Valley of the Dolls: Trashy, High Camp Melodrama

Trash? High Camp?

Based on Jacqueline Susann’s trashy book of the same title, Valley of the Dolls has become a cult classic among some viewers.  For many years, it was not available on VHS (or DVD) and it was mostly gay men who continued to keep the movie alive by watching it or quoting lines, or simply mocking fun at it.

Susann’s steamy bestseller was rushed to Hollywood and put on the screen fast. Delightfully absurd, this lurid saga about three women who come New York to make it big is in the vein of the Fox melodrama, “The Best of Everything” (1959), which is done with more restraint and better taste.

The novel, if you can call it that, details the price (“the horror, the horror,” as Brando said in “Apocalypse Now”) of Hollywood stardom. The film can’t be charged with misogyny because the novel was adapted to the big screen by two women: Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley.

Susann plays a bit part as a journalist, though none too good. For the next Hollywood picture based on her work, the author demanded that her name be in the title, hence “Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough” (1975), a truly bad, irredeemable flick, directed by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Guy Green, and mostly known for garnering an inexcusable Oscar nomination for Brenda Vaccaro.

In “Valley of the Dolls,” Sharon Tate, Barbara Parkins, and Patty Duke play three aspiring actresses/performers, who each attains a degree of success followed by dependence on pills (nicknamed “dolls”) and other tragedies.

Sharon Tate’s Jennifer North is told that she has no talent but a great body. Jennifer meets and marries a young singer, Tony Polar (played by Tony Scotti), who soon is stricken with a fatal illness that requires expensive hospitalization. To pay for the bills, she consents to appear in European porno flicks and in the process becomes a sensation. Unfortunately, Jennifer soon discovers that she has breast cancer and needs to have her “talent” removed. Realizing that there is no future in porno after such surgery, she kills herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara lands a minor part in a new Broadway show opposite aging superstar, Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward who replaced Judy Garland). The ambitious newcomer makes herself such a nuisance that she soon finds herself out of a job.

Neely pays the most, tumbling into a nightmarish battle with drugs and alcohol and running through husbands, one of whom turns out to be gay and rumored to be based on MGM’s musical genius director Vincente Minnelli (Judy Garland’s second husband and Liza’s father). The character’s name, Ted Casablanca, has inspired the name of the movie gossip columnist.

At one point, the bitchy Helen says, “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that’s me, baby, remember” Patty Duke swinging for the fences when on one bender she shrieks, “Boobies! Boobies! Boobies! Nothin’ but boobies! Who needs ’em” After a stint at the funny farm she recovers enough to return to Broadway, steals Anne’s husband, and has a ladies room catfight with Helen Lawson during which she pulls off Helen’s wig. “Give me back my hair!” the aggrieved Helen howls.

As luck would have it, Neely winds up doing a quick singing spot on a national TV fundraising event and, like Jennifer, becomes a superstar overnight. Neely’s sudden success leads to a horrible drug addiction that eventually turns her into a pathetic, whining has-been.

Not all of the movie’s success stories are grim, however. Barbara Parkins’s Anne Welles, the virginal and most likable of the three heroines, hails from her small East Coast town to the Big City of New York, where she begins as a secretary but then hits it big as a super model. This, again, leads to a bout with the ever-present pills and an unstable love life, but she eventually finds the inner strength to abandon her success and hightail it back to her hometown before she winds up as just another tragic figure. Anne lives to tell the tale, a prim narrator who looks back on all the mishaps and shenanigans.

Mark Robson, better known for directing the far superior “Peyton Place,” based on the trashy novel of Grace Metalious, helmed the film. Considering the caliber of talent behind the cameras, the production values are disappointing. The movie was shot on Panavison, DeLuxe Color, by one of Hollywood’s top lensers, William Daniels, and edited by Dorothy Spencer.

Though dismissed by most critics at the time as “banal, crass, and lousy,” the movie went on to gross over $20 million, thus becoming one of Fox’s biggest hits ever.

Of all the camp classics, “Valley of the Dolls” may be one of the campiest, the kind of movie whose promotional stills are reproduced on T-shirts. The movie, which has generated numerous memorable quotes, should work perfectly as a musical. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert wrote the sequel, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which is not as campy or trashy.

Surprisingly, of the three women, Patty Duke, until, then known as child-star and Oscar winner of “The Miracle Worker,” gives the worst performance. Watching the film also brings fond memories of the talented but doomed Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski when she was murdered, a year after the picture was made.