There is a pargraph in Glenn Kenny’s essay in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s release of Valley of the Dolls where he posits that simple adjectives, either good or bad, don’t quite fit when talking about the 1967 phenomenon. An enduring cult classic, it embodies many things, and takes on its own image well before many in its continually renewing audience even get a chance to see it. It’s infamous, it’s campy, it’s scandalous--all things that are true, all things that don’t quite hit on what a strange little creature this film really is.
Adapted from a best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, whose name became synonymous with outrageous stories about ambitious, liberated women, Valley of the Dolls is a culmination of many story traditions and the evolution of the same. It updates the 1950s concept of the “women’s picture,” as well as the career girl movie. It’s essentially a showbiz version of The Best of Everything, but with an added frankness about the sex, booze, and drugs that previously only went on way behind the screen. And then there is that showbiz thing itself--Valley of the Dolls is also an update of the Tinsel Town and Broadway dramas, a bit A Star is Born, a bit All AboutEve. There is a touch of the musical, especially with Dory Previn’s off-kilter songs (written with her philandering husband Andre, and more than hinting at Dory’s own personal drama), as well as a smidgen of horror films (the asylum, the nightmarish empty streets in the final New York scenes). Director Mark Robson, who also helmed Peyton Place and edited the original Cat People, and screenwriters Helen Deutsch (Lili [review]) and Dorothy Kingsley (Kiss MeKate) combine their knowledge of all these genres and subjects with Susann’s narrative to create a fresh 1960s perspective. Thus we get former child star Patty Duke popping pills, and Sharon Tate seemingly commenting on her own blonde bombshell image, and pop-art redoes of the fashion shoots from Funny Face [review].
The plot of Valley of the Dolls is nothing new. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, a star on the PeytonPlace TV series), a privileged college girl from New England, travels to the big city in hopes of escaping the conventional married life laid out for her. She gets a job as a secretary for an entertainment lawyer, and on her first day, gets a quick lesson in backstage politics, when her own innocent comment to an aging theatre star (Susan Hayward, I Married a Witch [review]) gets the new ingénue in the show fired. Duke plays the young starlet, Neely O’Hara, and Tate plays chorus girl Jennifer North, who is on hand at the rehearsal to witness the injustice (and suffer her own, given that her body is a topic of discussion). The lives of these three women quickly become entwined, both socially and professionally, as each sees different career paths open for them.
In these criss-crossing stories, Dolls explores different notions of hard work and fate. Jennifer is lucky enough to be born blonde and bosomy, and so easily snags a husband (a nightclub singer played by Tony Scotti). She knows she has little talent, and the work she’ll eventually turn to in order to help pay the bills relies on her assets. (As is the nature of these kinds of stories, someone must have a fatal illness, and that ends up being her man.) In one of the more comical scenes--and also for the time, more progressively honest--the young Jennifer, chastised and shamed by her forever-unseen mother, starts her nightly breast exercises to keep them perky before saying forget it, let them droop.
I note that it’s the “young Jennifer” because Valley of the Dolls follows all of its characters over a course of a couple of years, so these women do age--though not necessarily physically, there is no notable old-age makeup, which only sharpens the biting commentary that comes ¾ of the way through. When her addiction to sleeping pills (nicknamed “dolls”) gets the better of her, Neely is told she’s been replaced by a new, younger actress, she’s looking too old. “I’m only 26!” she declares. It seems ageism is imprinted in Hollywood’s DNA. Neely’s on-set tantrums are modeled after Judy Garland, but they also have echoes of Marilyn Monroe, who was cut from her final, unfinished picture because she couldn’t make it to set in performance condition. Duke makes the most of her meaty role, easily the best in the movie, playing the lush life to the hilt. She also gets the movie’s most memorable and campiest scene, a final bathroom showdown with Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson, the diva who would have ruined her. (As in George Cukor’s TheWomen, much happens in the bathroom.)
That climactic clash between Duke and Hayward is actually indicative of the light touch Robson took to most of this. Sure, heavy things happen, but the movie itself rarely feels heavy in its telling, even when the women have to make tough choices. It’s also telling how little backstabbing the core trio does to one another. Outside of a third act boyfriend grab when Neely is heading for her ultimate downfall, these ladies aren’t vying for the same slices of pie. At the same time, the kindness they attempt to show one another is often rebuffed. Friendship buckles under selfishness.
Even so, they are more emotionally mature than their male counterparts. The men in Valley of the Dolls are childish philanderers with fragile egos. Both of Neely’s husbands resent her success and her inability (unwillingness) to cater to their needs, while Jennifer’s spouse is the opposite, resenting having to be the breadwinner. Though, not even he is in control of his own destiny: besides his illness, his sister (Lee Grant, Mulholland Dr.) manages his floundering career, holding the purse strings and telling him what to do. The one guy doing for himself, Barbara’s on-again/off-again paramour (Paul Burke, TV’s Naked City), is no picnic either: he has commitment issues. Gone is the Sirkian man of the land, there is no Rock Hudson to swoop in and make things better. So absent is this figure in this newly liberated lifestyle, actually, that the end of Valley of the Dolls takes the back-to-nature element of Sirk’s All thatHeaven Allows and gives it to Barbara, who gets out of the rat race single, free, and whole.
Amongst the extras on the new Valley of the Dolls Blu-ray, for those who can’t quite get at why they like the movie, or what its strange machinations add up to, the wonderful film critic Kim Morgan provides a video essay in which she digs into the progressive subtext and the subversive genre tropes, embracing the criticism of the source material as “trash” and balancing it against the more “serious” but comparable literature of the day. Interesting to hear that Harlan Ellison removed himself from scripting duties when he felt the ending of Susann’s novel had been compromised. That Harlan, always with his shoulder against the grain.
Jacqueline Susann at a book signing.
Morgan tackles and makes a case for the more aspirational aspects of the story, and how the women take over the traditionally male roles and suffer for it, which also leads us to an interesting question to ponder: just why do we enjoy such tragic movie-star movies? Is there a self-loathing that runs through Hollywood, where they indulge in these cautionary tales about the price of stardom, or are they merely tapping into a mean streak that connects all moviegoers? We won’t ever be the next big crooner or the face of a national ad campaign, and so we like to watch our idols fail. If not us, then not them either, and none of it is what it’s cracked up to be anyway.