Josh Gad has been cast to play Roger Ebert in Russ & Roger (or Russ & Roger Go Beyond), a movie all about Ebert’s partnership with director Russ Meyer on the 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was one of the first movies to receive an X rating. Gad as Ebert just seems right, doesn’t it? The Frozen star cuts a similar profile to the late, great film critic, and should have the necessary mix of youthful energy and naïve optimism to play the young version of Ebert who made his screenwriting debut on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Then again, Gad’s normal speaking voice has little in common with Ebert’s, but, hey, he’ll at least look the part.
I love this news. I am a sucker for movies about movies, be they ones which are specifically about our love of movies (e.g., Cinema Paradiso, Play It Again, Sam) or ones which are actually about the film industry and the crazy people who work in it (e.g., Bowfinger, Get Shorty, The Player, Singin’ in the Rain). Sure, such films might be written off by some as naked exercises in narcissism, and in some cases you do get the sense that the filmmakers had their heads thoroughly jammed up their own behinds, cracking jokes which only their Hollywood friends would get (e.g., Burn Hollywood Burn, Entourage). However, Hollywood is such a crazy town filled with larger than life figures that it often demands to have the camera turned back on itself.
So, I am instantly on board with Russ & Roger, which is being produced by the China-backed mini-major studio STX Entertainment, and already had Will Ferrell on board to play Meyer. In fact, Gad has been linked to the project since it was first announced late last year. His casting has simply taken a long dang time to be finalized, according to THR. Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart, The Killer Inside Me) will direct. While the teaming of Ferrell and Gad might suggest Russ & Roger will aim for plenty of broad humor and big laughs let’s not forget that both actors are capable of more, as Ferrell showed in Stranger than Fiction and Gad in Jobs.
If you don’t know the story behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s fairly indicative of the turbulent times of the late ‘60s when the studios started handing the wheel over to quirky filmmakers in the hopes of turning around slumping ticket sales. It’s only in that type of environment that Fox would score a hit movie with Valley of the Dolls in 1967, and then turn around and let Russ Meyer make a satire of it in 1970 with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s hard to imagine that kind of thing happening now, although in somewhat recent history Dimension Films did make Scream in 1996 and then make a parody of it with Scary Movie in 2000.
Check out this amazing vintage BVD trailer:
Original Dolls author Jacqueline Susann was so offended by Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that she sued the studio for defamation, and she won, although her 1974 death meant she didn’t live long enough to enjoy the $2 million Fox had to pay out to her estate.
FilmComment’s Peter Sobczynski summed all of it up best in his 1980 essay (re-published on EbertFest) celebrating BVD’s 10th anniversary:
By all rational standards, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” should have been one of the all-time disasters in the history of Hollywood. For starters, it was originally conceived as a cash-in sequel to one of the dumbest and crassest films ever made, 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls” (itself based on the equally dumb, crass and successful Jacqueline Susann best-seller), though the final product would have absolutely nothing to do with the original. Later, after attempts at writing a straightforward screenplay (including a couple of attempts from Susann herself) fell through, someone at the studio had the idea of hiring Russ Meyer, the fiercely independent skin-flick auteur who had made a mint with the cheerfully sleazy likes of “The Immoral Mr. Teas,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and “Vixen,” to make his big-studio debut with the project. To assist him, Meyer turned around and hired some ink-stained wretch out of Chicago by the name of Roger Ebert to help him write the screenplay. Somehow, all these disparate elements managed to come together and the resulting film remains one of the damndest things ever made–a goofy, grisly, screw-loose combination of sex, drugs, psychedelic rock and lurid excess that still has the power to blow minds 35 years after it first appeared.
In that same issue of FilmComment, Ebert contributed his own look back at his big Hollywood experience. They were making a satire of Valley of the Dolls, but neither Ebert nor Meyer ever read Susann’s book. They merely watched the 1967 Mark Robson-directed film, and took from it a basic formula: Three young girls come to Hollywood, find fame and fortune, are threatened by sex, violence and drugs, and either do or not do win redemption. The whole thing was a case of “a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum” with a storyline which they “make up as we went along.”
An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And “BVC” was made at a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.
Since BVD was Meyer’s first big studio movie he took a kitchen sink approach, fearful that he’d never be allowed to complete the three-picture deal he’d signed with Fox. So, as Ebert recalled, Meyer theorized BVD, “should simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose (so soon after the Sharon Tate murders) of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.’”
When BVD was slapped with an X rating, Meyer responded with his characteristic independent spirit, and lobbied Fox to let him re-edit the film to add in more nudity, a request the studio turned down since it was desperate to rush the film into release. To the surprise of everyone, it turned into a hit, grossing ten times its budget and turning into a cult classic in the ensuing years.
Now, Will Ferrell and Josh Gad get to recreate all of that for us in Russ & Roger. With Gad officially on board, hopefully they can start filming relatively soon.