Embracing the Melodrama #27: Go Ask Alice (dir by John Korty)


Go Ask Alice

Earlier today, I took a look at The People Next Doora film about a family torn apart by the discovery that their teenage daughter is taking drugs.  For all of that film’s melodrama and over-the-top moments, it still worked.  It may have felt like it was taking place on a plane of heightened reality but it still felt real nonetheless.  Among the many films in the drugs-in-the-suburbs genre, that general feeling of reality made The People Next Door unique.  Far more typical of the genre is the 1973 made-for-TV movie, Go Ask Alice.

Go Ask Alice is based on a YA book that’s been in print for 43 years now.  (I can still remember spending an afternoon reading it in a Barnes and Noble when I was 14 years old.)  The book claims to be the diary of a  teenage girl who ended up getting addicted to drugs and sex.  She runs away from home for a bit and, even when she does manage to stop using drugs, her friends still insist on secretly slipping her acid.  She goes crazy and ends up spending some time in a mental asylum.  Eventually, she’s released and moves to a new town with her family.  She end the diary saying that she’s looking forward to the future and then, in the afterward, we’re told that she died three weeks later of an overdose and this diary has been published so that we can all learn from her story.

Now, oddly enough, when Go Ask Alice was originally published, it was apparently sold as being an authentic diary of an anonymous teenage girl who had been a patient of the book’s “editor”, Dr. Beatrice Sparks.  However, if you actually read the book, it’s pretty obvious that, while Dr. Sparks may have indeed used some of her patients’ real-life experiences, Go Ask Alice is in no way authentic.  Instead, it’s a classic example of the type of cautionary tale in which a character makes one mistake (in this case, the girl drinks a soda that’s been spiked with LSD) and, immediately afterwards, everything bad thing that possibly could happen does happen.  The purpose of the book is to shock and titillate, to make us wonder how this girl can go from being the sweet optimist who bought a diary because she feels that she finally has something to say to being so jaded that she casually says stuff like, “Another day, another blowjob.”  And, of course, the answer is that she didn’t because the whole thing is totally made up.

But that still didn’t stop anyone from making a movie out of the book and informing us, at the start of the movie, that the story we are about to watch is true and only the names and certain details have been changed to protect everyone’s privacy.  Our diarist (who is now definitely named Alice) is played by a young actress named Jamie Smith-Jackson, who is sympathetic and pretty.  Alice’s mother (Ruth Roman) is too repressed and uptight to provide any guidance to her rapidly maturing daughter.  Meanwhile, Alice’s father is played by William Shatner, so we know he’s not going to be able to do any good either.

Much as in the original book, Alice goes to one party, drinks on LSD-spiked soda, and her life is never the same.  Soon, she’s spending all of her time doing drugs and, as she informs us, having a “monthly pregnancy scare.”  She’s no longer hanging out with her smart, nerdy friends.  Instead, she spends all of her time with a bunch of petty criminals who recruit Alice to help deliver drugs to the students at the junior high.  (“I push at the elementary school!” one junior high kid snarls).  Eventually, Alice runs away from home and lives on the streets.  Fortunately, she runs into a liberal Catholic priest (played by Andy Griffith and yes, you read that right) and starts trying to get her life straight…

Go Ask Alice is no The People Next Door but it’s no Reefer Madness either.  What it gets wrong about teenage drug use, it gets right about just how confusing and alienating it can be to be 15 years old.  At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that this film did not have some camp appeal.  How can it not when it features not only Andy Griffith talking tough but also William Shatner with a bushy mustache?

And guess what?

You can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama #26: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (dir by Russ Meyer)


beyondposter

THE FILM YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE IS NOT A SEQUEL TO “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.” IT IS WHOLLY ORIGINAL AND BEARS NO RELATIONSHIP TO REAL PERSONS, LIVING OR DEAD. IT DOES, LIKE “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” DEAL WITH THE OFT-TIMES NIGHTMARE WORLD OF SHOW BUSINESS BUT IN A DIFFERENT TIME AND CONTEXT. — Disclaimer at the beginning of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970)

If I hadn’t reviewed it already, I would definitely have included 1967’s Valley of the Dolls in this series on film melodrama.  However, seeing as I have already reviewed it (and you can read that excellent review here!), I figured why not take this opportunity to review a film that was legally required to acknowledge that it was not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.

