Valley of the Dolls April 13, 2016
Melodrama can be a captivating thing so long as it doesn’t feel hurriedly manufactured. In order to accept the pomp and circumstance of a soap's cataclysms, it is critical that its makers take the time to really sell the material, whether it be through a particularly grueling period of character development or a thorough sequence of fussy confrontations to really add fuel to the over-the-top fire. Depend solely on puerile plot twists and it’ll be impossible to get anywhere. For camp to work, there has to be an undercurrent of thunderous, convincing emotion.
Which is precisely Valley of the Dolls’s problem — it is determined to be trashily entertaining in the ways Peyton Place was a decade previously, but isn’t willing to put in the effort to actually make us care about its goings-on. It throws a barrage of tragedies at its leading characters without taking the time to set aside a spot for concern. It feels like a product of the desperate Hollywood machine, considering the way it looks so deliciously ravishing but, in feeling, is about as exciting as Angelyne’s breadth of talent. A little over two hours, we’d expect, like in the case of most successful films, to leave the theater intermittently changed, affected. But Valley of the Dolls spins around in circles, borrowing from various soaps before it without any of their personalities.
In 1967, it was a hit, though I’m positive that more viewers went to see what it had to offer because of its source material. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jacqueline Susann, which was a bona fide hit upon release, audiences went bananas for its penurious theatrics and wretched glamour. Resisting a controversial, mouthwateringly batty novel is a hard thing to do, after all. Having not read the book, it’s safe to assume it’s everything its film counterpart isn’t: thrilling, entertainingly ostentatious, and pitifully tragic. Why consumers lapped up the novel is understandable; why the film version has become a cult classic befuddles me.
Sure, Valley of the Dolls contains more than a couple of cringingly hammy scenes, from Patty Duke’s snatching of Susan Hayward’s wig to Barbara Parkins’s beachside pill overdose. But at 123 minutes, with dreadful cycles of drab stabs at melancholic drama, we aren’t so much disposed to see how it all plays out as we are to turn to its much better “sequel” Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is jerky and hysterically stagy but has a sense of humor to back up its insanity. Valley of the Dolls takes itself too seriously and doesn’t seem to realize how shittily and shallowly written it is, a downfall for a commercial schmaltz show.
It taps into the Rise and Fall of a Big Star cliché without batting an eye. The stars doing the rising and falling are Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate, who are all beautiful and competent leading ladies who seem boring because the material isn’t smart enough to do them justice. Parkins is Anne Welles, a typical small town girl who dreams of Hollywood stardom. As the film opens, she is on her way to Tinsel Town to start a hopefully magnificent career, but she is quickly forced to settle for a secretary job to pay the bills. Duke is Neely O’Hara, a ball-of-fire with a theatrical voice and personality recently fired from of a stage show headed by Helen Lawson (Hayward), a jealous, aging starlet. Tate is Jennifer North, an ethereally attractive blond trying to make it big as an actress despite her limited talent.
The three cross paths and strike up friendships that play out artificially, as if such connections were only there to work as an excuse for their stories to intertwine. In common, though, is the way their potentials give way to unfiltered tragedy — Anne soon achieves her dreams and becomes a widely recognized cosmetics spokesperson, but a dependency on pills (called “dolls” here, wink wink), combined with a doomed affair with Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), leads to a devastating crash. Neely overcomes the setbacks inflicted upon her by Mrs. Lawson, becoming a major star after a couple of game-changing nightclub performances, but a crippling reliance on drugs and alcohol ends in a prolonged stay at a mental institution. Worst off is Jennifer, who marries a nightclub singer (Tony Scotti) with a deadly illness; to pay his hospital bills, she descends into the vocation of a softcore pornography star, her voluptuous body more a moneymaker than her slim range.
No happy endings are in store for the girls of Valley of the Dolls, and such a characteristic isn’t normally an issue in soap opera, a genre that thrives off of never-ending hardship. But troubling is the way the film never lets us get to know these women before they became damaged products of the Hollywood machine; we exclusively see them as victims, and therefore never grow to care for them in the ways that we should. Anne, hardly developed as a character despite the way she is the first to be introduced, feels like an afterthought. Neely never appears to be anything other than an out-of-control fink; Jennifer, though provided with the best story, is so dully written that we feel obligated to applaud Tate for making her somewhat watchable.
And so Valley of the Dolls is mostly a snoozer, redundant of other melodramas of the era, to be enjoyed only if you’re patient and can relish blinks of campy excitement for long periods of time. If doing so is impossible, grab some dolls to make the time go by faster. Just don’t depend on them as disastrously as these women do. C-