Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Starring Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Paul Burke, Susan Hayward, Tony Scotti and Martin Milner. Directed by Mark Robson. From 20th Century Fox.
Now, I know what you’re thinking and – partly – you’re right. But let me explain. I have always said “I’m a fan. Not a critic”. Bruce Kirkland used to review movies for the Toronto Sun back in the day and he used to infuriate me. Because he was a movie critic. Critic. His job, by definition, was to analyze films and point out their strengths and weaknesses based on his experience and his abilities. But he still bugged me because he never said things like “this is a bad film. But I like it!” – which, of course, a movie reviewer would never say. Their job is to critique and not to gush.
MY job, however, is to gush. I think the main reason I enjoy movies is because of the escape they provide me and classic movies are all the better because, in addition, I enjoy them as a window on the past. I remember watching James Bond movies in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s and saying “why has he stopped off in the Bahamas? Why is he there? What actually is happening?!”. I didn’t care about the plots – I was drinking in the “Bond-ness”. Same with my Falcon movies of the 1940’s – not really following the plot but man, look at that apartment and look at what he’s wearing! I love movies (and music and books) for what I “get” from them. They give me things just by being – not by being good.
Which leads me to “guilty pleasures”. Things you know may be of poor quality but you love them. Beach Party movies, elevator music, the Montreal Canadiens – things you can’t defend. Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures is Valley of the Dolls from 20th Century-Fox in 1967. This film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and acting and it’s over-the-top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad, it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value.
The story tracks the lives and careers of three women: Neely O’Hara (Duke), Anne Welles, (Canadian Parkins) and Jennifer North (Tate). Their lives are a series of ups and downs, successes and failures, men and ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. Neely starts out as an ingenue in a Broadway musical. She has genuine talent – and that scares the show’s star, Helen Lawson (Hayward), who has Neely fired. Neely is consoled by her husband, Mel (Milner), who is beginning to think that a successful career means more to Neely than he does. Indeed, it does and Neely begins to alienate Mel by throwing herself into becoming a star while growing ever more dependent on barbiturates and the like. Anne is a quiet, small town New England beauty who wants to experience life on her own before settling down with her childhood sweetheart. It is a picturesque winter day when she boards the train for New York, saying farewell to her youth and pivoting toward adulthood and a secretarial job for a high-powered Broadway agent. Jennifer is an actress of astounding beauty and negligible acting abilities. While she is a down-to-earth girl, she realizes that her physical appearance is all she has to ensure her the work and the paychecks that will keep her – and her family back home – alive. Neely ends up a major star who becomes self-centered and obnoxious and she eventually has to enter a clinic to kick her drug addiction. Anne is discovered by a cosmetics mogul and becomes successful and wealthy as the model for his line. She becomes the “Gillian Girl”. She falls for Lyon Burke (Paul Burke), another agent in her office, who won’t marry her and eventually breaks her heart, driving her into drug-fueled depression. Jennifer catches the eye of singer Tony Polar (Scotti) and they marry. Tony is stricken with a terrible disease that incapacitates him both mentally and physically and lands him in an expensive clinic. To pay the bills, Jennifer makes the tough decision to denigrate herself by making “art” films in Paris. Her eventual demise is heartbreaking.
Tales of the production and legacy of this film are legion. I will only skim the surface here and suggest you read up on it yourself. I can also highly recommend the novel this film is based on by Jacqueline Susann but keep in mind that drastic changes were made to the story resulting in Susann’s ire. Judy Garland was originally cast as Helen Lawson – an inspired choice – but Garland was in such rough shape at the time – herself a victim of ‘dolls’ – that she was fired soon after production began. There are reports, however, that the director of the film, Canadian Mark Robson (Peyton Place), was particularly hard on Garland. The soundtrack for this film is an absolute gem. I do admit, though, that sometimes I love a movie’s soundtrack because the songs bring to mind the scenes of the film that I remember fondly and sometimes I’m blind – or “deaf” – to the songs’ lack of quality. The songs that are performed in this film were written by the great Andre Previn and his wife, Dory. The title track is excellent. It is performed in the film by Dionne Warwick. Dory’s lyric asks a series of questions and reveals a sense of loss and confusion. They speak of living a roller coaster existence and a desire to “get off of this merry-go-round”. As the film progresses, the lyrics are deftly changed to reflect Anne’s story arc. When things start to get heavy for her, the lyrics change to: “When will I learn? Where will I find what is real?”. And when she hits rock bottom: “Have to get off from this ride, need to get hold of my pride…how was I lost in this game? How will I think of my name? When did I stop feeling sure, feeling safe…?”. It’s an excellent technique; like a Greek chorus. Singer Tony Scotti – the only performer in the film not dubbed – performs “Come Live With Me”. It is a stunning song that has a haunting, dramatic quality that had me searching for a copy for years. The song is used to reflect the action at different key points in Jennifer’s story arc. The score itself was done by John Williams. Yes, that John Williams. The composer of the themes for the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards (second-best to Walt Disney). His score for Valley of the Dolls gave him his first Oscar nom. Check for a hidden lounge music gem on the soundtrack called “Chance Meeting”. It’s delightful.
Here’s the thing that “grounds” this film, the thing that draws me to it every January. The aspect of winter comes in to play in a very significant way in this story. I don’t know if the writers intended it this way but this is what I get from it. As I’ve said, Anne Welles comes from a rural New England town, a town that has known many crippling winters. Her life before she heads for the city is briefly shown to be one of family and home. We see her at home in the winter with her mother and her aunt. The very day she gets on the train to leave town it is snowing. From her window, she looks out upon the Norman Rockwell landscape that has made up the total of her safe childhood and teenage years. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California. It seems to me that this is the basis of every success story you’ve ever heard; no matter where someone has come from, the goal, the peak, the end of the rainbow is somewhere warm. With sunshine, beaches, ocean. And here in the Golden State is where Anne becomes successful and wealthy, yes. But here is where she also loses her way, becomes unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Lyon has broken her heart, her friends have betrayed and abandoned her, and she is spiraling out of control. During a scene she has alone in her beach house, she finally throws the pill bottle away and runs to the ocean. It’s a scene that may not be acted the best and is ridiculed a lot but it is also a scene that shows her hitting rock bottom and desiring to be cleansed in the waters of the Pacific. But that is not enough for her. She needs to reset, to get her bearings again. She needs healing. This, for her, can only be found in one place. To really make things right, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter. Winter. A time when we are forced to turn inward. A time of the mind and soul as opposed to the hedonistic pleasures of the flesh to be found in the sun and sand. A time when there are fewer distractions, less to do and when there is more time to be spent looking at ourselves, and reevaluating the way we live. To me, that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, memories of childhood, of family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. During Anne’s redemption, a time when she is battered and bruised but still willing and able to take another crack at life, the title track is sung once more. This time the lyrics speak of a dawning realization. An epiphany inextricably tied to the restorative powers of the winter:
“Got to be here, have to be where I belong…came to know where I went wrong. It was all here, why was I blind to it then? This is my world…this is where I’ll start again.”
As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the picturesque and historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.
Bottom line is the film is tons of fun. I suggest you check it out.