When Roger Ebert Made an X-Rated Movie
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.