High camp or just plain trash? A cultural-cinematic swamp in perfectly rotten taste, this adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s supermarket ‘dirty book’ seeks out tawdry sleaze like no American movie had before. Junk beyond belief, and great entertainment if you’re in a sick frame of mind.
Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection 835
1967 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 123 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 27, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Paul Burke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward, Tony Scotti, Martin Milner, Charles Drake, Alexander Davion, Lee Grant, Naomi Stevens, Robert H. Harris, Jacqueline Susann, Robert Viharo, Joey Bishop, George Jessel, Dionne Warwick, Sherry Alberoni, Margaret Whiting, Richard Angarola, Richard Dreyfuss, Marvin Hamlisch, Judith Lowry.
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Conductor / Music Adaptor John Williams
Written by Helen Deutsch, Dorothy Kingsley Jacqueline Susann
Produced by Mark Robson, David Weisbart
Directed by Mark Robson
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I didn’t see Valley of the Dolls when new in 1967, and it was still out of reach in 1969 when it came back in a local double bill with The Fearless Vampire Killers, shameless exploiting the Sharon Tate murders. So I’ve avoided it through the years, believing wrongly that its sequel in name only Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a soft-porn take-off on the same concept. Wait a minute — both movies are now new Criterion releases. Let’s take a look…
I find the original Valley of the Dolls to be a 100% camp freak show, in that its intentions are completely opposite to what it achieves. The gap between its aspirations and what’s on the screen is appalling — other semi-serious attempts at trash glamour soaps — The Carpetbaggers, The Oscar — pale in comparison. The crime here is that the movie is militantly trashy and stupid. Given full 20th Fox production values and top-flight talent, it’s as brain-numbingly insulting that the crop of ‘liberated’ duds that came along three years later — Myra Breckinridge, The Adventurers. Those movies exploited the new ratings system’s license to put previously taboo content on screen. Valley of the Dolls plowed its sleazy way through the collapsing Production Code pretending that it was making a ‘with it’ exposé of show biz decadence. Frankly, Beyond is a more competent picture than the original Valley. It at least knows what it’s doing.
Jacqueline Susann’s cheap & dirty book sees 1967 Broadway and Hollywood in terms of sex and power that were clichés at least as far back as the 1920s. Only the frill of pill popping as an ultimate expression of self-destructive chic. Adapted by Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley, Valley of the Dolls plays just as awkwardly. Ten years earlier Mark Robson directed Peyton Place, which was probably an inspiration for writers like Susann. The central heroine Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, from TV’s Peyton Place) comes to the big city to work for a talent agency. She meets aspiring actress Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a nice model-actress constantly reminded that her figure is her only asset; and Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, singing voice Gail Heideman), a powerhouse singer who gets ahead despite the sabotage of established star Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, singing voice Margaret Whiting) who is getting old and doesn’t like competition. Anne also enters a sex relationship with their agent, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), who ‘gently’ informs her that he has no interest in marriage. Anne becomes a ‘classy’ model for a hair product. Jennifer marries singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) before Tony’s sister Miriam can tell her about the man’s health issues. Neely O’Hara, meanwhile, has the most dramatic career arc of all. Her singing makes her a big stage and screen star, which immediately goes to her head. More abusive than Helen Lawson ever was, Neely dumps her faithful husband Mel (Martin Milner), marries her costume designer Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion), and alienates every one around her. A few years later, the loyal Jennifer must take work in French nudie movies to pay for Tony’s medical care. Anne resumes her relationship with Lyon, who has come back to the agency biz after writing a novel. Neely is throwing her career down the drain through booze and pills. Actually, all three women become so depressed that they resort to the pills, as a cure for their ills.
