Viking Night: Valley of the Dolls
By Bruce Hall
April 22, 2014
There are bad movies, there are BAD movies, and then there are movies that deserve some sort of Government recognition for their horribleness. Normally, it takes a lot of people a lot of time to intentionally create a quality motion picture. All of them, working in lock-step unison, conform to a single creative vision to produce something that will forever be a part of the human experience. I make it sound like such a big deal because once in a while you come across a film so incredibly, wonderfully, unintentionally awful that it evolves into something else entirely. The words “good” and “bad” lose all meaning, subjective or otherwise. And as you watch you realize that you are witnessing a monumental mismatch of design, intent and execution - the likes of which you will be fortunate to witness only a few times in life.
It is, quite simply, a gift. Valley of the Dolls is definitely the kind of movie that never stops giving, and it’s also a film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's runaway hit novel of the same name. It tells the story of three girls, lifelong friends who struggle to navigate the male dominated entertainment industry, and how their mutual dependence on drugs to offset that challenge affects each of them. "Dolls" is a slang term for pills, and I'm going to assume that "valley" refers to the point where you wake up in a dumpster, covered with puke and allegorically bellowing the names of everyone you've ever wronged. The story tries to cover a lot of ground, philosophical and otherwise. But the ride is, shall we say….uneven.
Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is an ambitious "career girl" whose sophistication and elegance tend to open doors in unanticipated ways. She lands a job with an entertainment lawyer, setting her up in the same circle as Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), a plucky Broadway singer with designs on super stardom. The girls befriend Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a good natured chorus girl whose relative lack of talent is offset by her generous spirit, and I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she's incredibly hot. After an initial series of career misfires, Ann leaves her office job for the runway, becoming a successful model almost overnight. Neely turns her own career lemons into lemonade and becomes an international superstar. And Jennifer hooks up with an equally ditzy lounge singer who would be the next Frank Sinatra, and they love each other in the way only two slightly simple people can.
At the time, Parkins was a popular television star (think Alison Brie on a scale of one to Oprah), Patty Duke was America’s Oscar Winning Sweetheart, and Sharon Tate was the It Girl everyone was talking about. Getting people into theaters to see them together, in the film version of the most popular novel in the world was the easy part. Valley of the Dolls made a boatload of money at the box office, but everyone also agreed that it was terrible and they hated it.
The hard part is that Valley of the Dolls was supposed to be very much a drama, perhaps the Trainspotting or Midnight Cowboy of its time. Instead, thanks to so many people being in over their heads in so many ways, it ends up being perhaps the best comedy of 1967. Even if you haven’t read the book, it’s not hard to identify the themes. A girl can make it but it’s still a man’s world, and it’s still a tough slog for women in show business. Drugs are a convenient way to grease the rails, as long as you don’t mind ending up in that dumpster I mentioned.