The studio was under severe financial pressure, and was just desperate enough to give this wild man the keys to the kingdom. Thrilled at the opportunity to crack the big time, Meyer chose a proposed sequel to Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. But he wanted to scrap the original script and sever any connection to the Susann original. Fox agreed, and Meyer called upon Roger Ebert to take a five-week sabbatical from the Sun-Times to write the screenplay for what became Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The official announcement of Meyer’s new project came less than one week after the Tate-LaBianca murders that had terrorized southern California, and would shape the course of the picture.
Just as Susann's original was about beautiful innocents who are ground up by the corruption of Hollywood, the plot cooked up by Ebert and Meyer for their non-sequel was the saga of an all-girl rock band (later to be dubbed the Carrie Nations), sweet and and starry eyed, coming to California in search of fame and fortune, and achieving it only after having their ideals battered and enduring a nightmarishly bloody final act. Ebert's firm grasp of current pop culture and movie history gave the script a devastatingly wry wit; Meyer's visual brilliance was at it's apex, bombarding the eyes with a deftly-edited succession of images underlining the girls' rise, fall, and redemption. Always over the top, Meyer was emboldened in Dolls to go over the top and around the bend. Visually and verbally, it's all ridiculous and not to be taken seriously for a moment. But in it's craziness it captured a moment in time in American pop culture like few other films; little wonder that Mike Myers used Dolls as inspiration for Austin Powers. Little wonder, also, that the film has made some critics lists of the ten best films of the 1970s—and also some lists of the ten worst.
At the outset of the project, the director indicated to Erica that he saw her in the plum role of Casey, the Carrie Nations’ sexually conflicted bassist. “…Russ was really angry with me for losing weight. He didn’t think I looked good… It was hard not being Russ’ favorite anymore” after being the total focus of his attention for Vixen. “Now I had to sit and watch other girls be his favorites. Dealing with my self-esteem problems and the other stuff I had going on, that was tough.” She was so desperate for approval that it sometimes reduced her to tears, “but I didn’t let it overcome me. I felt I was lucky to be working. For Russ to use me a second time, that was pretty good.”
The part of Casey went to Cynthia Myers, whom the director had been trying to track down ever since her December 1968 Playboy centerfold. Pert British brunette Dolly Read, the May 1966 Playmate, got the role of lead singer Kelly, with lovely black fashion model Marcia McBroom as drummer Petronella. Production began on Decemeber 2, 1969 for a scheduled 55-day shoot.
After the dazzlingly edited opening section of the film establishing the band's small town success and trip to Hollywood, we first encounter Erica very briefly as lesbian fashion designer Roxanne, and when she encounters Casey for the first time, the eager way in which she scans the body of the voluptuous brunette offers a hint of what's to come.
But Fox gave him the freedom to shoot more footage than needed. For example, shortly after the two girls' first meeting, Casey emerges from the swimming pool, and Roxanne invites her (with suggestively arched eyebrow) to be fitted for a dress. Meyer shot a scene in which the fitting occurred and the girls got to know each other, but it didn't make the final print. When Casey becomes pregnant following a single roll in the sack with the band's troubled manager Harris, Roxanne accompanies her to the doctor's office to have an abortion. This was originally a longer sequence that helped develop the growing bond between the characters, but it too was trimmed. Returning from the emotionally wrenching medical procedure, the two women share an afternoon in the countryside, concluding in a tender kiss.
The centerpiece of Erica’s role in Dolls was of course her love scene with Cynthia Myers playing the role of Casey. “I was so fearful that I couldn’t live up to Russ’ expectations. At that point, he wasn’t really communicating with me at all. He wasn’t giving me any idea of what was expected in that scene. It was frightening to have that many people on the set,” since Vixen was shot with an absolute minimum of crewpeople. "I wanted to achieve intimacy in that moment, and with forty people watching even on a closed set, that's hard.
"But I was also nervous because I had certain feelings for Cynthia at that time. I was really quite in love with her. I saw a vulnerability in her that really attracted me; a naiveté and innocence. I think I probably saw a lot of me, as I was a few years earlier, in her. I felt protective. But she didn't really know that I had these feelings. I really cared a lot for her—even more after we shot that scene!"
"I was kneeling at the coffee table across the from Erica, having a snack, and when she told me she'd had a big crush on me, I almost swallowed the cracker whole!" recalls Cynthia with a smile. "At the time I thought Bebe Louie was in love with Erica, because she was staring at her during our scenes together, sort of giving me the evil eye when I was supposed to kiss her. [She didn't know that Bebe was Erica's closest chum, and occasional lover. Bebe appears in the film's classic Z-Man party scene.] When Erica told me that after all these years, it knocked me for a loop! But I was very flattered and touched.
Cynthia revealed to me for her chapter in the book Bombshells: Glamour Girls of a Lifetime that she had an orgasm during her love scene with Erica to accentuate the power of the sequence, and indeed watching it today this is entirely believable. The sometimes-cynical Erica isn't sure she buys this—"it's just a big tease!" Then she added with a saucy laugh, "well, we can always test it out now! One more time—let's tape it for DVD!"
