VALLEY OF THE DOLLS must be explored by an actual visit—courtesy the river of electronica flowing out of the magic box canyon perched under the massif of your big-screen vacation home. Many are those who have tried in vain over the years to use silly words to describe its spell, from the gape-mouthed critics who first tried to take it all in back in 1967, to those lesser creatures who live to blog among us. In our slighter-than-it-deserves plea-to-see we won’t even be bitchy enough to quote any of the immortal dialogue, simply because the entire movie is a one big, beautiful, 123-minute quote. Watch, feel, know.
“Show business”, mod and swinging. The personal lives and professional careers of three young women—a model, an actress and a singer—run past one another in giddy highs and desperate lows. Men come and go, fame flares them into the spotlight, then flames them out into psychic burn wards. If you think this writing sucks, you really need to see the movie.
Elegant and principled New England girl ‘Anne Welles’ (Barbara Parkins) goes from secretary to top model, strung along by so-suave agent ‘Lyon Burke’ (Paul Burke). One of Lyon’s clients is brassy singer/meteor ‘Neely O’Hara’ (Patty Duke: insert exclamation points !!!), while both ladies are acquainted with sweet knockout ‘Jennifer North’ (Sharon Tate), whose talent begins and ends with her bod. Others involved include “Broadway legend” ‘Helen Lawson’ (Susan Hayward), crooner ‘Tony Polar’ (Tony Scotti) and Neely’s doormat first husband ‘Mel Anderson’ (Martin Milner), who Neely ditches for fashion designer ‘Ted Casablanca’ (Alexander Davion). And, lest we forget, ‘dolls‘. Dolls in various colors. Dolls by the fistful.
Show-busy striver Jacqueline Susann published the book in 1966. The 496 pages of “insider” cheese was laughed at as literature, but it gripped Mary Average like lay fever and shot to the top of the best-seller list, its eventual thirty-one million copies making it one of the best-selling novels of All Time. Yeesh.
20th Century Fox spent $4,690,000 to put it on screen. Hollywood pros Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley took on the script, while contributor Harlan Ellison had his name removed from the credits (this, from a guy who’d co-written The Oscar—a camp feast on steroids–or dolls). Veteran director Mark Robson manned the pilot seat. Robson probably seemed like a good bet, especially since he’d helmed the huge “adult” hit of Peyton Place back in ’57, but his Gilligan steering here leaves a lot to be desired—make that nearly everything. The script is beyond belief, so bad it’s Priceless. Susann called the results “a piece of shit.” Poo or not, the panting public turned up for the naughtiness, and it became the year’s 6th most-seen movie, grossing $50,000,000.
John Williams scoring did get him his first Oscar nomination, and easily the movie’s best feature is the affecting theme tune, written by Andre & Dory Previn. Sung by Dionne Warwick, the aching lament became a big hit. Alas, the other numbers the Previn’s wrote for the movie are…not so good.
Acting-wise—-though maligned at the time, in retrospect Sharon Tate is not bad (considering the script), and is, for starters, drop-dead gorgeous. Though her career was tragically cut short in 1969, she actually came out of this fiasco better than her more experienced co-stars. Cool beauty Parkins, also 24, was hot from the TV series Peyton Place, but her movie career never clicked. Bland 2nd-stringer Martin Milner was salvaged by seven untaxing seasons of Adam-12. Paul Burke, who’d had a solid television run on Naked City and 12 O’Clock High went nowhere after this on the big screen; hands up if you are one of the five or six people who saw Once You Kiss A Stranger, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting or Psychic Killer. Tony Scotti? This was his first and only film role: he became a successful music producer.
Susan Hayward famously replaced a frail and rocky Judy Garland, fired after a big to-do over her comeback. Hayward, 49, no stranger to the concept of chewing scenery to smithereens, gets in her chop-licking darnedest but she—everyone—pales before Patty Duke’s self-demolition as Neely. Working through her own personal demons at the time, Duke, 20, wanted to us this role to break out from her teenybopper TV image. She had after all won an Oscar in 1962 for her terrific work as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Another child actress, Hayley Mills, made a 1967 leap into grown-up material, with the neat comedy-drama The Family Way. But with the hydra of the horrid script, Robson’s overbearing direction and her own mystifying choices, Patty delivered one of the worst performances, by an established actress, in a major movie, ever. Her film career was badly wounded, but fortunately she recovered with good work later on TV. *
Caught up in the decay: Lee Grant (looking embarrassed), Charles Drake, Naomi Stevens and Robert H. Harris. Newcomer Richard Dreyfuss has a tiny bit, and authoress Susann does a cameo as a reporter. Adding to the schlock, Joey Bishop and George Jessel also do cameo spots, as themselves.
* Mark Robson. According to Patty Duke, he was a real s.o.b. on this film, fighting with her, but being extra-nasty to Garland and Tate. His resume is a mixture of good and awful. On the plus side–Bedlam, Champion, Return To Paradise, The Bridges At Toko-Ri, The Harder They Fall, Von Ryan’s Express. On the dud sheet—From The Terrace, Lost Command, Happy Birthday Wanda June, Earthquake, Avalanche Express. Valley Of The Dolls is in a category of its own.
A jewel like this is best watched with friends or a partner who have a like-minded sense of humor, one that can revel in the absurd. Taken straight, it’s a disaster. As camp, it’s indispensable.