A review requested by Ryan R, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The line attributed to Jean-Luc Godard goes something like, "To critique a movie, you have to make another movie", which puts the modern reviewer of the 1967 potboiler Valley of the Dolls at a clear disadvantage. For Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert already made the other movie, 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and what more needs to be said? What little dignity the tastefully trashy fable of life, love, drugs, and dirty movies might have still clung to in the years immediately following its hit theatrical release was surely put paid to by the gonzo smutty extravagance and deliberately overblown campiness of its not-really-a-sequel. And yet Valley of the Dolls still offers a weirdly irresistible pull. Not because it is secretly very good - I think that it is in fact not very good at all. Not because it's so outlandishly terrible that it's hilarious, which it isn't really either. The attraction is something subtler: this offers the rather shabbily noble spectacle of a film that wants very badly to appeal to our most gutter-dwelling prurient interests while projecting an air of posh respectability. Watching it, one is moved powerfully by the impression that the filmmakers were trying extremely hard to put one over (on the censors? on the audience?), fumbling the execution so terribly that you can't help but see right through them. It thinks it it is incredibly sophisticated and clever, when it is just the dumbest goddamn thing. It's a perfect case study of a major Hollywood studio thrashing about desperately in the face of the seismic cultural shifts about to demolish the kind of filmmaking that had kept the studios afloat for almost 20 years at that point.

Valley of the Dolls started life as a gigantically successful novel by Jacqueline Susann, published in 1966, about the desperation of young actresses in New York (and later Hollywood), and the drugs they take to keep themselves on the rhythms necessary to function in the hellish world of show business ("dolls" was, apparently, a euphemism for barbiturates). I have not read the book, which I know to depict the lives and careers of its central trio over a two-decade period starting in 1945, which seems about right. The movie takes place over a small, undefined chunk of the '60s; maybe a couple of years, maybe less. Which seems not really right, and Susann herself shared that opinion, but we needn't start dragging in the original author to prove our point. The film's script, credited to Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley (though apparently Harlan Ellison actually contributed the most; he demanded his name be removed when the producers insisted on a semi-upbeat ending) does a fine job arguing for its own clumsiness. The film is magnificently backloaded: we're all here for the personal collapse, sexual misconduct, and of course the drugs, the depraved desperate drugs, and it takes what feels like fully half of the 123-minute running time before those things start to make themselves known. It's less than that; still, Valley of the Dolls suffers from some very wonky pacing where the opening act, establishing the characters and their world, seems to be every bit as long as the entire arc of three different careers flaming out.

The hopeful young performers, to get that on the record, are Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), who starts the film by leaving her absurdly Rockwellian home town in New England for the big city and a job as secretary to a theatrical talent agent; Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), a talented, upbeat singer on the verge of her big break; and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a sexy chorine who hitches her wagon to up-and-coming nightclub singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti). What happens to them over the course of two hours is absurdly overwrought and terrible - to Jennifer especially. And there's a lot of ways that "absurdly overwrought" could go, and one of the things I enjoyed tormenting myself with lately is the thought of somehow dropping this scenario (but not this script: that first act needs to be cut in half, no two ways about it) into the pre-Code 1930s, and see what the right filmmaker could do with the right leads. The thing is, Valley of the Dolls didn't really have the right leads, and it certainly didn't have the right filmmaker: director Mark Robson unquestionably got the job because of the Oscar-nominated hit he made of the scandalous Peyton Place ten years prior, and that had Lana Turner firing on all cylinders to just barely keep the thing on track. His handling of Valley of the Dolls is sepulchral, except when it's spasmodic: my overall impression of the film is of curiously hollow wide shots of interiors slowly clicking their way through scenes that have no business taking so long, with all-too-rare interjections of panicky style, like split-screens and jump cuts and why-the-hell-not color gels on the backgrounds. I do not know what Robson was up to in his private life, but it gives exactly the impression of an out-of-touch 50something whose strength was never in melodrama anyway (all his best movies are wiry thrillers with male-heavy casts) making a blind stab at the whole "psychedelia" thing that he read about in the Times one weekend.

