Reassessing the importance – or lack thereof – of Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls (1967); hoping to discover a nugget of wisdom or gemstone in truth is a little like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It just isn’t there. Determined, with sizable effort, and at even more considerable expense, to transform Jacqueline Susann’s smut-laden, best-selling novel into an as shocking exposé on hedonistic Hollywood, director, Robson emerges with one of the most scathingly silly examples of super kitsch, so ill-conceived even in its own time, that by today’s standards it cannot help but typify the awkward disconnect between ‘old school’ studio product and the grittier verve for reality soon to become Tinsel Town’s bread and butter. Valley of the Dolls is such a colossal atrocity it can only be viewed in bad taste. And yet, setting aside the idiocy of the exercise, and perhaps indulging in a few ‘uppers’ at the start, it is nevertheless possible to be grotesquely bemused and marginally (choke!) entertained by this train wreck.
Our empathy is meant to align with three fair-weather gals on the fast track to nowhere; inexperienced Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), who gets a light smack, intermittently on the tushy and puss as propriety demands; transformed from fresh-faced ingénue into a woman of the world by way of a detour into the not-so-glamorous life of a shampoo spokesmodel (huh?); Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, woefully miscast), a ruthless wannabe cum Broadway/Hollywood ‘has been’ in her own time, and finally, buxom Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a doe-eyed sexpot whose biggest assets are front and center, living to support her money-grubbing mother, and succumbing to the allure of doing blue movies to pay the rent. Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but…huh, girlie?!? Promoting the buzz words ‘fag’ and ‘bitch’ from Susann’s novel – then, virtually unheard in American movies – Valley of the Dolls nevertheless lacks the crotch-kicking wallop and commercial crassness of the book; Robson, an ole-time workhorse, perhaps marginally ashamed this is where those many tenured years have led, struggling to adhere to the novel’s splashy salaciousness as a big entertainment with oodles of sex, heaped like excrement atop an already steaming pile of fresh manure.
It doesn’t work, chiefly because Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley’s screenplay emasculates all of the more graphic references to homosexuality in Susann’s novel except for sporadic usage of the word ‘fag.’ What we are left with then is an utterly bizarre cacophony of subplots: a real dead-end soap-opera, replete with dirty old men, young sex-crazed Lochinvars, and unrepentant, greedy, pill-popping social climbers. A real shame too this heap of flailing limbs never entirely find the right moment to slip out of their Gucci handbags and Armani suits to really show us how uncannily perverse the…um… ‘magic’ of Hollywood can get. For a time, books like Valley of the Dolls were all the rage in the publishing industry; Hollywood, eager to capitalize on their pre-sold titles, while gruesomely undecided whether to take them seriously or simply play everything with an overt puerility, perhaps even more disturbing than the truth. Laugh, fools, laugh! Just don’t choke on your own drug-induced vomit.
It would be very funny – even ironic – if not for some dreadful enactments; Susan Hayward’s tough-as-nails bitch in heels, Helen Lawson (a role originally intended for Judy Garland); the shrike of Broadway, stung by Neely with impromptu malice, ripping off her quaffed wig to reveal a matted horror of hair during their bathroom brawl. Personally, I am partial to Tony Scotti’s Vegas-styled lounge lizard, Tony Polar; so badly botched as something of a Tom Jones knock-off; gyrating in white polyester and red velvet tuxedoes; later, succumbing to one of those undisclosed auto-immune disorders where suddenly, certain body parts do not function as they should; tripping over his own feet and falling on his face, in the process garnering empathy from Jennifer; quietly despised by his half-sister, Miriam (Lee Grant, utterly wasted in a role spent mostly skulking about corners and dropping acrimonious one-liners with faraway viperous glances like a Medean demigod).
Actually, it is Sharon Tate’s performance I find most heartrending, although I am still not entirely certain whether my empathy holds because of what is on the screen, or is modeled in retroactive remorse for those fateful moments she endured on Aug. 8th, 1969; Tate and a gathering of friends violated and murdered in the most heinous manner by the demented followers of Charles Manson. Tate’s career was arguably going nowhere at the time she married director, Roman Polanski. And, just like her alter ego in this picture, Tate in life played up the part of a woman with limited assets above the neck. Despite stunning looks, it is fairly unlikely Tate would have achieved immortality as a star of the first magnitude after Valley of the Dolls. Still, her Jennifer North is the most genuine creature in this unholy menagerie; truly, a lost soul, whose celluloid suicide seems, ominously, to foreshadow the nightmare that befell her scarcely two years later.
