The 1970 cult classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, received an X rating at the time of its release for its then-shocking portrayal of violence, nudity, lesbian sex, and the Manson-inspired mayhem of its Hollywood setting. I watched it for the first time last night, and I was both amused at what now seems quaintly naughty from another era and embarrassed on behalf of the era itself. I was twenty when the movie came out and used terms like “groovy” and “far out” myself. And those clothes! I too had bell bottom jeans with paisley flares.
Written by Roger Ebert and directed by schlockmeister Russ Meyers, Ebert described the screenplay as “a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn't know whether the movie ‘knew’ it was a comedy.”
As against-the-grain as BVD wanted to be, however, it adhered to the unspoken rules about race in the American society of the era. Although Blacks were included as part of the characters who seduced and bedded one another in succession, Petronella, the Black member of the all-girl rock band at the center of the byzantine plot, can only have sex with other Blacks. (The Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage had only been won three years earlier.)
What caught my queer eye for the Black guy, however, was the appearance of James Iglehart as Randy Black, a heavyweight champ modeled after Muhammad Ali. Randy Black? Stock character indeed! Hunky Randy Black shows up shirtless at a wild Hollywood party because . . . well, because he’s a Black body and that’s his function. He briefly seduces Petronella, beats up her aspiring law student boyfriend, then is run out of their relationship when Petronella pulls a knife on him. (What is it about Black people and knives?)
In a film as tonally conflicted and loony as “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” I’m not suggesting anything close to a politically correct analysis here. As with all schlock, it perfectly mirrors its era, from the “progressivism” of showing a steamy sex scene (in a haystack – scratchy!) between two attractive Black people to the usual unconscious Mandingo stereotype so deeply embedded (still!) in American culture.
And what of James Iglehart? His career didn’t end with BVD. Three years later he starred in the Blaxploitation flick Savage! (No, really, these are the facts. You can’t make this stuff up.) And here’s the Wikipedia tagline: “The film deals with a strapping young black mercenary blowing things up in the jungle.”
-- Robert Philipsson