Bad Movie Night: The Deliciously Campy Showbiz Exposé ‘Valley of the Dolls’

This serious, anti-drug roman à clef became a camp classic, and inspired an uproarious gas of a non-sequel.

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, to commemorate its addition to the Criterion Collection, we take a look at Valley of the Dolls, the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel of Hollywood misery.

Valley of the Dolls was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, a critically drubbed and commercially successful book lucratively transformed into a critically drubbed and commercially successful movie. Its legacy is a complicated one, with no clear current consensus opinion; still dismissed in some quarters, a camp classic in others, it makes its way to the Criterion Collection this week – not the usual home for the kinds of titles that fill this space. (Though if they were to put out Over the Top, rest assured I’d buy the first damn copy, and a dozen more for gift-giving.) But it hits DVD and Blu-ray shelves in tandem with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a far less reputable enterprise that’s aged considerably more gracefully, acquiring a cult audience that laughs with it, rather than at it. Their bound release would no doubt annoy Jacqueline Susann, author of the original best-seller, who was so angry at the latter film’s association with her original title that she (successfully) sued 20th Century Fox for damages.

Yet just as Beyond is unthinkable without its predecessor, Valley must and should only be considered in relation to its follow-up. Beyond opens with a carefully-worded disclaimer, clarifying that it is “wholly original” and “not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.” A sequel shouldn’t have been a concern; Beyond, plain as day, is a dead-on, scalpel-precise satire of the earlier picture, one that’s uproariously funny on its own, but doubly so when viewed in this Criterion-sanctioned double feature.

Even the disclaimer is an echo of the original – Valley opens with one of its own, emphasizing any similarity between its characters and real figures is “purely coincidental and not intended.” That usually goes at the end of a movie, which tells you how much this idea dominated conversations about both the written and filmed iterations of Valley of the Dolls; one of the most popular parlor games for its readers was connecting its characters to their real life, show-biz inspirations.

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Most agreed that Neely O’Hara, the hard-singing, hard-drinking, pill-popping stage-turned-movie star played by Patty Duke, was Judy Garland (though there were trace elements of Betty Hutton and Frances Farmer). Jennifer North, the knockout actress valued more for her chest than her thespian abilities who dies young from a pill overdose – played by Sharon Tate, later the most famous victim of the Manson family – is easy to trace to Marilyn Monroe (with a dash of Carole Landis). Helen Lawson, an aged, wise, brassy broad who won’t give an inch to an up-and-comer, was a dead ringer for Ethel Merman, whom Susann had worked for in her pre-novelist days. (Susan Hayward plays her, though she was an in-production replacement; in rather a cruel twist, Judy Garland was originally cast to play this supporting role in the movie that would play a huge role in the popular perception of her downfall, and was then fired from it.)

Anne Welles (Barbara Perkins), our wide-eyed, small-town heroine/narrator, had no discernable avatar – she was inspired by a million such girls who traveled to the entertainment meccas of New York and Los Angeles, to be chewed up and spit out. Anne starts out as a secretary in a theatrical agency, where she learns the ropes, is wooed by the office’s smoothest operator, and brings Nelly to the big boss’s attention after her big number in a Helen Lawson show is cut by the jealous star. Thus begins your fairly traditional rise to success, seen in triumphant song performances (most of them cheeseball numbers that seem to be waiting patiently for drag queen reappropriation) and stylized montages (the main one, stuffed with trick photography and brightly colored backgrounds, should be stolen for a music video – if it hasn’t already).

But even in those best of times, there is drama, most of it super-soapy marriage concerns, and as the three women find fame – Anne least probably, when she’s plucked out of nowhere to be the face of a make-up giant – the tragedies begin. And that’s when Valley of the Dolls gets really wobbly. The filmmakers trawl on complications by the shovelful: diseases, pregnancies, abortions, sham marriages, infidelity, divorce, booze, and, of course, pills. (The “dolls” of the title is slang for prescription meds – a shorthand that, in spite of both the book and film’s ubiquity, comically refused to catch on.)

