Valley of the Dolls (1967)

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*. You’re not going to get very far talking about this movie before the label “camp” enters into the conversation.
*. It’s not used in a very specific sense, and it usually has the same sort of connotation as “best worst” movie. The best worst movies are those that are genuinely trying to be good, and this is also central to what Susan Sontag called naive or pure camp: a seriousness and ambition that spectacularly fail (with emphasis on the spectacle).
*. Hence Alonso Duralde’s comment that Valley of the Dolls “strove for seriousnes and drama and wound up accidentally with comedy.” Or Michael Munro: “A camp movie is a movie that’s so hilariously over-the-top that you can’t believe it wasn’t a comedy. Valley of the Dolls was not at all intended to be a camp movie. And that’s the best kind of camp, something that’s not trying to be over-the-top or hilariously bad, it just is.”

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*. Did the people making Valley of the Dolls really think they were making a female Citizen Kane? A psychadelic All About Eve? Note Patty Duke/Neely’s big final scene in the alley, emoting for the ages. Or her duet with the wheelchair-bound Tony. Clearly somebody thought this was Very Serious, Very Important, Very Dramatic material.
*. On the DVD commentary with (a different) Ted Casablanca, Barbara Parkins is emphatic that camp was not intended and that “the word was never around the set.” About the wig scene she has this to say: “It wasn’t laughable at that time, no no no, this is a really dramatic scene. But as time takes it along it becomes laughable.”
*. Then again (and just sticking with the DVD commentary), Parkins also expresses what seems to be a sincere belief that the film should have been nominated for an Academy Award, and remarks of the theme song: “Those words are just so true and so haunting.” Finally, even when pressed on the point she says she can’t recall any use of drugs or other misbehaviour in Hollywood at the time the movie was made. So. Not much of a witness.

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*. A movie often compared to Showgirls, and not without reason. Both are stories of the pitfalls awaiting beautiful young women in the ultra-comptetitive world of show business, and both have been adopted by the gay community. But for me the most interesting characteristic they share is the way they start out bad and keep getting more enjoyable with every re-viewing. This is a rare quality indeed, even among good-bad films.
*. Though more than bad enough as it is, it could have been much worse. I can’t even imagine what would have resulted if Judy Garland had been able to keep her shit together enough to do the Susan Hayward part. Especially as Garland was assumed by everyone to be the model for Neely O’Hara.
*. It’s nice to see New York City looking like shit, as always. I wonder if NYC really was this ugly in the ’60s. In movies of the time it’s always the anti-California. Small towns are filled with lovely banks of white snow. The streets of NYC are filled with dirty slush.
*. Based on Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller. I wonder how many people today even remember who Jacqueline Susann was. Or her book. And yet Susann was so appalled at how bad the movie was she declared it a “piece of shit” and stormed out of the premiere. Given that the novel was widely recognized to be complete trash, such a reaction is worth noting.
*. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Susann said she had made a pact with God: “God if you will let me become the bestselling authoress in the world, and just give me ten more years, I’ll settle for that.” And, according to her friend’s account of the story, “God said ‘OK, it’s a deal.'”
*. So, you want to blame someone for Valley of the Dolls? Blame God!

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*. The acting. The horror. Barbara Parkins is less a model than a barely animate mannequin. Patty Duke is hilarious. The male leads are curiously flaccid and without character. At least Sharon Tate gets to play a woman who is aware that she can’t act. Her demise may be taken as a mercy. Getting out of this movie was just putting her out of her misery.
*. Speaking of that, how odd is it that the two really nice people we meet (Jennifer and Tony) are the two who meet the most unfair fate, both stricken down by the hand of God. I guess only the good die young.
*. I think Neely O’Hara is one of the most unforgettable, larger-than-life creations in all of film. She gets almost all the good lines here, and she chews them to pieces.

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*. What horrifically ugly sets. And they look like sets, with all those bare walls in terrible colours (or even worse wallpaper), shag carpet, and obvious prop furniture scattered about. None of the interiors are convincing and even the street scenes are clearly shot on the studio back lot. Why, in a film about the glamorous life, does everything look so tacky and cheap? Like that ghastly plastic mobile thing poor Susan Hayward has to somehow navigate and sing through. Or that table Lee Grant is sitting at when we first see her.
*. In the novel Ted Casablanca is indeed a “fag.” In the movie this couldn’t stand and so Neely finds him in the pool with a girl. But for some insane reason they keep the line that has her sneering at him as a “faggot.” What sense does this make?
*. Parkins: “Sharon Tate’s character dies, and in life Sharon died . . . in life Patty had a nervous breakdown and her character went through that in the movie.” Hm. Uncanny. As Parkins goes on to say: “It just give me shivers, you know.” Don’t stop believing.
*. OK, I’ll admit I do enjoy this one, but I also wish I liked it more, as a best-worst movie or guilty pleasure. The thing is, aside from the handful of high/lowlights and a few memorably crazy lines, it’s often quite dull and ugly. Worse, it actually gets a bit depressing with all the emphasis on disease and addiction. That sense of seriousness is part of its camp appeal, I know, but it also gets me down.

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