Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Given the vast number of great films out there and the slim chance any of us have (in our all-too-brief lifetimes) of ever finding the time to see them all, one has to wonder why anyone would waste their moments watching (and re-watching) a film one already knows to be bad. 

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.

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!
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!
Neely O'Hara...Younger than springtime- and twice as exciting!

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
It was in 1968 at the Castro theater in San Francisco. 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.

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.


  1. Believe it or not, I only saw Valley of the Dolls for the first time quite recently -- it really is jaw-dropping. My favourite bit: when Neely is belting out one of her awful songs, and the string of beads she's wearing around her neck somehow manages to loop around each of her boobs (you know the moment I mean!). The wig-tearing off scene: I love the artifice of it. Neely tears of Helen's bouffant auburn wig to reveal ... a bouffant grey wig underneath. It's STILL a wig!

  2. Hi bitter69uk
    I kind of envy anyone seeing this film for the first time. It's a virtual treasure trove of moments like the one you mentioned (A theatrrical staging of "Valley of the Dolls" by this troupe called Theatre-A-Go-Go recreated the infamous "boob framing sequence" by having the strings of beads sewn to the costume in that hilarious formation from the start). Why they didn't go foran alternate take or choose a cutaway is one of the reasons I love this film so much. Poor choices compounded by poor choices. And perhpas you touched upon what was so weird about that wig-pulling scene...A wig under a wig!!! Yikes! Thanks for commenting!

  3. First things first: when I read "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang" I can only hear Robert Preston's voice saying it.

    Ok, now about the movie. It is a visual feast and that's why i love it. I love the hideous alexander calder stage set for susan hayward, the whole hairspray commercial sequence (the ancient artifacts!), the feathers, sequins, wigs - it's so over-the-top it's disgusting, and yet in that turns it delicious. I also enjoy looking at the broken and forgotten figurines that load up the sad little shelves at thrift stores - a great idea to someone at some time, but a disjointed and cluttery knick-knack in the grand scheme. And I guess that is why this film possesses a certain form of brilliance: most anything that tries too hard is mocked and forgotten. This film tries WAY TOO HARD, and yet somehow is timeless in its datedness, classic in its camp. I find myself watching once a year. Usually with a glass of wine. Or two. Or the whole damned bottle.

  4. Wow! I don't know of anyone else who would have gotten that "The Music Man" reference!!!

    Thanks for pointing out the mobile artist's name that I couldn't recall. Sometimes it's great just hearing what particular points of blessed awfulness stand out in the minds of people when it comes to VOTD. It seems a rule unto itself. There's no reason a film this bad should be so good, but it's WONDERFUL!

  5. This is one of my all time, hands down favorite cult films. It's so over the top bananas that it has to be seen to be believed!

    Never mind that it barely resembles it's source material in that it condenses the time span. I mean, what is the actual time span this is all supposed to be taking place in? It seems all this stuffs happens in the space of a year, if that.

    For a big budgeted film based on a national best seller the film was cast with actors and actresses that didn't have any box office clout whatsoever.

    Parkins was a TV star vis PEYTON PLACE. Duke did win an Oscar for THE MIRACLE WORKER and had another film, BILLIE under her belt but she was primarily known for her sit-com and a big box office draw she was not. Sharon Tate was not very well known and Susan Hayward's days as a leading lady were long gone by this point.

    And what about those leading men? Paul Burke?!! Tony Scotti?!! Martin Milner!!!!


    And yet it works in spite of itself.

    Barbara Parkins bears little resemblance to the "Anne Welles" in the book (Candice Bergen would have been a better choice but she backed out at the last minute) but her interpretation of the character is dead on.

    Patty Duke as Neely chews the scenery in an attempt to make everyone forget that she ever played identical cousins on television and damn near comes close to succeeding.

    Sharon Tate, the lesser known and less experienced of the three manages to strike a poignancy in her character...her eyes as she stares into the mirror right before committing suicide evoke so much more than any line of scripted dialogue could ever say.

    The movie works in spite of itself because it's so unintentionally bad it's good.

