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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

August 5, 2023.

This review contains spoilers. There is discussion of anti-FTM transphobia, transphobic tropes, lesbophobia, homophobia, sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism, bigotry, murder, and violence.

John LaZar as Ronnie Barzell in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell.

Before I even discuss this film's awful depiction of a trans man (or what Roger Ebert calls a "transvestite"), let's get one thing straight... This is a bloody awful movie. It's badly written, badly acted, and badly directed. It's absolutely shit. It's apparently intended to be satire, but its ideas amount to little more than chucking narrative spaghetti at the wall to see what, if anything, sticks. Thankfully for the filmmakers, even the worst films can be immortalised as cult classics.

James Iglehart as Randy Black in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Randy Black, about to hit a man with his car.

Harris (a White rockstar manager) rapes a woman and is absolved with dreamy, meditative concluding narration, whereas Randy (a Black heavyweight boxer) gets the following concluding narration: "Randy's body: A cage for an animal. It lifted him to the top of his field, but in the end, the beast almost killed him."

Randy's whole role in the film is to be overcome by sexual and violent urges, embodying the racist stereotype of an uncontrollable, sexually aggressive Black man. He is defined exclusively by his body and by his hostility, and a woman has to arm herself with a weapon to force him to leave her home. The fact that he is a felon and compared to an animal is the cherry on top of the shit cake. (You can learn more about the history of such statements here, but be warned that it is very upsetting.) Randy is just one example of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls demonising minorities in lieu of doing anything worthwhile, and perpetuating old stereotypes which come from horrific histories. Its characterisation isn't clever or subversive. It's just lazy.

Plus, I hope you aren't fond of the young lesbian in this film (Casey), because she's the woman raped by Harris. He gets his happy ending, whereas she and her girlfriend are shot in the head, their violent deaths almost immediately forgotten when the rapist regains the ability to walk and is therefore the centre of everybody's attention. Seriously, it's absurd how fast his miraculous physical recovery makes everyone forget that the women have been killed.

Michael Blodgett as Lance Rocke, who is dressed in a Nazi uniform

Inexplicable and unnecessary Nazi symbology.

Oh, also, a bloke randomly dresses as a Nazi, complete with the salute and the uniform, for no fucking reason at all. You could grope around to try and find one, but that would be poor justification after the fact. Your view of the much-loved Roger Ebert might be affected once you know that he wrote this film, and had the utter gall to call it "an essay on our generic expectations" and "a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message". What a wanky way to say absolutely nothing. The man himself, in archived links, admitted that "the movie's story was made up as we went along". I cannot imagine evoking the symbology of genocide on such flimsy grounds.

Anyway. Onto the trans male misrepresentation in this film.

John LaZar as Ronnie Barzell in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Barzell at the height of his madness.

Ronnie Barzell, nicknamed Z-Man, is established as the catalyst for the ruination of everyone else's lives. Think Rocky Horror Picture Show, but crap. The protagonists (three female rockstars and their manager) attend his party and find that the course of their lives are immediately changed.

Though initially eloquent and eccentric, a source of entertainment rather than a threat, Barzell is eventually revealed to be the ultimate evil in the film. He is perverted. He is obscene. He repeatedly sexually assaults, harasses, and ultimately kills a heterosexual man who refuses his advances. His sexual aggression and physical violence is inextricably tied to his gender non-conformity, and all of his crimes are committed while he is suddenly determined to force everybody to call him Superwoman... As though, in the filmmakers' minds, the eleventh hour brought upon him a feverish need to be seen as a female, despite his complete comfort being socially known as a male throughout the rest of the film.

John LaZar as Ronnie Barzell, exposing his non-op chest

Oh, the horror.

His coming out scene, if you want to call it that, embodies the classic trope of a perverted trans character undressing (partly or completely), shocking other characters with the knowledge that they've been deceived by a horrid, freakish imposter. He exposes and strokes his breasts, prompting his victim to laugh and scream, "You've been a broad all along, right Barzell? A goddamn broad! A goddamn ugly broad, Barzell! An ugly broad!"

This plot twist, ungraceful and needlessly harmful to trans men, wasn't planned in any decent way. When asked about "the meaning of Z-Man's earlier scenes, in light of what is later discovered about the character," the best Roger Ebert could say was, "those earlier scenes were written before either Meyer or I knew Z-Man was a transvestite... that plot development came on the spur of the moment."

The filmmakers did not care how trans men would be affected by a trans flasher character. They simply did not give a fuck how a last-minute trans plot twist would turn the character's earlier scenes into an insidious, deceitful narrative of trans betrayal. Everyone in Barzell's life knows him as a man, talks about him as a man, and considers him a fixture in the entertainment industry. By all accounts, Barzell was completely socially transitioned and very successful. The end of the film, and his monstrous transformation, makes zero sense. He is not, as Ebert posits, just a "woman in drag". He was a fleshed-out male character before they decided to turn him into a harmful stereotype. Evidently, Ebert thought socially transitioned men who live full-time as their true selves are just women in drag. That's the logic underpinning Barzell's characterisation.

