(Warning: This review contains spoilers. A lot of them.)
Last week, I posted a poll and I asked you, the Shattered Lens readers, which film I should watch on March 20th and then subsequently review. You voted and the winner was the classic 1967 trashfest, Valley of the Dolls.
Based on a best-selling (and trend-setting) novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls starts out with a disclaimer that informs us that the story we’re about to see is totally fictional and purely imaginative. That disclaimer is probably the funniest part of the entire film as Valley of the Dolls is notorious for being one of the first films dedicated to showing middle America just how miserable and screwed up those famous show business types truly are. As such, the main reason for watching a movie like this is so you can sit there and compare the cinematic troubles of a character like Neely O’Hara to the true-life troubles of an actress like Lindsay Lohan. Valley of the Dolls tells the story of three aspiring stars who, as they find fame, also find themselves dealing with heartbreak, insanity, and dolls. No, not the type of dolls that my mom used to collect. These “dolls” are a bunch of red pills that do everything from keeping you thin to keeping you awake and focused. (Though the pills are never actually called anything other than “dolls,” they appear to be the same pills that I take for my ADD.)
The least interesting of our three heroines is Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins). Unfortunately, Anne is also pretty much the center of the rather draggy first hour of the film. Anne is a walking cliché, a naive girl from a small town in New England who moves to New York, gets a room at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women, and a job at a local theatrical agency. “I want to have a marriage like mom and dad…but not yet!” Anne breathlessly tells us. Anne eventually ends up as the mistress of Lyon Burke (played by Paul Burke), a writer-turned-theatrical-agent who you know has to be a cad because his name is Lyon Burke and he takes Anne’s virginity but then refuses to marry her afterward. Anne eventually becomes a model and finds fame as the face of Gilligan Hairspray but she soon finds herself forced to watch as her two best friends travel down a path of self-destruction.
Anne is the film’s token “good girl” and, as such, she’s rather bland and boring. However, her character is interesting when considered as a symbol for the confused sexual politics of the time. Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967, at a time when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to deal with the emerging counter-culture. The end result? A lot of rather old-fashioned films that were full of jarringly out-of-place counter-culture moments. By the time Valley of the Dolls came out, it was allowable to acknowledge that a single girl might actually have sex but she still had to, at the very least, feel an unbelievable amount of angst about it. That certainly is the case with Anne. Watching the film today, it’s hard to understand just what exactly Anne’s feeling guilty about. Lyon isn’t married. Anne finds success even as she pursues her relationship with him. Up until the final half of the film (at which point the morality of the time demands that both Anne and Lyon suddenly start acting totally out-of-character), Lyon treats her with about as much respect as you could probably expect to get from a man in the 1960s. And yet, Anne can’t feel complete simply because Lyon is hesitant about marrying her. When she and Lyon finally do make love, they do it with the lights off so the only thing the viewer sees are two shadowy figures holding each other. Following the film’s logic, if the lights had been left on, the character of Anne would have had to have been punished later in the film for allowing the audience to see too much of her.
When Anne first comes to New York, she befriends two actresses. The more tragic of the two is Jennifer North (played by Sharon Tate, who would be tragically murdered two years after this film came out), an insecure blonde who is valued more for her body than her talent. Jennifer spends her spare time doing bust exercises (“To hell with them!” she declares at one point as she glares down at her chest, “Let ‘em droop!”) and dealing with phone calls from her mother, demanding that Jennifer send her money. Jennifer eventually ends up marrying a singer named Tony (played by Tony Scotti). Tony is a well-meaning if simple-minded guy who is married to a creepily overprotective sister (played by Lee Grant). Eventually, it turns out that Tony has a neurological disease and he’s eventually checked into a sanitorium. Penniless, Jennifer goes France and makes “art films.” (In one of Valley of the Dolls’ better moments, we’re shown a clip of this “art film” and it turns out to be a pitch perfect satire of every single pretentious soft-core film to ever come out of Europe.) Upon returning to America, Jennifer discovers that she has breast cancer and, declaring “All I’ve got is my body,” she commits suicide.
Though Sharon Tate gets considerably less screen time than her co-stars, she probably gives the strongest performance in this film. Certainly, her story is the most emotionally effective (even if it’s hard not to feel that, as is typical of the films of both the 60s and today, Jennifer is being punished for taking off her clothes on camera). Tate perfectly captures the insecurity that comes from being continually told that you have nothing more to offer beyond how you look. In her first appearance, she’s wearing an outrageously large headdress. “I feel a little top-heavy,” she says. “You are a little top-heavy,” some guy replies while leering at her breasts. If you doubt that Sharon Tate was a good actress, just watch her reaction. She perfectly captures a pain that I personally know far too well. Her subsequent suicide scene, which has the potential to be the most tasteless part of this film, is actually the most powerful and again, it’s because Tate plays the role perfectly.
