“You’re alone and the feeling of loneliness is overpowering.”
By most metrics, Valley of the Dolls isn’t a particularly good film. It’s jam-packed with narrative cliches, paper-thin stock characters and ridiculously overheated melodrama. Still, there’s something undeniably riveting about the tone of the experience as a whole, as soap opera plotting, anti-drug hysteria, over-the-top performances, lush musical melodies, breezy montages, memorable costume design and vibrant color cinematography join forces to create an indelible piece of ’60s camp.
The tale centers on three young woman who meet in New York City as they are beginning new careers. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, The Mephisto Waltz) has just moved to the city from New England and has taken a new job as a secretary at a prestigious theatrical agency. One of the agency’s top clients is Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow), a legendary Broadway star with a reputation for difficult behavior. One of the supporting players in Lawson’s latest show is Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker), a wildly talented singer who seems to be on the brink of stardom. Also in the production: Jennifer North (Sharon Tate, The Fearless Vampire Killers), whose compensates for her limited talent with her considerable physical beauty.
When a fit of jealous rage inspires Lawson to have Neely fired from the show, the young singer moves out to Hollywood. Jennifer and Anne make their way to the west coast soon after, as the former marries nightclub singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti, Eye of the Tiger) and the latter ends up landing a starring role in a high-profile TV ad campaign. As the three women become increasingly successful, the stresses of life begin to pile up. To cope with their new collections of personal problems, some of the women turn to pills (or “dolls”): pills to wake them up, pills to keep them going, pills to put them to sleep. Eventually, it becomes clear that all three women are headed into a downward spiral that they may not be able to pull out of.
It’s important to note that Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967, which explains why it’s so much edgier than movies that were being released just a few years earlier and so much tamer than movies that were being released just a couple years later (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – which offers a more satirical take on similar subject matter – is filled to the brim with nudity, brutal violence and explicit language). In one scene, Neely tells her friends that her time in a rehab facility inspired her to use horrible profanity… and then we cut to a flashback of her referring to a woman as a, “stupid-ass nurse.” In another sequence, we see footage of a supposedly shocking semi-pornographic movie Jennifer has starred in, but the footage doesn’t actually show anything too explicit. The film was amusingly overwrought when it was first released, but the relative tameness of what’s actually shown makes all of the hand-wringing even more hilarious.
Still, beneath all of the goofy melodrama, life lessons and “shocking” moments (abortions, suicide attempts, rare medical conditions), there’s something genuinely affecting about the movie. Valley of the Dolls has a real sense of mournful longing at its core; a recognition that the things that really matter in life so often manage to slip between our fingers as we get distracted by the empty promises of “a better life.” These women get almost everything they’ve ever dreamed of, but the price they pay is an inability to actually enjoy it. It’s an all-too-common Faustian bargain presented in incredibly hyperbolic cinematic terms.
Like everything else in the movie, the performances sometimes wander too far over the top, but all of the central women are memorable and effective (particularly Duke and Hayward, who share a deliciously nasty scene together late in the proceedings). The men, however, tend to be pretty dull: a series of bland boyfriends, business partners, bosses and bullies that mostly only exist to help move the story along.
Director Mark Robson (working from the best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann) – who directed the comparably melodramatic Peyton Place – brings a great deal of visual flair to the proceedings, often allowing the story to melt into stylish montages and elaborate musical numbers (immediately catchy tunes penned by Andre & Dory Previn, which also serve as the foundation of John Williams’ attractive score). Every scene looks like a million bucks, and the movie does an expert job of capturing the fashion and shifting social attitudes (the film’s worldview is an intriguing of blend of liberal and conservative ideas – modern viewers may be startled by the film’s surprisingly nasty moments of homophobia) of a very specific moment in time. It may not quite work as a dramatic experience, but it’s one hell of a time capsule.
Valley of the Dolls (Blu-ray) Criterion has received a superb 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that really highlights the film’s rich, colorful cinematography. Detail is strong throughout, depth is exceptional, a warm layer of natural grain is left intact and brighter colors have a lot of pop. The DTS HD 3.0 Master Audio track is stellar, too, offering rich, full sound that really highlights fine soundtrack and presents all of the dialogue with clarity. Supplements include a commentary with actor Barbara Perkins and journalist Ted Casablanca, a visual essay from Kim Morgan, new interviews with writer Amy Fine Collins, over two hours of archival programs and featurettes, screen tests, trailers, TV spots, radio spots and a booklet featuring an essay by Glenn Kenny. An impressive set of bonus features!
Valley of the Dolls is certainly overwrought, but undeniably compelling. Criterion’s new Blu-ray release provides some excellent historical context via an abundance of interesting supplements.