Not quite a reference to the three beautiful women who star in this film but the uppers and downers that form a major part of one’s diet in this glossy warning on the perils of fame…
Leaving her quiet New England home, Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) travels by train to New York, gazing out the window of her carriage as the farm buildings of her home give way to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Finding a room in a hotel, she aspires to be famous but, until then, accepts a secretarial position in the offices of Henry Bellamy, a lawyer who works in Broadway. First turning her down for being too pretty – Bellamy wonders how long it will be before Anne meets and marries a rich man and leaves him alone once more – he hands her an envelope of legal documents and offers her the job on one condition, that she get those papers signed.
Taking a cab to a theatre, she meets with Bellamy’s client, fading star of stage and screen Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) who’s haranguing her agent as Anne arrives over the poor quality of her publicity shots. Innocently remarking on the performance of Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), who’s supporting Lawson in the production, Lawson tears up the contracts, tells Anne to go crawling back to the office and demands that Neely be removed from the musical. Returning with Bellamy and his partner Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), Anne sees at firsthand the hard times that lie ahead for anyone trying to make it in the theatre. With Neely out and Helen Lawson demanding that only she have star billing, Anne learns that climbing the hill to fame and fortune isn’t quite so hard as staying at the top once you’re there. Picking up with Neely after that episode, she and Anne become friends and together with the beautiful Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) the three of them agree to remain firm friends whatever happens. But fame is what happens.
Anne begins a relationship with Burke who leaves her to follow his dream of becoming a writer, after which she becomes the famous face of Gillian Cosmetics, appearing on billboards and television adverts nationwide. Marrying famous crooner Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), Jennifer is distraught when he’s struck down with an incurable illness, leaving her to fend for herself by starring in European ‘art movies’, or nudies as Neely describes them. As for Neely, she becomes the biggest star of the three, appearing on stage and screen as well as being the toast of Hollywood, of the recording business and of the American public who name her one of their best-loved personalities. But those dolls are never far from the lives of Anne, Neely and Jennifer and soon all three are addicted to a diet of uppers and downers…pills to wake up to and pills to get back to sleep, all washed down with whatever alcohol is at hand. Tragedy, as you might expect, looms large in the future of these dolls…
It’s little wonder that Valley of the Dolls has garnered something of a following amongst gay men. Dionne Warwick, Judy Garland (part written for as well as one inspired by) and three fabulous-looking women crumbling under the pressures of fame, romance and the expectation of others and you have a film that, were it being produced now, would be heavily promoted through the pages of Attitude. Like The Wizard Of Oz, though, which has struck a chord with gay men for Judy Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy, a little girl who’s far away from home and feeling very, very alone, there’s a sadness at the heart of Valley of the Dolls that the glitz of Hollywood and of Broadway do little to hide. Perhaps, even, it is the amongst the most emotionally-wracked of soapish films, having talk of abortions, cancer, drug and alcohol addiction and bed-hopping between its stars, but it’s also a fantastically glamourous film that reveals the bitchiness behind the high walls of Hollywood. These dolls do indeed want it all but the Devil has a way of making a deal that means he’ll be coming calling once again.
Adapted from the novel by Jacqueline Susann, who didn’t much care for this adaptation of her trashy book, Valley of the Dolls plays down some of the more excessive moments of the book in favour of making it a warning of the rocky road to fame. This is in spite of Susan both acting in it and being one of the scriptwriters but rather than keeping Valley of the Dolls a thickly-layered drama about leaving behind who and what one is in pursuit of fame, it becomes, on the screen, a glossy, bitchy melodrama that makes much ado of the horrors of fame. Even then, Valley of the Dolls is quite a tame film, often in spite of the venom spat in the dialogue as well as the adult material that makes it way into the action. Pornography, abortions, addiction, a terminal illness, rehab, a drugs overdose, prostitution and various affairs, it’s a surprise this is only rated a PG-13 but, again, much of this has to do with how it’s played, with the characters more fond of relating their feelings on a crisis than allowing the audience to be witness to it. All the more difficult, then, to appreciate Susann’s plotting and the various clues she placed in her book to identify the actresses on which she based her characters.
Susann’s plot does remain in the film – it is thought that she based Anne on herself but moments from her life, notably her battle with breast cancer, cross over into other characters – but one has to work a little harder to uncover her secrets. It is, however, clear that Susann based the character of Helen Lawson on Ethel Merman, whom, the extras reveal, Susann had a friendship with but which became an obsession. Equally, there’s something of Judy Garland in Helen Lawson as well as in Neely O’Hara and there does appear to be aspects from the life of Marilyn Monroe that have been brought into the character of Jennifer North. None of this is particularly explicit and you certainly don’t need to be much of an expert on Garland to appreciate the film but it is worth knowing that Garland was cast as Helen Lawson early in the production before walking out on it with several thousands of dollars worth of costumes. Raquel Welch also screen tested but turned down the film – she later admitted that was not an awfully clever decision – but once the cast was in place, something gelled between them and Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate and, best of them all, Patty Duke make for a striking set of lead actresses.
