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‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ screenplay — Ebert’s ‘one big mistake’

Mike Royko

Mike Royko

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:43AM



Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on July 10, 1970 in the Chicago Daily News.

There were 30 minutes to go before the private screening of his first movie, so screenwriter Roger Ebert nervously asked the bartender for a shot and a beer chaser.

That was bold drinking for so young a man. Sure enough, he coughed on the shot.

Then he stuck me with the bar bill.

“Remember,” he said, “I’m saving you $3 by inviting you to my free screening.”

“I have heard about your movie, and you aren’t saving me a nickel.”

HE LAPSED INTO A GLUM SILENCE. Ebert, the popular, talented movie critic of the Sun-Times, had done something few critics would dare. He had written a screenplay — for the film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Even before it opened here, critics in other cities put aside any fraternal affection they may have felt for him.

“It is sure to disgust you!” raved a West Coast critic.

“Don’t miss missing it,” said New York.

Using Ebert’s own movie rating system — five stars for great, and one star for terrible — he was averaging about one handful of crater dust per review.

The critics had generally agreed that it was dirty, violent and not much fun.

I seldom see these kind of movies, since a normal day in Chicago can be dirty, violent and not much fun, but Ebert had arranged for a private screening. He wanted his friends to see it.

WE GOT THERE A FEW MINUTES LATE. A breast was already bounding across the screen.

“Did we miss the first act?” I asked.

“Yes,” answered a voice from the darkness, “the first abnormal one.”

It’s not easy to read notes that were scribbled in darkness, but I can transcribe these from my note pad:

“Bare breasts...bottoms...naked couples...in bed...in bubble bath...in Rolls-Royce...two young men, good grief...haystack...toe fetish...old man, young girl...young man, old girl...young man and old m...only half over...”

I can’t report on my notes for the second half, which is when the violence came in, because it is difficult to write when you have both hands clapped over your eyes. It was something like the final cattle chute in the Stock Yards, except the movie used people.

When the lights went on, I was glad for Ebert that the room was filled with his friends. Strangers might have beaten him with the chairs.

MY REACTION, ONCE I GOT OUTSIDE and breathed the fresh polluted air, was one of puzzlement. I had always assumed, since I didn’t know any, that creeps wrote all the dirty, violent movies. In fact, I had hoped they were written by creeps, because this would keep them busy and they wouldn’t be climbing up my rose trellis and peeking in my bathroom window.

But Ebert is not a creep. Just the opposite. He is a peaceful, pleasant, thoughtful young man, only 26 or 27, with a cherubic face and a great writing talent. While still a student, he wrote a history of a university, and it was a clean book, which used to be possible when writing about universities.

Later, as we all leaned on a bar, Ebert asked his friends what they thought. We told him. This time, he ordered a double shot and a beer.

“Why did you write a dirty, violent movie?” I finally asked him.

“It was written as a parody of dirty, violent movies,” he said.

“Did the producer and director know that?”

ALTHOUGH I AM NOT A MOVIE CRITIC, I think I have figured out what went wrong, how so talented a writer and so decent a young man could be involved in that dog.

Ebert’s problem is that he is not a dirty old man. If a dirty movie is going to be any good, it has to be written by a dirty old man. You wouldn’t let an ROTC student write a war movie, or a Republican write a book about Chicago politics.

I believe that every young man is entitled to one big mistake, despite what the alimony court judges may say. And this movie is Ebert’s, and I urge you to avoid it.

Someday he will write another movie, and I’m confident it will be excellent. Even if it is dirty, it will be better. I’ll be his technical adviser.



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