Whenever aficionados of le cinema du stinque get together to talk about really bad movies, titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Battleship Earth get bandied about. But for my money, the magnum opus of screamingly, hilariously awful filmmaking has got to be the 1967 Twentieth Century-Fox production of Valley of the Dolls.
Fox had bought the rights to Jacqueline Susann's tawdry novel for a mere $65,000 and put it into production with a not-insignificant $5 million budget. It seemed to be perfect timing — Hollywood was growing up with films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bonnie and Clyde, but this film was determinedly old-fashioned in its approach despite delving into such taboo subjects as drug addiction, homosexuality and criminally horrible acting. And that's why we love it.
Anyhow, Mark Robson, who cut his teeth on Val Lewton low-budget horror movies in the 1940s, was an odd but (as it turns out) inspired choice as director. Andre Previn and then-wife Dory supplied the unforgettably awful musical numbers for the film. Dory had had a mental breakdown a couple of years before and was institutionalized briefly, which may explain why her lyrics make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
And the cast — Academy Award-winner Patty Duke, who started strong with The Miracle Worker and then veered off into twinsville with The Patty Duke Show, somehow got talked into playing Neely O'Hara as a wise career move. Keeping in mind she was barely out of her teens when production started, her performance is precocious but quite over-the-top, and she was mortified the first time she saw the finished product. Only recently has begun to embrace her contribution to this splendid fiasco.
Barbara Parkins was a TV star doing Emmy-nominated work in Peyton Place (whose film adaptation Robson had directed. Coincidence? I think not) when she was cast as Anne Welles. Sharon Tate came onboard as the simple but level-headed showgirl Jennifer North, who realized her sell-by date was coming quick. And the last important female role was filled by the scenery-chewing Susan Hayward, who became a role model for drag queens everywhere with her performance as Helen Lawson, the bigger-than-life Broadway star whose enormous celebrity is baffling, to say the least, since she has a penchant for mercilessly slaughtering underlings and singing banal tunes with somebody else's voice.
Judy Garland had originally been cast as Lawson, but it's said she was fired when she came to work plastered. Photos and screen tests reveal that she looked pretty bad for 45, and it's doubtful that this role would have done anything for a life that was heading down the tubes.
But back to the fun. Accompanied by '60s stop-motion animation, which looks like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on acid, Anne's voice cautions us that "you have to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls." Then we meet the virginal little minx herself in the quaint little New England town of Lawrenceville, who ditches her drip of a boyfriend and "announces that she intends to live in New York," much to the horror of her spinster aunt and spinster mother. I know, you can't have a spinster mother, but everyone seems to be that way.
Next thing you know, Anne is checking in at a Manhattan hotel for women and applying for a secretarial job at a talent agency, Bellamy and Bellows, whose youngest agent, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) sends female hearts aflutter. Her first assignment is to go to the theater where Helen is rehearsing her new show, "Hit the Sky," to get her to sign some contracts.
Hearing Neely singing "Give a Little More" in a nearby rehearsal hall, Anne comments in her pretentious English accent, "She's quite good, isn't she?", to which diesel dyke Helen tilts her head, nibbles on her glasses, nods and says (more or less), "Yeah! She is. And she's out. I want you to tell Bellamy to tie a can to that little broad's tail!" because "The only star of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's me, baby!" Hayward really should have won a special Oscar for Best Performance as a Drag Queen by an Actual Woman.
And what the hell is her show about? It's got "Give a Little More," showgirls in enormous headdresses, and Helen standing on a stage orbited by huge translucent mobiles while singing "I'll Plant My Own Tree" and bending over sideways in a really bizarre and painful-looking position. And her vocal double, Margaret Whiting, had a light, pleasant voice which sounded nothing like Hayward, whose guttural growl made Bea Arthur seem delicate.
After Anne sees how awful Helen is and how talented Neely is and how unassuming Jennifer is, they all become BFF and Anne is unable to resist the advances of a new client, a makeup manufacturer, who thinks she'd be their perfect "Gillian Girl." Cue one of the film's hilarious still-frame montages during which she gets into increasingly hilarious outfits (courtesy of Travilla — one of those single-monikered designers) and extreme makeup.
After she's fired from "Hit the Sky," Lyon books Neely on a TV charity marathon where she performs "It's Impossible" and becomes a star. This scene makes me crazy. First of all, it's got Joey Bishop. Secondly, the lyrics are completely nonsensical:
It's not my style
If I tried it I'd miss by a mile...
She never gets around to saying what's impossible. Or what it is she's trying to do. And it's not a good idea to wear a long necklace when you're making moves like Joe Cocker having a seizure. The damn thing keeps looping around one breast at a time until the exciting finale when she manages to encircle them both. It's a riot.
Not to be outdone by Anne, Neely also gets a montage sequence that chronicles her increasing dependence on pills. Soon she becomes as big a hardass as Helen and starts snarling all of her dialogue. I love it when Anne admonishes her (she does a lot of admonishing) not to drink with the pills, and she retorts, "They work faster." Lots of people snarl their dialogue in this movie, except Parkins, who talks like a phone sex operator with a pretentious English accent.