The mid-1960’s were undeniably a time of great upheaval in Hollywood; the dream factories on the wane, the moguls either deposed, retired or dead; their vast empires left to languish in the hands of less-than-competent managements only interested in the bottom line on a balance sheet. On the flipside, there was the mainstream proliferation of pornographic publications like Playboy and Hustler, lending credence to the greasy promise every young starlet could go legit by way of a few off-color favors devoted to the proverbial ‘casting couch’. All of this is alluded to in Valley of the Dolls – the movie; Jacqueline Susann having virtually no compunction about calling out the pleasure-seekers on her own terms. As author, Grace Metalious had done much to blacken the good name of Bible-thumping mid-town America with Peyton Place, Susann’s riveting exposé took dead aim at the peccadilloes of more cosmopolitan places in need of no encouragement to do the wrong thing; Manhattan and L.A. distilled into the East Coast Sodom and West Coast Gomorrah of ye modern times. Was Susann wrong in her assumptions? Hardly. Was she perhaps more flamboyant in her assessments of the reality? Perhaps. Did she strike both a chord and a nerve with the public, while casting light – or rather, a pall – on this den of iniquity? Absolutely!
It is difficult to argue with Susann’s formulaic Roman à clef; a pop culture phenomena selling a whopping 30 million copies and remaining #1 on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year. With so much drivel having followed it since, Valley of the Dolls in paperback now appears less likely to have inspired an entire cottage industry devoted to naughty navel-gazing masqueraded as ‘literature’ with ever-interminable amounts of below-the-belt sex-ploitation. This has long worn out its welcome, or rather, become utterly prevalent as to appear moderately dull to downright mainstream and thus, boring. Valley of the Dolls concerns itself with an unlikely tri-way bond of friendship; women from varying backgrounds with a singular goal in mind – to live an exciting life. Alas, disparate ambitions force them to achieve the ripe blossom of their wish fulfillment in different, though no less self-destructive ways; tainted by the feminist notion every Junior Miss can have it all with just a little cleverly timed, go-getting liberation employed from their Pandora’s box of tricks; legs crossed while performing the proverbial mind fuck on their unsuspecting male counterparts; too simplistically stereotyped in Susann’s prose as misogynist dinosaurs, incapable of seeing beyond the bulge in their tight-fitting polyester.
The novel is a much more integrated affair than the movie, which begins presumably as Anne Welle’s story. Having left the repressive New England enclave of Lawrenceville far behind, B.A. at Radcliffe, Anne moves into the Martha Washington Hotel for Women, teeming with giddy excitement. She takes a job as an administrative assistant in the reputable law firm of Bellamy and Bellows, attorneys handling legal issues for highly temperamental theatrical clientele. Anne’s first assignment is a doozy; getting Broadway broad, Helen Lawson to give her John Hancock on a pair of contracts. Helen’s crude, cruel and calculating - a real eye-opener for Anne, who also meets prepubescent press agent, Mel Anderson (Martin Milner). Mel reminds Anne of the boy she left behind in New England; just the sort of nobody good to have as a friend, but a real pill as a lover. Alas, it won’t take long for Anne to become acquainted with a new kind of reptile – and pill – barbiturates, popularized as ‘dolls’ in Susann’s novel. Back at the office, Anne meets Bellamy’s partner, Lyon Burke (played with antiseptic charm by Paul Burke). Rumored a real wolf around the water cooler, Anne is completely taken in by Lyon’s smooth sales pitch. Lyon encourages Anne to stick with her chosen profession, reminding her that once in a very long while, along with the ripe old queens like Helen Lawson, a real trooper a la Gertrude Lawrence or a Mary Martin is discovered.
Helen wants Neely O’Hara gone from her show. The girl has spunk, talent and, most threatening of all, a choice spot at the end of the first act with a song of her own that will bring down the house if anyone ever hears it. But Helen is the star. And so the song goes as does Neely, offered the option to stay in her dressing room at a lousy $200 a week for the run of the contract or simply walk away with dignity. Neely chooses dignity – and tears – comforted in her dressing room by Mel, who has nothing but her best interests at heart. Lyon takes pity on the girl and sets up a high profile appearance during the Cystic Fibrosis telethon. Listening to Patty Duke warble the woefully imbalanced ‘It’s Impossible’ (one of five travesties co-written by Andre and Dory Previn) with a sort of epileptic deadpan, it increasingly becomes impossible to imagine any producer finding a kernel of talent there left to exploit. The most amusing aspect of the number is Duke’s stiff-limbed delivery (she looks like a cross between the clubbed foot Frankenstein monster and scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz…before the pole was removed from his backside!); Neely’s beaded necklace frenetically wobbling about her anemic bosom, forming unusual geometric patterns that drawing undue attention, Duke rolling her eyes as though constipation has already set in, from which, at any moment, her head might unexpectedly burst.
