Judge Brett Cullum once climbed Mount Everest, but he didn't see a single drug-addicted starlet.
Helen Lawson: They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to
Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way,
I've got a man waiting for me.
I've been waiting years for Valley of the Dolls to hit DVD, because it's the precursor to cult classics of bad cinema such as the illustrious Showgirls, Two Moon Junction, television's Desperate Housewives, and about any campy exploitation classic you can throw out. It's a dirty, dirty soap opera about crestfallen dames who get eaten alive by show business, sex, and drugs. It's true camp, the real deal, like Mommie Dearest. You see, Valley of the Dolls never intended to be silly and over the top. It aspired to be a great movie with a cast led by an Oscar winner, a star from television's most famous nighttime soap opera, and a stunning blonde newcomer. It has three leads going for broke, exquisite work from costumers and set designers, and a brilliant score by John Williams, yet somehow the script fell in to a tawdry mess. No, this is not a great movie in conventional terms. It is a misconceived film which mangles its source material. Yet somehow Valley of the Dolls is one of the most beloved films in cult cinema with a special following of flamboyant gentlemen who titter at its very mention. Truth is, bad is fun. Valley of the Dolls is wicked bad, but it's also wicked fun. Valley of the Dolls is a horror movie the first time through, an unwatchable mess that is strangely irresistible. It gets better the more you watch it and soon you'll find yourself quoting 30 or 40 lines off the top of your head and singing along, wishing beads would bind your breasts (all you fans know what I mean from the "It's Impossible" sequence).
Facts of the Case
The story focuses on three girls who come to New York City to chase their dreams of stardom: there's Anne (Barbara Parkins, Peyton Place), the innocent secretary type who becomes an assistant to a large theatrical agent; Neely (Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker), an aspiring chorus girl with pluck who dreams of being a singer, and the beautiful blonde Jennifer (Sharon Tate, The Fearless Vampire Killers), who longs to be a real actress. Life has a lot to give them, but there are prices for fame and fortune. They have big, dangerous destinies. One becomes a gorgeous model, another becomes a celebrated singer, and the third becomes a huge sex symbol. They all get addicted to pills and fail to find real love, then illness rears its ugly head, careers drown, fortunes crumble, men come and go, and each girl ping pongs up and down from dizzying highs to incredible lows. Valley of the Dolls delves in to the dingy dark side of Hollywood.
I couldn't name a single male actor in this film, other than a brief cameo by Richard Dreyfus (Jaws) as a backstage worker. The women own this film—Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate walk away with every scene. They don't do a good job of acting in the traditional sense, but you can't take your eyes off them. Patty Duke had won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller, but here she seems over the top and out of sorts. There are moments where her performance works, but most of the time she screeches her lines like a hellbent harpy on too much coffee. Barbara Parkins comes off better in the lead role of Anne. She has a class even the worst lines can't decimate and pulls off her role with aplomb. Still, Parkins comes off chilly and remote throughout, never getting to show much emotion. Sharon Tate comes off the best out of the entire trio of leads. She seems natural and sweet, and her role allows her to showcase her talent. Her real-life tragic end makes Valley of the Dolls bittersweet, since it was a clear indication she would have had a great career.
In a European release, Valley of the Dolls came bare bones, but the extra features produced for this release are as fabulous as the movie itself. Front and center is a commentary with lead actress Barbara Parkins and gossip columnist Ted Casablanca (who took his nom de plume from the gay husband of Neely in the movie). The pair are reunited from a 25th anniversary screening of the film in 1992 at the Castro theatre in San Francisco. They have the natural chemistry of old friends who love what they are watching and still aren't afraid to take it to task for being deliciously over the top. Of course, there is plenty of gossip. It's a treasure trove of old-school Hollywood magic tales and giddy speculation about why Valley of the Dolls has become such an adored gay touchstone. It's hilarious when they dish about the men they find attractive which they disagree on vehemently. The track is as riveting as the movie itself and it stands out as one of the best commentaries recorded. On the main feature, you can also select a text trivia track that is equally informative and fun.
On the main disc is a documentary about the film called Gotta Get Off This Merry-Go-Round: Sex, Dolls, and Showtunes which begins with a pink posse assembled from the "velvet mafia" of Tinseltown. Bruce Vilanch (out comedy writer), Michael Musto (gay gossip columnist), Jackie Beat (an overdone drag queen from New York), and Alonso Duralde (author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men) all put the film in its proper place—the campiest of camp. Ted Casablanca also shows up to throw in his two cents, along with an old friend of the novel's author. It really digs deeply into the sensation that is Valley of the Dolls. We get to see Barbara Parkins on camera and an assortment of actresses who have been in spoofs of the movie. It's a hilarious gaggle of bitches kvetching over one of their favorite movies. You also get a unique look at the San Francisco Theatre A-Go-Go production which made its way to Off Broadway. Plus there is a look at an all-star, all-men reading of it for an AIDS charity. The songs are looked at in depth and so are the myths around the film (about who it was really based on). At almost an hour, it's a joy to watch.
