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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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11 Single Facts About Bridget Jones’s Diary
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While it's not officially a holiday movie, so much of the action in Bridget Jones's Diary happens around the most wonderful time of the year that the rom-com has become essential wintertime viewing for many movie fans. Based on Helen Fielding’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of a very single, and hopelessly romantic, working professional named Bridget (Renée Zellweger) who is determined to improve her love life. Enter two strapping gentlemen (Colin Firth and Hugh Grant) to vie for her heart. Get to know more about the timeless dramedy that’s been delighting audiences since 2001. Just as it is.

1. THE SOURCE NOVEL CAME ABOUT FROM AN ANONYMOUS COLUMN ABOUT SINGLE LIFE.

In the foreword of Bridget Jones’s Diary, author Helen Fielding wrote about how she came to conjure up the story: “The Independent asked me to write a column, as myself, about single life in London. Much as I needed the money, the idea of writing about myself in that way seemed hopelessly embarrassing and revealing. I offered to write an anonymous column instead, using an exaggerated, comic, fictional character. I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

2. SEVERAL CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON PEOPLE IN HELEN FIELDING’S LIFE.


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These include Jude (Tracey MacLeod) and Shazzer (Sharon Maguire, also the film’s director). In a column for the Evening Standard, MacLeod described how she didn’t even realize she inspired part of her best friend’s story until Fielding’s book launch party. “At the launch party for the first Bridget book, I was cornered by a smug married friend, ‘So ... what's it like being Jude?’ she asked,” MacLeod writes. “I was outraged. Of course I wasn't Jude, with her self-help books and horrible boyfriend. My boyfriend wasn't anything like Vile Richard ... But as more people began to believe that Jude and Shazzer were thinly-veiled portraits of myself and Sharon, I secretly got to like the idea.”

3. TONI COLLETTE DECLINED THE LEAD, AND KATE WINSLET WAS CONSIDERED FOR IT.

Before Zellweger stole the show, Aussie Toni Collette and Brit Kate Winslet were up for the part. According to AMC, “Toni Collette declined the role because she was on Broadway starring in The Wild Party at the time, and Kate Winslet was considered but the producers decided she was too young.”

4. HUGH GRANT ONLY SIGNED ON WHEN RICHARD CURTIS WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE WRITER. 


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“The only reason [I was a hard sell] was because I didn't feel they had the script quite right for a long time,” Firth told Cinema.com. “And I kept saying, ‘It's not working. Just get Richard Curtis to come in and help rewrite it.’ Eventually they did, and as soon as Richard came on board, I signed on the dotted line. So that's all it was.”

5. RENÉE ZELLWEGER GAINED 17 POUNDS FOR THE PART.

Zellweger’s weight gain for the role had the media abuzz for a while. According to The Guardian, “In order to play the eponymous heroine in the film adaptation of Fielding's bestseller, the actress gained 17 pounds, consulting a dietitian and endocrinologist who devised a regime of three full meals a day, multiple snacks, and no exercise.”

6. ZELLWEGER WORKED AT PICADOR FOR THREE WEEKS.

Zellweger went full Method for her iconic role, and became a temporary employee of the Picador publishing house. “We came up with a plan: she would be Bridget Cavendish, Bridget for obvious reasons and Cavendish as she was to be passed off as the sister of Jonathan Cavendish, a friend of one of our company chairmen,” Picador publicist Camilla Elworthy told The Guardian. “That last bit at least is true, and no one was to know that Jonathan Cavendish was one of the film's producers.”

7. ZELLWEGER KEPT A PHOTO OF JIM CARREY ON HER DESK.


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While working at Picador, Zellweger kept a picture of Jim Carrey on her desk—which made her alter ego Bridget Cavendish seem like some sort of obsessed fan. “Under the name Bridget Cavendish, she answered phones, served coffee, and made photocopies—without being recognized by any of her co-workers, who offered career advice and wondered privately why she kept a photo of Jim Carrey (her then-boyfriend) on her desk,” noted Hollywood.com.

8. ZELLWEGER INVITED HER BOSS AT PICADOR TO BE AN EXTRA ON SET.

In Camilla Elworthy’s write-up for The Guardian, she noted how she became a part of the production. “Renée sent me a thank you letter and gift after she'd gone and I have seen her a few times since then," Elworthy wrote. "She invited me on to the film set one day. She informed me that I had to stick around and be an extra and made sure that I was put somewhere that I would be seen ... As a result, half my head can be seen for half a nano-second in the launch party scene.”

9. THE EPIC FIGHT SCENE BETWEEN GRANT AND COLIN FIRTH WASN’T CHOREOGRAPHED.

You can thank the two actors for the hilarity of the iconic scene. In a Vulture article about the greatest fight scenes in movie history, writer Denise Martin recalled the improvised spar, writing, “No stunt coordinators. No elaborate choreography. Just a perfectly realized wimp brawl between two upper-middle-class Englishmen coming to awkward fisticuffs in front of a Greek restaurant.”

10. FIELDING ASKED FRIEND SALMAN RUSHDIE TO CAMEO IN THE FILM.

Recalling how he came to be part of the film, famed novelist Salman Rushdie told Texas Monthly, “Helen Fielding, the author of the book, is an old pal of mine, and she asked if I’d come along and make a fool of myself, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

11. GRANT DIDN’T HEAR ZELLWEGER SPEAK IN HER AMERICAN ACCENT UNTIL THE FILM’S WRAP PARTY.

Zellweger was so engrossed with Bridget Jones that one of her leading love interests didn’t meet the real actress until the end of the shoot. “Not once did she stop speaking with that accent, until the wrap party,” Grant told Cinema.com, “when suddenly this weird ... Texan appeared. I wanted to call security, I didn't know who the f*ck she was!”

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15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
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Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


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De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
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In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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