Phony from the get-go, Valley of the Dolls begins by inventing a word for uppers and downers, ‘dolls,’ that never caught on. It’s not intrinsically wrong for writer Susann to make an oversexed fantasy soap about showbiz glitz, but we’d expect something better than this — the films of Douglas Sirk are masterpieces by comparison, and lightweight fare like The Best of Everything is much more heartfelt and reasonable. Dolls gives us three wannabes that mostly savor the good life in high style, with a glamorous costume change for every scene. Anne’s working career is only a stop-off for better job or romantic offers, while Neely suffers one indignity but is immediately repaid with enormous success. All the cheap fantasies are here — the idealistic working girl sleeps with her boyfriend, and when he leaves her is instantly offered a glamorous career as an emblem for a product on TV commercials. The ‘good girl’ is a victim of her own self-image as talentless. She thinks her breasts are all she has to offer, and accepts constant insults about them. When Jennifer does ‘French nudies’ Valley proves it knows nothing about nothing. On one of her tearaway drunks, Neely passes a San Francisco grindhouse theater showing a Jennifer North film, but the advertising outside is more appropriate for a topless bar. The scene we’re given from one of her pictures is completely innocuous: a real French picture would likely be playing in an art house.
The film’s misogyny is unrestrained. Nobody criticizes Anne’s life choices, but she still seems like a dope sleeping with Lyin’ Lyon Burke, who for all his airs just wants a steady lay. As for higher aspirations, Anne is equally willing to jump on the empty fame train when she performs for the TV commercials. And Anne is supposed to be the one with principles. Does she sleep with her incredibly patient new partner, Kevin Gilmore (Charles Drake)? Apparently not.
But it’s open season on the other two main stars. The film is less concerned about Jennifer’s humiliations, being sneered at for being ‘top-heavy’ in front of an entire show, than it is eager to exploit them. Jennifer is shown doing breast-enhancing exercises, to make her look shallower. Even Neely sneers, ranting about ‘boobies, boobies, boobies.’ As played by Patty Duke, Neely is grossly overdone, a bad performance for the ages from one of the most accomplished young actresses of the ’60s. The hostile, substance-deranged Neely rants and raves as only an abusive diva can; compared to her Susan Hayward’s bitchy Helen Lawson is a model of restraint. In truth Neely doesn’t seem that talented, what with the awful songs she’s given, and we see no evidence that she’s a star except for the praise and concern of those around her. The lesson is that big female stars are monsters that should be dragged into the street and shot. Patty Duke wanted a change of pace and she got it — Neely is one of the most unrewardingly unpleasant ‘celebrity’ characters in movies.
This is Camp in the original gay sense, as the movie was one of the first to be nailed as a laugh fest so bad it’s funny. Filmed as a dead serious drama, it was instantly recognized as a hoot and holler field day for fans of overdone showbiz dramatics. Most of the hilarity circles around the Patty Duke character — the gay fans love her, and love mocking the outrageously awful character she’s made to play. An intentional satire could never be this pure — when Neely snatches off Helen Lawson’s wig and tosses it in a toilet, I can imagine revival house audiences going nuts. When confronted with Pauline Kael’s condemnation of movies objectifying and over-sexualizing women, critic Raymond Durgnat said that she must be concerned that ‘Armies of homosexuals are chortling at this ridicule of their female rivals.’ That’s almost what seems to be happening here. Jennifer can’t win even as she does the right thing, because she’s a ‘dumb broad’ whose only appeal is her body. Neely is a monster out of The Women or All About Eve. She gets about two minutes to be human and the rest of the time is behaving like a screaming harpy. Is it just the crazy pills? The movie equates womanhood with emotional instability. The dialogues that some fool thought were clever or witty are beyond lampooning: “Oh, to hell with them! Let ’em droop!” “That little whore makes me feel nine feet tall!” “I want a doll! I want a doll!” “Ted, you know how hard I work. When I come home, I’m exhausted. How can I think of sex?”
