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When Roger Ebert Made an X-Rated Movie

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What worried Russ Meyer most was that Roger Ebert might be murdered by Satan worshippers.

It was the summer of 1969, just weeks after actress Sharon Tate and her house guests had been brutally murdered by followers of Charles Manson, and Meyer wasn’t looking to take any chances. The director had hired Ebert to write his first major studio film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and situated him at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood. He insisted Ebert take a second-floor room to avoid any crazed, knife-wielding intruders coming in through the window.

It was a bizarre request, but nothing about the situation was normal. Meyer was known in film circles as “King Leer,” a lascivious filmmaker who made films on modest budgets that capitalized on the female form without resorting to pornography; Ebert was a Chicago film critic with no screenwriting experience and an erudition that seemed above Meyer’s exploitative instincts. Somehow, the two found themselves in charge of a $900,000 film that 20th Century Fox hoped would redeem a lousy run of flops.

Ebert took both the job and the room, making him one of the few critics to transition into filmmaking. Before it was over, people would be fired, the studio would be sued, and Ebert would find himself the credited writer on an X-rated movie. It is not the stuff future Pulitzer Prize winners are normally made of.

Growing up in Urbana, Illinois, Roger Ebert devoured science fiction novels. A voracious reader, he describes in his memoir, Life Itself, an early need to not only write but to publish. His neighborhood received unsolicited copies of the Washington Street News that was run off on a hectograph machine that used gel to make copies. While still in high school in 1958, the News-Gazette hired him to cover sports. At 16, Ebert could break curfew and stay out until 2 a.m. putting his column to bed.

While attending to his doctoral studies in English at the University of Chicago, Ebert was hired as a cub reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. In March 1967, he was named the paper’s movie critic, despite having no film education beyond going to matinees as a child. He figured he’d do it for a little while and then go off to become a novelist. The job lasted over 40 years.

Ebert had discovered Russ Meyer back in college: Students would duck in to see 1959’s The Immoral Mr. Teas, a comedy with a lot of nudity that seemed to play in perpetuity near campus. He observed Meyer’s work in 1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill and 1968’s Vixen! as surrealist fantasies of excess. Meyer’s women were empowered and buxom—and in many cases, empowered because of their endowments.  

The director’s reputation for turning a profit on his cheap features caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal: the newspaper profiled him in 1968 under the headline “King of the Nudies,” to which Ebert responded with a note congratulating them on recognizing Meyer’s talents. A flattered Meyer saw the letter and wrote to Ebert. The two met in Chicago, where Meyer grew to understand that Ebert was as much a fan of Meyer’s cleavage-heavy photography as anything.

“I’ve considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the female anatomy,” Ebert later wrote. In Meyer, he found a kindred spirit: the director spoke of having to corral a starlet’s merits with brassiere structures “along the lines of what made the Sydney Opera House possible.”

When Meyer’s massive return-on-investment fortunes were publicized in The Wall Street Journal, it caught the attention of 20th Century Fox. The studio was having a rough time, suffering flops like Barbra Streisand’s Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Doolittle at the same time Columbia Pictures was hitting a cultural chord with Easy Rider. Studio executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown were desperate enough to entertain Meyer’s brand of cinematic cotton candy. They signed him to a three-picture deal and told him he could do whatever he wanted with a title they had in storage: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Valley of the Dolls was their hit of 1967, a soapy melodrama about women addicted to downers (the “dolls”) and lousy men. Jacqueline Susann had written the novel it was based upon, but hadn’t been able to deliver a follow-up story agreeable to the studio. Hoping to cash in on the brand equity, they retained ownership of the sequel title and figured Meyer could apply his sensibilities in a way that made sense.

Excited, Meyer called Ebert and offered him the screenwriting job. It would pay $15,000, a tidy sum for the era, and would take just six weeks. At 27, Ebert was being asked to collaborate with a filmmaker he respected on a film that would almost certainly involve voluptuous women. He asked his editor at the Sun-Times for the time off and flew to California, getting shuttled directly into a Manson-proofed room near Sunset Boulevard. Roger Ebert was going to write a movie.

Ebert wrote every day from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. He and Meyer were granted an office on the Fox lot that consisted of three rooms. When Ebert stopped typing to ponder story or character, Meyer would rush in and ask if anything was wrong.

