In an amusingly bitchy article, Look magazine once accurately described Valley of the Dolls (1967) as, “The gargantuan saga of three girls and the nasty, cheesy, show-bizzy world they live in”.
Truer words have never been said. It simply doesn’t get any nastier, cheesier, or show-bizzier than this.
What it’s all about: “I wanted a marriage like mom and dad’s,” Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) tells us in the opening moments of the film. “But first I wanted new experiences, new faces, new surroundings.”
Before you know it, she leaves her picturesque New England hometown for the glamour and promise of New York City. Once ensconced at the Martha Washington Hotel for women, she goes on her first job interview. Theatrical lawyer Henry Bellamy (Robert H. Harris) is wary of her good looks, “I’ll just get her broken-in and some insurance salesman will waltz up and marry her.” He gives her a job anyway. Her first assignment is to deliver some contracts to one of the firm’s clients.
That client happens to be brassy Broadway gorgon Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). When Anne comments on the lovely voice of one of the chorus girls, Helen immediately demands that the singer be fired. “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show, is Helen Lawson… and that’s me baby, remember?” She sends Anne away, refusing to sign the new contracts, “Until Bellamy ties a can to that little broad’s tale.”
That “broad” is young, starry-eyed Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke). While rehearsing her song, she’s told that her only number has been cut from the show. Bellamy masterfully manipulates the situation until Neely finally vows, “I’ll leave this stinkin’ show, with dignity.”
When Anne meets dreamy Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) over a tube of lipstick, it’s love at first sight. Lyon becomes even dreamier in Anne’s eyes when he lands Neely a spot on Joey Bishop’s Cystic Fibrosis Telethon. Neely belts out “It’s Impossible”, the first of the movie’s gonzo showbiz ditties. Duke’s interpretation of a stage performance is a sight to behold. With vocals by Gail Heideman, Duke tries desperately to “sell” the song, but it’s no use. Even her jewelry is working against her. At one point, her beaded necklace amusingly outlines her breasts.
To celebrate Neely’s boffo performance, they head to a chi-chi nightclub to see Tony Polar’s (Tony Scotti) lounge act. Scotti doesn’t fare much better than Duke in the performance department as he warbles another of the film’s priceless tunes, “Come Live With Me”. While singing the subtly titled song, he makes goo-goo eyes at busty showgirl Jennifer North (Sharon Tate).
During it’s out of town try-out, Helen Lawson’s new show opens with a dozy of a production number. While standing in the center of a constantly rotating psychedelic mobile, Helen belts the showstopper, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree”. Wearing a ridiculous ponytail wig and lip-synching vocals that couldn’t possibly be her own, Hayward gives it all she’s got.
Anne and Lyon applaud wildly from the front row. Only in the wonderfully warped world of Valley of the Dolls could this spectacle be considered quality entertainment. A few drinks after the show eventually leads to our heroine’s deflowering. In her hotel room, Anne demurely drops her towel while Lyon turns off the lights. They make love in tasteful silhouette.
In a lively montage, we watch Neely rehearse, marry her boyfriend Mel (Martin Milner), take her first “doll”, and become a smash on the nightclub circuit. “Younger than springtime – And twice as exciting” a headline in Vogue raves. When the entire cast assembles for the signing of Neely and Tony’s first Hollywood contracts, there are two important people missing.
On the snowy east side, Tony and Jennifer share a romantic rendezvous on a park bench. “My mother says I should’ve held out,” she jokes, “and made you marry me.” He proves to be quite susceptible to the power of suggestion. Tony sends a telegram to his sister, Miriam (Lee Grant) telling her that he has eloped.
The disgrace of “giving in” without benefit of marriage has Anne wondering if Lyon will ever make an honest woman out of her. “How do I think I feel slipping out of your apartment at four o’clock in the morning?” Marriage is the furthest thing from Lyon’s mind when he visits her at her childhood home. Anne cannot shake the shame, “Do you really think I could sleep with you here, in this house?” and asks him to spend the night at a local inn. When she arrives the next morning, a Dear John letter is waiting for her. Lyon has gone to England in search of himself.
Anne doesn’t have time to mope. She is soon discovered by cosmetic king Kevin Gilmore (Charles Drake). In yet another wonderfully mod montage, Anne is swept into the glamorous world of modeling. As the “Gillian Girl”, she promotes the company’s brand of make-up in a series of funky ads.
The years pass. At home in Hollywood, Tony, Jennifer and Miriam watch one of Anne’s ads on TV. After the commercial break, they watch Neely modestly win a Grammy. She graciously accepts her award and manages to plug her latest film at the same time. Tony, on the other hand, hasn’t made it quite as successfully. He informs his wife and sister that the studio has dropped his contract.
