Valley of the Dolls (review)

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The Rise and Fall of Pretty Girls

Oh, it’s a bad movie, but in a good way. Valley of the Dolls simply screams to be watched in a party atmosphere. Put out bowls of blue, yellow, and red M&Ms, and every time someone onscreen pops a pill, you pop the appropriately colored candy. Invite all your friends, and ask them to dress as their favorite upper or downer!

The theatrical preview opens the videotape version of Valley of the Dolls, in which the announcer gleefully informs us that “every shock and sensation” of Jacqueline Susann‘s bestseller is “intact” in the film. The trailer is almost funnier than the movie — it’s two hours of hilariously overacted backstabbing, catfights, shouting, insults, and intoxication condensed into two minutes. It’s Valley of the Dolls on speed. How fitting.
And what a riot to think that Valley of the Dolls was shocking when it was released in 1967. You’ll hear worse language — and see more nudity — on primetime TV these days. The sex scenes are shot in silhouette. Even the French “art” (read: smut) film that one of the characters has to resort to for work is so tame that it looks like a commercial for General Foods International Coffees, all fluttering lace curtains and Gallic whispering.

Show business corrupts nice girls — that’s Valley‘s sad, funny truth. Stay away from Hollywood, girls, if you want to keep your virtue and your sanity.* Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) leaves the snowbound protection of chaste New England for Sodom on the Hudson — New York City — where she is bound to find her doom. She dresses like a nun, in drab brown sack dresses, but of course her “natural” beauty somehow shines through her layers of makeup and overly sprayed helmet hair. Two seconds after she takes a job with an entertainment law firm, she is painting the town red with debonair agent Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) — well, he’s supposed to be debonair, but he looks like Hymie the Robot from Get Smart, and how can you ever trust a man named Lyin’– I mean, Lyon? And she is “discovered” by cosmetics magnate Kevin Gillmore (Charles Drake), who turns her into the spokesmodel for his company’s wares. Doomed, I tell you. She’s doomed.

Then there’s Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, who overacts so badly she needs to be hosed down), who goes from spunky, talented kid to bitch on wheels. She runs afoul early on of aging songstress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) when Neely’s performance threatens to overshadow Helen’s in the Broadway play they’re appearing in together. Oh, you just know Neely, by the end of the movie, will be ranting about some young and hungry up-and-comer dogging her by-then famous heels, right?

And finally we have Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Pretty but aware of her complete and utter lack of talent, she starts out as a showgirl and ends up doing the only thing she’s good at, as she herself admits: taking her clothes off, in the aforementioned smut films.

The men in Valley of the Dolls come in two flavors: nice, supportive guys predestined for doom, or sleazy jerks who breeze through life. Neely’s nice, supportive husband, Mel (Martin Milner, Pete from Adam-12!), whose management of her career took her from Broadway to Hollywood, gets unceremoniously dumped by his wife once she’s a huge movie star. Jennifer’s nice, supportive husband, nightclub singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), wants desperately to be a movie star, too (and who wouldn’t?), but he can’t find work. His ultimate doom comes in the form of a medical secret so big even he doesn’t know about it — his sister/manager, Miriam (Lee Grant), has been keeping it from him. The jerks include Lyon, a ladies’ man who won’t commit to Anne, and Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion), Neely’s costume designer, whom everyone thinks is gay, which allows Neely to toss out lines like “Ted Casablanca is not a fag — and I’m the woman who can prove it.” Hilarious!

The pills in Valley of the Dolls come in lots of flavors, though it only seems to be the women who need them: to wake up in the morning, to calm down at night, to kill their appetites, and to kill themselves. Booze flows freely, too… although, come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone eat. I guess, as so many people seemed determined to prove in the 60s, you can live on drink and drugs.

“Show business is cruel,” Anne decides very early on, and we know this is true, because later an ashy cigarette is thrown into a Hollywood Hills swimming pool — a touching symbol of lost innocence, I suppose, if you can keep from cracking up. Cruel it may be, but what fun!

*Sanity I can see the value of, but who needs virtue?

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