Well, first off, the term “bad,” as applied to film, is a terribly subjective signifier governed by strict classifications of rank. For example: there’s straight-out unwatchable, bottom of the barrel bad, like Adam Sandler, Michael Bay, or Eli Roth movies; then there’s the waste-of-celluloid, forgotten-even-as-you’re-watching-it kind of bad you’re guaranteed with a Matthew McConaughey or Jason Stratham film; and finally, there is the top-tier, rarefied, irresistible awfulness of a film like Valley of the Dolls.
What makes this final category of bad so special is that, unlike the sluggish product born of dull incompetence and a lack of talent, this distinguished rank of terrible is the kind of delightfully vibrant, peppy wretchedness that only the truly talented can create. It entertains, it engages, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry (from laughing) ...in short, it does everything a good movie does...but it's not. Now, that HAS to be some kind of achievement!
|Patty Duke is Neely (Ethel Agnes) O'Hara: Nice kid turned lush!|
|Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles: Good girl with all the bad breaks!|
|Sharon Tate as Jennifer North: Sex symbol turned on too often!|
|Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson: A gut, fingernail, and claw fighter who went down swinging!|
This hilariously self-serious film adapted from Jacqueline Susann's novel about three girls balancing career, romance, and pharmaceuticals in the seamy world of show business, is one of the best examples of that forgotten 60s subgenre: the glossy, career-girl soap opera. Films like Three Coins in a Fountain (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and The Group (1966 ) all purported to be modern exposés on the lives of young, emancipated American womanhood, but what they really were were moldy cautionary tales warning women of the dangers of seeking lives outside of the traditional home and family.
|Love Eyes. Career-girl Anne hopes to put the "double harness" on her boss, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke)|
A master's thesis could be written (and probably has) on the many missteps taken in bringing Susann's sex-filled potboiler to the screen, but any such dissection has to start with the screenplay and director. Really, who thought it was a good idea to have 60 year-old Helen Deutsh and 57 year-old Dorothy Kingsley collaborate on a screenplay about three women in their 20s? With their tin ear for sixties idioms and maiden aunt's sense of shock at Susann's yawn-inducing concept of naughtiness (spelled out in bold letters in case we are dozing — Adultery! Pre-Marital Relations! Homosexuality! Abortion! Insanity!), Valley of the Dolls has all the up-to-date urgency of an issue of "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang."
53 year-old Mark Robson, the stodgily old-school director best known for that antiseptic paean to small-town debauchery, Peyton Place (1957), directs Valley of the Dolls as if he had made a bet with someone that he could make a 1967 film that looked like it was made in 1957. A bet he would win, I might add. Looking at the film's flat, high-key lighting (that make location shots look like studio sets) and the stiff, camera-nailed-to-the-floor photography, one begins to understand why, in just a couple of years, Hollywood would be opening its doors and throwing directing jobs at anyone under the age of 30.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Everything. And there aren't even many "good" films I can say that about, but it's true. There's not a single thing about Valley of the Dolls I would change. It's a perfect aggregation of people capable of better delivering their worst.
Random thoughts: How did she get all of that hair into that cab?
|"Well, Broadway doesn't go for booooze and dope!"|
Richard Angarola as Claude Chardot: "Art film" director and winner of the "Pepe Le Pew Award" for the world's worst French accent.
|"Ted Casablanca is not a fag!" Neely asserts to sweet, emasculated, homophobe, Mel Anderson (Martin Milner); a.k.a, Mr. O'Hara.|
Although she gets plenty of competition, no one in Valley of the Dolls really comes close to Patty Duke, who was the reigning queen of epically bad performances until Faye Dunaway blew her out of the water 14 years later with Mommie Dearest. Hers is the film's meatiest role, but that meat soon starts to spoil once you get a taste of the risible dialog she's given ("Boobies, boobies, boobies...nothin' but boobies!"), and marvel at her tendency to bark, rather than speak it ("It was NOT a nuthouse!"). She's better than bad, she's magnificent.
|Personality Plus. Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
With its old-fashioned plot full of wheezy, show-biz clichés, Valley of the Dolls' sole concession to modernity (60s style) is in its eye-catchingly overblown fashion sense. The wig and mascara budget for this film must have been astronomical!
It was in 1968 at the Castro theater in
. I was 11 years-old and I went with my older sister who had seen the film the week before and raved about how good it was. Hard for me to imagine now, but at the time, I took Valley of the Dolls deadly seriously and even cried when Sharon Tate's character took that handful of pills and expired so glamorously on that ugly orange bed. I thought Barbara Parkins was very pretty but I was kind of confused at Patty Duke's transformation into an adult with big hair and a potty mouth. I was a fan of The Patty Duke Show, and at age 11, I don't think I was ready to see her looking all puffy and exposed in a bra and half slip. The strongest memory I came away with that day was the almost traumatizing "wig snatching" scene. Not sure why, but it scared the hell out of me. San Francisco
|Neely O'Hara...Younger than springtime- and twice as exciting!|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
In 2006, when Valley of the Dolls was released as a two-disc Special Edition DVD in a hot pink case loaded with camp-tastic extras, it became official: 20th Century-Fox was no longer going to pretend that Valley of the Dolls was anything other than what it was— deliciously entertaining, high-octane cheese. That moment of if-you-can't-beat-'em marketing lucidity was rather a long time in coming considering that the gay community had single-handedly kept the film alive for decades. Personally I can't recall when I began to view Valley of the Dolls through jaundiced, cynical eyes, but I recall vividly the first time I saw it.
|A young Marvin Hamlisch accompanies that bundle of talent, Neely O'Hara|
I'll never be able to view Valley of the Dolls through such innocent eyes again, but I'm gratified that it has finally come into its own as a mainstream cult hit. To this day it amazes me just how durably enjoyable this is after so many viewings. Quotable, full of memorable, jaw-dropping scenes and over the top performances...this kind of bad is too good to be forgotten.