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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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10 Surprising Facts About The Babadook
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In 2014, The Babadook came out of nowhere and scared audiences across the globe. Written and directed by Aussie Jennifer Kent, and based on her short film Monster, The Babadook is about a widow named Amelia (played by Kent’s drama schoolmate Essie Davis) who has trouble controlling her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who thinks there’s a monster living in their house. Amelia reads Samuel a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, and Samuel manifests the creature into a real-life monster. The Babadook may be the villain, but the film explores the pitfalls of parenting and grief in an emotional way. 

“I never approached this as a straight horror film,” Kent told Complex. “I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person? ... But at the core of it, it’s about the mother and child, and their relationship.”

Shot on a $2 million budget, the film grossed more than $10.3 million worldwide and gained an even wider audience via streaming networks. Instead of creating Babadook out of CGI, a team generated the images in-camera, inspired by the silent films of Georges Méliès and Lon Chaney. Here are 10 things you might not have known about The Babadook (dook, dook).

1. THE NAME “BABADOOK” WAS EASY FOR A CHILD TO INVENT.

Jennifer Kent told Complex that some people thought the creature’s name sounded “silly,” which she agreed with. “I wanted it to be like something a child could make up, like ‘jabberwocky’ or some other nonsensical name,” she explained. “I wanted to create a new myth that was just solely of this film and didn’t exist anywhere else.”

2. JENNIFER KENT WAS WORRIED PEOPLE WOULD JUDGE THE MOTHER.

Amelia isn’t the best mother in the world—but that’s the point. “I’m not a parent,” Kent told Rolling Stone, “but I’m surrounded by friends and family who are, and I see it from the outside … how parenting seems hard and never-ending.” She thought Amelia would receive “a lot of flak” for her flawed parenting, but the opposite happened. “I think it’s given a lot of women a sense of reassurance to see a real human being up there,” Kent said. “We don’t get to see characters like her that often.”

3. KENT AND ESSIE DAVIS TONED DOWN THE CONTENT FOR THE KID.

Noah Wiseman was six years old when he played Samuel. Kent and Davis made sure he wasn’t present for the more horrific scenes, like when Amelia tells Samuel she wishes he was the one who died, not her husband. “During the reverse shots, where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie yell at an adult stand-in on his knees,” Kent told Film Journal. “I didn’t want to destroy a childhood to make this film—that wouldn’t be fair.”

Kent explained a “kiddie version” of the plot to Wiseman. “I said, ‘Basically, Sam is trying to save his mother and it’s a film about the power of love.’”

4. THE FILM IS ALSO ABOUT “FACING OUR SHADOW SIDE.”

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Kent told Film Journal that “The Babadook is a film about a woman waking up from a long, metaphorical sleep and finding that she has the power to protect herself and her son.” She noted that everybody has darkness to face. “Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that’s the most important thing in the film—facing our shadow side.”

5. THE FILM SCARED THE HELL OUT OF THE DIRECTOR OF THE EXORCIST.

In an interview with Uproxx, William Friedkin—director of The Exorcist—said The Babadook was one of the best and scariest horror films he’d ever seen. He especially liked the emotional aspect of the film. “It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads, but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions,” he said.

6. AN ART DEPARTMENT ASSISTANT SCORED THE ROLE AS THE BABADOOK.

Tim Purcell worked in the film’s art department but then got talked into playing the titular character after he acted as the creature for some camera tests. “They realized they could save some money, and have me just be the Babadook, and hence I became the Babadook,” Purcell told New York Magazine. “In terms of direction, it was ‘be still a lot,’” he said.

7. THE MOVIE BOMBED IN ITS NATIVE AUSTRALIA.

Even though Kent shot the film in Adelaide, Australians didn’t flock to the theaters; it grossed just $258,000 in its native country. “Australians have this [built-in] aversion to seeing Australian films,” Kent told The Cut. “They hardly ever get excited about their own stuff. We only tend to love things once everyone else confirms they’re good … Australian creatives have always had to go overseas to get recognition. I hope one day we can make a film or work of art and Australians can think it’s good regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.”

8. YOU CAN OWN A MISTER BABADOOK BOOK (BUT IT WILL COST YOU). 

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In 2015, Insight Editions published 6200 pop-up books of Mister Babadook. Kent worked with the film’s illustrator, Alexander Juhasz, who created the book for the movie. He and paper engineer Simon Arizpe brought the pages to life for the published version. All copies sold out but you can find some Kent-signed ones on eBay, going for as much as $500.

9. THE BABADOOK IS A GAY ICON.

It started at the end of 2016, when a Tumblr user started a jokey thread about how he thought the Babadook was gay. “It started picking up steam within a few weeks,” Ian, the Tumblr user, told New York Magazine, “because individuals who I presume are heterosexual kind of freaked out over the assertion that a horror movie villain would identify as queer—which I think was the actual humor of the post, as opposed to just the outright statement that the Babadook is gay.” In June, the Babadook became a symbol for Gay Pride month. Images of the character appeared everywhere at this year's Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles.

10. DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A SEQUEL.

Kent, who owns the rights to The Babadook, told IGN that, despite the original film's popularity, she's not planning on making any sequels. “The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made, because it’s not that kind of film,” she said. “I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.”

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Play the Sneakers Computer Press Kit from 1992
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In September 1992, the computer hacking movie Sneakers hit theaters. To correspond with its launch, members of the press received a floppy disk containing a mysterious DOS program that, when launched, asked for a password. Once the reporters "hacked" their way in, they found the Sneakers Computer Press Kit. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can play at being the film press of 1992.

It's hard to characterize exactly what this electronic press kit is. Is it a game? Sort of. It's essentially a very gentle computer hacking simulator, in which the "hacking" consists entirely of guessing passwords (complete with helpful prompts from the program itself), and the payload you discover is silly stuff like mini-biographies of Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, and Sidney Poitier. Still, it's a good match for the film itself, which helped set the template for Hollywood depictions of computer hacking.

A paper folder lies open on a wooden floor, with a black floppy disk on top. The folder is labeled SNEAKERS in giant red letters, as is the floppy. Inside the folder is printed material. On the right flap of the folder are instructions on how to load it.
Inside the Sneakers Computer Press Kit's paper folder. (The right flap contains installation instructions, along with a note that the studio will FedEx printed material if the user doesn't have access to a printer.)
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Always remember: "My voice is my passport. Verify me." Now, get cracking on this press kit and don't be flummoxed—if you can't figure out a password right away, just wait a moment.

(Incidentally, Sneakers did also include printed materials for the press, in case they lacked a computer and/or the patience to deal with this approach. But who in the world would look at that, when they could play with this? There's also a method in the Computer Press Kit that allows the user to print out more detailed materials—provided they have a printer, and it's attached to a particular printer port on the computer.)

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