Twas the night before my birthday and I decided to celebrate a little early. I made something in a martini glass, rolled a joint, and pulled up Valley of the Dolls (1967). This was a movie I knew from references more than anything else and, it turns out, even the references weren’t direct homages to it. These references were usually just characters making cracks at empty pill bottles saying they look like a scene out of Valley of the Dolls; they knew it was a movie about stardom and decadence and all the subtext that those words carry. With my limited information being about the same as everyone else’s, I got started on what became a rather interesting night.
Here’s the basic rundown: a woman named Anne (Barbara Perkins) leaves her perpetually-winter New England town to see if she can make a life for herself in New York City. While there, she becomes involved with entertainment lawyer Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) and meets an up-and-coming star Neely O’hara (played wonderfully by Patty Duke). Neely gets fired from a show she’s in because the big name diva Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) sees her as competition. Of course, this turns out all kinds of great for Neely and, with the occasional help of an upper here or there, shoots her way up the showbiz ladder. Anne is offered a modeling contract with a cosmetics company and wrestles with the idea of getting married to Lyon, just moving back to the land of frozen white people, or continuing to get paid for being pretty. Anne is the worst.
Somewhere along the way, Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is brought into the picture. She’s got a whole big tragic thing where her crooner husband has a degenerative disease, so she resorts to doing nudie pictures – referred to as art films – to keep up with the cost of his care. She eventually commits suicide and Anne’s very sad, even though she seemed kind of oblivious to the struggle her friend was going through.
Meanwhile, Neely is getting bigger and bigger, making more and more money, and doing more and more pills. She drinks to fall asleep then pops pills to wake up. There’s a bunch of threads that get her into rehab and she relapses with all the great crying in the street action you’d come to expect from a soap opera movie dreamed up by a theater kid who’s never actually done drugs.
Anne decides that making a living just by being pretty and having a great house in California isn’t worth it, so she moves back to Lawrenceville to freeze her tits off for the rest of her life. Lyon follows her and proposes to her but she turns him down and goes for a walk down a country road covered in snow and ice, surrounded by skeletal winter trees. The on-the-nose theme song that is essentially Anne’s inner monologue throughout the movie comes on and serenades us with the promise that this is where Anne belongs. Roll credits.
It’s a shame I missed this when it played at the Castro Theater because seeing this for the first time on a giant screen, preferably in a crowd like the one that would probably there that night, would have been spectacular. Not because the movie was such an engrossing piece of work (it was not for the most part) but because it was eye-popping gorgeousness in all its technicolor glory.
Often times when people use the word “trashy” they’re referring to whatever is the antithesis of true style or beauty. Trashy horror movies are usually cheap looking and ugly, trashy comedies tend to be gross, while trashy melodrama tends to focus on the contorted beauty of the actors and their expressions.* To have Valley of the Dolls’ hedonistic, over-the-top (but still kind of tame) world look so immaculately crafted in that lost, vibrating vista of three-strip technicolor was bliss. I took another sip of my martini-ish drink.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not such a luddite that I’m bemoaning the fact that we no longer use a process as dangerous, toxic, and expensive as three-strip technicolor anymore. But, man, those colors. Valley of the Dolls is a time capsule of the absolute most sixties the sixties has ever been. Crazy cut montage with characters flailing in front of bold, bright-colored backgrounds; a romantic suicide sequence where Sharon Tate (who’s so beautiful you can’t even look away from her) lies gracefully and well made-up on silks while images of her lover hover over her in transparents. It’s like a Italian Giallo film: absurd, yet wildly entertaining. To a point. Valley of the Dolls had this stunning style with these creative filmmaking bits that nobody does anymore because it’s not “groovy” as the kids say. They say that, right? Groovy.
What makes this movie so perfectly sixties is that it doesn’t truly show the worst of the worst. In a movie that has a drug term right in the title (did you know “dolls” meant pills? That’s how little I knew about this movie), one would imagine there would be scene after scene of wild experimentation. God knows whoever was art directing this thing was doing some of their own. The movie itself becomes fairly monotonous towards the middle as Neely’s climax of stardom and drug abuse underwhelms and Anne basically flits from scene to scene with her alternating expressions of concern and calm delight. Anne, our narrator, keeps her nose clean throughout the movie when it comes to substances. The fact that Anne is commonly the focal point means we don’t get to spend as much time with Neely’s cocksure, firing-on-all-cylinders caricature who emotes, scowls and screams about the whole world loving her as she sinks drunkenly onto garbage bags in an alleyway. Her redemption story is anything but, and it would have been a blast to follow her talented trainwreck as it goes off the tracks, rather than tagging along with Anne passively observing things.
And then there’s Jennifer North, a character the sixties loved beating the life out of. She’s defined more by the shit that happens to her than any of her own attributes. Jennifer North is excellent and underdeveloped, which is really a shame because Sharon Tate could have made the character even more tragic had she been given a role with more bite to it; tragic because of how society reacts to her, instead of tragic for being herself like a Greek heroine. Let me explain: at one point in the movie, Jennifer is diagnosed with breast cancer. This after she has an abortion because why not? She tells Anne that she is going to get a mastectomy the next day and confides, “all I’ve ever had was a body and now I won’t even have that anymore.” How different this scene could have been if there was a moment where either women realized that they were the flip side of the same coin. Anne has a career because she’s pretty. Literally all she does for a job is be pretty and have people take pictures of her to sell products. Jennifer finds survival in shooting French-language black and white nudies (that aren’t particularly scandalous but we get the idea), yet she believes herself to be only good at one thing: taking off her clothes. Anne never recognizes that all she does is wear make-up; throughout the movie her career is treated as glamour when it’s really pretty toxic. Her image is used to promise beauty and fulfillment to gullible women while Jennifer’s is used to arouse. While they’re both still pawns in a system, Jennifer is a body and Anne is a face, so Anne ranks higher.
The only person with real talent is Neely and she destroys herself by trying to do too much. Naturally, she gets a big head but before that she’s truly throwing everything she’s got into her dream. She’s practicing and performing (great pastel and neon montage for that), she’s taking advice from people around her, and doing her best to impress anyone she needs to. Her introduction to dolls is blase, as someone casually offers her one during rehearsal, and her clingy soon-to-be-emotionally-abused-by-her boyfriend shakes his head disapprovingly. Her's is almost a cautionary tale about trying to do well or committing yourself to your talent.
The decadence on display in Valley of the Dolls is a closer cousin to getting buzzed and watching Fraiser than it is to Roman orgies and that one scene from Event Horizon. For a two hour movie that promises all the drama of notoriously dramatic industries, Valley of the Dolls feels neutered and watered down. There’s enough fertile material to delve into and if done properly (dare I use the word remake?), there could be a movie here that moves between sentimental and scathing. The script was written by Harlan Ellison who asked for his name to be removed. Why Harlan Ellison, a science fiction author not exactly known for his nuanced understanding of women, was tasked with writing the screenplay to the best-selling book is a question for the ages. Maybe with some sharper, more intune screenwriters Valley of the Dolls could have been a satire with soul, full of characters that drove you crazy, be it for good reasons or bad ones. As it is, it’s mostly a silly melodrama that comes across as naive of its own subject matter and sacrifices interesting characters to barely achieve middling sensationalism. But damn is it beautiful.
* There are several exceptions to this and the most obvious is Pedro Almoldovar.