Cards on the table: I adore campy movies. When I want to unwind from the day with a flick, I will more often than not gravitate towards the She-Devils, Death Becomes Hers, and Mommie Dearests of cinema. I’m also low-key obsessed with anything that has Jacqueline Susann’s name attached to it. Her books, the film adaptations, that movie where Bette Midler plays her alongside Nathan Lane as her husband, which I still can’t believe is an actual thing. A resounding yes to all of that. So of course the crown jewel of the Susann empire, Valley of the Dolls, has a secure spot not only in my favorite books of all time, but also my favorite movies. But despite my penchant for camp, when I read that it would officially be part of the Criterion collection come September 27, I thought I was seeing things. I mean, really? Of all the movies, THAT one makes the cut?
Then I realized how much sense it made.
“But Sarah,” you say. “Look at the films that have gotten the Criterion treatment in the past. Valley of the Dolls isn’t even in the same league.” On the surface, it seems like a fair point. This movie is not good in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it was absolutely trashed by critics upon its release; Roger Ebert cited it as containing “the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization.” (And the only reason I’m calling out this review in particular is because, in a hilarious twist, Ebert wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In no way a sequel, it was filmmaker Russ Meyer’s 1970 sexploitation, I-don’t-remember-dropping-acid-but-I-feel-like-I-definitely-dropped-acid, GOOD-GOD-WHAT-ARE-THEY-DOING-TO-EACH-OTHER film, which is also being released by Criterion on September 27. Seriously, Valley of the Dolls plays like a Disney movie compared to this.) Why does this film deserve a spot in the Criterion collection?
I’m so glad you asked.
Valley of the Dolls is not a cinematic masterpiece by any means. It’s quintessential camp that took itself far too seriously. It’s filled with overly emotive performances. It’s a full-fledged soap opera clocking in at a little over two hours. And it’s an important part of the pop culture lexicon. It spit in the face of expectations of submissive women while shining a light on sexism. The underlying themes are still completely relevant in 2016. Not to mention, it’s fun as hell to watch. So join me as I celebrate the near fifty-year reign of a cult classic. These are the things that make it Criterion worthy, and the things that make it required viewing for the camp enthusiast. This is proof that “good” is an entirely subjective concept, and what falls outside of the standard should not be dismissed.
Let’s get on this merry-go-round!
THE CRITERION FACTOR
Whether or not you care to admit it, Valley of the Dolls is an important point in the history of pop culture for a number of reasons. A quick glance at this movie, and it’s easy to label it as trash. Take a closer look, though, and you go beyond the mask of melodrama to see a film quite extraordinary for its time.
Feminism and camp are a wonderful mix
Despite whatever negative reactions it may have garnered, this was a big step in shedding the image of the submissive housewife. Yes, there were still boundaries to be broken (let’s not forget that The Brady Bunch, which premiered in 1969, originally intended for Carol to have divorced her first husband, but since that was still a taboo topic, they just didn’t mentioned what happened to him at all), but the times were definitely changing. The book and movie versions of Valley of the Dolls arrived on the heels of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, which stressed that being a single woman is *gasp!* not the end of the world, and single women should *GASP!* grab life by the horns and make what they want out of it. And when Jacqueline Susann sat down at the typewriter, she crushed the housewife “ideal” like it was a bug under her shoe. Thank god for that.
Anne Welles, Jennifer North, and Neely O’Hara are all bucking the system in Valley of the Dolls, but it’s Anne’s story that is perhaps the best example of this in the movie. She leaves her small hometown of Lawrenceville—and the man everyone expected her to marry—for a more exciting life in New York City. Right off the bat, you know that she’s not about to settle for less than what she wants out of life, as the voiceover accompanying her exit from New England makes clear: “I wanted a marriage like Mom and Dad’s, but not yet. First, I wanted new experiences, new faces, new surroundings. Lawrenceville would be there forever.” Girl, YES. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting married and settling down, but the fact that she not only recognizes there are other things to get out of life, but also recognizes her strong desire to take them, is everything for its time. Hell, it’s STILL everything.
Once her relationship with Lyon goes sour—i.e. he reveals that he can’t give her what she wants out of the relationship but fully expects her to still be down with sleeping with him in her childhood home, and bails when she refuses him—any heartbreak over it doesn’t keep her from taking her own successful path as the Gillian Girl. And when she hits her bottom after Lyon’s affair with Neely, she recognizes her need to get herself out of the situation and returns to Lawrenceville in search of a happier life, culminating in one of the most satisfying moments of the film. Lyon treks to Lawrenceville in an attempt to win her back—throwing out the possibility of marriage—and she responds by gloriously leaving him hanging out to dry.
Tables will turn, and Anne Welles will not have your shit.
Anne definitely fares better here than in the book, where (spoiler alert) she marries Lyon, has his child, finds out he’s cheating on her all over the place because he feels she emasculated him, but refuses to end the marriage on principle because hey, at least she’s got those dolls to distract her. As much as I tend to judge film adaptations based on what—if anything—they change from the source material, I love the movie ending so much more. Because Book Anne probably isn’t finding her situation anything to twirl around in the New England snow about, and dammit, she deserves to twirl.
