Entry #11: Valley of the Dolls
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
The film adaptation of Jaqueline Susann’s controversial trash literary sensation Valley of the Dolls has the curious fortune to be linked forever in the public imagination with 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a film whose title so enraged Susann that she successfully sued 20th Century Fox over it and won a posthumous judgment against the studio.
Fox went through the trouble of putting a disclaimer at the start of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls articulating that it had nothing to do with the, um, the blockbuster film in its title but in this instance, that audacious title spoke much louder than Fox’s disingenuous words. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls but it is very much a film about the earlier smash-hit, about its vulgarity, its sexism, its gleeful embrace of convention and clichés and its weird, mixed-up, uptight sexuality.
The genius of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a true trash-culture masterpiece, is that it’s about Hollywood as an industry, as an idea and an ideal. Yet it’s also more specifically about Valley of the Dolls. It doesn’t take much to elevate Valley of the Doll’s campiness to comedic levels and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls goes about as far as movies could go even in that gloriously uninhibited era.
One of the biggest hits of 1967, if not one of the year’s best pictures (memorable yes, best, God no!), the original Valley centers on three young gals who inhabit trusty show-business archetypes. There’s Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), a hard-living, hard-working, hard-partying diva with an appetite for self-destruction even bigger than her appetite for the “Dolls” of the title.
In Valley of the Dolls, “Dolls” is used as shorthand for any drug, which is like watching a movie try to be authentic in its depiction of drug addiction by constantly have characters whine, “Ugh! I wish I could have the drugs I’m addicted to! I just love drugs! I’m sure to have a withdrawal without my beloved drugs! A drug withdrawal.” I don’t want to disclose too much about my own predilections but people who use drugs tend to discuss them with a certain specificity, but Valley of the Dolls is so enamored of the slang “Dolls” it abuses it in ways that border on comic.
Then there’s Barbara Perkins as Anne Welles, the Girl Next Door, a woman plucked from office-girl obscurity to be a model on the basis of her nice figure and upscale good looks who is so boring I honestly don’t know why she’s in the movie. Lastly there is Sharon Tate as Jennifer North, the sexpot, a woman who falls into a nightmare world of French “Art” Films to support her hubby in an expensive sanitarium.
Along the way, the women become addicted to “Dolls”, the pills that allow them to wake up in the morning, stay peppy all the day, kill the appetite in order to keep those pesky pounds away but also destroy their minds, their bodies, their careers and their lives in the process. But, as I stated earlier, it does stave off the horrifying specter of cellulite, so it’s tough to reject, especially in an industry where thinness and attractiveness matters more than just about anything.
The film is inspired by Susann’s experiences as an actress earlier in her career but it’s defined by a perverse lack of sympathy for its characters, both male and female. True, the men are almost universally terrible, an ugly aggregation of sexual harassers, bitchy queens (the word “fag” is thrown around with disconcerting glibness and frequency, particularly for a film of its era) and cynical schemers but the film doesn’t see fit to punish them unrelentingly for even minor offenses the way it does its women. It depicts show business as a brutal parasite that destroys the fragile people in its grasp but it treats its own characters with glib sadism rather than empathy.
Valley of the Dolls is a story told in screaming tabloid headlines and manic montages, a ripe and ridiculous show business melodrama that instantly catapults itself into a place of prominence high atop the holy cathedral of camp. In Spinal Tap terms, it’s a film pitched perpetually at 11 that manages the remarkable feat of being way more sexist and less mature in its sexual politics than the X-rated Russ Meyer sex comedy it inspired.
Yet in spite of the film’s screaming awfulness, its purple dialogue and hammy performances, there’s something about it that resonates, that endures, that makes it so much more than just another entertainingly bad movie. Some of that lies in its success and the big space it took up culturally: the book was a scandalous bestseller that sold over ten million copies and the film was one of the top ten grossing films of a very important year in film. Valley of the Dolls was big, and remains big, and the fact that Criterion is releasing it along with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a testament more to its status as a camp landmark and kitschy staple of Americana than its quality.
When Tate’s tormented sexpot (based on Marilyn Monroe) drones to her unseen, hectoring mother, “Mother, I know I don’t have any talent. And I know all I have is a body and I AM doing my bust exercises,” it’s funny but it’s also sad and even oddly poignant. The behind-the-scenes drama of Valley of the Dolls forever keep slipping onto the screen and the morbid interplay of reality and the film’s crazed fiction only adds to both the pathos.
So while Tate’s character is deliberately an empty shell, a vacuous, beautiful black hole of a human being sluggishly ambling from one debasement to another there’s something about the nature of Tate’s beauty, and the knowledge that in a few years she would become the most famous victim of the Manson Family, that makes it strangely haunting.
Similarly, Duke gives a performance that is intensely memorable, even iconic, even if it is often memorable for the wrong reasons. In her bid to inhabit the furious ambition, incandescent rage and epic self-destruction of a character based on Judy Garland — who famously dropped out of a supporting role here when she became too drunk and self-destructive to be able to star in a movie about drunk, self-destructive actresses — Duke goes way over the top. Her performance is a gift to camp aficionados, drag queens and lovers of bleary excess. She screams her lines, mugs up a storm and is generally the campiest element of a production that is all camp.
Yet, again, there is a melancholy in knowing that if Duke’s performance is comically hammy, the pain her character experiences is a glossy, glitzy echo of the psychological gauntlet of horrors Duke endured as an exceedingly successful, and characteristically troubled and exploited child star.
That’s the thing about high camp. In its delirious excess, its exquisite badness, its fevered emotions and high-volume, high-style intensity there are sometimes intermittent moments of beauty, of grace, of transcendence. That is certainly true of Valley of the Dolls, particularly when the perpetually over-heated and over-written dialogue gives way to John Williams’ lush, appropriately Oscar-nominated score and Andre and Dory Previn’s songs.
So the question remains, I suppose, as to whether or not Valley of the Dolls qualifies as a “good” movie or not. I would argue that that’s the wrong question. Valley of the Dolls exists in a world beyond good and bad, beyond taste, beyond restraint. Even before a pair of brilliant outsiders took this craziness even further, Valley of the Dolls was already beyond. It may not be my particular happening (I’m more of an Ebert and Meyers man myself) but Valley of the Dolls still kind of freaks me out, and if that’s not the highest praise you can give a movie, in this case it’s the most appropriate.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.