Lyon decides to cap off the evening by taking Anne, Neely and Mel on the town. Also present is chorus girl, Jennifer North, out on a date with a much older man, but who finds the undue attention given by oily lounge singer, Tony Polar fairly uncomfortable. Who can really blame her? In a production plagued by too many misfires, one of the absolute worst is Tony Scotti; his thin effete voice and goony dark looks hardly matinee idol material. Nevertheless, Jen is smitten. Having thus set up our principal players, the Deutsch/Kingsley screenplay now wallows in the prerequisites of screenwriting 101, establishing frequently strained intersections between these varied lives. Lyon attempts to woe Neely away from Mel. But then he decides to go after Anne – an easier mark, oblivious to the disreputable ways of a chronic womanizer. Jen’s relationship with Tony is momentarily interrupted by Miriam who harbors a disruptive sisterly obsession. It doesn’t matter. Jen marries Tony on the fly and soon becomes pregnant with his child. Despite having no talent and only marginal looks to pass as anything better than an overstuffed maître d, Tony lands a deal in Hollywood. Too bad, just as Miriam predicted, he soon begins to exhibits the first signs of the family’s medical curse; a congenital brain condition that will ultimately leave him incapacitated and slobbering on his own drool.
Lyon takes Anne to see Helen’s show; an absurdly phantasmagoric revue. We digress even further, into montage; an interminable series of cutaways illustrating Neely’s meteoric rise as the toast of the New York nightclub circuit. On the road to fame, Neely discovers ‘dolls’ – uppers to push her raw talent into the stratosphere – and downers to set her mind at ease after hours. Lyon and Anne become lovers. More sex – behind closed doors – more ‘dolls’ – merely referenced as part and parcel, and, more infidelities, unnaturally masked, but frequently inferring with the course of true happiness; suppositions made by addlepated minds with nothing better to discuss in between rehearsals and opening nights. Amidst all this headiness in good times and great sex, Lyon suddenly develops cold feet, dumping Anne via a note left for her with the bartender at their favorite New England watering hole. Anne is devastated, but moves on to a new man, square-jawed Kevin Gillmore (Charles Drake), responsible for promoting her as the unlikeliest spokesmodel for a new kind of shampoo. Flying to California with Tony and Jennifer, Anne is inadvertently reunited with Lyon. He is slick as ever. But the bloom of Anne’s naiveté has rubbed off. As Kevin knows nothing of Anne’s previous romance, he is cordial to Lyon who, despite having taken up with a new gal, now cannot help but reason he has made a colossal mistaking ditching Anne.
In Hollywood, Neely becomes a big star. But the breadth of her success is blunted by troubles at home; friction with Mel and constant needling by the studio to be ‘on’ twenty-four hours a day. Mel confides in Jennifer, he believes Neely has already begun to burn the candle dangerously at both ends. But Neely equally confesses to her best friend the studio has all but kicked Mel off the lot, labeling his concern for her as ‘butting in’ where he is decidedly not wanted. When Neely backs the opinion of studio exec, Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion), Jennifer’s offhanded remark, “You know how bitchy fags can be” does little more than raise Neely’s dander. Besides, Ted gives every indication his predilection is for tarts, not twinks; Neely discovering Ted in her pool with a floozy he has promised to mold into a star to replace the increasingly temperamental and very self-destructive Neely. As Tony’s condition worsens, Miriam reminds Jennifer their financial situation is precarious. Tony will never realize his ambitions as a great star – even a mediocre one. So, it is time to consider alternative ways to making money. Miriam has a thought – a rather insidious one at that – pushing Jennifer into doing ‘French’ art house movies for budding porn director, Claude Chardot (Richard Angarola). Somehow, Anne forgives Lyon his indiscretions and once more falls under his romantic spell. In the meantime, Neely hits rock bottom for the first time. Finding a seedy theater playing one of Jen’s ‘art house’ movies, Neely, inebriated and full of self-pity, awakens the next morning in a grungy motel room with some man whose name she cannot even remember. Meanwhile, Jennifer realizes her slave contract to Chardot is a trap. Worse, she is diagnosed with breast cancer – the ‘kiss of death’ (figuratively and literally) for any superficial creature prided on her looks. Forlorn and without recourse, Jen decides to commit suicide – never the easy way out, but an escape from the insanity she has been living for far too long.
