LYON, France — Presenting Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” part of his 1970 retrospective at Lyon’s Lumière Festival on Sunday, director Quentin Tarantino outlined a bizarre attempt, led by Fox, to take erotic cinema mainstream in 1970.
It is a story of multiple ironies, of an embarrassed establishment and a maverick vindicated over time. In other words, it is a story that Tarantino warms to.
He told it with relish to a large crowd at the Pathe Bellacour in Central Lyon, despite a screening time that coincided with that most sacred of French Sunday traditions: lunch.
“New Hollywood became the Hollywood” in 1970, Tarantino said – flanked by Cannes festival chief Thierry Fremaux, who translated – reprising one centerpiece idea behind his whole 1970 showcase.
“Old Hollywood, which had existed since the ’20s, was no more. If there is any movie that illustrates how Old Hollywood is no more,” Tarantino said, it is “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (AKA “Hollywood Vixens”).
There’s a backstory, Tarantino said: 1970 was a year when, looking at the entirety of cinema, “there were a lot of promises made. Some of them were kept and fulfilled, and some of them weren’t.”
He went on: “One of the promises that unfortunately existed that year and a couple years after that was never fulfilled was the promise of a new, erotic cinema.”
Fueled by the abolition of the censorship code and a building body of cinema made for adults, there was a belief that erotic cinema could “get out of the raincoat crowd, the grind-houses, the porno theaters and the 8mm reals and actually could become respectable and mainstream so regular people could go to the cinema and experience erotic cinema without any embarrassment or shame,” Tarantino said.
In 1968, Russ Meyer directed “Vixen!” which cost $72,000 and grossed $6 million. Fox signed him to make “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” to revive the studio’s fortunes.
And here the ironies begin.
“Frankly, when you see this film, there has rarely ever been a studio film that looks or feels like ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.’ Were there more studio films like this!” Tarantino said with glee.
But “20th Century Fox’s experiment played out better than anyone could have ever hoped.” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” proved one of the studio’s big hits that year. “They were horribly embarrassed by that,” Tarantino said.
And yet, “as time has gone on, when people do top 10 films of the ’70s in general, it is ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ that ends up on those lists more than any other film of that year,” he added, noting that the film was the only one ever written by famed movie critic Roger Ebert. But the new erotic cinema “lasted, at the best, three years,” and “then returned to either porno or sexploitation movies,” with Meyer returning to his independently produced grind-house movies “made with personality.”
Tarantino ended his presentation by jokingly urging the Lyon audience to pretend that the 2016 screening of the film is “the beginning of a new erotic cinema that will carry on for the next 40 years. It didn’t happen, but let’s pretend it did.”