On the second disc we get a vast array of fabulous archival materials. There are screen tests for most of the major stars and, interestingly enough, few of the scenes ended up in the final script without being severely cut down. You could see this section as deleted scenes. Sharon Tate's tests are extremely remarkable and you get to see the actress in raw form. She's amazing, and has the role down pat from the first moment the camera locks on her. We get to see Barbara Parkins read the "Sparkle, Neely. Sparkle!" drunk scene for the role of Neely O'Hara, which is a severe switch from her ultimate casting as Anne. It's strange to see her pour on the hysteria, and she's a hell of a lot less shrill than Patty Duke ended up being. Still, hard to imagine anyone but Patty Duke screaming "I'm Neely O'Hara!" in a dark alley. There's a vintage look at the world premiere hosted by Army Archerd and a special vintage visit with Jacqueline Susann. The Susann footage includes a very drunk Judy Garland discussing her role as Helen Lawson at a press conference. It's priceless and horrifying! Also included are original trailers, a more current feature on Susann, an episode of Hollywood Backstories, still galleries, karaoke tracks, and still galleries. Fox does an outstanding job delivering more than you could ever hope for in a collector's edition of this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The real shame about the movie Valley of the Dolls is it eclipsed the book. The Jacqueline Susann novel was unapologetically dark, and remains a true classic of popular pulp fiction. It was the precursor to Jackie Collins and her ilk, but the novel seems so well put together it borders on real literature disguised as a guilty pleasure. It's definitely not the first or last time a book was better than a movie, but what a shame the film was made in an era when it couldn't go as far as the source material did in to the abyss. Just compare the two endings, and you'll realize which one has bite. If you need a good summer beach book any time of the year, I can't recommend the written version enough. The movie barely touches the surface of anything, but the novel? It goes deep in to that dark valley with more dolls, more sex, and much more scandal than you'd ever guess. The movie may be a hoot and a half, but the book is the real deal. No movie could ever hope to live up to it. At a premiere screening of the movie Jacqueline Susann stormed out of the auditorium at a halfway point. She told reporters she would never speak of it again and felt the movie did not represent what she had written.
The movie that was made was misconceived. The darkly brilliant novel caused a sensation, but the film was made like a cheeky Technicolor musical. Had the film been handed to a director willing to make it real and artsy, it could have been something spectacular. The three leads gave it a good go, but they can't win when the work rings false. This isn't the novel and only in hindsight did it find a life on its own as a camp classic. Accidentally the film is a comedy. The culprit to all of this candy coating of the dark material was executives at Fox. Originally Judy Garland had been cast in the Susan Hayward role of the washed-up star Helen Lawson and she even started filming scenes. 20th Century Fox was afraid to go too far with a classic screen siren present (especially one all too aware she was being parodied), so the whole thing looks like Vincente Minnelli directed it. Even though Judy was fired/quit they never changed the script back to being darker. (By the way, Judy stole all her costumes and wore them on her tour the following year.) The direction was mechanical and favored set pieces over searing drama. Should have gotten someone like Martin Scorsese or Kubrick, who could have handled the material with respect.
As much as Fox concentrated on the extras on the film, the technical treatment of Valley of the Dolls is slightly disappointing. We do get an anamorphic widescreen print without many digital artifacts, but colors seem to be off at times. You'll notice in certain sequences the colors change slightly going from hyper to washed out. It's most noticeable in the final reel, but happens throughout. There are a fair amount of film artifacts though nothing that should ruin your enjoyment of the film. I'm notorious for coming down hard on older film transfers and this one is fine without being a marked improvement of the laser disc edition. Sound comes in a simple stereo mode or the original mono. It is free of distortion and comes off okay.
The movie has a strange power to it, and the ending of the characters in Valley of the Dolls mirrored the fate of each actress in real life. Sharon Tate died far too young, Patty Duke became an addict who had a nervous breakdown, and Barbara Parkins walked off the set to head back home to Peyton Place and quiet obscurity. Judy Garland was fired from the picture because of her addictions and soon became Helen Lawson in real life. Reality began to imitate art and, as ragged as the movie was, it was prophecy. Much was made of who was portrayed in the film. Anne seems to be Grace Kelly, Neely O'Hara is Judy Garland, Jennifer could be Marilyn Monroe, and Helen Lawson is unmistakably Ethel Merman. Yet for all the allegories, the irony is each actress became their part ultimately.
This is one of the worst movies ever made, yet somehow it's a classic. Valley of the Dolls remains beautifully bad. It's long been on people's wish list and Fox makes the wait entirely worth it. They would never be able to toss this one out bare bones, but the entire package is amazingly robust. It's a prime example of how to exploit the DVD format to its fullest. If you're a fan of any of the actresses or bad cinema, or have even heard the theme song, you need this one.
Guilty as hell.
Anne Welles: You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actress Barbara Parkins and Gossip Columnist Ted Casablanca
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