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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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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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