These things are still happening today
One of the reasons Valley of the Dolls has endured for almost five decades is the fact that the things depicted in the pages and on the screen are still incredibly real in the present day. It’s so easy to pick out instances in the film that could easily happen in some capacity today. Let’s take ageism, for example. Helen Lawson calls herself a barracuda, and part of me believes that she wasn’t always like that, but grew into it the older she got. Because let’s face it: for the most part, viable roles are shaped for the younger generation of actors, and she refuses to be edged out of the game. It’s the logic behind Bellamy’s “Don’t give her that ‘I loved you when I was a little girl’ routine, or she’ll stab you in the back” quip. Even the slightest possibility of being upstaged by up and coming (and young) Neely leads Helen to demand the production drop her. And it’s probably at least partially responsible for her concealing her natural hair with a wig.
Then there’s the blatant sexism, which I would argue is a little more in your face in the book than it is in the movie; I recently reread the book for the first time in a couple of years, in that time forgot how much of an asshole Tony was in it and was legitimately heartbroken because I actually like the guy in the movie. But sexism is still everywhere on film—Bellamy refusing to hire Anne at first because she’s too good-looking, Bellamy’s “That’s not a girl, that’s my secretary!” at the notion of Anne becoming the Gillian Girl, and lest we forget Neely’s horrific experience in San Francisco—and since Jennifer is the showgirl of the group, it seems as though she’s subjected to the most obvious of it. You can tell that she wants people to see her as more than just a body, but the longer that doesn’t happen, the more she starts to believe that she has no talent, and is only what people see on the surface (the possible peak of this is when Miriam decides that the only way to keep paying Tony’s hospital bills is to enlist Jennifer to star in French art films). That belief has to be one of the things swimming around in her mind as she turns to suicide after the news of the mastectomy her breast cancer requires.
One of the biggest themes in the movie is the struggle with addiction (it’s right in the title, you guys), and Neely’s the one who truly embodies that. Jennifer and Anne also turn to pills at certain points in the movie, but Neely’s journey is the most troubled one. She quickly gets hooked on dolls, mixes them with booze, accidentally overdoses, does a stint in rehab, relapses to the point of not being able to go on stage during what was supposed to be her Broadway comeback, and ends the movie with a breakdown in the alley behind the theatre. In that time, you see her self-destructive behavior, her initial fight against any treatments the sanitarium provides for her before ultimately giving in. She betrays just about everyone close to her, and even when she thinks she’s got it licked for good, there’s still a tiny bottle of dolls there to tempt her into inevitable relapse. Melodramatic acting aside, it puts an enormous spotlight on how much of an illness addiction is, and how it’s not something one can simply quit on command.
It absolutely left its mark
Pop culture will not let this go and for that, I am thankful.
Valley of the Dolls has been name checked and referenced every which way for comedic effect, because virtually everyone knows the gist of the story, even if they’ve never read or seen it. A lot of times, it’s because the title sounds so much like a children’s story, like when Jack reveals that he lovingly reads the book to Karen’s step-kids on Will & Grace or Fran disguises the bedtime story as Valley of the Barbie Dolls on The Nanny. Sometimes it’s used to prove a point, like with Phyllis’s dark period in Troop Beverly Hills. Although here, it’s not Seconal, it’s Evian. (Also, can we talk about how the cover of Vicki Sprantz’s novel could EASILY be mistaken for a Jacqueline Susann tome? And I would gladly devour Malibu Bitch the way I have with all of Susann’s books.)
My favorite comes from repeat offender Will & Grace and its season five episode, “Dolls and Dolls.” Fine, most people know it as the Madonna episode, but Will’s storyline of spraining his ankle and being a little too eager to take his prescribed painkillers allows them to play off of a camp classic, particularly with Grace’s nod to the lyrics of the theme song in an attempt to help Will:
One of the major draws to the book was that it read like a 400+ page gossip column, and the movie is no different. Jacqueline Susann knew that people would eat up that kind of celebrity drama and, half a century later, our society still can’t get enough. With tabloids online and in print, and a slew of reality shows at the ready, you couldn’t escape celebrity gossip if you tried. If Susann had been alive to see the birth of TMZ and the creation of shows like Celebrity Rehab and Couples Therapy, she’d have probably taken one look at all of it and said, “Called it.”
As I said before, Valley of the Dolls, along with works like Sex and the Single Girl, shattered the image of the submissive housewife, and this is the most important part of the aftermath the phenomenon left behind. While likely not solely responsible, it certainly helped pave the way for more and more depictions of single women pursuing careers. Soon after these works hit the shelves and the screens, you had characters like Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show on television every week (granted, that show is certainly tamer than Valley of the Dolls, but where the movie was a one and done thing, network TV has to reach and keep a decent-sized audience week after week). Fast-forward a couple of decades, and it could be argued that Sex and the City owed something to the road Jacqueline Susann and Helen Gurley Brown helped to pave.
