“Love is a flower that lives for an hour, then withers and dies. Where is the prize?” The plummy refrain sung by lounge lizard Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) early in Valley of the Dolls may not have the zip of Andy Warhol’s “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” but it encapsulates the flavor of anti-anti-establishment sentiment lurking underneath this transitionally feminist pop artifact. Against Warhol’s dismantling notions of stardom and product, 20th Century Fox’s investment in author Jacqueline Susann’s 30-million-copy bestseller must’ve felt like the ultimate in cognitive dissonance.
As helmed by Mark Robson, whose Peyton Place was something like the rural trial run for this film’s sleekly urban take on similar sins, Valley of the Dolls applied the best, albeit increasingly creakiest, Hollywood machinery to deliver the tell-all story of what damage the industry can wreak on its brightest stars. If Robson hadn’t already long before given himself over to straight hacking, and had brought something to the table as a visionary director, we’d be talking today about how Valley of the Dolls was the Showgirls of its day. Instead, it made tons of money from squares and was lambasted by tastemakers—and today endures more for its role in yielding one of the most gleefully fucked-up major-studio sequels, Russ Meyer’s peach-and-black Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, than as a touchstone camp classic.
Which it unquestionably is, in fits and starts, and from a variety of angles somewhat atypical for the genre. Unlike those camp classics mocked and celebrated for over-the-top performances, or dated attitudes, or technical shortcomings, or general naïveté, Valley of the Dolls has a pinch of all of the above. And the naïveté is an especially maladroit fit for a piece of intellectual property that so clearly prides itself on trading the insider scoop, while at the same time forms a perfect match with the trio of tormented heroines.
Anne (Barbara Parkins), the audience’s and author’s surrogate, is a well-heeled New England ice princess who packs her bags and heads to New York to make a name for herself. She gets a job working as a gopher for theater lawyer, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), and on one of her first work excursions witnesses up-and-coming triple threat Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) getting the sack from her potential big breakthrough role, all because Broadway lioness Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, pinch hitting for a quickly indisposed Judy Garland, upon whom the role of Neely O’Hara was largely based) feels threatened by the would-be starlets talents. Meanwhile, statuesque blond Jennifer North (Sharon Tate, in the most substantial role of her brief career) knows she has no talent and settles for selling her looks to the highest, most prurient showbiz producer. Anne, Neely, and Jennifer all struggle valiantly to balance careers with romance, publicity with privacy, and pills with other pills.
Robson, who with Peyton Place had already proven he could take then-salacious material and flatten it into profitable blandness, again seems reluctant or forbidden to dip his toes into the deep end; this in an era when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate were all loosening the tie around popular cinema’s stiff neck. Valley of the Dolls is a blue-hair monument to mod, flattering and titillating the former group by exploiting and degrading the latter. (In an odd sort of way, Meyer’s sequel could be said to perform the exact same trick, which goes to show how stylistically versatile Hollywood’s Circus Maximus can truly be.)
There’s no “failed seriousness” in play in the film’s brand of camp, because Robson doesn’t particularly take his female leads’ plights earnestly in the first place. Their misadventures are pure soap-operatics; in all three cases, what goes up violently comes down. That their options are both shaped and then limited by the men in their lives is objectively true, but the film doesn’t mine the proto-feminist possibilities therein so much as it uses that social imbalance to manifest itself in satisfyingly bad behavior. Virtually all of which comes from Neely’s corner, putting the “ick” in Icarus as she emasculates her husbands, inhales Seconal, spits the word “fag” out at anyone with a dick (including Helen Lawson), and “disinfects” her Hollywood Hills pool with bourbon. Look, fun is fun, and there’s plenty of the kitschy brand to be had from the riot of late-’60s production design and lurid plot developments. But where Mommie Dearest houses its comic-tragic atrocities within a brutal, truthful context, Valley of the Dolls’s antics are merely popped like dolls.
20th Century Fox didn’t exactly break the bank producing Valley of the Dolls; its $4 million budget falls well short of the $17 million or so the studio blew on their concurrent production of Doctor Dolittle. And even though Criterion’s 2K restoration sparkles, it also reveals some of the unavoidable limitations of the source material—dingy process shots and, most notably, an overall cold and uninviting color palate, even compared to the previous Region 1 DVD release. For a film that so many remember as a cotton-candy romp through yesteryear’s first-world problems, Criterion’s video presentation should offer a rude awakening. The 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation suffers no such problems, with each growl from Patty Duke and each orchestral sweep from composer John Williams (for which he’d earn his very first Academy Award nomination) coming through succinctly.
A significant amount of bonus material featured on the previous DVD release gets ported over to Criterion’s set, which is great since that set was already a sturdy chunk of "special edition." Most thankfully, the juicy and jovial commentary track with Barbara Parkins, and moderated by a clearly star-struck gossip columnist Ted Casablanca, is among the holdovers. Casablanca, who chose Neely O’Hara’s AC/DC love interest for his pen name, draws a lot of great material from Parkins, who, despite her tony British accent, doesn’t hold back. At one point, he even gets her to exclaim, "Boobies, boobies, boobies!" She’s clearly having a ball and long ago accepted her film’s place in cinematic history, and made the choice to have fun with it. Also included are a ton of archival featurettes, including a documentary of the "premiere," a star-studded sea-faring jaunt that can’t help but call to mind unfair comparisons to the Titanic, given the movie’s impending reputation. As if Casablanca’s participation wasn’t gay enough, another bonus clip shows Patty Duke submitting to a post-screening Q&A at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, moderated by Bruce Vilanch. Screen tests, a look back at Susann’s literary and socialite career, and new interviews on the movie’s fashion statements round out the behind-the-scenes component, while a visual essay by Kim Morgan and a text essay by Glenn Kenny firm up the cinephile requirement. It’s a roster that proves, like Jacqueline Susann’s subsequent novel suggested, once isn’t enough for Valley of the Dolls.
Something 'bout those little pills, unreal the thrills they yield until they find you ripping off Susan Hayward's wig in the ladies' room and flushing it down the toilet.