I’m speaking of 1970’s Beyond the Valley of The Dolls, a satirical take on every Hollywood melodrama that had been made up until that point.  It was directed by notorious exploitation veteran Russ Meyer and written by film critic Roger Ebert.  The combination of Meyer’s unapologetic tawdriness and Ebert’s film school in jokes comes together to create a truly memorable film experience.

Okay, so what happens in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?  Let’s see if I can keep all this straight because, in its clearly satirical way, BVD is a bit like the Game of Thrones of satiric Hollywood melodrama.  There are so many characters with so many subplots that it helps to have a flowchart to try to keep track of it all.

beyond-the-valley-of-the-dolls-05-1

Kelly (Dolly McNamara), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Pet (Marcia McBroom) start a band and, after playing the high school graduation dance, they decide to head out to Los Angeles to become famous.  Accompanying them is their manager, Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), who is in love with Kelly and spends the entire film looking miserable.  As opposed to the three main characters in Valley of the Dolls, Kelly, Casey, and Pet do not arrive in Hollywood as wide-eyed innocents.  Instead, they’re already talking endlessly about their love of weed, pills, and sex but they do so in dialogue that is so deliberately over-the-top, so intentionally artificial, and so cheerfully delivered by the three girls that it’s impossible not to root for them.  More than that, though, these are three strong, independent women and, regardless of whether they’re appearing a film directed by a man best known for being obsessed with boobs, that’s still three more than you’ll find in most American films from both the 70s and today.

Fortunately, the girls already have a contact in Los Angeles.  Kelly’s rich aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) knows all sorts of people and wants to share some of her fortune with Kelly.  Unfortunately, Susan’s lawyer is the evil Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), who hates free spirits.  Porter tries to keep Kelly from getting the money but Kelly is willing to seduce Porter in order to get that money, even after she discovers that the uptight Porter wears his black socks to bed.  Obviously, Porter is a bad guy but who can help Aunt Susan realize this?  How about the wonderfully named man’s man, Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier)?

ZMan

Through Aunt Susan’s influence, the girl’s end up at a party thrown by the legendary music promoter Z-Man (John Lazar).  Z-Man is one of those flamboyant 70s characters who simply has to be seen to be believed.  Z-Man speaks in some of the most florid dialogue ever heard and there are more than a few secrets hidden behind all of that eccentricity.  But, at the moment, what’s important is that Z-Man takes control of the girl’s group — now known as the Carrie Nations (which is actually a pretty good name for a band) — and makes them famous overnight.

Soon, Kelly is spending more and more time with notorious Hollywood gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett, who gives a hilariously narcissistic performance) and ignoring poor Harris.  This drives Harris into the waiting arms of porn star Ashley St. Ives (Eddy Williams) who, with her unapologetic and non-neurotic approach to sex, is probably the most stable character in the entire film.

Beyond

Casey, feeling uncomfortable with the Hollywood jet set, is soon popping pills like they’re candy.  She finally starts to find some comfort and happiness with Roxanne (Erica Gavin).

And finally, Pet falls in love with Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), a serious-minded law student.  However, as much as Pet and Emerson seem to be meant for each other (and they even get a slow-motion montage where they run through a green field), Pet is still tempted to stray by a punch drunk boxer (James Inglehart).

And finally, there’s Otto (Henry Rowland).  Otto is Z-Man’s butler.  Apparently, he’s also a Nazi war criminal.

And, not surprisingly, all of this lust and all of these secrets lead to a suicide attempt, renewed love, and finally a disturbingly violent massacre that leaves the surviving members of the cast feeling wiser and sadder but not necessarily older.  Fortunately, just in case we the viewers might be wondering how all of this could have happened, a somber-voiced narrator suddenly explains what every character did wrong and how those mistakes led to their fate.  Thanks, narrator guy!