What I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand is the film’s loathing for homosexuals, who are repeatedly called fags and queers, loudly. We’re meant to interpret this attitude as gutsy honesty. We see no overt gay activity and no characters strongly coded as gay, The guy everybody’s saying horrible things about, Neely’s second husband Ted Casablanca, appears in reality to be at most bi, if not straight. Ted Casablanca is a perfectly legitimate name in any context but this one — even Susann seems to be sneering at him. This use of the new screen permissiveness to slam gays spills over into Frank Sinatra’s Fox films as well. The Detective puts a wacko gay character at the center of a bizarre murder. It’s really offensive — license is given to slam gays, the same way it’s okay to shoot Germans if they’re wearing Nazi uniforms.
Mark Robson made some okay pictures but he was the weakest editor-turned director to come from the happy Val Lewton association. I enjoy his pictures but most could have been better with almost anyone else directing, and the faults in his clunkers point to the strange vibe in Valley- the feeling that nobody’s in real control. The show has too many awful supporting performances and the attempt to impose a glamorous sheen on the proceedings looks cheap – the visuals in the montages and title sequences are second-rate. I suppose the costumes are pretty good, and the cinematography okay… but the blocking of scenes is pure widescreen boredom. Much effort, however, seems to have gone into scenes flirting with nudity — various games with towels and sheets that drop, and anatomically correct silhouettes. Jack Valenti’s people must have felt like fools, being entreated by somebody to let these ‘sophisticated’ peek-a-boo games slip by.
I haven’t gotten into the inside stories of who various characters are supposed to be, or to what degree the actors supposedly share qualities or experiences with the characters they played. Perhaps the reason Valley of the Dolls doesn’t completely sink in (outward and inward) contempt is its main theme, the André and Dory Previn radio hit sung by Dionne Warwick. Repeated several times, it almost legitimizes Anne Welles’ feelings of despair, and it’s so good that the movie comes alive whenever it plays. I’m trying to think of other great songs that got attached to unpleasant movies. What do I take away from this picture?: mental images of anguished women reaching for vials of little red capsules. Thus the choice of images, above.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Valley of the Dolls is a terrific widescreen encoding with perfect color and lush surround sound. I can’t see anyone finding fault with the presentation. The colors do not lean toward the ‘teal effect’ that mars some Fox transfers lately.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy’s fine set of extras do not to apologize for Valley of the Dolls but instead allow a closer look at its less-than-classic reputation. The gay celebration angle is addressed with a great video from a 2009 revival with a game Patty Duke in attendance, ‘Sparkle Patty Sparkle!’. Writer Amy Fine Collins gives a somewhat creepy analysis of Jacqueline Susann and a critique of the costumes, while Kim Morgan contributes a video essay that tries to get to the bottom of its decadent appeal. (Sure, it’s something of a cultural blight — that’s fun to watch if one is in the right mood.) Older extras include a Backstories piece that proffers all the show-biz gossip associated with the picture, including the pathetic attempt of Judy Garland to play what would have been a horrible last role, had she not imploded before even beginning. Plus we see screen tests, trailers, etcetera.
Criterion also gives us a real insert booklet with a discerning essay by Glenn Kenny. Valley of the Dolls is not an easy film to write about, which maybe makes it better than my overall evaluation. But the people I know who do talk about it, regard it as a freak show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Valley of the Dolls Blu-ray
Movie: Awful but Entertaining if you’re feeling really sick about people
Supplements: Audio commentary from 2006 featuring actor Barbara Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca; New interviews with writer Amy Fine Collins about author Jacqueline Susann and the costumes in the film; New video essay by critic Kim Morgan; Footage from ‘Sparkle Patty Sparkle!’ a 2009 gala tribute to actor Patty Duke at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco; A World Premiere Voyage and Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls, two promotional films from 1967; Hollywood Backstories 2001 show on the film; Screen tests, Trailers; plus insert booklet with an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2016
Here’s Larry Karaszewski’s TFH commentary on Robson’s overbaked slice of sixties sleaze.
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson