Take a glossy little red pill at your fingertips and split it. Empty its sugary chemistry into your hand. This is a ‘doll’, a concoction of sweet nothings that lasts for as long as… well, nothing really lasts. Fame does not last either. It is inevitable, it is our reality. However, showbiz would have you believe that we can find an entire lifetime within a feature-length dream. Just don on some makeup to conceal those wrinkles and a wig to hide those gray hairs, and you are ageless, baby. Take a glass of water to wash those dolls down, while also washing out any semblance of your thoughts or feelings. How attractive must it be to be nothing for a while? In short, Valley of the Dolls is a hot mess, but a beautiful one.
It’s the kind of mess that titillates and pops with its bombastic colors and energy. Imagine if the entire pop movement was distilled into one strip of technicolor film, it is probable that you would be left with something that looks like this. Speaking of pop art, didn’t Andy Warhol introduce the concept of ’15 minutes of fame’? Well, the three women in this film are after more than just 15 minutes. All three are them are in it to win it in the crazy world of the entertainment industry.
Enter Anne Welles, a New England dreamer that is sick and tired of domestic life’s empty promises. She has a deep understanding that there is more to life than marriage. After all, who would want to live their entire life all in the span of a five-mile radius? So what does she do? She leaves behind the comforts of her home for a shot at taking a bite out of the big apple. However, she ends up biting off more than she can chew once she is made aware of the reality of show business.
And that is where Neely O’Hara, played by Patty Duke, comes into play. She is a talented singer that recognizes her self-worth, and won’t accept anything less. It does not matter who the headlining acts might be, she will not take scraps from anybody. Not even the cruel Helen Lawson, a legendary talent that squashes new singers from even getting the chance to steal her spotlight. But Neely does make it big. She wins a Grammy and finds an audience that respects her talent enough to have her name become a synonym of success. Once we reach this point in Valley of the Dolls, the story can go one of two ways depending on the viewer.
On one hand, this film can be viewed as a raucous melodrama, like bringing a tent and a bad sense of humor to a campy trip. This is partly due to Patty Duke’s unhinged performance. I will admit that you cannot go wrong with a ridiculous line like: “boobies, boobies, boobies. Nothin’ but boobies! Who needs ’em? I did great without ’em.” But on the other hand, we do witness Neely sink deeper within those primary-colored capsules, and I could not help but feel pity for this woman who wanted it all.
Yes, Neely is selfish and ends up becoming her own worst enemy, Helen Lawson. That much is true. However, I do think that there is a double standard here. Men, for the most part, have always had it all. They are even celebrated for their ambitions. Neely aspires toward the same stratospheres, and yet she is burned for it. Gee, I wonder why. At one moment, her husband even feels victimized by her success. Age might be a death sentence for some of these actresses, but Valley of the Dolls has not so much as wrinkled in this department regarding gender.
There are also some sobering truths made about addiction in this supposed comedy. Neely’s addiction grows out of a need to further her career and “sparkle” for long hours on set. Nothing more, nothing less. Anne’s addiction is less prominent, but she does use her dolls as playthings to distract her from her cheating love interest, Lyon. Only one woman goes as far as killing herself with an overdose to remain young forever in her audience’s mind.
And that final woman is Jennifer, played by Sharon Tate. Jennifer suffers the worst misfortune out of her friends. She does not make it big, she does not win a Grammy. Her body becomes her defining feature of stardom, which results in a desperate attempt to support her husband’s hospital visits in French “art house” (excuse my French, but I am talking about porn). One of my only complaints about Valley of the Dolls is that we do not get enough time with Tate’s character. And when she does cross the silver screen, we never enter her world fully, as if we are watching a horrible tragedy unfold at a dismissive distance.
I found out later that the director, Mark Robson, was unfairly critical of Sharon Tate. Duke confirmed after shooting that Robson “continually treated Tate like an imbecile, which she definitely was not”. Knowing this information gives Jennifer a poignancy that bleeds from a life not captured in celluloid. From all that I have read, one thing remains certain: Tate was a talent that was misunderstood and rarely acknowledged for her enormous sensitivity. The 50th anniversary of her passing is coming this August 9th. I implore you to not remember her for the events of that night, but for the art that we have left of her. I am sure that she would have wanted that. – Daniel Hrncir
Valley of the Dolls is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward, Paul Burke, and Lee Grant.