Meanwhile, Jennifer falls for nightclub entertainer Tony Polar (the reptilian Tony Scotti) whose sister, Miriam, is played by Lee Grant, who manages to overact without even moving or talking. Tony's act consists of one song, "Come Live with Me," which he sings in an amusingly girlish voice, sending Jennifer swooning. But Miriam is harboring a secret — Tony has Huntington's disease and will become a vegetable in a few years, so she keeps him on a short leash and a strict budget so he can go to a "nice place" when the time comes.
Neely ditches her nice-guy boyfriend, Mel (the incredibly bland Martin Milner) and takes up with designer Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion), who everyone thinks is gay. When Jennifer says, "You know how bitchy fags can be," Neely explodes. "Ted Casablanca is not a fag! And I'm the dame who can prove it." But then she catches him enjoying a midnight swim with another woman, and he accuses her of emasculating him ("You made me feel that I really was queer." Ouch.) He insists that the woman he'd just been frolicking with made him "feel nine feet tall." Her perplexing response? "I could take that better." What the hell does that mean?
She rushes off to San Francisco and gets completely wasted, waking up in a hotel room with a strange man who is busy robbing her, Finally, she gets sent to a sanitarium where rough lesbian nurses give her a bizarre form of hydrotherapy. During a patient Happy Hour, she sings "Come Live with Me" and is surprised to hear a familiar voice joining in. Yep, it's old broccoli Tony Polar, remembering his only song.
She sobers up, becomes tougher than ever, and sets her cap for Lyon. This causes Anne to fall apart. Next thing you know, she's got her own prescription of "dolls" and is staggering down the beach in a drug-induced haze.
Oh, and Jennifer, who's been reduced to making soft-core porn to keep Tony hospitalized ("Boobies, boobies, boobies," says Neely), is diagnosed with breast cancer and decides to snuff it rather than undergo a double mastectomy. This is actually the most touching scene in the film (probably because it's Sharon Tate, whose real fate was far more ghastly). Taking an overdose of pills, she lays down and waits for the end, accompanied by the sound of Tony's girly voice singing — what else? "Come Live with Me." Author Susann herself shows up as a reporter in the scene afterwards when they're hauling Jennifer's body to the hearse.
Then there's the moment we've all been waiting for — the reunion of Neely and Helen in the ladies' room at an event for Helen that Neely crashes to be the center of attention. This scene has the greatest dialogue:
Helen: They drummed ya right out of Hollywood, so ya come crawlin' back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope.
Yes, she pronounces Broadway with an emphasis on the second syllable. Anyhow, she snarls, "Outta my way. I gotta man waiting for me," to which Neely retorts, "That's a switch from the fags you're usually stuck with." Helen's response: "At least I never had to marry one." Neely snatches the wig from her head and tries to flush it down the toilet.
The good times don't last, though. Neely has a relapse and on opening night, she comes staggering out of her dressing room in a green bee costume which is meant for the second act. "So?" she reasons. "We'll do the second act first!" Her understudy, grinning evilly and really looking like a drag queen, slithers by to take the stage. She's wearing a sailor outfit, so obviously she's ready for the first act. Neely ends up in a dark alley, drunk and disorderly, calling out the names of all those she's wronged. I guess she can't call out the names of everyone in the audience, because that'd take too long.
Epilogue: Anne goes back to Lawrenceville to live in the Welles homestead and presumably take up the family business of spinsterhood.
Now, I know this film is supposed to span a couple of decades, but there's nothing to indicate the passage of time. Nobody ages, the clothes remain the same, and the lousy songs are, for lack of a better word, immortal. But that's part of the fun. Neely, Anne and Jennifer are stuck in an endless loop of incomprehensibility for generations to enjoy for centuries to come.
Three years later, Fox bankrolled a sequel-in-name-only, Russ Meyer's X-rated Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was scripted by Roger Ebert. In this one, the Carrie Nations, a girl group, goes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune and get caught up in the drug and sex lifestyle. Intentionally camp, it's got Meyers' trademark rapid-fire editing and boobies, boobies, boobies. And John LaZar saying, "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" I love it.
Valley of the Dolls was remade for TV in 1981 in a bloated, two-part adaptation starring Lisa Hartman as Neely and Catherine Hicks as Anne. Instead of camping it up, the filmmakers went ridiculously straight. Why in God's name would you even bother? At least they had fun with the 1998 TV movie Scandalous Me: The Story of Jacqueline Susann, in which Parkins plays an agent who walks onto the set of the original film and demands, "Where's Barbara Parkins?"
Bette Midler played Susann in 2000's Isn't She Great, with Nathan Lane as husband Irving Mansfield and a screenplay by Paul Rudnick. It manages to be the gayest film ever made, and yet it's really no fun. There's a scene during which, when watching Valley of the Dolls for the first time — Jacqueline turns to Irving and says, "I hate this movie." It could just have easily been Midler commenting on her movie, such a bizarre misfire it is.