Valley of the Dolls is a 1967 American drama film based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Jacqueline Susann. ("Dolls" was a slang term for downers, mood-altering drugs.) It was produced by David Weisbart and directed by Mark Robson. The film stars Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Paul Burke, Martin Milner and Susan Hayward. Upon release it was a commercial success, though universally panned by critics. It was re-released in 1969 following the murder of Sharon Tate, and again proved commercially viable. Co-star Parkins, attending a July 1997 screening of the film at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, told the sold-out crowd, "I know why you like it...because it's so bad!" The movie was remade in 1981 for television as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Three young women meet when they embark on their careers. Neely O'Hara (Duke) is a plucky kid with undeniable talent who sings in a Broadway show, the legendary actress Helen Lawson (Hayward) is the star of the play, and Jennifer North (Tate), a beautiful blonde with limited talent, is in the chorus.
Of all the camp classics available for your derision and laughter, Valley of the Dolls is surely one of the campiest, the kind of movie whose promotional stills are reproduced on T-shirts for sale in your finer gay gift shops, the kind of movie that has close to 30 memorable quotes listed online, the kind of movie so delightfully absurd that even Roger Ebert (of all people) was moved to pen an even more campy farce of a sequel.
A lurid ’60s sensation about three young women who come New York to make it on big, bad Broadway, Jacqueline Susann’s steamy bestseller was rushed to Hollywood and put on the screen fast. The result is one of those unwatchable/irresistible messes that’s even more fun once you memorize the dialog and sing along with the musical numbers.
Virginal Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) lands work as a secretary where she runs into
volatile and supertalented Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, putting a flamethrower to her child star image), who has been bounced from a Broadway cast for outshining the star, arch-bitch Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, replacing Judy Garland, who got fired). As stevedore-tough Helen puts it, ‘The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that’s me, baby, remember?’ Right. Rounding out the trio is Jennifer North (the lovely but doomed Sharon Tate), who is so beautiful and naïve that you know she’s just going to get chewed up.
In short order, Anne becomes a cosmetics spokesmodel, Jennifer marries slick lounge singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), and Neely becomes a hit and heads for Hollywood. For all three, though, success has a terrible price, and Neely pays the most, tumbling into a nightmarish battle with drugs (she calls the pills ‘dolls’) and alcohol and running through husbands, one of whom turns out to be gay. His name: Ted Casablanca, which is where the E! channel gossip columnist got his nom de plume.
Neely’s drunken tirades are indescribably hilarious, and you’ll long remember Patty Duke swinging for the fences when on one bender she shrieks, ‘Boobies! Boobies! Boobies! Nothin’ but boobies! Who needs ‘em?’ After a stint at the funny farm she recovers enough to return to Broadway, steals Anne’s husband, and has a ladies room catfight with Helen Lawson during which she pulls off Helen’s wig. ‘Give me back my hair!’ the aggrieved Helen howls.
Jennifer has her own tragedies. Her path leads to skanky French porn flicks and a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her husband Tony develops a disease that renders him paralyzed. She has no choice but to consider suicide. Bummer. And Anne lives to tell the tale, a prim narrator who looks back on all that has transpired and expresses, you know, regret.
Well I’m exhausted, and you will be too after you belly laugh your way through Valley of the Dolls. If you like the unintentional hilarity of films like Mommie Dearest then you’ll like this film as well. Gather some friends, and have a few drinks. But whatever you do, stay away from the dolls.
As if to prove that you can easily talk about this movie forever, the two-disc collector’s DVD includes two documentaries, ‘Pill Pop-Up Karaoke,’ a ‘Translate French Porn Movies’ game, lots of screen tests including Judy Garland’s, and, as they say, much much more.