Editor’s Note: On Thursday, NBC will launch a 13-episode series, “Aquarius”, starring David Duchovny as a police sergeant in Los Angeles in 1967 who leads an undercover investigation of a cult leader named Charles Manson. In honor of “Aquarius,” Freeline Media is also taking a look back at the culture of the 1960s, through one of the iconic movies of 1967, “Valley Of The Dolls.” That film — trashed by critics in its day but now a well-loved camp classic — starred Sharon Tate, the young actress who was tragically murdered by Manson and his “family” in 1969 while she was eight months pregnant.
There was a great deal of fanfare in the mid-1960s when 20th Century Fox announced it would produce a film version of the book “Valley of the Dolls.”
The novel had been a best seller, and the studio lined up some top talent behind the scenes. The director, Mark Robson, had been behind Academy Award-nominated pictures like “Champion,” “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” and the glossy soap opera “Peyton Place.” Major performers like Patty Duke (who had won an Oscar for best supporting actress for “The Miracle Worker” a few years earlier), Lee Grant, and Susan Hayward signed on.
John Williams, who went on to score many of Steven Spielberg’s movies, wrote the music, and Burt Bacharach composed the theme song. With that much talent behind the camera, the studio execs probably had every reason to think the movie would be a classic.
That it was, but not quite in the way the studio at first envisioned. Rather than a hard-hitting look at the dangers awaiting starry-eyed young women who move to the big city looking for fame and glamour, the studio got one of cinema’s biggest duds, a turkey routinely dismissed as being right up there with the worst trash Hollywood ever produced.
What happened? Maybe the studio execs should have considered that the source material, the novel by the late Jacqueline Susann, didn’t exactly win rave reviews from the critics, who dismissed it as exploitative junk. The movie apparently adhered all too closely to the novel’s rock-bottom standards.
Seen today, “Valley of the Dolls” hasn’t exactly aged well. The script is awful, some of the actors are so bad – particularly Duke, who is positively over-the-top rotten as she struggles with drug addiction – and the so-called “dramatic” scenes so ripe that you may think the critics in 1967 were too kind.
And yet …
Watching this film with my sister one evening, I have to admit it: I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It’s a long film – three minutes past two hours long – but I was never bored. “Valley of the Dolls” had me hooked from the very beginning, when lovely Anne Welles (played by Barbara Perkins) decides to leave the postcard-perfect small Massachusetts town she grew up in to seek excitement in New York City – perhaps in a career as a model. The worse the movie got – and, boy, does it get really, really awful – the more hooked I was.
Why? I think the true value of a film like “Valley Of The Dolls” is not its pitifully few redeeming qualities, but in its rock-bottom worst moments. This is how the phrase “camp classic” was born. You don’t watch because it’s high art, but for the exact opposite reason. And if you doubt that a movie can be entertaining if it’s downright rotten, consider that in 2004, Hollywood considered making a revamped version of “Valley,” with stars like Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera in negotiations for the leads. “Valley of the Dolls” lives!
Listening to Dionne Warwick sing the beautiful theme song at the film’s opening, then seeing the lush views of the quaint, historic New England town where Anne lives, you almost think the movie is on its way to some high-class entertainment.
Anne loves the beautiful, centuries-old house in which she was raised and has a sweet boyfriend … but she longs for excitement. She wants to get away for a few years to experience life in the big city. So she takes the train to Manhattan, gets a room in a boarding house for young women, and starts auditioning for shows. She eventually gets a job as a secretary for a hot-shot talent agent. Along the way, her path crosses with Neely O’Hara, a singer on the way up, and Jennifer Polar, an aspiring actress mainly acclaimed for her stunning beauty. It’s the kind of tale Hollywood has been churning out since Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers starred in “Stage Door” back in 1937.
But in an era when studio censorship was declining and the directors and screenwriters were given free reign to explore once taboo subjects, the producers of “Valley” had a field day. Thus Neely (played by Duke) discovers booze and then pills on her way up the studio ladder, while poor Jennifer, who loves a man stricken with a serious illness that requires expensive hospitalization, can only find work as a porn star in European “art” films.
From there we get some of the trashiest dialogue ever committed to the big screen.
While alleging to be a brazenly honest account of what happens to young women who wander alone in the ugly world of show biz, “Valley” steals its plots shamelessly from other, better movies. Neely lands a minor role in a Broadway show headlined by fading star Hayward, and goes on to become a superstar at her older counterpart’s expense – a storyline Bette Davis and Anne Baxter did so much better a decade earlier in “All About Eve.”
“Valley” isn’t above sleazy plot twists; poor Jennifer’s budding career in soft-core porn comes to a quick halt when she gets diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s hard to tell who has it worse, Jennifer or her superstar pal Neely, who ends up a whining, drug addicted, has-been in record time.
Cruel stuff, indeed, but as I said, it’s not boring. It’s worth noting that the film, despite all the crummy reviews, went on to earn $20 million, a tidy sum in those days. The Web site Cool Cinema Trash summed it up best by writing, “‘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.”
What surprises me, though, is how this movie can still be appreciated, even as trash, in today’s era when television is so much more explicit. Who needs soap operas these days when they’ve been replaced by rancid reality shows that encourage people to degrade and humiliate themselves before a national audience? “Jackass” may have seemed like an extreme example when it first aired, but today it seems more like an inspiration than an exception to the rule.
“Valley” can still be cherished, I think, for other reasons. How could any director allow a talent like Patty Duke to overact so horribly? You’re in awe of her embarrassing performance. And how about that final scene where recovering addict Neely has a cat fight with her old nemesis, the Susan Hayward character, and winds up tearing her wig off?
“Valley” is also noteworthy as offering one of the few performances by Sharon Tate, the beautiful actress who made just six films before her brutal death on Aug. 9, 1969, at the hands of the Charles Manson Family, when the actress, eight months’ pregnant, was savagely stabbed to death along with four other people. Tate made other, better films than this one, like the horror film “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and the underrated Dean Martin comedy “The Wrecking Crew,” but “Valley” was her biggest hit. It’s no surprise that the studio rushed this movie back into cinemas after her death made the headlines. She was also a much better actress than Jennifer, who was described throughout the film as a beauty with no talent.
In 2006, “Valley of the Dolls” was re-released on a special edition DVD that I think is well worth picking up. It’s a guilty pleasure, I admit, but if you’re in the mood for something that revels in being lowbrow, this one is tough to beat.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..