Saturday, August 17, 2013

Valley of the Dolls: A Review


Welcome to the Mad Dollhouse...

I have never read Valley of the Dolls, so I cannot vouch for whether the film version measures of to the Jacqueline Susann novel.  I only judge whether the film itself succeeds or not.  Valley of the Dolls is tawdry, campy, and at some places flat-out bizarre.  I didn't hate it, but sometimes you wonder why so many odd decisions in terms of performances, directing, and story were made.   

I should point out that despite the film has three female leads, the 'dolls' in question are not the girls.  "Dolls" in this case, is a euphemism for pills, the ruin of our three not-so-fair maids.

We follow the story of three women corrupted by the dreams of stardom.  The patrician-like Anne Welles (Barbara Perkins) just wants to find something outside her small New England town, so she goes off to New York to become a secretary.  Soon she stars working for Lyon Burke (Paul relation, I think), agent to Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), ultimate Broadway diva.  Helen is infuriated to see Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), a talent ingénue, belt out a song far better than Lawson ever could.  Despite having five songs to Neely's one, Helen demands that Neely be fired.  She is, much to the distress of Neely's friend Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a showgirl who knows she has no talent but a lot of body. 

However, the plucky Neely (with a bit of help from Lyon) makes the rounds and soon becomes the toast of the town with her talent.  Jennifer, meanwhile, has basically given up whatever aspirations of stardom when she meets dazzling lounge singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), who quickly marries her, much to the displeasure of his sister/manager Miriam (Lee Grant).  While Anne and the determined bachelor Lyon soon begin an affair, Anne is 'discovered' and becomes the spokesmodel for a series of cosmetics, making her a star in her own right.

Of course, power corrupts, and once Neely becomes rich and famous, she turns into a drunk, pill-popping, self-centered bitch.  Dumping her good-guy husband Mel (Martin Milner) she marries Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion), who may or may not be gay (whether Neely herself believes he is a switch-hitter is never definitively answered). 

No, not THAT Ted Casablanca.
There's no doubt about HIM...
Jennifer's marriage to Tony hits a terrible bump: Miriam reveals he has a degenerative and inherited disease.  He now is forced into a sanitarium, and Jennifer now not only has to have an abortion but is forced to make French "art films" to keep body and soul (and Tony's medical bills) together.

Anne has her own troubles.  Not willing to be Lyon's mistress, she herself eventually succumbs to the temptation of prescription drugs.  Fortunately for her, Anne's fall is brief and nowhere near Neely's disastrous fall.  Committing completely to her addictions, she turns into an even bigger lush/whore, a drunk/doll-fiend, shallow and self-absorbed.  In a particularly vicious catfight with Helen, Neely tears off her wig. 

Eventually Jennifer, diagnosed with breast cancer and no longer being able to support her mother (and the embarrassment her 'art films' have brought on them) takes an overdose.  Neely becomes unhireable, leaving her thwarted comeback efforts even after her own stay at the same sanitarium, pleading to God in an alley to love her (and declaring that she loves herself).  Anne, with both her old friends gone and disillusioned with the shallowness of it all, leaves both Lyon and The Valley of the Dolls.

Camp does not quite describe The Valley of the Dolls.  It goes beyond camp to one of those films for which the term 'unintended comedy' comes to mind.  Valley of the Dolls derives its humor from the fact that it is trying so hard, so desperately hard, to be serious, to be a searing expose into the dark side of fame.  In its efforts to be serious, the situations become so outrageous, almost idiotic, that it is impossible not to laugh.

Particularly inept is Patty Duke, and it is to her credit that she herself admits that she gave a bad performance.  Who am I to argue with an Oscar-winner?  Yes, Duke is so broad when attempting to play this boozy, bitchy broad that her performance is a chromosome short of being a drag act. 

There are some howlers in Valley of the Dolls that Duke delivers.  When she slumbers into Anne's home, she bemoans the 'art films' Jennifer has made.  "NUDIES!" she bellows.  "THEY'RE NUDIES!"  Perhaps in 1967 this was daring, but today it is downright hilarious (I guess because you couldn't say 'porn', which is the gist of what the films are suppose to be).

As a side note, the actual "French art films" Jennifer makes I imagine were even by 1967 standards amazingly tame.  If they were made today, I doubt these 'risqué pictures' would even merit a PG rating.  Whatever pathos there is in having the genuinely sweet Jennifer be reduced to porn for the most loving of reasons is sucked out since there is nothing really there to shock.

Going back to Duke, she has plenty that will shock us.  She got the shrill, harpy-like aspect of Neely right, but at a certain point it slips into wild overacting and terrible line-reading.  There's when she catches husband Ted in the pool with a young GIRL (in the novel, I believe it is a young BOY, but there be censorship issues; as a side note, I imagine Ted Casablanca would enjoy a pool boy, but I digress).  Her delivery is more suited for soap opera than feature film.

We even have organ music playing in some scenes.  Valley of the Dolls is more like a long, very bizarre, soap episode (or perhaps even an attempt to make a straight version of Soap) to really be taken as seriously as it wants us to.  When Neely and Tony sing to each other at the sanitarium, one really wonders whether anyone behind the camera was taking this seriously or failed to realize how unintentionally funny it played out: a duet between a dying man in a wheelchair and a drunk slut.

One decision director Mark Robson made which I will never understand is why he opted to do something that should never be done: have voice-over AND visuals of what the voice-over is about AT THE SAME TIME.  When Neely is recounting her stay at the sanitarium, we hear her telling us what she goes through, but we also are watching it as she tells her story.  WHY is Robson showing AND telling?  It's just so bizarre and adds a daft touch to the whole proceedings.

Another really odd sequence is when the patrician Anne falls briefly into the valley of the dolls.  Watching the waves roll at her (which I figure was a metaphorical way of signaling her descent into addiction) really made things very Humoresque or A Star is Born-like. 

A great difficulty comes from knowing that Sharon Tate would soon be slaughtered, along with her unborn baby, in a gruesome act of violence.  I can say that perhaps she was playing herself, but her brutal murder robs us of not just what could have been, but of an apparently genuinely nice person.  I admire Perkins' performance, though again I always thought she was far too patrician to be sucked into this decadent world.

As a side note, she reminds me of my mother, mainly because she and Perkins look alike (especially in the pictures of my mother from the 60s...down to the hairstyle).  Bless Hayward, who did her best as the diva Lawson (even if in the catfight, she comes off as being part of the camp madness of it all).  Hayward, however, came out best in all this, coming off with great lines.  "Nothing can destroy her talent.  But she'll destroy herself." It fit into the story, versus the line, "At night, all cats are gray."  I don't remember whether Neely or Anne said it, but it does sound odd.

Valley of the Dolls is a film that tries so hard to be serious, but in its desire to be serious it ends up with the opposite result.  One can laugh at Duke's wild overperformance or the almost psychedelic sequences (Anne's modeling sequence being a highlight), but in the end, Valley of the Dolls ends up being a weird celebration of a bitch's brew of nuttiness.

Drugs Can Kill...Careers.


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