So, obviously, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not meant to be taken seriously.  The film is a satire of all of the self-serious and hypocritically moralistic Hollywood melodramas that came before it .  Fortunately, the largely likable cast plays all of this absurd material with the straightest of faces and the end result is a film that is sordid and oddly likable.  This is one of those films that, if it offends you, you may be taking life too seriously.

beyond the valley of the dolls party

Embracing the Melodrama #25: The People Next Door (dir by David Greene)


people_next_door

For the past week, I’ve been reviewing — in chronological order — fifty of the most, for reasons good and bad, memorable  film melodramas of all time.  I started with a film from 1916 called Where Are My Children? and now, as we reach the halfway mark, we also reach the 70s.  There were several reasons why I wanted to start the 70s with the 1970 drugs-in-the-suburbs melodrama, The People Next Door.  First off, not many people seem to have heard of it and I always enjoy discovering and sharing previously obscure films.  But, even more importantly, The People Next Door stars Eli Wallach, the great character actor who recently passed away at the age of 98.  Needless to say, Wallach is great in The People Next Door but then again, when wasn’t Wallach great?

At first glance, the Masons appears to be your typical suburban family.  Patriarch Arthur (Eli Wallach) may be a bit strict but he works hard to provide his family with a good life.  Wife Gerrie (Julie Harris) may seem to be a bit nervous at times but she still works hard to maintain a perfect home.  Son Artie (Stephen McHattie) may have long hippie hair and he does devote a lot of time to his band but otherwise, he seems to be a good kid.  And then there’s 16 year-old Maxie (Deborah Winters), who is blonde and pretty and overall the ideal American girl.  Even better the Masons live next door to the friendly Hoffmans, perfect David Hoffman (Hal Holbrook), his perfect wife Tina (Cloris Leachman), and their perfect teenage son, Sandy (Don Scardino).

But guess what?

Nobody’s perfect!

Arthur is actually a smug and overbearing bully whose constant bragging hides his own dissatisfaction with how his life has turned out.  He is jealous of his son’s future and his over protectiveness of his daughter takes on a distinctly disturbing tone as the film progresses.  Arthur is also having an affair with his secretary (Rue McClanahan).

Gerrie knows about Arthur’s affair but chooses to look the other way.  She goes through her day in a haze of smoke provided by the cigarettes that she is constantly smoking.  Like Arthur, she cannot understand her children.  Unlike Arthur, she does realize that she doesn’t have all the answers.

Artie may be a good kid but he feels totally and thoroughly alienated from the rest of the family and, because of his long hair, he is the constant subject of Arthur’s abuse.

And then there’s Maxie, who everyone believes to be perfect and wholesome until one night when she’s discovered tripping on LSD.  Arthur immediately assumes that Artie must have given his sister the drugs and kicks Artie out of the house.  However, what Arthur doesn’t realize, is that Maxie is actually getting the drugs from clean-cut Sandy.  Sandy doesn’t use himself but he has no problem with dealing.

To Arthur and Gerrie’s shock, Maxie tells them that she’s been using drugs for a while and she’s sexually active as well!  When Arthur subsequently discovers Maxie snorting cocaine and living with a naked biker, it’s naturally time for everyone to get into family therapy.  Unfortunately, the therapy doesn’t really help that much and soon, Maxie is again dropping acid and dancing naked on the front lawn…

As you can probably guess from the description above, The People Next Door is one of those families-in-crisis melodramas where everything that possibly can be wrong with a family is wrong with this family.  It’s always easy to dismiss well-intentioned films like this and The People Next Door has its share over-the-top moments.  But, at the same time, the film actually works better than most of the Suburban Hell melodramas of the early 70s.

That’s largely due to the performances, with Eli Wallach in particular giving an explosive performance as an all too plausible monster and Hal Holbrook and Cloris Leachman very believably bringing to life another family which turns out to be not quite as ideal as they first appear to be.  And then there’s Deborah Winters, who starts out as being so mannered that you think she’s going to give a bad performance but then, as the film progresses, you realize that Maxie is the one giving the performance because that’s the only way she can survive her “perfect” family.

I first came across The People Next Door on YouTube and, considering how much I love exposing people to obscure films, I was really looking forward to sharing it with you on this site.  But guess what?  In the three weeks between me watching this film and me staring this post, The People Next Door was taken down from the site.  I guess somebody is really dedicating to protecting the copyright on a film that hardly anybody in the world has actually heard of.

So, unfortunately, I can only share the trailer.

Watch it below!