In amongst the pill-popping and bed-hopping, Valley of the Dolls is actually a fairly poignant tale of ambition and how success can spoil a dear friend. As the film’s first act draws to a close, Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Neely O’Hara become close – interestingly, though, they never share any screen time as a trio except for a photograph of them together at a wedding – but success soon tears them apart. Neely, who becomes particularly monstrous, moves to Los Angeles and avoids seeing Jennifer at all, dreading her friend asking her to see if she could assist in finding husband Tony a part in her latest movie. As a quieter voice, Anne often ensures that they weather whatever storm is brewing but eventually even Neely proves too much for her. As Anne’s personal life falls apart – again Neely is involved as she has an affair with Lyon Burke – even she, the most level-headed of the three women, takes to bed with a bottle of dolls, her addiction to them spiraling out of control. As the film nears its end, Neely is an alcoholic whilst Anne is having a breakdown on a trip alone to the beach, both of them leaving Jennifer on her own to brave a tragedy that, frail as she is, she just can’t cope with.
In some ways, Valley of the Dolls is terrifically sad but, in others, roaringly funny. Most oftentimes, it aims for seriousness but Neely’s dialogue is delivered so well – I particularly enjoyed her, “Noodies!” when called upon to describe Jennifer’s ‘art movies’ – that she quickly becomes the star of the film. The scene in which she and Helen Lawson fight in the toilets in a very upmarket hotel, which ends with Neely tearing Helen’s ginger wig off, flushing it down the toilet and eventually throwing the sodden hairpiece back at her – is, I suspect, played for drama but is amongst the funniest sequences in the film, albeit poisonous in Neely’s treatment of Helen Lawson.
Yet Anne Welles remains the central character and Valley of the Dolls ensures that neither she nor Jennifer North get lost in Neely’s shadow. Anne, through the course of the film, makes a couple of trips back to a snowy New England that show the pull that her home town has on her, which ensures the ending is not as surprising as it could have been. Barbara Parkins is, if not in the same class as Patty Duke, still very well suited to the role and much more classy, with a voice that’s honey-smooth and a beauty that’s almost luminous. As for Sharon Tate, seeing her here, one’s reminded of just why her killing by followers of Charles Manson was such a tragedy. Able to play the material for laughs as well as poignancy – her dysfunctional relationship with her mother is one of the few parts of the film that appears to ring true – Tate has a lovely part in the very innocent Jennifer and her’s are the only really heartbreaking scenes in the film.
What Valley of the Dolls isn’t, however, is the dayglo riot of sex, drugs and alcohol that is the Russ Meyer-helmed sequel. Where that film is pitched towards exceeding even the more outrageous moments of this one, it’s still played for comedy where much of Valley of the Dolls is not. Anyone buying, and watching, both for the first time may well be confused by the difference in style between the two films but looking at this now, Meyer and Roger Ebert’s inspiration for their sequel is obvious. By drawing on the glossiest, bitchiest moments in Valley of the Dolls, Meyer and Ebert created a movie classic, one that stands up well even now. That may not have been what Jacqueline Susann and Mark Robson intended – it’s probably fair to say that Susann would have hated Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – but Meyer and Ebert certainly captured the more memorable aspects of the film. It’s a pity, however, they couldn’t have found space for Neely O’Hara in their story of The Carrie Nations as Patty Duke, swilling whiskey and gulping down pills, would have been perfectly placed for a comeback, which is, after all, what all real stars crave.
Following on from their recent releases of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Fox are hot on the heels of Warner Brothers when it comes to releasing archive movies on DVD. This continues that trend with the film looking and sounding spectacular. The picture quality on Valley of the Dolls is quite superb – clear, colourful and beautifully detailed. Of course, the clothes and interior decoration date the film somewhat – brown has never featured quite so prominently in the years that followed – but such things are but a trifle when the film looks this good.
There are, though, a couple of noticeable faults that are worth pointing out, including an issue of colour timing when Anne Welles enters Bellamy’s office for the first time. What begins as a brown carpet turns a dark green half a second later but, this aside, this DVD offers a wonderful transfer. The audio tracks are just as good with both the Mono and Stereo selections being clear, free of any background noise and with a good dynamic range. The dialogue sounds great but the film really opens up when the soundtrack strikes up with the Theme from Valley of the Dolls sounding particularly impressive.
Commentary: This is a wonderfully bitchy track that sees Barbara Parkins and E!’s Ted Casablanca talk their way through the film giggling at the action and at the clothes as well as gossiping about who the various characters might have been based on. Never anything less than very entertaining, this is a superb commentary with Casablanca keeping the conversation moving and Parkins more than willing to answer his questions what appears to be as honestly as she can. That said, though, she’s not adverse to avoiding the odd question where Casablanca strays too near to some unmentionable truth but, together, they’ve recorded a track that is not only worth listening to once but, rarely, may be the type of commentary that you come back to.
Trivia Overdose: A Pill-Popping Guide to Valley of the Dolls…this subtitle track puts an occasional piece of trivia up on the screen but if you tire of its repetition of things that you’ll learn in the various features, it can be easily turned off.
