In the summer of 2012, I discovered Valley of the Dolls on Netflix (I am sad to say that it not available on Netflix anymore, as of this writing; I found that out yesterday when trying to re-watch it for the umpteenth time.). I watched it, and enjoyed it greatly. This movie has been popular for nearly fifty years, and it considered to be one of the great cult camp classics.
The film was based on the novel of the same name by Jaqueline Susann. Susann wanted to become a famous actress, although her mother predicted that because of her high score on an IQ test, she would become a famous writer. Ever since Susann graduated from high school, she tried to become an actress, but never was successful, only getting small roles. She did have her own talk show on the now defunct and mostly forgotten early TV network, DuMont, called Jacqueline Susann’s Open Door, but it was short-lived.
In the 1960s, Susann drew upon her experiences in Hollywood, and she wrote her very first novel, Valley of the Dolls. It became a huge hit, and in 1967, Twentieth Century Fox made it into a movie. The movie was one of the top-grossing films of the year. But it was universally panned by critics who called it poorly-written and acted and trashy. Nonetheless, it has endured as a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic.
Valley of the Dolls tells the stories of three women dealing with the professional and personal struggles of stardom.
Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) is a ingenue from the small New England town of Lawrenceville who moves to New York City to start a new life and gain new experiences; she wants most of all to find out who she is what she wants from life. Anne begins working as a secretary in a law firm for singers and actors. While delivering contracts to egotistical Broadway veteran Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), who is preparing for a new musical, she meets and befriends Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), an up and coming actress and singer with a small role and single musical number in the show, and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a showgirl who is quite sexy, but has no real talent and who is a backup dancer in the production. In addition, in the office, she meets and begins a romance with Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), the nephew of one of the firm’s founders. Their relationships run into trouble due to Lyon’s unwillingness to ever get married. Lyon leaves Anne to go to England to research a book he plans to write. After this, Anne is offered a chance to be the face of a line of beauty products called Gillian’s by the company’s head, Kevin Gillmore (Charles Drake), due to her refined, natural, relatable, and elegant beauty. Anne becomes a nation-wide celebrity known as the Gillian Girl and eventually becomes engaged to Kevin. At the height of her fame, Anne has a chance encounter with Lyon and reunites with him, ending her engagement to Kevin. In meantime, she attempts to support Neely and Jennifer throughout their struggles. After learning that Lyon is cheating with Neely, she begins using dolls to cope, but soon she gives them up, leaves him, and returns home to Lawrenceville, realizing that it’s the only place where she can thrive. Lyon begs her for forgiveness and asks her to marry him, but she turns him down, while suggesting that she might change her mind in the future.
Neely O’Hara is a talented young singer with a single number in a musical on Broadway, but Helen Lawson, the star of the show demands that her one song be cut from the show, as she fears being upstaged by Neely. Despite this setback, and with the help of Lyon, Neely sings in a telethon, gains prominence, and decides to make it big in Hollywood. With the support of boyfriend-turned husband, Mel (Martin Milner) and dolls—amphetamines to be alert throughout the day barbiturates to sleep at night—Neely becomes the biggest star in Hollywood, but Hollywood changes Neely for the worse, making her abrasive and egotistical. Mel realizes that Neely is no longer the woman he married and leaves her; after their divorce, Neely marries Ted Casablanca, a fashion designer, but, the dolls and the pressures of stardom become too much to handle. Ted leaves her for another woman due to her drug dependency and workload making her too tired to have sex. Neely’s addictions cause her to become unreliable, and she is replaced by another actress on her latest movie. To get away from everything, Neely travels to San Francisco. While in a bar she plays one of her songs on a jukebox, and while singing along to it, a man insults her. Angry, Neely throws her drink in face; he tries to attack her, but he is restrained, and Neely leaves the bar. She walks among the city’s strip clubs and adult entertainment and sees a theater marquee advertising a pornographic film that Jennifer appeared in. The next morning, Neely wakes up in a motel to a strange man stealing her money; distraught, she overdoses and wakes up to Anne and Lyon who checked her into a sanitarium. Neely recovers and attempts to find new success on Broadway. However, her egotistical behavior causes Lyon to quit being her manager. Shortly before the premiere of her new musical, Neely takes dolls and drinks alcohol, leaving her in no condition to perform. Her understudy is sent to go on in her place. The understudy is a sensation, and Neely walks around an alley and breaks down, realizing that she has lost everybody and everything in her life.
