) -- the best of which offers a catfight involving a wig (below), during which Hayward and Duke duke it out.

Ms Parkins looks lovely but is required to do little more than bemoan her fate. She does get to appear in the movie's single visually accomplished extended scene, in which her character becomes a nationwide sensation hawking a cosmetics line.

Ms Tate's gets the knee-jerk/tear-jerk character and gives it her best shot, while all the guys on screen seem to be in service to our three (or four, counting Ms Hayward) gals -- which must have pleased the female audiences of the time, while accounting for the film's enduring attraction among us gays.

About the casting of the recently-deceased Ms Duke, it isn't that she was a bad actress. She delivers what is called for in a perfectly adequate manner. But what is called for (her character is said to be based upon Judy Garland) requires at the very least the kind of charisma that this actress simply did not have. She (or her dubbed voice) is no great singer here, either, so her meteoric rise to fame appears simply ridiculous. Ah well, that's part of the fun, too.

I'm glad I finally got to see this "classic" movie (the Blu-ray transfer often looks spectacular, as is Criterion's wont), but I have to say that I'm, well, bemused by its reputation. Even its vaunted gowns (by Travilla) -- unlike those of another, better movie fashion designer Orry Kelly -- have not stood the test of time. Though they, too, add to the camp.


Camp of a very different sort --along with a well-deserved "classic" status -- is provided by Beyond the Valley of The Dolls. Made only three years later, in a bid to cash in on the success of the earlier film (note the not-coincidental arrangement of the threesome two photos up and the one just above), the Meyer/Ebert collaboration resulted in a movie that shocked/delighted audiences bigtime (those who initially ventured out to see it). Though made for a small-enough budget that it was a success originally, the movie has gained in popularity and box-office over the forty-six years since.

Its almost immediate zoom to cult status, where it has remained, is for very good reason. There has never been another movie like it. A supposed satire, the movie veers from banana-level silliness to shock and gore, features a set of songs that are actually quite good -- two of these, In the Long Run and Candy Man, I watch and listen to ever now and again: they're so melodic, bouncy and fun -- and titillates us with all kinds of would-be hot sex (straight, near-gay and muy lesbian). Beyond hits every button imaginable and will keep you alternately giggling and gasping at both its effrontery and its success.

Best of all, after regaling us with all this sex-and-sin-and-come-on-in, at its close the movie offers up a hilarious explanation of what we've just seen that makes it appear as if Meyer and Ebert want us to think we've gone to church. (Or temple.)

The movie begins with an unexplained mini-slaughter, as the credits roll, that ends with a gun placed in a mouth (below). We then go back in time to the story that leads us up to this point, which becomes the film's finale.

The story is full of incident and move quite fast (unlike its sorry predecessor), and the performances are all surprisingly good. One in particular stands out -- and in fact gets better with every viewing. That's the one from John Lazar (below and further below), who plays the character of music promoter/manager Z-Man Barzell, said to be based on the character and career of Phil Spector.

Mr. Lazar is simply brilliant -- as over the top as the movie itself but also so specific, genuine and bizarrely real that he comes to own the movie. You can imagine this actor playing everything and anything from Iago to (as Z-man himself might have it) SuperWoman, with panache and smarts. A very good-looking performer when young, Lazar is said to have credited Beyond with the destruction of his career because he was only offered weird roles from this point on.

I don't buy it, as careers are made from much more than any one role -- from luck and grit and continual trying, among other things -- but Lazar will be remembered so long as movies exist for this amazing performance that, all by itself, makes the movie a must-see.

The ladies who play the rock-and-roll threesome at the center of the film are just fine -- that's hot little Dolly Read, as the central character/singer of the group, above, left, with Michael Blodgett, who takes his place as perhaps the sexiest, sleaziest bad boy of 70s cinema. Below, left, is voluptuous Edy Williams, aka Mrs. Russ Meyer (for a time, at least), along with David Gurian, who seems to have appeared in only a single movie -- this one -- as the sweet/sexy original love interest for Ms Read.

Mr. Gurian (below, right) has a scene in a wheelchair during the finale that is so hilariously crazy that I suspect that the sound of the audience laughing at his character may have soured him on ever making another movie appearance. Too bad: he was a cutie who also could act. But he probably didn't realize just how bizarre was this movie he was acting in.

Having seen the film at least a half dozen times now -- three or four of these via home video -- I can vouch for this new Blu-ray transfer as the best of the lot. From The Criterion Collection, the Dolls pair -- Valley running 123 minutes and Beyond 110 minutes -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, September 27 -- for rental (I hope) or purchase. 

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