Valley of the Dolls

Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch & Dorothy Kingsley (based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann)
Stars: Barbara Parkins (Anne Welles), Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara), Paul Burke (Lyon Burke), Sharon Tate (Jennifer North), Tony Scotti (Tony Polar), Martin Milner (Mel Anderson), Charles Drake (Kevin Gillmore), Alexander Davion (Ted Casablanca), Lee Grant (Miriam Polar), Naomi Stevens (Miss Steinberg), Robert H. Harris (Henry Bellamy)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1967
Country: U.S.
Valley of the Dolls Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Valley of the DollsValley of the Dolls is a special kind of terrible movie—the kind that clearly fails to achieve artistic credibility in multiple domains, yet somehow manages to work as a whole. You’re fully aware that it’s terrible, yet it is hypnotically watchable as both camp—which allows us to happily indulge in the unintended humor of its failings—and as straight drama in the grand old fashion of soap operas, Technicolor melodrama, and trashy novels (one of which the film was adapted from, not surprisingly). Released near the end of the 1960s, when the Hollywood studio system was barely holding itself together amid massive social upheaval, institutional change, and increased competition from foreign film industries, the film manages to simultaneously be a relic of a previous era that was increasingly out of vogue and a forward-looking example of what the New Hollywood had in store.

Like many box office hits of its era (or any era, really), Valley of the Dolls was based on a wildly popular novel, in this case one by Jacqueline Susann, a former beauty pageant winner who had scored some minor acting roles in Hollywood films in the 1930s and ’40s before marrying a press agent, which gave her the perfect vantage point from which to view the American entertainment machine in all its glorious complexity, corruption, and debauchery. It was her second novel (her first was a pet memoir based on the life of her poodle), and it became an instant sensation and cultural touchstone, aided and abetted by Susann’s canny ability to market herself and her work (it also helped that many of the characters were thin stand-ins for well-known celebrities like Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, and Marilyn Monroe, which gave it the nasty allure of a true behind-the-scenes exposé).

The book had been simmering inside Susann for years, and it poured out on the page like a fever dream of success and scandal, fueled by bitchy backstabbing, tawdry sexual escapades, and drug addiction (the “dolls” of the title is the nickname Susann gave to the copious and addictive uppers and downers consumed by her characters to pep them up all day and then help them sleep at night, a bit of creative slang that never caught on despite the book and movie’s immense popularity). It is clear that the movie meant to capture as much of the intensity of the novel as possible, albeit within the strictures of what was left of the Production Code (not surprisingly, a character’s experimentation with lesbianism and another’s penchant for anal sex were immediately cut out). For that and other reasons, Susann was never happy with the film adaptation, although she quickly learned to keep her opinions to herself since she benefited so much from its success.

Director Mark Robson was a veteran who began his career in the 1940s helming a number of superior, low-key horror films for producer Val Lewton, but he was most likely hired for his successful 1957 adaptation of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, a controversial sudser about small-town debauchery. He gives the film a thin veneer of respectability, but mostly stands by while it descends into absurdity. He punches things up with a few laughably dated montages that involve camera tricks like split-screen and overlapping imagery; they are as clunky and artificial as the various sets, which despite being shot in CinemaScope have the feel of a cramped television studio.

The story follows the rising and falling fortunes of three young women who are all trying to make it in the world of entertainment: “Good girl” Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), who arrives in gray, blustery New York City from quaint New England with dreams of becoming an actress, although she settles for a secretarial position at a powerful law firm; Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), a talented singer who is trying to break through to Broadway stardom; and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a sweet, but largely talentless actress who is appreciated only for her physical attributes. The film takes place over several years in the mid-1960s, which is a change from the novel’s much larger canvas that covered two decades between 1945 and 1965. The compression allows veteran screenwriters Helen Deutsch (National Velvet) and Dorothy Kingsley (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) to create a sense of rush in the characters’ ups and downs, which gives the film an even more hysterical sensibility; it is as if the narrative itself is popping the red amphetamine pills, rushing hectically from one major plot development to the next without even the passage of years to soften the blows.