Lyon rescues Neely from a near overdose, sending her to the same sanitarium where Tony has been committed. While Neely recovers from her self-inflicted addictions, there is no reprieve for Tony, who sinks deeper into his state of catatonia, momentarily given a reprieve when Neely serenades him with a verse and chorus from his old lounge favorite, ‘Come Live With Me’. Anne begins to suspect Lyon’s interests in Neely run deeper than charity, and, of course, her hunch is right on the money. Thus, Anne leaves Lyon to pursue his flawed relationship. Reunited with her old arch nemesis, Helen Lawson, Neely decides to teach the old broad a lesson. The barbs fly fast and furious; Helen accusing Neely of being a pill-happy lush and addict, and Neely, calling Helen ‘grandma’, inferring her beaux are a bunch of sycophantic ‘fags’, snatching the wig off her head and attempting to flush it down the toilet. At first humiliated, Helen asks the powder maid how she can exit the gala unseen. But then, with dignity, Helen elects to go out the way she came. Sometime later, Lyon and Bellamy discourage Helen from contemplating retirement. After all, the truly great stars do not retire – nor do they fade into obscurity. Ever the barracuda, Helen plants seeds of apprehension in both their minds where Neely O’Hara is concerned. Neely doesn’t have that ‘hard edge’. She never learned to roll with the punches, and in the end, she will never be one tenth the legend Helen is, built to endure – and ultimately, to last.
Having fallen into the same trap as her friends, Anne is stirred to sobriety when her feeble attempt to drown herself miserably fails and she awakens face down on the wet sands near her California home. It is time to go home – not to New York – but all the way back to Lawrenceville; not really a bad place if you want to wind up married and living the quiet life with no real prospects for fame or fortune. Meanwhile, Lyon has run his course with Neely. Having burned a lot of bridges Neely is no longer the toast of either Hollywood or New York. In fact, she cannot even hold down a middling ‘star’ spot at a lousy third-rate New Jersey playhouse, accosting her understudy in a drunken rage before being fired and carried out kicking and screaming. Getting quietly stoned at a local bar, Neely is denied last call by the bartender. In the alley just behind she is left to wallow in self-pity; shrieking her name into the cold night sky with no one left to hear her; no one to care what happens from now on. Too little/too late, Lyon rushes to Lawrenceville to pledge his devotion to Anne. Mercifully, she has acquired a thicker skin this time around, immune to his faux incredulity. Apologies mean nothing. Even as Anne suggests perhaps ‘someday’ Lyon might have cause to hope for another chance with her, Anne departs through the snow with sober abandonment, breathing in the crisp morning air. She will never be Lyon’s woman and, for the first time in a long while, she really means it. Life begins anew and sometimes, without the ones we never thought we could afford to lose.
At the time of its release, film critic, Bosley Crowthers noted, “Bad as Jacqueline Susann's ‘Valley of the Dolls’ is as a book, the movie Mark Robson has made from it is that bad or worse. It's an unbelievably hackneyed and mawkish mish-mash of backstage plots and ‘Peyton Place’ adumbrations…as phony and old-fashioned as anything Lana Turner ever did…All a fairly respectful admirer of movies can do is laugh at it and turn away.” I could not agree more. The picture miserably fails, either as tell-all entertainment, or as a moderately durable farce. For some obnoxious and inexplicably moronic reason, Valley of the Dolls has acquired a gay following – meaningless, considering the homoerotic aspects of the novel have been completely expunged from the screen, with references to homosexuality reduced to name-calling as ‘bitchy fags’; hardly a rewarding moniker to wear with rainbow-colored pride. I will presume Robson’s endeavor was to elevate Susann’s salacious prose to urbane pornography. What he has actually done is transform scandal into camp and not even of the caliber to amuse in an “it’s so bad, it’s good” sort of way. Acting throughout Valley of the Dolls is uniformly awful and of the second-rate, self-pitying ilk we are used to seeing on daytime soap operas; the plot lines not much better and consistently falling into a category as rank tantrums with the lowest common denominator and appeal.