A treatment took just 10 days; their first draft was ready in three weeks. It was a frenetic pace, one that Meyer helped fuel by insisting Ebert abandon plans to diet and instead eat lots of meat to keep up his energy.

The plot reflected the expedited nature of their script work. In Dolls, three women form a rock band, The Carrie Nations, and head to Hollywood to achieve success while navigating the pitfalls of industry excesses. At the urging of Meyer, there were scenes of graphic violence, elements of winking satire, predatory characters, and a deeply irreverent tone. (As an indictment of the music industry, it was superficial at best: neither man had spent any time in the business.)  

Fox, needlessly worried their pending releases like MASH and Patton were going to be perceived as square in the coming months, largely left the two alone. Without an executive policing the script, Ebert was free to look up from his typewriter and announce that a sleazy record executive named “Z-Man” would be revealed as a woman. There would be a quadruple murder and a tri-couple wedding. By Ebert’s own admission, it was a kitchen-sink affair. If it could be forced to make even slight sense, it had a place in the film.

Satisfied with Ebert's work, Meyer began shooting in December of 1969. A former Playboy photographer, the director cast two former Playmates—Cynthia Myers and Dolly Read—in leading roles and used repertoire actors like Charles Napier to round out the cast. Fearing any attempt by the performers to be funny on purpose would sink his project, he instructed them as though they were performing Macbeth.

Shooting took just three months. Though Ebert’s six-week engagement was over, he made frequent visits to the set and fielded concerns from actors who were puzzled by Meyer’s serious approach to the outrageous material. And though the director’s “King Leer” reputation was not undeserved, Ebert was amused to find Meyer didn’t play the part of lecherous filmmaker. While on the Fox lot, Ebert even introduced Meyer to his future wife, actress Edy Williams.

Despite the film’s relative lack of gore or adult content, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had little desire to validate a Russ Meyer movie. Over Fox’s protests, they gave Dolls an X rating each of the three times it was submitted. Fed up, Meyer then asked the studio if he could splice in some more nudity: an X was an X, after all.

They declined. The film was to be released immediately. Zanuck and Brown needed a hit. They would get it, but not without a price.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls opened on June 17, 1970. It made $9 million—an incredible sum considering its lack of name actors, rating, and inexperienced writer. Audiences enjoyed it for many of the same reasons they came out for the original Valley of the Dolls: sex, excess, and histrionics. (“This is my happening and it freaks me out!” became the movie’s signature quotable line.)

Meyer had pulled off what he always had—selling titillation for a modest investment—only on a much larger scale. But even though ticket buyers were placated, most everyone else was not. Jacqueline Susann was aggravated that the in-name-only sequel capitalized on her original work and sued Fox. (She died in 1974; her estate collected $1.5 million the following year.)

Zanuck and Brown, meanwhile, were vilified for even allowing Meyer in the front door. Amid poor reviews of the studio’s other scandalous movie, 1970’s Myra Breckinridge, the two were ousted from Fox—a harsh sentence considering Zanuck’s own father, Darryl, was still on the board of directors.

Meyer and Ebert collaborated a half-dozen times more through the 1970s, though only one project—1979’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens—was produced. It was the last feature Meyer made before his death in 2004. After Dolls, Ebert forbid himself from reviewing Meyer’s movies to avoid any conflict of interest; once he became a nationally syndicated critic, he decided not to involve himself in screenplays at all. “I don’t believe that a film critic has any business having his screenplays on the desks at the studios,” he told Playboy in 1991.

The film has gone on to have a remarkable shelf life despite what Ebert (who died in 2013) claimed was an attempt by Fox to ignore its existence. Musician Joan Jett told Ebert she was inspired to form her band after watching it; Mike Myers used the “This is my happening” quote as Austin Powers; Richard Corliss of Time would declare it one of the 10 best films of the 1970s, a fact Ebert enjoyed repeating often.

Corliss was the rare critic who found merit in Meyer and Ebert’s effort. Most were dismissive of the movie’s gratuitous violence and perceived tastelessness.

“For some reason,” one reviewer fumed, “Meyer has saddled himself with a neophyte screenwriter.” He called Dolls one of the worst films of 1970, made by filmmakers who “excuse their lack of art by saying they are just kidding.” The paper was the Chicago Tribune, and its critic was Gene Siskel.