Jennifer pays Neely a visit in hopes of getting Tony some work on her next picture. But, all she gets is an earful of marital discord from the temperamental star and her ineffectual hubby. Hopped up on dolls and her own ego, Neely tries to put an end to the fight by saying that she has an appointment with chi-chi designer Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion).
Mel becomes upset because she’s, “Spending a lot more time than necessary with that fag.”
“Ted Casablanca is not a fag,” Neely argues, “And I’m the dame who can prove it.” With those words, she wins the fight and ends her marriage.
After a chance meeting, Anne rekindles her relationship with Lyon, who has returned to the U.S. While Dionne Warwick croons another verse of the film’s theme song, they walk along the Malibu shore and make love in her beach house.
When Tony collapses after an evening at the theatre, Miriam must finally tell Jennifer the Polar family secret. Tony has an incurable degenerative nerve disease and must be hospitalized. To pay for her husbands extended stay in the sanitarium, Jennifer meets with a French “art” film director.
“French subtitles over a bare bottom doesn’t necessarily make it art.” But despite her misgivings, she takes the job.
After a busy day of raising hell on the set, Neely pays her former pal a visit. “Neely,” Anne chides, “You know it’s bad to take liquor with those pills.”
Neely ignores her and bellies up to the bar. “Sure I take dolls, I gotta get some sleep! I gotta get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!” Duke may have won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962), but her infamous portrayal of Neely O’Hara proves to be just as memorable, if not more so. From this point on, it’s one classic bad movie moment after another as Duke chews the scenery with a ferocity that is a joy to behold. “I need a man to hold me,” Neely whines. “I need Mel…I mean Ted.”
She hurries home to find Ted swimming in the buff with a young lady friend. “Alright faggot, start explaining,” she snarls, standing in nothing but her underwear and a wig that’s jacked up to heaven.
“You almost made me feel I was queer.”
“I catch you red-handed with a naked broad in my pool and you sermonize me?!”
“That little whore made me feel nine feet tall.”
“You can go to hell,” she shouts, tossing an empty bourbon bottle after him, “Go to hell you bastard!”
When booze, pills and her diva-like tantrums earn her a reputation for being difficult, Lyon urges Neely to dry out in a sanitarium. Before they can ship her off, she make a quick getaway to San Francisco. Neely hits rock bottom and pathetically croaks along to one of her hits playing on the jukebox in a dive bar. While stumbling along the Bowery, she passes several topless bars and adult theaters, one of which is playing a Jennifer North picture. “Boobies, boobies, boobies,” she immortally declares, “Who needs ‘em? I did great without ‘em.”
Later, she finds herself in a sleazy hotel room with an equally sleazy John who takes all her cash. When she awakens from a drug-induced haze, she finds that her friends have forcibly entered her into rehab. “Anne, I am not nutty. I am just hooked on dolls.”
In a darkened screening room somewhere in France, Jennifer and her director watch their latest masterpiece. On screen, a lace curtain billows over the bodies of Jennifer and her onscreen lover. They languidly wax philosophic in a wonderfully pretentious recreation of French New Wave filmmaking. We assume that it’s meant to be a laugh-out-loud parody, until the lights come up and Jennifer offers her honest assessment, “Well, it’s by far the best we’ve made.”
Anne and Lyon visit with Neely at the sanitarium where she recounts her certifiably crazy adventures in the loony bin. From extreme therapy techniques to attacks by the other patients, nothing can top her tale of performing for her fellow inmates. With accompaniment provided by the asylum pianist, Neely begins to sing “Come Live With Me”. Soon, she is joined in song by a drooling, near catatonic Tony! He wheels himself forward and finishes their duet, much to the delight of the other patients.
Jennifer returns to the States. On the eve of her mastectomy, she worries that without her body, she won’t be able to find work. “How am I going to keep Tony in the sanitarium?”
Anne tries her best to offer support. “Lyon will find you a job. I know he will.”
“Anne, honey, let’s face it. All I know how to do is take off my clothes.”
After a difficult call to her mother, whose only concern is about Jennifer’s shameful art house past, she decides that there’s only one choice left. While remembering happier times (clips from earlier in the film) Jennifer takes a handful of pills. With Tony’s echoing vocals to “Come Live With Me” and a melodramatic violin playing on the soundtrack, Jennifer climbs into bed to await death. The moment is maudlin and exploitative, but it is also poignant. Tate is heartbreakingly effective in what might me the film’s only genuine moment. When Jennifer’s body is taken away the next morning, author Jacqueline Susann plays one of the reporters who mob the scene.
After the death of her friend, Anne receives another shock when she discovers Lyon’s affair with Neely. Betrayed and despondent, Anne turns to dolls. She makes her own clumsy attempt at ending it all in the sparkling waters of the Pacific. After a face full of seawater and yet another verse of the theme song, she snaps out of it and returns to her New England roots.
