I have a confession to make.
When I chose Valley of the Dolls as my film for this blogathon, I referred to it as a “guilty pleasure.”
I am here to tell you that I feel absolutely no guilt for loving this film.
Why, one may ask, would a film enthusiast pick a movie like Valley of the Dolls when the subject of the blogathon is one of the great turning point years in cinematic history? Why not pick Bonnie & Clyde, or The Graduate, or Weekend?
This movie was reviled in its time and to this day is still brought up as a campy nightmare. (Roger Ebert loathed it so much he couldn’t be bothered to keep straight which characters occupied which scene–ironic since he wrote the “sequel” Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and was famously touchy when people criticized it.)
The novel it’s based on was equally reviled. There’s no better way to put this, I think–in her day, author Jacqueline Susann was Stephenie Meyer/E.L. James/Dan Brown rolled up into one. Critics trashed her and her novel. New York Magazine critic John Simon (famous for hating pretty much EVERYTHING, but mostly for hating Susann) once had a notorious encounter with Susann on TV. His vitriol seemed more appropriate for a child murderer than a best-selling author.
I found a copy of the paperback a few years ago at a garage sale, and thought it would be a hoot to read it again for the first time in at least 30 years. I was surprised to find that it’s not nearly the insult to literary achievement that many critics (mostly male) of her day would have us believe. Like many writers of popular novels, Susann was hardly an elegant wordsmith. But she could spin a hell of a yarn.
Is this adaptation a great movie? No. There are two things I won’t even pretend to defend: first of all the music. There are several terrible songs in it (save the theme song sung by Dionne Warwick, which is actually pretty great). Written by Andre and Dory Previn, the songs are like Burt Bacharach rejects someone fished out of his garbage pail.
Secondly, there’s Patty Duke’s performance as a Judy Garland/Betty Hutton-inspired starlet. Duke is a wonderful actress, but for some reason here she’s atrocious–either a case of horrendous miscasting or of a director losing control of his actress, possibly both.
The movie is full of soapy melodrama, populated with characters that are obviously thinly-disguised real-life famous people, and features some hilariously overwrought dialogue–a prototype for best-selling writers such as Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins. It also features one of, if not THE great camp classic scene in cinema: a catfight in a public restroom that ends with the victor flushing her opponent’s wig down a toilet. Mommy Dearest’s hanger scene isn’t even a close second on the camp meter, in my opinion.
Yet I would argue in certain ways Valley of the Dolls is as radical as some of the more critically-acclaimed movies of 1967.
The story is an extrapolation of the woman’s career films of the 1950s, and Rona Jaffe novels, such as The Best of Everything, where three or more plucky girls hit the big city to find success and romance. Only it adds an extra ingredient: fame.
All three major characters, Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins), Neely O’Hara (Duke) and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) find fame in some form during the course of the story. Anne escapes a cold and uptight existence in New England to work for an entertainment lawyer. She falls for Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) a man uninterested in permanent commitment. She is discovered by a cosmetics mogul and becomes a spokesmodel for his product.
Neely is a talented singer and actress who so threatens Broadway superstar Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) she is cut from her show. (This is supposedly based on true-life incident where Ethel Merman cut Betty Hutton out of a show.) She overcomes the career setback and becomes a huge film and stage star, but can’t cope with the rigors of fame. She becomes addicted to pills she calls “dolls.”
Jennifer believes she has no real talent except for her beauty. She falls in love with a singer named Tony Polar (Tony Scotti). His overprotective sister Miriam (Lee Grant) tries to interfere in the romance, to no avail. When Jennifer announces she is pregnant, Miriam confesses that Tony is ill with a genetic disease that will eventually turn him into a vegetable. Jennifer has an abortion and moves to Europe to make high-class nudie pictures to pay for his hospitalization.
There isn’t even a whisper in the movie devoted to the counter-culture of the time. Even so, it grapples with some serious issues that few, if any, movies before it even touched: ageism, sexism, body image, breast cancer (Susann herself suffered from the disease), abuse of prescription drugs and the special cruelty women face when society decides the passage of time trumps talent.
Apparently, Susann coined the term “dolls” for pills. Of course, it has a double meaning. The “dolls” are also the three main characters, wanted and worshiped as long as they can provide “value” through their youth and beauty.