Additional Sources:
Life Itself; Big Bosoms and Square Jaws

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15 Fun Facts About Army of Darkness
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Universal Pictures

On February 19, 1993, Army of Darkness—the third installment in Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead franchise—made its way into U.S. theaters. You probably know all about Ash’s boomstick, but on the occasion of the hilarious horror comedy's 25th anniversary, it's worth a closer look.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS ISN'T THE ENTIRE TITLE.

The film’s title is stylized onscreen as Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness. This phrasing was Sam Raimi’s homage to the defunct Hollywood tradition of putting stars’ names in movie titles (like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)—but the studio feared the long title would confuse moviegoers, so it was shortened for official purposes to just Army of Darkness.

2. EVEN THE SHORTER TITLE WASN'T RAIMI'S FIRST CHOICE.

Army of Darkness is the third installment of the Evil Dead series and the first to take place during the Middle Ages. Raimi’s original title for Army of Darkness was The Medieval Dead.

3. BRIDGET FONDA FINALLY GOT TO WORK WITH RAIMI.

Bridget Fonda makes a cameoas Ash’s girlfriend Linda during the beginning flashback sequence. She is the third actress in three films to play Linda (following actresses Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler). Fonda—a huge Evil Dead II fan—had originally auditioned to be in Raimi’s previous film, Darkman, but didn’t get the part.

4. ASH'S CAR HAD A LOT OF SCREEN EXPERIENCE.

The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 allegedly appears in all of Sam Raimi’s films.

5. DARKMAN MADE ARMY OF DARKNESS POSSIBLE.

Raimi wanted to make Army of Darkness immediately following 1987’s Evil Dead II, but he struggled to find funding to finish his trilogy. The financial success of Raimi’s 1990 film, Darkman, eventually convinced Universal Studios to split the $12 million budget with executive producer Dino De Laurentiis.

6. A SUBTLE SCIENCE FICTION REFERENCE PLAYS A KEY ROLE.

The words Ash must utter to safely retrieve the Necronomicon (“Klaatu verata nikto”) are actually a variation on a phrase from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that film, “Klaatu barada nitko” is the phrase one must say to stop the robot Gort from destroying Earth.

7. THE SKELETON DEADITES WERE AN HOMAGE.

Their design is a tribute to visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.

8. THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Billy Bryan, the actor who portrays the second monster in the medieval pit, also portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

9. SAM RAIMI'S BROTHER WORE A LOT OF HATS.

Ted Raimi—who makes cameos in all of his brother’s films—appears as three different background characters in Army of Darkness. He is first seen as a sympathetic villager, then as a dying soldier during the final battle, and, finally, as an S-Mart employee in the last scene.

10. RAIMI HAD TO FIGHT FOR AN R-RATING.

In keeping with the gory first two films in the series, Army of Darkness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. It was subsequently bumped down to an R rating after the filmmakers pointed out that the ostensible gore in the film was happening to skeletons.

11. PLAYING EVIL ASH WAS TOUGH FOR CAMPBELL.

It took makeup artists three hours to get Campbell ready for shooting.

12. RAIMI STORYBOARDED EVERY SINGLE SHOT IN THE MOVIE HIMSELF.

About 25 shots in the final battle are taken from storyboards originally used in the 1948 Victor Fleming film Joan of Arc, which were brought to Raimi’s attention by visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Mesa got them from a friend, who got them from Fleming himself.

13. THERE'S AN EASTER EGG FOR TREKKIES.

Star Trek fans will recognize the location where Ash learns the “Klaatu verata nikto” incantation. The scene was shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, where the famous “Arena” episode from Star Trek was also shot. The movie also shot in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that served as the Batcave for the 1960s Batman television show.

14. THE STUDIO CHANGED THE ENDING.

Bruce Campbell stars in 'Army of Darkness' (1992)
Universal Pictures

The original conclusion of the film—which Universal Studios deemed too negative—featured Ash taking too much potion to get back to the present day and waking up in a future, post-apocalyptic London. The ending can be seen on subsequent director’s cuts of home video versions of Army of Darkness.

15. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF TRYING, A SEQUEL NEVER MATERIALIZED.

Beginning in 2015, Bruce Campbell reprised his role as Ash in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series. While fans of the Evil Dead franchise love it, Raimi spent years trying to get a sequel to Army of Darkness off the ground. On the commentary track for the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Raimi even shared a few of the discarded ideas he had for the film.

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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
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getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Beery won for The Champ (writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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