    Could a better movie have been made from the material?Probably. But I doubt it would be as entertaining as the version we got.

    1. Hi PamelaTiffinFan (Summer and Smoke is one of my favorites) yes, the speed with which success and downfall hits these girls might be a tad more poignant if we were given any sense of how much time transpires before they hit the skids.

      The point you make about the casting is well taken. I don't know if Fox had in mind they were going to make a film that lunched a bunch of up-and-coming stars, or if it was just bad judgement and budgetary concerns.

      I had to laugh at your observation about the leading men. Weak, weak, weak!

      Still, as you say, it is very very watchable, and when compared to that awful 80's TV update with Lisa Hartman (??!?), it's a masterpiece.

    2. Oh lord do NOT get me started on the travesty that is "Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls '1981'"!!!

  6. I have always loved Barbara Parkins' line reading when Anne tells Neely she is being "Obnoxious!"
    It never fails to make me laugh - along with too many other moments to count.
    I saw the stage version of the film script when they brought it to New York - I don't think I've ever seen anything funnier!

    1. Brilliant that you mention the Barbara Parkins line (indeed, beautifully delivered), for I'ts difficult to watch the film now without remembering how the actress in the stage version parodied it. So spot-on!
      When it comes to that stage show, I'd have to go back in my mind to those old Carol Burnett skits to think of movie take-offs that are as entertaining as the films themselves.

  7. I can't say I rewatch this film that frequently, I really have to be in the mood for some howlingly bad acting with my over the top fashions and will usually default to the superior acting of The Best of Everything or better yet the lavishness and wry knowing dialogue that is Woman's World, which I could watch once a week and be a happy man.

    However having read the book this year I really should give the film a re-view. The book wasn't that well written but Susann certainly gave more a sense of time and her characters had more depth than in the movie. Patty Duke in the movie was obviously adrift as well as horribly miscast although she's gone on record as being at war with the director whom she refers to as the meanest SOB that ever lived. She still manages to inject a shot of energy into most of her scenes, sometimes (often) too much but at least she's giving it her all.

    In the book I thought Anne was a sad fool but at least she had a pulse, Barbara Parkins was quite a beauty but yawn inducing in her line readings although she carries off those outrageous fashions with panache. It's comes as little surprise that she headed back to TV pretty quickly after this.

    Jennifer suffered the most loss of character between page and screen, I found her the most interesting person in the novel. Her reduced impact isn't Sharon Tate's fault I thought she gave a lovely gentle reading of the part. Her last few wordless minutes are really quite beautiful and moving, seemingly lifted from another better movie. I've seen the majority of her small filmography and I'd say she was more adept at comedy, love her in The Wrecking Crew, but a decent actress overall and had she not been killed would have had a good chance at a significant career, she was definitely considered a star on the rise at the time since she possessed that old time movie star glamour and presence.

    No one has mentioned Lee Grant but I love her in everything, even this. The intensity of her performance is what made Miriam, a complex crafty woman in the novel reduced to little more than a bit and hardly any backstory in the film, at least someone you took notice of. Someone more subdued would have been swamped by all the mess going on around her.

    The only truly star performance in this highly entertaining mess is by the specially billed MISS Susan Hayward. Stepping in as a favor to Robson who helmed her Oscar nominated turn in My Foolish Heart years earlier she must have had a better relationship with him than Patty did. Helen Lawson in the book was a coarse maneater unquestionably modeled on Ethel Merman but taken to an extreme. I'm sure Merman was a tough old buffalo but the character felt like a score settling device. I don't know if Susan insisted on that last humanizing scene in the movie but in that one scene she turns Helen from soulless bitch to hardened careerist with a canny sense of survival and what that takes. As a younger woman she could have made Neely work, as she did so many shaky vehicles handed her at Fox through the sheer power of her presence and immense talent.