(It’s been nearly four years since I lost my mom to breast cancer and I have to admit, I had a hard time watching the scenes where Jennifer discusses her diagnosis. Tate gave a great performance here and it’s a shame that she’s been permanently linked in the public imagination with Charles Manson and the later accusations against her husband, Roman Polanski. She had real talent.)
As poignant of Sharon Tate was in her role, the film’s fame (and infamy) ultimately rests with our third heroine, Neely O’Hara (played by Patty Duke in a performance that suggests that she was literally possessed during the filming). Neely is a scrappy, aspiring singer who is fired from a broadway show when her singing threatens to upstage aging star Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward, who was brought in to replace Judy Garland). Neely, however, refuses to let anything keep her down and soon, she’s singing at a Cystic Fibrosis telethon and becoming a big star. She marries her boyfriend Mel (played by Martin Milner, who grits his teeth and spits out every line) and moves to California where she soon becomes a big star and then finds herself hooked on “booze and dolls.” (“I need a doll!” she insists on several occasions.)
One reason the film’s 2nd hour is so much more fun than the first is because the film’s focus shifts from boring Anne to out-of-control Neely. Increasingly temperamental and unstable, Neely soon starts to spend all of her time with dress designer Ted Casablanca (a great name, if nothing else.) “You’re spending more time than necessary with that fag Ted Casablanca,” Mel tells her to which Neely replies, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it.” This, of course, leads to a divorce and soon Neely is living with Mr. Casablanca who informs her, after he gets caught cheating, “You made me feel as if I was queer…that little whore makes me feel 9 feet tall.”
When Lyon and Anne attempt to force Neely to enter a sanitorium, she responds to running off to San Francisco where she enters a bar and shouts, “I’M NEELY O’HARA!” before then wandering down a sleazy street and ranting, “Boobies, boobies! Nothing but boobies! Who needs them!?” Needless to say, this leads to her eventually overdosing and ending up in that sanitorium where she has a huge freak-out before singing a duet with Tony and resolving to get her life back in order. This, naturally, leads to her getting released, having an affair with Lyon, and then returning to Broadway where, in the film’s most deliriously odd moment, she steals Helen Lawson’s wig and flushes it down a toilet.
Valley of the Dolls is, admittedly, a terrible film but it’s also a lot of fun and that’s largely because of Patty Duke’s berserk performance as Neely O’Hara. Earlier, I said that Duke’s performance appears to suggest that she may have been possessed but, honestly, that barely begins to describe it. Whereas Tate managed to find some truth in the film’s melodrama and Parkins gives a performance that suggests that the script put her in a coma, Duke attacks every inch of melodramatic dialogue, barking out her dialogue with all the ferocity of a yapping little chiuaua. Duke gives a performance that is so completely and totally over-the-top that it’s hard not to respect her commitment to capturing every overheated, melodramatic moment.
I have to admit that one reason why I love this film is because I’m hoping that someday some enterprising director will remake it and cast me as Neely O’Hara. Everytime I watch this film, I find myself thinking about how much it would be to respond to every petty annoyance by screeching out, “I’m NEELY O’HARA!” Seriously, just think about it. As a character, Neely is a talented, ambitious, emotional, unstable, immature, demanding, bratty, spoiled, and determined. Sound like anyone whose film reviews you might have been reading recently? From my previous experience as a community theater ingenue, I can assure you that I can deliver melodramatic dialogue with the best of them and, unlike Patty Duke in this film, I can actually dance. Unfortunately, I can’t carry a tune to save my life but I’m thinking maybe they could bring in Kelly Clarkson to serve as my singing voice. (Or maybe Jessica Simpson. Did I ever mention that we both went to the same high school? Though not at the same time, of course.) After all, if Patty Duke could be obviously dubbed, why not me? I can just see myself now, wandering down some sleazy city street, singing to myself and declaring at the top of my lungs, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it!” I know that Lindsay Lohan will probably insist that this is the role she was born to play, but seriously, who needs Linsday when you’ve got a Lisa?
Beyond the so-bad-that-its-good appeal of the film, Valley of the Dolls is a fascinating cultural artifact for the reasons that I previously hinted at while talking about the character of Anne Welles. Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967 and, as such, it’s a perfect exhibit of an unstable time when Hollywood was unsure about whether it should embrace the “new morality” or if it should continue to recycle the same sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that had nearly bankrupted the big studios. The result was several films that felt oddly schizophrenic in their approach and that is certainly the case with Mark Robson’s direction of Valley of the Dolls. Whether it’s the way the film continually hints at nudity and sex while carefully not revealing too much or the way that random psychedelic sequences seem to suddenly appear on-screen, this is a movie that perfectly captures an uncertain film industry trying to figure out where it stands in a scary new world.
As always, I enjoyed watching this undeniably bad but just as undeniably compelling film. Our readers chose well! Thank you to everyone who voted and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this review almost as much I enjoyed writing it.