Thursday, September 1, 2016

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Valley of the Dolls, a Mark Robson-David Weisbart production; screenplay by Helen Deutsch, Dorothy Kingsley; produced by David Weisbart; directed by Mark Robson; produced by Red Lion Productions Inc. and released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann. Originally released as a motion picture in 1967. Theme song sung by Dionne Warwick.

Performers: Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Paul Burke, Sharon Tate, Tony Scotti, Martin Milner, Charles Drake, Lee Grant, Susan Hayward. Summary: Three girls come to New York City and later, Hollywood, to chase their dreams of stardom. The girls go for broke, but fall prey to show business, sex and drugs, in this trashy, campy exposé of the dark side of stardom [1].

style ****

substance ***1/2

High gloss trash can be beautiful

Usually described a
s a camp classic or cult classic, Valley of the Dolls is indeed an immensely entertaining kitsch masterpiece. Its undeniably high gloss production values can’t quite make up for the many defects, so from a purely aesthetic standpoint, Dolls must be considered a failure. But what a failure – a glorious, cliché-ridden synthesis of Peyton Place, The Oscar, A Star is Born and All About Eve, to cite some of the obvious, in some cases, far superior, precursors. But, and rather improbably, Dolls also has a serious side, being as it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug abuse and alcohol addiction, and of the corrosive effects of success-at-any-price in the take-no-prisoners show business gestalt [2].

The bumpy cocktail of Swinging Sixties – complete with then-racy language, ‘steamy’ near-nude scenes, and quasi surrealist/psychedelic interludes – mixed with the genteel Fifties style melodrama, may seem old hat today, but, accurate or no, Dolls was a shocking portrayal a half century ago of the relentless and pitiless pressures the entertainment industry inflicts upon its biggest stars, and the resultant cost it exacts.
While it's true there's no emotional center of gravity to the film, there are plenty of juicy individual scenes, the juiciest of all being the infamous Susan Hayward wig catfight with rival Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke). As if to emphasize, or more likely, to tone down, all the spicy content, the film is just plain beautiful to look at. Few melodramas have been so lovingly presented: director Mark Robson is in top form in his control over the sumptuous visuals.

The cast is mostly excellent: Paul Burke and Tony Scotti ooze an oily charm, Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins are fine, and Susan Hayward best of all as the aging diva with a touch of wisdom. Even Jacqueline Susann herself gets a fleeting cameo as a tenacious reporter.

Only Patty Duke falls short as the hard-bitten, pill popping mega star Neely O’Hara. Actually I wish Miss Hayward had been given lots more screen time and Patty Duke much less. But alas, such was not to be. I’d also give a miscast honorable mention to 1950s golden boy Martin Milner, here as Neely's cranky agent and sometime boyfriend and husband. Milner’s pouty, grumpy take on the role never really works, and happily he disappears from the picture about half way through.

But lest we sing Dolls’s praises too much, back to the heart of the matter: the true joy of this type of camp classic is that it takes itself totally seriously, and the actors play it deadpan straight. In other words, it doesn’t start out with the intention of being a comedy. Rather, like fine wine, the bizarre, absurd and comic elements reveal themselves and are appreciated over time. To wit: Patty Duke’s over-the-top acting is part of the (unintended) camp appeal we revel in, or cringe at, today.

Another distraction is the lip-synching to the songs: Patty Duke and Susan Hayward never quite get the gestures right to match the ebb and flow of the music. I always prefer actors to sing their own material, an all too rare practice in the movies. But then again an inadvertent compensation is another campy, quintessentially Dolls-esque off kilter touch. Ditto for Susan Hayward‘s star number in New Haven, in which she’s literally upstaged by the Calderesque mobiles.

Valley of the Dolls may indeed be the last gasp of the trashy, glossy soaper that tried so hard to be frank and serious, but more often than not descended into inadvertent camp. All the more perverse then that, in addition to being uncannily prescient in the trends it anticipated, Dolls itself exerted a huge influence on popular culture. Echoes of its kitschy majesty reverberated far beyond its first appearance in the late Sixties: pulp blockbusters by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins; the romance novel industry which sprang full-blown in the 1970s and 1980s; TV series like Dallas and Dynasty; the north-of-border ascendancy of the Latin American telenovela; the TV mini-series and TV movies; cable TV’s 24-hour infotainment programming; even stretching so far as to the stunning vulgarity of today’s reality TV.

More so than ever, in our current media- and celebrity-obsessed culture, with its seemingly insatiable thirst for scandal and the sensationally bizarre, we can be fairly confident that the smutty potboiler, be it literary or cinematic, won't be disappearing anytime soon.

As for Valley of the Dolls, it’s not so much a case of being so bad it’s almost good. It’s just plain good, in its own well meaning but spectacularly wrongheaded way. Thus the inevitable fate of the cult classic: so tempting to hate but easy to love.

[1] The Fox 2-disc special edition of Dolls has a bevy of  bonus features, including commentary by Barbara Parkins and Ted Casablanca, screen tests, and best of all, the documentary A World Premiere Voyage. Also worth a look is the featurette, Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls, which reminds us how much the publishing world has changed since the novel appeared a half century ago. Then again, perhaps it reminds us how little has changed.
[2] Whatever Dolls's message, it may have been obscured by the film's glamorous depiction of drug addiction, set as it was in the plush show business milieu. Nathan Smith, How Valley of the Dolls Turned Taking Drugs Into a Feminist Act.

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