From the very beginning of my transition, a primary accusation by transphobic and unsupportive people was that I was becoming ugly. People couldn't conceive of the idea that I would want to look and sound like a typical bloke. Even now, having been medically transitioned for years, I avoid coming out as FTM because a potential reaction is to denounce me as being nothing more than an ugly woman. Many trans men come up against this specific, horrible mentality, which is echoed by the labelling of Barzell as an "ugly broad". The comedy and horror of Barzell is solely focussed on the extent to which he has moved away from his assigned sex, cruelly mirroring what real trans men go through.

And, let's be clear, even before the film decides to be transphobic, it's blatantly homophobic. Lance, a cis straight man, isn't just the victim of a trans freak, he's also the victim of frequent gay advances. Barzell isn't just a trans bogeyman. He's a gay predator.

John LaZar as Ronnie Barzell, and Michael Blodgett as Lance Rocke

A transphobic, homophobic cishet nightmare made manifest.

After decapitating Lance, because he didn't consent to have sex, Barzell hunts down and kills two lesbians by shooting them in the head. Both deaths are graphic. Roxanne, one of the women, is simply waiting to be killed, in a manner so staged and fetishistic that it undoes all of her prior character development. Any effort to establish a meaningful lesbian relationship is literally blown away by the manner of her death. It's a nasty, yucky, undignified visual.

Cynthia Myers as Casey Anderson, screaming in terror before she is shot to death.

Casey, moments before being murdered.

What we end up with, ultimately, is a classic LGBT+ double whammy; Bury Your Gays plus the spooky threat of a trans pervert stalking and killing poor, helpless, feminine cis women. And the trans pervert, of course, is murdered. The cishet characters are left to enjoy their happy endings without any of the queerness which corrupted their storylines.

Ronnie Barzell in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, laying dead on the ground

The last shot of Barzell.

As Barzell lays dead, the horrified female protagonist stares at his body and bare, bloodied breasts. To the poor cishet characters, he is a freak and an abomination in death, defined by his trans body when he previously lived low-disclosure as a man. This is another classic trans trope, which mirrors the posthumous misgendering and othering of real people, including Billy Tipton and many forgotten trans men. This trope alone betrays the ignorance and carelessness of the filmmakers.

A trans man being played by a man (John LaZar) doesn't make this film any less awful. The message that this movie sends is that trans men and "women in drag" can deceive anybody by appearing flawlessly male. And, when the truth is discovered, such deceivers will become aggressive and unhinged, justifying any violence that cis people might preemptively dole out when they discover such a lie. This movie just... sucks.

A film having violence, confronting themes, or an aggressive trans character doesn’t automatically make it bad. What matters is how the film is written, what background the trans character has, and what their motivations are. As an example, consider Strange Circus (2005). It depicts almost every upsetting thing you can think of, but every scene is planned and clever, and any plot complexity or narrative confusion is deliberate. The trans man in that film is not the embodiment of an anti-trans trope. He is a strong, determined, furious survivor of sexual abuse, whose motivations are deeply explored before he is shown as a chainsaw-wielding killer. Strange Circus knows exactly what it is, and exactly who its characters are. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has no idea what it is. Even its actors, too afraid to offend Russ Meyer by asking, weren't sure whether their dialogue was supposed to be comedic or serious. "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance," snarls Barzell, before he hogties and kills his victim. Am I supposed to laugh? Really? How does a viewer even react to that weirdness? It's not scary, it's not funny, it's not clever, it's not compelling. It's nothing. Even given the grotesque violence, horrific themes, and obscene nudity in Strange Circus, it comes out victorious when compared to Ebert and Meyer's garbage.

Needless to say, I wouldn't recommend watching this one... unless you like trash. Which you might. In that case, go for it. (I know many people will disagree with my review of this supposed classic.) Regardless, definitely don't watch it for any kind of FTM representation. It's strange that Psycho (1960) is commonly accepted as having transphobic tropes, yet I rarely hear people admitting the same of this film, despite the fact that Barzell is canonically a perverse, violent, manipulative "broad" whose homicidal actions are directly tied to his increasingly unpredictable gender non-conformity and canon trans identity.

Beyond that, well... This film uses homophobic gay slurs including "faggot" and "fruit", and the m-word is used to refer to short-statured people. Infidelity, traumatic abortion, and other themes are handled with all of the grace and subtlety that the rest of the film wields. There is drug and alcohol use/abuse. Naked women are used as props, courtesy of the film's satirical sexploitation schtick. Most of the acting is laughably bad, but it isn't even funny enough to make you laugh.


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