THE CAMP FACTOR
Now, let’s have some fun. I know that this could easily be considered a guilty pleasure. But guilty pleasures be damned! They imply that I should be ashamed of liking something, but isn’t the important part that I like something? That for whatever reason, it got a strong reaction out of me? Why be embarrassed about what makes you happy? So let’s bask in the things that make this such a great watch. This is what makes me proudly claim Valley of the Dolls as one of my all time favorite films.
“That’s me singin’ on that jukebox.”
Oh my god, the music, you guys.
First off, I just want to let it sink in that the music was adapted and conducted by John Williams. Yeah…THAT John Williams. Nothing more to add. Just that it’s a thing that happened, and it makes me inexplicably happy to think that the guy responsible for the music to Star Wars and Harry Potter also has this on his résumé. (SIDE NOTE: the cover of the movie soundtrack credits him as Johnny Williams and someone please explain why I get so much joy out of that? Good ol’ Johnny Williams…)
The songs that are featured are actually pretty decent (although get ready to have Dionne Warwick’s voice in your head long after the movie ends). But the performances are so deliciously grandiose at times that they fit right in with the feel of the movie. I’m not even sure if Helen Lawson knows what Hit the Sky is supposed to be about, but she’s sure as shit going to make a gigantic production out of “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” and you will be delighted. And perplexed.
My favorite song out of everything, though, is “Come Live with Me.” The first time it comes up is during Tony’s act, as he sings it without taking his eyes off of Jennifer, but the pure nightclub schmaltz of it isn’t what hooked me; it’s the second, stripped down, fairly emotional performance that did the trick. Neely starts to sing it during the sanitarium dance when Tony, deep in his illness, recognizes the song and starts singing along before ultimately becoming unresponsive once again. Hands down one of my favorite scenes.
“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls. It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak. You stand there, waiting for the rush of exhilaration, but it doesn’t come. You’re alone. And the feeling of loneliness is overpowering…”
And that’s how you know you’re in for a ride.
I’m a sucker for old-school melodrama. It’s the same mentality that makes me cling to Cher’s story songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, relaxes my stance against talking in the middle of songs when I listen to the Shangri-Las, and absolutely endears me to Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls. In an episode of Hollywood Backstories, Duke admits that her acting in the film wasn’t great in the traditional sense, but holy mother of god, it’s a PERFORMANCE. Where do I even begin? I think the best way I can describe it is that scene in The First Wives Club where Elise defends herself against any notion that she’s cold and has no feelings with “I’m an actress! I HAVE ALL OF THEM!” Because Patty Duke has literally all of the feelings. But my favorite scene comes with the end of Neely’s story. In any other movie, Neely’s breakdown in the alley would probably be a heavy moment. In Valley of the Dolls, I find it impossible to keep a straight face, or from shouting an exaggerated, “NEELY O’HARAAAAAA!!!” right along with her:
But let’s not put the blame squarely on Neely’s shoulders. Let’s add to this the fact that there was absolutely no subtlety, like the shade of lipstick Anne left behind at the office after meeting Lyon being “Barely Pink.” Or the questionable montages of Neely working her way up the showbiz ladder, and Jennifer’s death. Or basically all of the dialogue in this thing. For real, this movie is insanely quotable for all the wrong reasons. If “Sparkle, Neely, sparkle” doesn’t grab you, there’s always “Boobies, boobies, boobies. Nothin’ but boobies!” Then, of course, there’s Anne and Lyon’s awkward conversation about wooing, and Jennifer’s spiel about being the only showgirl who’s been inside the Statue of Liberty.
I mean…what do you even say to that?
Things that make you go “Um…what?”
Come for the feminism and relevant themes, stay for the overwhelming melodrama, leave with more questions than answers! Not that you really want answers; these small things contribute to the fun of watching this movie in a big way. Stick with it for the full two hours, and you’ll ask yourself such burning questions as:
Who invited Marvin Hamlisch?
What does this even mean? (No seriously, someone tell me what this means.)
What the actual fuck is this Broadway production?
How does this sell hairspray? (And is that fan really necessary?)
Does Neely realize she described the least camp thing about this movie?
Did they eventually just give up on the lyrics to the theme song? More importantly, did Dionne Warwick realize this was just a taste of the questionable lyrics she’d have to sing in future Jacqueline Susann adaptations (looking at you, theme from The Love Machine)?
In all seriousness, I don’t think I would love Valley of the Dolls as much as I do if it didn’t mix the Criterion worthy things with the camptastic things. Take away the feminist undertones and the commentary on ageism and sexism, and there isn’t much left. On the other hand, take away the melodrama and the WTF moments, and you may get the hard-hitting cautionary tale that was probably intended, but at what cost? You can throw criticism at this movie while pushing it aside, proclaiming that you wouldn’t be caught dead watching something like this, but if you do, you run the risk of never finding something in it to love.
And sometimes, it feels so good to love bad things.
Do you love Valley of the Dolls like I do? Or maybe you have a penchant for so-bad-they’re-good movies in general? Let’s talk in the comments.