VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Paul Burke, Susan Hayward
Director: Mark Robson
Audio: PCM 3.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.351
Features: See Review
Length: 126 Minutes
Release Date: September 27, 2016
“WHO’s stoned? I am merely traveling incognito.”
How did I manage to go my entire life without seeing Valley of the Dolls?
I’ve heard about it ever since I was a kid…both as a notorious trash novel by Jacqueline Susann and the infamous film that came about as a result. I even have a vague memory of the movie playing on TV for the first time somewhere in the 70s, and being forbidden to watch it with my parents. Usually that kind of parental anxiety would pique my interest and make my curiosity insatiable.
But no, I lived 46 years on the planet without having seen the film, and I admit, I was looking forward to it. I knew so little about it that I didn’t even realize until this Criterion viewing that the film had over time moved into the ‘camp’ category. That seemed odd given the story was mostly about drug addiction.
So, now that I’ve finally crossed this movie off my list, I can say that the movie and the book were probably that generation’s Fifty Shades of Gray. In both cases, the book and film were trashed by critics, but made millions from fans who reveled in the sordid material. It’s an odd comparison only because Valley of the Dolls today is tamer than your average network TV drama, save for one fact: this movie uses the derogatory slang for homosexuals as frequently as the average Quentin Tarantino movie uses the derogatory slang for African Americans.
The story revolves around three women who find their way from New York to Hollywood (and in some cases, further). I never quite put my finger on how they ended up knowing each other, but there it is. There is Anne Wells (Parkins), who leaves a quiet New England town in search of big city excitement. There is Neely O’Hara (Duke), an up-and-coming singer with pipes of gold, and Jennifer North (Tate), a beautiful blonde with ample bosoms but not much talent.
Their stories are both episodic and intertwined, but end up with one thing in common: “dolls”, the nickname for drugs that…well, seem to do whatever is needed: wake you up, put you to sleep, but overall, make you incoherent and unpredictable.
All rise to fame, all fall from grace, and in the end, only one really escapes the vicelike grip of the dolls. I won’t say much more than that, other than to comment briefly on the three leads: Ms. Parkins had risen to fame from televisions “Peyton Place”, but would soon leave the business behind after this movie. Patty Duke was a known child star eager for her first “adult” role…maybe too eager. And Sharon Tate…God, it’s so sad to watch what a star she was destined to become, knowing she would fall victim to the Manson family murders soon after. All three do their level best here, with varying degrees of success…Patty Duke seemed to recall her work on this movie with some horror.
Although the producers and director Mark Robson made great pains to proclaim that no one in the story was based on anyone real, people who knew Jacqueline Susann purported that Anne Welles was based on herself, Jennifer North on Marilyn Monroe, and Neely O’Hara on Judy Garland. The last is ironic, because Ms. Garland was originally tapped for the role of aging stage star Helen Lawson (character supposedly based on Ethel Merman), but was too far gone to work (to be replaced by Oscar winner Susan Hayward).
So…camp? Maybe. I didn’t really approach it as camp, so possibly it would take more than one viewing for it to settle in. But I didn’t see it as any great drama, either. There was potential in the story, but for the most part, Susann and company went straight for the seedy underbelly of every scene and reveled in it. It doesn’t feel like any kind of strong warning against drugs, despite what the women go through. I also found it ironic that the theme song, sung by Dionne Warwick, is really just a series of fragmented lyrics, as though in the state of mind of someone in the grip of the dolls.
Ultimately, the issue is we didn’t really get close to any of the women as fully dimensional characters, so we didn’t really get to feel their rise and fall as anything but outside observers. Sharon Tate’s character generates the most sympathy, as there are more than the devilish dolls tearing at the fabric of her world.
Critics hated the film as they did the book, but audiences made it Fox’s biggest hit of the year. Again, with the benefit of time passing, it’s hard to imagine what made this movie feel to a generation like the ultimate exercise in naughtiness. It may have been Hollywood’s attempt at making the kind of “art film” that Jennifer North ended up making, but as with most Hollywood efforts, the resemblance is mostly superficial.
This anamorphic widescreen offering from Criterion is quite beautiful; enhanced for 2K high definition, it shines with the original Technicolor glory and rings out with amazing crispness and vivid detail. Only occasional very SLIGHT sense of muted tones belies the near 50-year age of the picture.
The uncompressed 3.0 audio sounds quite good, especially with the music numbers, but I’ll be honest and say I didn’t happen to notice a lot of discretion for the extra surround. Dynamic range is medium, but spoken words clear throughout, and no noticeable hiss or aging artifacts.
My favorite extra is the commentary track, shared by star Barbara Parkins and entertainment writer Ted Casablanca (who took his name from a character in this film). Lots of amusing memories from both, as Ted is a huge fan and Barbara generous with her recollections.
There is also a TV program dedicated to the making of and impact of the film, a series of TV and radio spots, a trailer, a new video essay, a pair of 1967 promotional films, screen test, new interviews with writer Amy Fine Collins, and footage from a 2009 tribute to Patty Duke.
Valley of the Dolls has been immortalized, but arguably not for the best reasons. However you regard it…either as camp or drama…it’s definitely a film that will never be ignored, and if you’ve never seen it, make your first time like mine, with this quality Criterion offering.