There are moments of great fortune, such as when Anne is “discovered” by one of her boss’s clients and becomes an instant star as the face of a new line of make-up and beauty products, but there are more often misfortunes, which including Jennifer’s beloved husband Tony (Tony Scotti), a lounge singer and actor, developing a rare, degenerative disease. Anne’s misfortunes are limited primarily to the romantic department, as her boyfriend Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), a press agent and aspiring novelist, refuses to marry her and she winds up with Kevin Gillmore (Charles Drake), the man who made her famous. The majority of the misfortune, however, is heaped on Neely, perhaps because she is the most ambitious and relentless of the three women, climbing her way to the top with such intensity that she is destined for destruction, which comes in the form of both drug and alcohol addiction and a series of doomed relationships that she kills with her ambition and self-destructive behavior.

Patty Duke had won an Oscar for her portrayal of a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962), but at the time was best known for her squeaky-clean sitcom The Patty Duke Show (1963–1966). She was desperate to break into adult roles, and her performance as Neely is by far the film’s worst (and, as a result, most entertaining). Duke sinks her teeth into the role and chews the scenery as Neely descends further and further into drug-fueled anger, paranoia, and all-around hatefulness. She sneers, she yells, she growls, she pops pills and swigs booze straight from the bottle, and virtually none of it is believable. She has one moment near the end, when she is about to hit rock bottom, that works; just as she steps out of a door, she turns to one of the other characters and says in a voice that is genuinely pathetic even as it continues to be defiant, “They love me.” The adulation she sought and won came at such a price that the very idea of being loved is contaminated, which is perhaps why the film has to find an upbeat ending (quite different from the novel) with a character shedding the entertainment industry entirely and walking off in truly independent fashion. In its own hysterical way, the movie confirms our worst suspicions about celebrity, fulfilling our guilty desire to watch dressing-room catfights and the discovery of late-night pool trysts while also wagging its finger about how awful it all is. Valley of the Dolls is definitely terrible, but it succeeds quite impressively in having its cake and eating it, too.

Valley of the Dolls Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
AudioEnglish DTS Master Audio 3.0 LCR
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by actor Barbara Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca
  • Video interview with writer Amy Fine Collins
  • Video essay by critic Kim Morgan
  • Footage from “Sparkle Patty Sparkle!,” a 2009 gala tribute to Patty Duke
  • A World Premiere Voyage and Jacqueline Susann and “Valley of the Dolls,” promotional films from 1967
  • Episode of Hollywood Backstories from 2001 on the film
  • Screen tests
  • Trailers
  • Radio spots
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2016

    20th Century Fox put out a solid DVD of Valley of the Dolls as part of their “Cinema Classics Collection” back in 2006, but Criterion’s new Blu-ray marks the film’s debut in high definition, and fans should certainly be pleased. The film’s gaudy montage sequences, high fashion, and cramped studio sets have never looked better. The 2K transfer was made from a new 35mm interpositive struck from the original 35mm camera negative, and while the liner notes don’t mention anything about restoration, the lack of specks and age in the image certainly suggests that work was done. The image looks fantastic, with great detail and clarity throughout. The overall look is somewhat darker than the DVD, which makes some of those interior scenes a little less distinct, although it is likely more true to the original look of the film. Colors are strong and robust in all their Technicolor glory, especially those absurd montage sequences. The original three-channel soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm six-track magnetic print master that accompanied the 70mm release (that’s right folks—some viewers back in 1967 got to see this movie in 70mm!). This basically means we have a quite robust LCR mix, which creates some decent directional effects in the front soundstage, but mostly benefits the dialogue. There are several musical sequences in the film and, of course, Dionne Warwick’s frequently used theme song, all of which sound excellent.
    Criterion has ported over most of the supplements from the 2006 DVD and added a few news ones, as well. From the DVD we get an entertaining audio commentary by actress Barbara Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca; A World Premiere Voyage and Jacqueline Susann and “Valley of the Dolls,” two promotional films from 1967; and a 2001 episode of the gossipy half-hour television program Hollywood Backstories about the film’s production and reception, which includes interviews with Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. New to Criterion’s edition are two video interviews with writer Amy Fine Collins, the first about author Jacqueline Susann (22 min.) and the second about the film’s costumes (8 min.). There is also a 17-minute video essay by critic Kim Morgan, who speaks about the film in highly personal terms and makes a pretty good argument for why it is not as bad as it is often made out to be. There are also 16 minutes of footage from “Sparkle Patty Sparkle!,” a 2009 gala tribute to Patty Duke at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco; nearly half an hour of color screen tests for Parkins, Duke, and Sharon Tate; several trailers; and 20 minutes of radio spots.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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