Dazzled by Meyer’s ability to earn big-time box office on shoestring budgets, 20th Century Fox studio head Richard Zanuck in August 1969 offered the auteur his choice of any development script owned by Fox to direct for the studio. 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.
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.”
After the dazzlingly edited opening section of the film establishing the band’s small own 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 will come.
“They cut so much of my role. It was my first experience of being left on the cutting room floor. In Vixen, I think he used just about every foot of film, since on that budget he couldn’t afford to be wasteful.”
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…”
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 beat 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 mature enough to realize it was the same old stuff.”
Beyond the Valley of Dolls premiered at Hollywood’s classic Pantages Theater on June 17, 1970. Shot on a budget of just under $1,000,000 (a fortune by Meyer standards, but modest even by studio standards of the time), it was an immediate hit, soaring all the way to Number 1 on the Variety box office chart of July 29, ahead of the #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 $8,000,000, making it one of the year’s twenty biggest hits.
–by Steve Sullivan
excerpted with kind permission from Glamour Girls
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