America was a bit of a mess in the 1960s, not just on the national stage but at the local cineplex as well. By the time the decade was over, the Hollywood studio system as audiences knew it was dead - killed by a man who could “talk to the animals” of all things. But Hollywood limped to the finish line with the tortured tale of three lovely ladies and their struggles with fame and addiction in Valley of the Dolls. Dolls, as campy then as it is now, receives a shot of respectability this week with its premiere on Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection.
Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) are three friends navigating different facets of the business world. Each suffers their own highs and lows, muddied with their varying levels of addiction to prescription pills or “dolls.”
“You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls” and by 1967 people were sick of the climb. With the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement about to reach a crescendo, America was less than willing to sparkle. The party was over and the people were hungover. This generation of Neely O’Hara’s found succor in Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, one of several “dirty books” that inspired salacious Hollywood melodramas (others included 1962’s Lolita and 1965’s Peyton Place). Susann’s expose of drug addiction and thinly-veiled Hollywood gossip lit the world on fire, but didn’t quite translate to the big screen.
Though crumbling, the studio system wall hadn’t shattered completely and Susann took umbrage with the removals of certain character peccadilloes as well as the exaggerated acting and melodramatic story. However, there’s a stark reality hidden within the screaming and thrashing. Valley of the Dolls is smarter than it's given credit for, considering how the script sneakily inserts telling asides about being a woman, not just in 1967 but in 2016.
These moments come courtesy of Sharon Tate’s Jennifer, a combination Marilyn Monroe and Carole Landis. It’s easy and, as the movie illustrates, belittling to say Jennifer is beautiful. Wearing a $600 headdress “that no one will see” because the focus is on her body, Jennifer’s been told she’s only as good as how she looks. Funneling money to her unseen mother, Jennifer’s aims are simple: she seeks happiness. She finds it with Dean Martin-esque singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), but a debilitating illness forces Jennifer to compromise herself, using her body in a way that audiences devour but that chips away at her soul.
Tate’s acting style may be somewhat flat, but her reactions to events negate the flaws with her dialogue delivery. When the third act drops the cancer bomb - that you knew would arrive at some point - Tate gives some of her strongest work without saying a word. In fact, you almost feel as if Robson and crew felt threatened since they cover up Tate with hackneyed flashbacks layered over her.
Valley of the Doll’s raw power is found in Patty Duke, trouncing on her good-girl image so fiercely she draws blood. Neely is a caricature of Frances Farmer and Judy Garland; the latter was cast in the film as Helen Lawson, but her own demons ended up costing her the role, which ended up going to Susan Hayward. Duke herself suffered from manic depression and an addiction to “dolls” that leaves art imitating life in the extreme.
Neely O’Hara is where the film’s kitchen-sink melodrama devolves into E! True Hollywood Story. Neely is a burgeoning star on the rise who needs “dolls” so she can “sparkle.” Duke’s own history makes her acting eager and authentic while emphasizing the eventual menace, depression, and desolation of her life. Duke has a tendency to err towards the shrill - and she enjoys saying certain slurs a bit too much - but overall it’s a glowering, stark performance that many Hollywood insiders easily identified with without acknowledging the industry’s issues.
The Criterion Blu-ray is jam-packed with features that will please anyone seeking soapy salaciousness, from audio commentaries and promotional films to footage from a 2009 Patty Duke tribute entitled “Sparkle Patty Sparkle!”
Valley of the Dolls is a feature that walks on the edge of camp and disaster, something that Russ Meyer’s sequel - also available now from Criterion - couldn’t navigate. Though Jacqueline Susann wasn’t impressed with the final product, Valley of the Dolls remains hot gossip to this day. Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward, and Lee Grant are all phenomenal; I can still quote lines from this endless; and this is the perfect film to watch with your friends and sip wine to.