When Neely crashes a press party for Helen Lawson’s new show, the fur begins to fly in one of cinemas most legendary catfights. In the ladies lounge, they trade acidicly bitchy barbs. “Look,” Helen brays, telling it like it is, “They drummed you right out of Hollywood. So you come crawlin’ back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope.”
A scuffle ensues and Neely snatches Helen’s wig. After trying to flush it down the toilet, Neely tosses the hairpiece over the stall door, where it lands on the floor with a splat. As Neely makes a run for it, the restroom attendant tells Helen that there’s a back exit she can use. Instead, Helen regally removes the scarf from her neck and covers her matronly shock of white hair. “I’ll go out the way I came in,” she nobly declares, exiting through the front Ladies room door.
Backstage at her own show, Neely has come full circle and demands that a talented chorine be fired. “I don’t have to live by stinkin’ rules set down for ordinary people. I licked booze, pills and the funny farm. I don’t need anybody or anything!”
When curtain time arrives, Neely is too doped up to perform and the understudy goes on in her place. After spending the evening at the bar across the street, Neely returns to the theatre expecting to find her adoring fans, but everyone is gone. Stumbling along a filthy back alleyway, Duke emotes like mad as Neely calls out to the people that she’s betrayed. Try and keep a straight face when she looks to heaven for God’s help, but takes her own name in vain!
Lyon travels back to Anne’s childhood home and finally pops the question. Her answer? Anne puts on her mink, says good-bye and walks out the door. While strolling through the picturesque (and perpetually snowy) countryside, Anne seems renewed. With new, self-aware lyrics, Dionne Warwick sings the final verse to the title track, “This is my world, here it is, this is where I’ll start again”. Though hardly unscathed, Anne survived her trek through the Valley of the Dolls. Thanks to her journey, bad movies will never be the same.
In conclusion: Jacqueline Susann was less than thrilled with the big screen adaptation of her international bestseller. The author’s memorably strong reaction during the film’s cruise ship premiere is recounted in one of the Valley DVD featurettes. If she loathed the changes made in the 1967 version, it’s a good thing she didn’t live to see Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls “1981″, a television mini-series that further altered the plotlines of her beloved novel. This tacky TV version featured Catherine Hicks, Lisa Hartman and Veronica Hamel in the three lead roles. In one scene, after her wig is ripped off at an awards show, Jean Simmons (as Helen Lawson) accepts her lifetime achievement award by giving a speech that’s entirely about her gray hair! Sadly, it isn’t yet available on DVD. But if you’re a diehard Dolls fanatic, this version occasionally runs on cable. Check your local TV listings.
The two disc special edition DVD of Valley of the Dolls is packed with enough juicy extras to keep anyone (novice or longtime fan) coming back for more. The film is beautifully presented in all its cheesy widescreen (2.35:1) glory. Barbara Parkins and Hollywood gossip columnist Ted Casablanca provide the audio commentary.
Several documentaries cover every conceivable aspect of the film. Gotta Get Off This Merry-Go-Round: Sex, Dolls and Showtunes explores the camp aspects of the film and why it has become a cult movie favorite. The Devine Ms. Susann shines the spotlight on the best-selling author; while AMC’s Hollywood Backstories gives a behind the scenes look at the making of the film. It’s in this episode of Backstories that we get our only glimpse of footage featuring the troubled Judy Garland, who was originally cast as Helen Lawson. The briefly seen wardrobe tests featured in Backstories are presumably all that is left of Garland’s brief time with the production.
Two vintage television specials are also included. Jacqueline Susann and The Valley of the Dolls details the genesis of the novel as well as the film. The special contains terrific footage of the glamorous author. Watching Susann hold her own against a conservative radio host is just one of the highlights. Valley of the Dolls: A World Premiere Voyage is a wacky piece of Hollywood promotion that follows the cruise ship premiere as it makes several glamorous ports of call. On board interviews with the cast are featured, but none are as odd as Tony Scotti serenading the host with his own rendition of the film’s theme while gliding along the canals of Venice in a gondola.
Also included are overflowing photo galleries, follow the bouncing doll karaoke, the complete soundtrack and an amusing Trivia Overdose that pops little nuggets of trivia onscreen while the movie plays. Vintage screen tests are also part of the well-rounded extras. Once you’ve seen Barbara Parkins tackle Neely’s big “Sparkle, Neely Sparkle” scene, you’ll never be the same.
The filmmakers behind Valley of the Dolls didn’t set out to make a cult classic. For all intents and purposes, their big screen adaptation was a serious project. How could they have known that the end result would become an all-time camp masterpiece? Valley of the Dolls is the perfect culmination of bad music, bad dialog, bad costumes and bad acting.
In other words, sheer cinema trash bliss.