    I read an amusing antidote, can't remember where, about the press conference for Susan Hayward's assumption of the Helen Lawson role after Judy's departure. The press was talking to Parkins while waiting for Susie to arrive, when it was time for her to come out Parkins said something to the effect "Allow me to introduce you to my co-star Susan Hayward" to gasps and frozen silence seeing as how Hayward had been a star before Parkins was born! Susan took it in stride ignoring the faux pas with graciousness and a smile and when called to the set with "Are you ready, Miss Hayward?" she responded "I was born ready!"

    As far as the leads being staffed with lesser lights it was because many higher profile actresses among them: Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch, Julie Christie, Petula Clark, Candice Bergen and Ursula Andress had already turned various roles down.

    1. Hi Joel
      I really loved that anecdote about Parkins and Hayward! Really a hoot!
      Tanks for sharing your thoughts on VOTD. I read the book back in high school and was surprised at how such a different yet similar film was culled from Susann's potboiler.
      Glad you mentioned Lee Grant in this, she always gets passed over in discussions about the film (Other than that "heat up the lasagna" line) and how she's always glowering in cutaway shots.
      I very much appreciate your sharing so many of your thoughts on this longtime favorite! Thank you very much!

  8. I know this is an older post, Ken, but I had to leave a comment because I saw VOTD for the 1st time a few weeks ago (a copy on Youtube), and I had a feeling you would have written on it! I found the film jaw-dropping from almost its opening moments, when Parkins in a voiceover recites about climbing Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls (huh?), over that bizarre pen-&-ink drawing of a mountain turning into a valley turning into 3 women, which looked like some novice's idea of Euro-Style 1960s Zagreb Animation (heavy, man, heavy), and left me baffled but hooked. One detail I adored, and I'd be curious to know if anyone else has noticed it, was how every time Parkins returned to visit her small Massachusetts home town, the place was loaded down with snow, as if existing in a Land of Perpetual Winter. I found myself wondering out loud if somehow it had escaped the effects of global warming. I also couldn't get over the lyrics of Susan Hayward's song about "planting my tree," which I gather doesn't refer to horticulture, but did anyone notice? There was also that infinitely touching scene in the sanitarium (NOT a nuthouse), when Neely & a wheelchair-bound Tony together break into song, while no one else reacts--no one even seems to be listening--until at the end poor Tony is wheeled off into merciful oblivion. Then there are the recurrent one-sided phone conversations Jennifer has with her never-seen mother, each giving us a nice bit of exposition ("Yes, Mother, I know I have no talent; Yes, Mother, I'm doing my breast exercises") to cover any plot points we might have missed (such script-writing economy!) as well as compress passages of time. I also think Patty Duke should have sued someone for the costumes and hair styles she was given; they couldn't have been worse if such hideous couture was deliberately written into her contract. Lastly, I now find myself having the occasional exhibitionist fantasy about standing outside a building and screeching "NEELY O'HARA!!!" to the heavens, just to see the reaction I would get from onlookers. Maybe the best way to deal with such a compulsion is to see the film again, as a way to get over it. Or maybe not ...

    Thanks for a great and enjoyable post!

    1. I love comments on older posts! I am fascinated that VOTD has eluded you all these years…Welcome to the asylum!
      It’s so refreshing to hear a newbies take on things I’d long gotten used to. Just reading your observations makes me want to watch the film again.

      For example, I never really dawned on me that Anne’s hometown exists in perpetual winter…like a living snow-globe. I love that you noticed that. Likewise, the silliness of that Helen Lawson song seemed less so when I was a kid and it seemed like every Ed Sullivan Show featured some kind of self-aggrandizing ballad (Gonna Build a Mountain, My Way, I Gotta Be Me, Don’t Rain on My Parade); one, as often as not, leaning heavily on a wobbly metaphor.

      While the fashions and the acting usually get the lion’s share of comment from veteran VOTD fans, I like that your attention was drawn to so many narrative clichés. Thank you for letting me see this film a bit through “fresh eyes.” Nice to know that this little classic still has viewers shaking their heads and wondering, “What were they thinking?”
      Thanks so much for your compliment, and for giving me a bit of a laugh at the expense of this one-of-a-kind movie!