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They appear unsubtly – “I’ve lost five pounds already, these pills are great!” – and take over the picture with equal refinement. Their primary consumer is, as you can probably guess, the Garland-esque Neely, who descends into puffy, slurry oblivion faster than you can say “Academy Award winner Patty Duke.” Credit where due: Ms. Duke goes for it. It’s the kind of deliriously bad, deliciously over-the-top performance that only a genuinely great actor can give, like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest or Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau – no half-measures allowed. And her this-goes-up-to-eleven turn is perfectly paired with the gloriously outrageous dialogue of Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley’s script (with an uncredited assist by Harlan Ellison). Her great moments are too numerous to catalogue in their entirety, but here are some of my favorites:

  • When meek little Anne warns her, “Y’know, it’s bad to take liquor with those pills,” Neely growls back, “It makes ‘em work faster!”
  • When Jennifer’s newfound fame and critical regard as a star of French “art films” is mentioned, Neely slurrily sneers, “Nudies! That’s all they are! NUDIES!”
  • As she wanders the red-light district in a drunken stupor, she notes of the entertainment offerings, “Boobies, boobies, boobies – nothin’ but boobies. Who needs ‘em!”
  • After that particularly bad bender, she wakes up in a mental facility, but insists, “I am not nutty! I am just hooked on dolls!” And, later: “Gimme a doll, just one! ONE!”
  • When she catches her husband sharing a skinny dip with a young starlet, she scares the barely-seen girl into the bushes, howling, “YOU’D BETTER RUN, YOU LITTLE TRAMP! HOW DARE YOU INFECT MY POOL?!”
  • When her husband accuses her of philandering with a (rumor has it) gay clothing designer, she bleats, “Ted Casablanca is not a fag! And I’m the dame that can prove it!”

Moments like those underline much of the picture’s ongoing cult popularity – particularly to the same subset of gay viewers who made Ms. Garland (particularly the caricature of her this movie helped cement) an early and enduring icon. It has much of what we require from truly great camp; namely, it takes itself with utter seriousness, and the further it goes down that rabbit hole, the less aware it seems of its own ridiculousness, the funnier it becomes. Even when Robson finds a scene of genuine pain and drama, like Duke’s alley breakdown, which ends with her crumpled on the cement mourning everyone she’s lost, he milks it clumsily (by literally tolling a bell). And by then, it’s too little, too late.

But it’s not hard to guess at Valley’s appeal; it’s right there in that opening disclaimer. Entertainment journalism and showbiz insider-ism were not yet industries, so this dispatch from behind their curtains, whispering their secrets, seemed especially juicy – particularly as it indicated their lives were ultimately even more empty and miserable than ours. But what’s striking about the movie, for a 1967 release, is how square it is, from Neely’s big break at the Joey Bishop Cystic Fibrosis telethon (the little brother of Jerry Lewis’s MD telethon, apparently) to his instructions after her song to “Tell Frank, Dean, and Sammy they’re gonna have to wait!” to a big, show-stopping cameo by… George Jessel.

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And that may be the biggest difference between Valley and Beyond – the first film is ultimately too chummy to really blame the entertainment industry for the fates that befall its heroines, while Beyond sees Hollywood as a full-on, depraved cesspool, first pleasurably (at the first big Z-Man party) and then less so (the Manson-esque massacre at its conclusion). The films were made only three years apart, but the divergences are instructive – Beyond’s Russ Meyer uses raucous rock rather than snoozy pop, he responds to the turgid pacing of the original with his trademark hyper-caffeinated editing (he frequently cuts away from scenes mid-sentence, that’s how impatient he is to get on with things), the soap-opera string score style of the first film is here used winkingly, and he has his cast replicate the bizarre, straight-faced, raised-eyebrow acting style of the first film, but this time they’re saying lines they know are ridiculous. (Roger Ebert wrote the screenplay.)

Beyond probably couldn’t have been made at any other time in movie history – as the barbarians of the New Hollywood movement were at the studio gates and the men inside them watched one sure thing after another fail miserably while the likes of Easy Rider and The Graduate cleaned up, they were momentarily willing to try any nutty thing, and handing one of their most valuable #brands to a nudie-cutie purveyor like Russ Meyer was certainly a nutty thing. They wised up quick, but Beyond the Valley of the Dolls one of the great acts of Hollywood subversion. And it couldn’t have asked for a juicer target.

Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are out tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.