The horribly solemn, confused direction Robson throws at the movie is exactly part of what makes it such a singular object, though. It's impossible to look at a career spanning this, the Satanism B-horror The Seventh Victim, the social issue thriller Trial, and the sluggish disaster film Earthquake, and say confidently, "that's why you hire Mark Robson", but the later into his filmography we go, the stodgier and more strenuously respectable his style gets. That is the thing that he brings most vividly to Valley of the Dolls: a lifeless sense of stuffed and mounted Prestige. Once upon a time, famous books were turned into movies because of the sheen of literary value that conferred; the stately direction of Valley of the Dolls suggests that's exactly what 20th Century Fox had in mind for this project, despite the highly idiosyncratic nature of the book's fame.

As for the leads, they're barely convincing as people from the same species, let alone three best friends in the same industry in the same town. Duke took the role with the explicit intent of turning into a Grown-Up Actor, and it shows so bad in her intense, raging shifts of emotion: it feels more like a demo reel of primal states (Lust! Anger! Pride! Stoned!) than a unified performance, and that's exactly why she's the best of the three. Or at least the one whose leg of the film plunges most vigorously into the Highest Camp, which is indistinguishable from "the best" in this case. The line "Boobies, boobies, boobies!", as delivered by an Oscar-winning former child actress, can't help but be pretty damn campy.

Anyway, Duke's acrobatics, however misjudged, boost that plotline leagues above the other two. This is particularly galling in the case of the Jennifer storyline, which has all of the script's most vigorously tawdry aspects: pornography! cancer! abortion! creepy sibling overdependence! And none of these are treated with the proper sense of grandeur by Robson, nor played with any meaningful energy by Tate, who shuffles through the movie like... like she's on barbiturates, so points for that, but it's not right that the most sordid part of the movie gets the most boring lead performance. Anne's subplot is the least garish, most straightforward, and least fun, and Perkins - a regular on the Peyton Place TV show, which is surely why she got the role - never takes the prim New Englander out of the role. The result is less watching an elegant small town girl get swept up in the horrors of the big city than watching a prig silently judge the morals of everybody around her, and while I take Ellison's point that Anne's subplot would never, ever end with the triumphant return to New England, Parkins never plays the role like she's got anything on her mind other than catching that train to Lawrenceville.

I presume that a version of Valley of the Dolls that fully commits to being a tony character study and drops every bit of exploitative melodrama could work; this is not that version. Instead, this is a film made with bloodless studio polish that keeps apparently thinking that an association with tacky excess will be enough to make it a controversial shocker. It made a lot of money, so apparently I'm wrong, at least by '67 standards: all I see is a movie that keeps cooing "aren't I outrageous?" while carefully keeping every last truly outrageous thing - including a dead body! - tastefully hidden or offscreen or obscured. Even its legendarily awful lines of dialogue, so hilarious when read in isolation, are muted and buffed in delivery, except for the ones Patty Duke gets to wrestle with. It's classy trash, which is the least fun kind of trash.

For a few precious glimmers of the film that an unhinged, top-tier melodramatic masterpiece version of Valley of the Dolls, we needn't even look outside of the film itself. We need only glance at the aging stage goddess and antagonist to both Anne and Neely, Helen Lawson, played by Susan Hayward. The role was initially cast with Judy Garland, whose personal history overlapped with the content too much for comfort, and it's absolutely to the film's benefit that she had to step down: Hayward owns this kind of material, and the only places where Valley of the Dolls works unironically are her scenes (moreover, she gave the best - my favorite, anyway - of her signature "alcoholic trainwreck from middle America" roles under Robson's direction, in My Foolish Heart). Melodrama, if it's going to work, needs to have a fever; it needs terror and sweat and a heart beating so hard it's about to rip its way out of your chest. Hayward gets that; she injects that melodrama into Valley of the Dolls and makes it sing. In her time onscreen, you can see the film that's a great work of campy art, or at least a "so bad it's hilarious" triumph. Without her, the best it can manage is so bad that it's really just kind of hanging around, wasting time.

Incidentally, this is the first film for which John Williams ever received an Oscar nomination, which I couldn't fit anywhere into the review proper, but it seemed very important to make sure everyone was aware of that fact (it's solid, but lacks the character of his later work). Also, the fact that this sex-soaked story about pill-popping women received a solitary Oscar nod for its music seems like the perfect summary of where its interests lie.