Barbara Parkins, who is given the plum role as the naïve New Englander, about to have her head and loins turned inside out, is the most obscurely realized character – all but disappearing into the backdrop. By contrast, Patty Duke’s Neely is the most obscenely flamboyant. Yet Duke exhibits none of the finely honed acting chops previous displayed in her breakout performance in The Miracle Worker (1962); herein, afflicted with over-the-top mania and a streak of self-deluding sadism. Again, our empathy aligns with Sharon Tate’s cancer-stricken sex kitten, who would rather commit suicide than lop off one of her most marketable commodities. Ironically, Mark Robson ought to have been the ideal choice for this sort of seedy melodrama, having transformed Peyton Place into a huge hit for Fox in 1957. But Valley of the Dolls is an unmitigated disaster with little if any redeeming qualities; Robson completely out of his depth as he strives for shock value. His workaday direction never rises above mediocre and frequently gets dragged through the mud without any help from this ensemble of warped and frustrated social misfits.
The attempt by the Previns to transform portions of Valley of the Dolls into a pseudo-musical is a bungle; the songs so clumsily slapped together they give new meaning to the phrase ‘tone deaf’; overproduced, yet undernourished. By 1967, André Previn had all but abandoned his career as a film composer to concentrate on becoming a premiere concert conductor. He was also at the tail end of an imploding marriage plagued by drug addiction. But the shifting meters and tempos infused here – situated somewhere between jazz/blues and a waltz – are strewn as though composition itself were an afterthought to notes blown through an air hose and kazoo. Composer, John Williams adapts Previn’s efforts with a certain disregard for subtly that mirrors the heavy-handed approach Robson has given the visuals; clunky, noisy and staccato-driven; Dion Warwick’s faraway and careworn warbling of ‘the theme’; a leitmotif chronically regurgitated throughout the movie. Today, it is quite impossible to deduce what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was thinking in nominating Williams for ‘Best Original Score’; a prize mercifully awarded to Elmer Bernstein for his lush orchestrations on Hawaii. In the final analysis, “it’s Impossible” to appreciate Valley of the Dolls as anything but a colossal and truly horrendous joke.
I suppose, owing to its cult status, Criterion has reasoned Valley of the Dolls worthy of their deluxe treatment. Their efforts are described as derived from a ‘new’ 2K digital restoration and I must say, this transfer is considerably different from the now retired Fox DVD release. But honestly, it’s about time we retired 2K transfers for 4K transfers, especially since the new 4K medium is actually gaining ground. The palette herein is decidedly cooler and slightly ‘bluer’ than anticipated – darker too. But is it truer to the film….hmmmmm?!? Snow that appeared white on the DVD has adopted a teal-ish tint; not to the egregious levels generally associated with some of Fox’s other DeLuxe transfers. Thank heaven! Flesh tones are markedly improved on this Blu-ray. Bonus, there! But blacks look rather murky deep gray or slightly tinted navy rather than deep, rich and enveloping blacks. Colors, comparatively speaking, can also look a tad ‘washed out’ at times. Never having seen Valley of the Dolls in theaters I cannot rightly say which transfer best supports the film. Personally, and despite vastly improved textures and overall marginally better detail, I didn’t really find this presentation delivering the ‘wow’ factor generally associated with Blu-ray. The image just looks dated without appearing entirely ‘faded’.
Criterion gives us a DTS 3.0 audio that is very impressive with crisp sounding dialogue and Andre Previn’s score and songs achieving a new level of bouncy clarity surely to impress. Extras are heaped upon this release; 2006’s audio commentary from E!’s Ted Casablanca and Barbara Parkins, still a very comprehensive listening experience. Criterion ditches the isolated score tracks – a pity – but keeps the half hour Hollywood Backstory episode that effectively covers the making of the movie. A pair of interviews with writer, Amy Fine Collins, the first, about Jacqueline Susann and another about costume design, fill a half hour and Kim Morgan gives a rather fascinating video essay – at only eighteen minutes, densely packed with revealing stuff. We also get fifteen minutes of footage from Sparkle Patty Sparkle!, a 2009 tribute to Patty Duke at the Castro Theatre. Ported over from the DVD is a rather lengthy piece on Jacqueline Susann, plus two half hour promos from 1967. Film critic, Glenn Kenny delivers an eloquent essay on the movie’s lasting impact. Bottom line: Valley of the Dolls is absurd camp; dumb, silly nonsense for which I still cannot find an adequate place in my heart to recommend it to anyone with good taste – or any, for that matter. That’s a personal opinion of course. But Criterion’s Blu-ray at least makes the experience of sitting through this weighty, crass and idiotic film again marginally agreeable, if, without ever becoming entirely palpable. As before, I’ll simply say – pass, and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)