Gotta Get Off This Merry-Go-Round (48m17s): Subtitled Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, this, along with the commentary, is one of the two main extras on this DVD release. Almost an hour long, it’s a very complete documentary on the making of the film and features a good deal of analysis from such cultural commentators as Ted Casablanca, Alonso Duralde and Michael Musto and also features Barbara Parkins’ thoughts on the film. Whilst none of this is particularly serious – thoughts on the film are mixed, with no one here claiming it to be a great film but everyone saying that it’s a very enjoyable one – this is an excellent feature, full of detail, funny and clearly enamoured with the film. Duralde and Musto, in particular, provide plenty of laughs and have a knowledge of the film that is, frankly, impressive no matter what you might think of it.
Stills Galleries: There are six included here, one each for Anne Welles, Neely O’Hara and Jennifer North as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the Costume Design, Production Snapshots and Sets & Locations. In the case of the three actresses, most of the still images are of publicity shots but there is the occasional image taken from the film.
The Divine Miss Susann (14m13s): Featuring interviews with family and friends this looks back at the life of Jacqueline Susann, her childhood, the experiences that inspired Valley of the Dolls and her death from cancer in 1974. The picture this feature paints is of a woman unprepared for what was expected for her but able to take those experiences and make good on them for the writing of her book.
The Dish on Dolls (5m31s): Opening with an interview with Alonso Duralde, author of 101 Must See Movies For Gay Men – I doubt if Charles Bronson gets much of a look-in in that particular tome – this is a small peek behind the scenes at the making of the film from the point of view of a set of obsessive fans. Pointing out early appearances by Nathan Lane and Richard Dreyfuss, Marvin Hamlisch playing piano in the background and various bloopers, this is a light-hearted look at the film by those who know way too much about it. The two television remakes – one wasn’t broadcast – are also discussed in a spectacularly bitchy way with most of the venom reserved for those actors who are foolish enough to stray into a women-only valley.
Hollywood Backstories – Valley of the Dolls (23m28s): While not long, this is a fairly meaty making-of nonetheless, taking the viewer from the writing of the book, through the casting and production and on to the film’s release and reception. With backstage footage – there’s an early wardrobe test that features Judy Garland as well as the Raquel Welch’s screen test that had been thought lost in Fox’s archives – this also looks into the stories that inspired Valley of the Dolls, including a particularly unflattering one about Jacqueline Susann’s friendship-going-on-obsession with Ethel Merman. As with the actual film, this tends to play up the behind-the-scenes melodrama and gossip and so instead of an interview with Patty Duke in which she claims the shoot was a place where long friendships were forged, she tells how she hated the director and stuffed herself with doughnuts between takes. Better than pills, perhaps.
From The Medicine Chest: This suitably-titled section describes itself as being A Secret Stash of Archival Footage and more than lives up to that billing. Beginning with A World Premiere Voyage (48m09s), which sees hosts Bill Burrud and Army Archerd travelling to Venice to interview the cast and crew before the film’s premiere, this goes on to feature Screen Tests, TV Spots and Trailers as well as Jacqueline Susann and the Valley of the Dolls (50m32s), which is a lengthy profile of the writer from the time of the film’s release. The quality of the footage is not what you would expect from more recent features but once you settle into the features, it is possible to overlook the scratches on the prints and the occasional bit of noise on the soundtrack.
You’ve Got Talent Karaoke: The pill is something of a design feature on this DVD with these selections allowing the audience to sing along with the Theme from Valley of the Dolls (2m17s), It’s Impossible (2m42s) and I’ll Plant My Own Tree (2m37s) as a pill bounces along the onscreen lyrics. Of course, these don’t do very much more than put the lyrics on the screen within the context of the film but should you watch it with a sympathetic crowd, they’ll be very much appreciated.
Musical Numbers: Whilst it would have been nice to have had the soundtrack album included in mp3 format – if BloodRayne can have a complete videogame included, why not a complete album? – this is the next best thing, in which eleven tracks off the soundtrack album play via the television. Unfortunately, the version of Theme from Valley of the Dolls that has been included here is not the one that features Dionne Warwick as she was signed to another record company and wasn’t permitted to release material via the company responsible for the soundtrack album but, otherwise, everything is as it sounds in the film.
Finally, there is also a set of Lobby Cards and a short booklet on the film.
This is a superb set with the quality of the transfer and the extras all being of a spectacularly high quality. Interestingly, though, as good as the extras are, they don’t appear to have been worked on to any great extent, being more about selecting a set of contributors who complement one another’s knowledge of the film and simply letting them get on with it. As such, this makes for a breezy, informal setting in which to present the film, leaving it as a genuinely great Special Edition, clearly in love with the movie but tempered by acknowledging its more temperamental moments. Never great cinema, this has, with its sequel, become a cult classic and Fox has done a sterling job with this release. With Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to follow, these camp classics are finally making good on DVD and Fox, though it may be a late showing, is proving itself capable of looking after its archive releases as well as any other studio.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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