Valley of the Dolls

June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some books are just so indelibly etched in your mind, you’ll never forget when you first read them. I bought Valley of the Dolls in a British bookstore in Nerja, Spain, when I was 14, and devoured it on the train as the Mediterranean, the Alhambra, the aqueducts of Segovia passed by in the background. My connection to the book is so intense that, for years, I’ve had little interest in the movie. Its reputation as a horrendously campy cult classic didn’t help, but even had the movie been an Oscar-winner, I’d still be reluctant to have the Neely, Anne and Jennifer in my head replaced by the ones onscreen. I love the book so much that, despite its lack of literary merit, I get mad when people claim they don’t like the book. Prescription drug abuse, casting couches, Golden Age of Hollywood roman a clef–what’s not to like?

The plot, for the uninitiated, follows three young women who become friends over the course of their show-biz careers: the demure secretary-turned-model Anne, the spunky Broadway hoofer-turned-Hollywood star Neely, and the stunning chorus girl-turned-European “art” film actress Jennifer. Although Susann primarily focuses on their multiple engagements, marriages and sex lives, the thing that bonds these ladies together through the decades is their mutual dependence on “the dolls” (prescription pills) of the title. Jacqueline Susann was a minor actress in her youth, and at the time of the book’s release, it was well-known for being a thinly veiled portrait of several major stars she’d both worked and played with. Jennifer North is part Carole Landis, part Marilyn Monroe. Her husband, Tony Polar is a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra hybrid. Neely O’Hara was a little bit Frances Farmer and a lot Judy Garland. The aging Broadway star Helen Lawson was based on Susann’s one-time lover, Ethel Merman. Anne, who hails from a small-town and is new to New York City itself, let alone the glittering world of the stars, is the only one without a real-life counterpart, and that’s mostly because she exists as a stand-in for the reader.

All of that art-imitating-life stuff made for a bestselling book (and in my opinion, an extremely compelling one, especially for anyone interested in Old Hollywood or Broadway). But it also makes for a terrible movie, because even if the script had been any good in the first place (which it isn’t), anybody who’s read the book can’t help but imagine how much better Garland, Landis, or Merman would have been in the roles.

Oddly enough, Sharon Tate as Jennifer comes closest to being actually well-cast in her part, even though she’s given the least to do. It’s hard to combine the two essential aspects of Jennifer’s personality–the Marilyn Monroe and the Grace Kelly, the kittenish sexiness with the European poise–but she manages it in a way that it’s hard to imagine many actresses of the period doing. But Patty Duke is no Judy Garland and thus no Neely O’Hara, and her overacting overwhelms the film’s second half. And while Barbara Parkins is miscast as Anne, the problems go beyond the casting to the writing–Anne is written as far warmer and perkier than she should be. Anne’s appeal is in her coolness, her levelheadedness, the way she slowly weighs one option against the other. We, the audience, are intended to like her specifically because she manages to resist the lifestyles the others succumb to (and that we already know will be their undoing).

The next mistake the director made with the movie was to update the timeline: instead of spanning the mid-’40s to the late ’50s, it only takes place in the mid-60s. This forced the screenwriters to cut plotlines, and it made the plots that they saved seem rushed–events that are supposed to unfold over the course of years do it in the span of months, which sort of butchers characterization when even the most deliberate, cautious characters seem to jump into bed together immediately or make decisions on a whim. But the more important aspect of this is that we lose the 1940s glamour. While a difference of ten or fifteen years might not have seemed like much at the time of filming, to a modern viewer it’s extremely jarring. The 1960s aesthetic is extremely present and totally absurd here–À Bout de Souffle pixie cuts, Annette Funicello flips and big Ronnie Spector-style falls are everywhere, as are shag carpeting and bizarrely patterned wallpaper. Everything looks a little tawdry–the musical that, theoretically, stars one of the biggest actresses on Broadway appears cheaper than a church basement production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sticking to the original timeline and making this a period piece, as it was meant to be, would have left us with a far more aesthetically pleasing film, even if the writing and casting had remained the same.

