Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls is a condensed example of everything wrong with Hollywood filmmaking. Maudlin, trashy, more expensive than entertaining, both glossy and crude, mistaking fashion for a style it does not possess—I could go on and on. It nonetheless exercises a certain grim fascination. It is despicable, but notable as proof of the depths to which Hollywood does not hesitate to stoop in pursuit of a buck. It stymies criticism or parody. You could not invent a film this grotesquely awful. You have to leave it to the average hack’s shamelessness to make something this rancid.
Jacqueline Susann’s tawdry story ties together contrived events like a string of cheap plastic pearls. For example, when lovely secretary Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) walks into her boss’s office as he is talking with a client looking for a young woman to be the icon for his line of cosmetics, isn’t it amazing that Anne is absolutely perfect? She barely has time to catch her breath before she instantly becomes a super-model. The requisite drag queen moments like the brawl between Neely O’Hara (Patti Duke) and her nemesis, Broadway star Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) are about as exciting as a shoot-out between septuagenarians. The absolute low point, however, among plenty of competing candidates, occurs when O’Hara, in rehab, performs for her fellow sanitarium inmates. As she sings, Huntington’s disease victim Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), recognizing her voice, awakens from his stupor. She then crosses the room to share a cry with him at his wheelchair. The moment isn’t even camp, it is just disgusting as a fatal, degenerative illness is exploited for thoroughly unwarranted pathos.
Lee Grant, as Tony’s unsociable half-sister Miriam and Sharon Tate as his wife Jennifer are the only ones who rise above the material. (Not that being better than this material should be especially difficult.) Grant manages to bring some truth to Miriam’s neurotic efforts to keep it secret that Tony is likely to succumb to the disease that destroyed his father. Tate’s performance is colored by knowing the actress’s horrific fate, but playing a woman who’s only gift is her physical attributes, she manages to be both pathetic and endearing.
All the more reason to blast the film’s hypocrisy, for when Jennifer has to work in soft core porn to pay Tony’s sanitarium bills, the filmmakers have the gall to suggest that appearing naked in a movie is a fate worse than death, even as they show every centimeter of skin they can. Worse, the “art films” in which she appears and which the characters dismiss as “nudies” are bad parodies of the French New Wave, even as Dolls exploits innovations introduced by that movement.
Then again, in Hollywood, hypocrisy is as close to honesty as you’ll ever get. At least Valley of the Dolls provides the queasy pleasure of watching Tinseltown rot from within. It makes Myra Breckinridge look positively wholesome.