In the final, nightmarish section of Dolls, the thoroughly mad rock promoter Z-Man (in a deliciously silver-tongued, whacked-out performance by John LaZar) invites Casey, Roxanne, and blond pretty boy Lance Block (played by Michael Blodgett) to a party at this mansion that ultimately becomes his personal orgy of violence Meyer shot a second love scene between Erica and Cynthia that was cut to virtually nothing. All the other party attendees are killed by Z-Man, concluding with Cynthia, but the demise of Erica's Roxanne is particularly disturbing. Coming upon a peacefully sleeping Roxanne, Z-Man slowly inserts his pistol in her mouth, waits for her to wrap her mouth around it simulate fellatio, and just as she awakens, blows her head off. Shooting this scene was especially upsetting for Erica given some of her personal associations to the Manson case that had inspired it, as will be explored below.
"Filming that scene was very frightening. It was really weird watching it. The guy who did the make-up also did Planet of the Apes.
"They had to make a plaster mask of my head. They had straws coming out of my nose so I could breathe. I had to lay there under all this weight, and it was sort of claustrophobic. Then they hooked it up, and kept blowing it up. The whole concept of watching your head get blown off is scary. And having the gun in my mouth—it makes you wonder, what if something went wrong? Someone has referred to my gun fellatio scene as a classic example of cult film violence. It is, but it's very scary."
Between the intensity of the murder scenes, and the various anxieties she was going through privately, Erica was in turmoil while working on Dolls. "Emotionally, I was feeling beaten up on a daily basis. I felt locked out, that Russ didn't care about me anymore, he had his new girls. I always felt like I was fighting to get noticed. It was all that old stuff I went through as a kid—although I wasn't old enough to realize it was the same old stuff.
"I felt much more vulnerable at Fox than I did while shooting Vixen out in the middle of nowhere. I really felt protected by Russ. But how could he protect you when there are 150 people on the set, as opposed to just a few? It was impossible to recapture that feeling of family." Meyer "has this perceptive vision that most people didn't know existed. The vibe or the aura that he gets from you, he able to reinvent it for the role you're playing. In Vixen, he had me as a sex-starved demon, and I have played that out quite a bit in my life. In Dolls he had me as a gay fashion designer and later became both."
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls premiered at Hollywood's Pantages Theater on June 17, 1970. Shot on a budget of just under $1 million (a fortune by Meyer standards, but modest even by studio standards of the time), it was an immediate hit, soaring all the way to #1 on the Variety box office chart of July 29, ahead of #2 Airport, #4 Patton, and #5 Catch-22, and also ahead of such current releases as Woodstock and M*A*S*H. Heady company indeed. The film ultimately grossed more than $8 million, making it one of the year's biggest hits.
Dolls that summer also placed ahead of the other big film that had been shot on the 20th Century Fox lots at the same time, the legendary Raquel Welch debacle Myra Breckinridge. An in-depth look that making of Myra in Vanity Fair article from the mid-2000s quoted a studio executive who recalled the smell of pot that seemed to be rising off the Fox lots. "That was me!" Erica cheerfully admits.
Roger Ebert has a soft spot in Erica's heart as the first major critic to praise her work, as the screenwriter of Dolls, and as a friend. "I would say that a lot of the notoriety that Vixen got was because of Roger.
He was always very kind to me. For a long time he would call me on every birthday. We lost track of each other after awhile, but then years later, when I went out to dinner with Russ and some more his 'girls' sometime close to my birthday, it was pre-arranged for Roger to give me a surprise call at the restaurant. He's a great guy."
"It's true, as I told Danny Peary, that Russ is more of a cameraman and an editor than a director. But it's all in the interpretation. I wasn't trying to put Russ down. I was saying that he was a brilliant technician, and I don't see anything wrong with that. He wasn't out to make Gone with the Wind. That where his deal with 20th Century Fox went wrong. They tried to make him into something that he wasn't. The Seven Minutes [Meyer's last film that followed Dolls, and his last for Fox] was a heavy film about censorship, and it was a flop. But what Russ does best is pure entertainment, nothing that you're going to think about.
"He has such a gift for visuals, all those bright, bold colors, everything so sharp and perfectly balanced. And his editing is amazing, especially in Dolls. Of course, he's a director, but no one should expect him to be a director in the poetic, visionary sense. He is more of a technician than an artist. But a great technician has a gift, too, and he can also be considered an artist; it's just in a different category. He does what he does better than anyone else."
After all the tensions with Meyer, "we buried the hatchet awhile back. He was very angry at me for a long time over my relationship with George [Costello]. But when I was having a hard time emotionally and financially in the 80s, and I hadn't spoken to him in years, he sent me a Christmas card with $300 in it. He wrote a short note saying, 'I think of you often, and things will get better.' I don't know how he knew, but he reached out to me. At the time, I was too imprisoned by my disease [anorexia] to really appreciate it."
"Not long after that he had a birthday party, and invited me to it. Then I did an interview for a small magazine [apparently never published], and the guy had the laserdisc of Vixen, which I hadn't seen yet. I said, I've gotta call Russ.' Sure enough he answered the phone — 'RM Productions!' When I told him that it was Erica, he was delighted, I told him I didn't realize in those days, because I was really young and stupid, how deep he really is. I asked him how he could be so insightful to sort of predict [in Dolls] that I'd go into clothing for a living. 'And how did you know that I'd become a dyke?' And he said [Erica imitates Meyer's gruff macho voice] 'yeah, ya like that pussy, huh?'
"Here I am being all deep and ethereal about his psychic ability, and he's off on another wavelength! But that was okay—boy, he's a character."
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