Jennifer North is a showgirl who despite having considerable sex appeal, is rather untalented. Her jobs in the show business world consist of showing off her body. She meets Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), a nightclub singer and begins an affair with him; despite the objections of his half-sister and manager Miriam (Lee Grant), Jennifer and Tony get married. They move to Hollywood so that Tony can begin acting, but his success is limited. Shortly after a studio drops his option, Tony suddenly has difficulty walking and forgets who Jennifer is; Miriam tells Jennifer that he has a genetically-inherited disorder called Huntington’s chorea (now called Huntington’s disease) which is incurable and causes a person’s muscular and mental functions to gradually decrease. Miriam explains that she and Tony had different fathers, that Tony’s father had the disease, and that she didn’t tell Tony because she was uncertain if would ever happen to him, and she knew it would distress him; the disease was the reason why Miriam objected to him getting married and why she put Tony and Jennifer on a strict budget because she needed to save as much money as possible for when he inevitably has to be committed. Jennifer who is pregnant with Tony’s baby decides to have an abortion out of fear that the child will inherit the disorder. Tony is committed in a sanitarium (which would now be called a psychiatric hospital) and to support him, Jennifer decides to appear in “art films,” which are actually soft-core pornographic films, in France; she hates the entire ordeal because when she married Tony she gave up doing jobs that require the exploitation of her body. After making the films, Jennifer returns to America and finds that Tony’s disease has progressed to the point that he doesn’t remember who she is. Shortly afterwards, Jennifer is diagnosed with breast cancer and must have a mastectomy, which distresses her because she has no talent and would no longer be able to use her only asset, her body, to earn a living and keep Tony in the sanitarium. Feeling as though she has lost everything in the world that she has ever had, she commits suicide by taking an overdose of dolls.
Valley of the Dolls is a favorite of mine.
I do find it watchable, and I do not think it’s too bad. But it has some major flaws.
One of them is hammy and forced and stilted acting. Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara does not act some dramatic scenes well enough, and they come across as almost comical.
Bad dialogue. My favorite line in the film is the scene where Jennifer North is attending a screening of an erotic film she starred in, and her character’s husband says in French after she reaches orgasm and knocks over a bottle of wine and two glasses on the floor, “Gabrielle, the wine almost fell in my shoes.” Nobody says stuff like that. Another gem in that scene is this exchange:
Jennifer’s character Gabrielle: If you were not my husband, I would be crazy about you.
Gabrielle’s husband: I will get a divorce tomorrow.
Undeveloped storylines: Late in the film, after Lyon Burke, Anne Welles’s boyfriend accompanies Neely back to New York for her planned comeback on Broadway, they begin an affair. Anne is devastated and begins using sleeping pills to cope. But she realizes that she is going on the same path of destruction that Neely and Jennifer (who by that point in the movie had taken her own life), and she gives up the pills and returns to her New England hometown. The Neely/Lyon affair comes out of nowhere. I didn’t even notice it the first time I watched the film.
Regardless, I enjoy the film because the story and characters always remain interesting. What draws me to the film is its depiction of Hollywood and stardom. It is not all fun and glamour. People try to destroy you in order to avoid being replaced by you. You are exploited just because you are sexy, and not because of any talent. People make impossible demands of you, and they forget that you are a human being and not invincible. Film shoots often do not go as planned. While the film did not do the best at addressing these issues, due to how disjointed it is, it was fascinating to watch she challenges unfold on the screen.