Mark Robson’s 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling novel about the lives of three women in the fast-paced world of sex, drugs (“dolls”), and terrible showtunes (“I’ll plant my own tree and I’ll make it grow/My tree will not be just one in a row”) was never intended to be a camp classic (as is usually the case), but over four decades later it is still regarded as one of the greatest achievements in inept cinema.
Let’s meet the ladies:
There’s Anne (Barbara Parkins), a small-town good girl who seeks fame and fortune in the big city but soon finds herself on a merry-go-round that she can’t get off.
Neely (Patty Duke) is a plucky, talented gal who finds fame at a very young age, but being a star is a lot to handle and she becomes a drug and booze-addicted has-been only a few years later.
Finally, there’s poor Jennifer (Sharon Tate), whose only “talent” is her body. She ends up having no choice but to whore herself out in French “art” films for money.
Valley of the Dolls is at times a fun viewing experience; however, learning the life-imitating-art-imitating-life story of the making of it is even more fun and scandalous than the film itself and makes viewing the film much more interesting.
For example, Judy Garland, on whom the character Neely is partially based, was originally cast in the role of aging star Helen Lawson, but she ended up being replaced by Susan Hayward after her on-set antics proved to be too much. (I imagine it played out a lot like the scene in which Neely throws a drunken tantrum on a movie set and gets fired.) Hollywood was so much more glamorous back in the less celebrity-accessible days before Perez Hilton when there was still an aire of mystery about movie stars and scandals were easy to cover up, so to read behind-the-scenes accounts of what was really going on is quite fascinating. This is also exactly why Susann’s novel itself was so controversial and successful.
Whoa, this is going to an Inception-place- sorry. My point is, read up on the drama behind the film before watching, it makes it better.
The film is very stylized in that quirky 60’s aesthetic and makes for a great timepiece. The clothes, hair, and make-up are a drag queen’s dream. You can almost smell the Aqua-net and Jean Nate.
Also, I found myself captivated by Barbara Parkins’ voice. I wish I sounded like that, I think people would take me more seriously.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little letdown after viewing Valley of the Dolls though. It’s campy and horrible, but nowhere near as campy and horrible as I expected and wanted it to be. It’s laughably melodramatic, the dialogue is so on the nose that it’s up it, and the direction is tragically misguided, however as a whole, it’s nowhere near as awesome as that all sounds. There are some shining, or I should say, sparkling, moments, but overall, it didn’t fully satiate my appetite for junk food.
The film starts off promising enough with a close-up on the stars of the movie: the pills, which cleverly open up and “snow” into a strangely filmed flashback sequence narrated by the character of Anne. It then segues into the opening credits while the theme song (sung by Dionne Warwick) plays for the first of literally 154 times. During the credits we even learn that the gowns were designed by Travilla. (That’s important stuff!) From there though, I started wondering what the big deal was.
The biggest indicator of a fun awful movie is usually the horrible acting, but the acting was nowhere near as bad as I had hoped, in fact nearly all the performances were decent. (Note I said “nearly all”—anyone who has seen this knows where I’m going and I’ll get to Ms. Duke in a little bit.)
Plus there’s the whole Manson murder thing which the viewer is reminded of every time the forever impossibly gorgeous Sharon Tate is on the screen (especially in her final scene). Knowing her tragic fate only a few years later makes it difficult to completely dive head-first into the fondue-fest that is this movie.
Hmm, deep-fried Snickers fondue….. Be right back….
For a film about showbiz scandals originally marketed as “Shocking!” it’s pretty damn tame, even for its time. I wasn’t expecting full frontal or anything, but the only nudity consists of one two-second boob flash. The sex scenes are modest and tasteful – the old towel-drop/close-up kiss silhouette/fade-to-morning kind of stuff, literally. It’s as if Robson was afraid of the source material and glossed over or outright omitted anything that made him blush. So much so that in a later scene I couldn’t tell if two characters were having an affair or if they were just very good friends.
I had the same gripe about the language—a couple “damns” and a “bastard” or two. The most offensive word in the movie is a three-letter slur for a gay man but I’d imagine it wasn’t as jarring to someone viewing it back in 1967 as it is now in 2011.
*I’m cheating a little here because this one’s more of a toast.
It’s pretty hilarious that the film’s most critically panned performance is by an Oscar winner.
Let’s all drink up to the greatness that is Neely O’Hara as portrayed by Patty Duke.
Being a child of the 80’s who grew up on reruns of The Patty Duke Show on Nick at Nite, this was a pretty amazing thing to see.
Every scene featuring Neely’s downward spiral from spirited ingénue to wig-ripping, bottle-throwing has-been is gold. Her delivery of quotable gems such as “Boobies, boobies, boobies! Nothin’ but boobies! Who needs ‘em?” is truly something to behold. I’m not sure whether to blame/thank Duke herself or Robson’s direction for the extraordinarily insane depiction of Neely, but it’s clear that at least one of them thought this was another Oscar-worthy performance at the time.
Here’s a taste:
Valley of the Dolls spans over the course of twenty years but you would never know that from watching the film. No one ever ages, the fashions (designed by Travilla!) are all rooted in the mod 60’s, and aside from a couple montages (my favorite is Neely’s training montage), there’s nothing that indicates passage of time and how much time has passed at that. This makes things hard to understand at times. Like why the three women are suddenly lifelong friends after just meeting a few scenes before.
It’s bad. Quite bad. But honestly, I was expecting it to be a lot worse (as in better). It’s visually fun as a time capsule with the clothes, big hair, tarantula eyelashes, and groovy montages. Patty Duke’s hilariously over-the-top performance as Neely O’Hara makes the film worth watching. For full-on camptastic sleaze though , I’d instead recommend Russ Meyer’s parody Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (co-written by Roger Ebert).
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: when “Gowns designed by Travilla” comes up in the opening credits.
Take a Drink: every time someone says “dolls.”
Take a Drink: every time the theme song plays.
Take a Drink: every time the beads Neely is wearing encircle one of her breasts during the “It’s Impossible” telethon number. (Take two sips for both breasts at the same time.)
Chug: through every wacky Technicolor montage (Neely’s training, the Gillian Girl commercial)
Take a Drink: whenever Neely refers to herself in the third person.
Take a Drink: whenever Neely throws a tantrum.
Take a Drink: every time Jennifer yells “Tony!” after he falls over the railing of the theater.
Take a Drink: every time someone mentions the sanitarium (Also feel free to sing “Just leave me alone!”).
Chug: during Neely and Tony’s duet of “Come Live With Me” at the sanitarium (If you’re only going to watch one scene in this entire movie, make it this one. Clearly it’s where Robert De Niro got the inspiration for his character in Awakenings).
Take a Shot: when the wig won’t flush.