Neely is such an unpleasant character, driven by arrogance, drugs and overwork to alienate nearly everyone around her. (An argument can be made that she acts like a man, yet we don’t forgive her flaws the way we often do with male characters.) But there are moments when the movie shows her some sympathy. One morning after a binge Lyon awakens Neely and warns her that her career is in danger because of her erratic behavior.
Lyon: They’re going to replace you with a younger girl.
Neely: Younger? Lyon, I’m 26!
Lyon: You look 36.
In this world, there’s nothing worse than a woman who loses at least the illusion of youth.
After the infamous catfight in the ladies room, Helen Lawson expresses some pity for Neely, even after she has humiliated her and forced her to face the advancing years. Lawson acknowledges both Neely’s talent and the neediness that will ultimately destroy her.
(Susan Hayward is amazing, as always. She replaced Judy Garland, who was fired for the exact same reasons as Neely in the movie. Making the movie even more meta.)
In the same scene, something rather remarkable happens. Lawson advises Lyon to quit flitting from woman to woman and settle down with a nice girl and have children.
Helen: …or one day you’ll wind up alone like me. And wonder what the hell happened.
I say this scene is remarkable because in the “career girl” films of the 50s and early 60s, this speech is usually reserved for the main woman character, NOT the man. Here, gender is taken out of the equation and it becomes about how fame and ambition can hurt BOTH men and women.
Neely’s final downfall is another camp classic scene–getting both high and drunk just before she’s about to go on stage opening night (and replaced with a girl with a just a tiny bit of a resemblance to Barbra Streisand) she ends up screaming and crawling on the ground next to garbage cans in an alleyway. As silly as the scene plays out, though, it still brings to mind many actors who were destroyed by drugs, including Garland.
Given a diagnosis of breast cancer and scheduled for a mastectomy, Jennifer can’t face the fact that she can no longer make a living off her body and turns to dolls for the solution. While one of the things in the movie people like to giggle over most is Jennifer’s obsession with keeping up her appearance (the bust exercise scene in particular) I think the movie is actually serious about the issue of body image. (Unfortunately, Jennifer’s suicide scene is almost ruined by–ugh–a flashback of Tony singing one of those horrible Previn songs.)
Of course, in hindsight one of the things what makes Jennifer seem such a tragic figure is what we know of Sharon Tate’s ultimate fate. But I would argue that Tate is genuinely affecting and gives the character an aching vulnerability. (Book Jennifer is far more calculating.) When she tells Anne all she ever had is her body and now she won’t even have that, it’s another moment the movie acknowledges the limited space where women are allowed to find value in themselves. Jennifer is a loving and loyal person, but can’t see that she has anything to offer the world beyond her body. How appropriate that she takes the deadly dose of pills while looking in a mirror.
As for Anne, who is accused by most reviewers of being the most boring character of the three, I want to defend her a bit. She’s the most relatable character, living out the fantasy of moving to the big city and finding the seemingly unattainable guy of her dreams — a trope that still plays out in modern popular culture (coughCarrieSexAndTheCitycough). In the book her fate is rather grim–she finally marries Lyon and has a baby she names after Jennifer, but when he finds out she got him his current job, he decides she has “emasculated” him and resumes cheating on her. The final scene is of Anne going to the medicine cabinet to get some dolls to help her sleep and cope with her disillusionment.
The final scene in the movie is completely different and kind of awesome. After she returns to her New England home following a botched suicide attempt, Lyon seeks her out and proposes marriage. She basically tells him to shove his marriage proposal.
Of course, Hollywood movies have to hold out SOME hope for a “happily ever after” and she tells him “maybe someday.”
But watching Anne walk off into the woods behind her house, you know there will never be a “someday.” She breathes in deep, closes her eyes, smiles, raises her arms in triumph. She finds a branch and starts swinging it around almost like a Jedi warrior. She is HAPPY to be facing a future of uncertainty without a man.
That’s why I say this movie is almost radical. Even today, it’s rare to find this kind of ending to a woman’s journey (coughCarrieSexAndTheCitycough).
I love it. And don’t feel the least bit guilty about saying so.