AMC Network Entertainment LLC

This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Lord of the Turkeys: Valley of the Dolls

Valley_of_the_dollsMy favorite part of Thanksgiving is the day after, when I like to relax, maintain my tryptophan buzz with sandwiches and spend the day on the couch enjoying one of my favorite bad movies. Let’s face it, when it comes to turkeys, nothing you’ll ever find on a holiday table can compare with Hollywood at its worst.

Since its release in December 1967, Valley of the Dolls has been the standard by which all other bad movies must be judged. Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster may be more inept. But they didn’t have big budgets, major stars and the backing of a top Hollywood studio. In other words, there’s no excuse for “Valley” being as completely, hilariously awful as it is.

Based on the best seller by Jacqueline Susann, the Jackie Collins of her day, Valley is a roman a clef about three young women who seek fortune and fame but fall victim to drugs, sex and more bad lines than Ladies’ Night at a country-western bar. As the narrator warns, “You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.” (I have no idea what that means, but it’s a great phrase to drop in party conversation. Try it!)

The nominal heroine is Anne, played by a miscast Barbara Parkins, whose smarmy Ivy League diction makes audience sympathy impossible. Anne is a properly bred New Englander who finds work as a secretary at a top New York theatrical law firm. Once there, it’s only a matter of time until the inevitable moment when a commercial client spots her as the young lady who simply must represent his new line of cosmetics.

Beautiful but talentless Jennifer (Sharon Tate) doesn’t care about stardom, as long as she can be with her true love Tony (Tony Scotti). They elope, against the wishes of Tony’s older sister Miriam (Lee Grant), a mysteriously protective sort who responds to news of a crisis by muttering “I’d better go heat up the lasagna.”

But when Tony is dropped by the studio, and that pesky degenerative disease that runs in his family kicks in, Jennifer does what any good show-biz wife with a Barbie doll figure would do: moves to France to make “art movies.” Of course, we all recognize that euphemism: as Jen informs her pretentious Gallic producer, “French subtitles over a bare bottom doesn’t necessarily make it art!”

But I’ve saved the best for last, and her name is Neely O’Hara, played by Patty Duke in what we can only pray is the performance of a lifetime. As the theatrical trailer introduces her: “Patty Duke as Neeley – she was such a nice kid. And then someone put her name in lights and turned her into a lush!”

Loosely based on Judy Garland, Neely is a little girl with a big voice. Her first experience on Broadway comes to an abrupt end when she is fired by the show’s jealous star, Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, brought in at the last minute to replace – ready for the heavy irony? – Judy Garland.)

The grief-stricken Neely seeks solace in the arms of her boyfriend Mel (Martin Milner reprising the nudnik role he perfected in films like Sweet Smell of Success before becoming a Jack Webb surrogate in the TV series “Adam-12”). “Honey, it’s a rotten business,” he laments. “I know,” she says, vainly fighting back her tears, “but I love it!”

Neely perseveres and fights her way to the top as a star of music and movies. Along the way she dumps Mel for costume designer Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion), whose kinky reputation prompts some of the film’s most memorable dialogue. Mel: “Only in Hollywood do women faint because some queer deigns to design her clothes.” Neely: “Ted Casablanca is not a fag. And I’m the dame who can prove it!”

Apparently under the impression that she’s in The Miracle Worker Part II, Duke attacks her role with all the spunk and bravado she can muster. And she sings with all the misplaced emotion of Whitney Houston belting out a Diet Coke commercial. This is particularly painful given the overblown melodies and insipid lyrics provided by Andre and Dory Previn. (What with America’s limitless capacity for ’60s nostalgia, we may yet see a Dory Previn comeback. Forewarned is forearmed)

If you’ve only seen Valley in the chopped-up version the networks used to run, you’ve missed at least three of its best scenes, all restored on DVD: Neely’s drunken visit to the fleshpots of San Francisco; clips from Jennifer’s “art movie”; and best of all, the cat fight in which Neely tries to flush Helen Lawson’s wig down a dressing room toilet.

As jolly as it would be, space prevents us from contumeliously listing every memorable scene and line. Keep an eye out, though, for a bit part by Richard Dreyfuss as a stagehand, and Ms. Susann’s cameo in the pivotal role of “First Reporter.” It’s as if she was proud of it.

Read More