But more importantly, in the film, we lose the book’s big theme–the way show business chews women up and spits them out.  What elevates this book above the level of similar potboilers designed solely to titillate is that Susann was trying to make a larger point about the nature of the fame game and how it destroys women. This use-’em’-up-throw-’em-away approach is true today, too, of course, but what people obsessed with The Golden Age of Hollywood often forget is that it was equally true back then. In fact, that was the major benefit of the studio system–you could force a star to bend to your every whim, and at the point where she’d passed the peak of your beauty or simply refused to comply with your demands, there was someone new, ready and waiting to take her place. In Valley of the Dolls, Jennifer receives everything she has–fame, love–on the basis of her incredible body and face, and yet when she grows older, she also begins to feel like she no longer deserves that fame or love because she’s in danger of losing the body that won them. Anne, too, despite having other good qualities (her intelligence, her loyalty) only ever gets anything–from her secretary job to her lovers–because she’s beautiful. Neely, on the other hand, truly does get where she is due to talent rather than looks, but when the Hollywood producers push her to lose weight, she embarks on a regimen of pills (uppers to lose weight and keep working hard, downers to relax and fall asleep) that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of the book, each of the women ultimately relies on the pills to cope with the pressures of their chosen lifestyles, and the pills lead to their individual downfalls.

A common misreading of the book is that it’s anti-feminist, focused only on men-obsessed bimbos, pushing the idea that if you’re not pretty, you’re nothing–and that ultimately, the author punishes the protagonists for ever wanting anything beyond a small-town life with a husband and babies. In reality, though, the book seeks to condemn the anti-feminist culture in which it’s set. The women aren’t reduced to their looks because they want to be; they’re reduced to their looks because the men around them insist upon it, and the men are the ones who call the shots. This is true even in non-sexual situations–for example, Anne’s future boss is reluctant to hire her, although she’s a competent secretary, because she’s so attractive that he’s worried some man will instantly propose to her and he’ll have wasted all that training. Do the girls behave like men are the most important things in their lives? Yes–but that’s hardly surprising given that they were raised in a world that told them that their men were the most important things in their lives. Despite this, they do display surprising flashes of independence. Anne breaks away from her small-town upbringing (and likely husband-to-be) because she wants more out of life (including a career); later, she wants to stay in New York City so badly that she sacrifices the man she loves for it, when she could have kept him by moving home to the small town she grew up in. A theme that comes up multiple times is that the women lose their husbands and lovers because they end up being the breadwinners, and their men can’t cope–a legitimate fear for women in the 1940s and ’50s. And at the end of the story, the women aren’t punished because they wanted to “have it all.” They’re punished because the sexist world they lived in wouldn’t allow them to have it all. Their downfalls–all linked to the pills that allowed them to escape the pressure of their day-to-day lives–occur because they’re trapped in a society that attempts to thwart the realization of their dreams, not because Susann herself thought that they deserved to have their dreams thwarted.

The movie, however, loses this nuance. (As little as Jackie Susann was capable of nuance, director Mark Robson was even less so.) Robson’s camera lingers on the girls’ successive downward spirals with the intensity of a lover but the empathy of a stalker, which gets uncomfortable after about two minutes. Given that these crack-ups take up the better part of the movie’s second half, it’s secondhand-embarrassment overkill. His lack of comprehension extends to the final minutes:  the film’s Anne, instead of staying in New York at all costs because that’s what she wants to do, ultimately returns home to her boring small-town life after her boyfriend cheats on her . . . and this is presented as a happy ending! Dear Mr. Robson, the point is somewhere in the vicinity of Mars; that’s how much you’ve missed it by.

So does that mean I couldn’t enjoy the film, even on the level of camp? It was that tedious? . . . Well, life is short and one must appreciate the opportunities to watch movies featuring sequined, flowered leisure suits and glittery caftans when they arise. Beyond that, though, in a word: yes.

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