“So bad it’s awesome.” That, aside from my fondness for Patty Duke, is how I often explain why I enjoy watching Valley of the Dolls once every year or two. Based on the bestselling novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls exposed lives of drugs, sex and jealousy that had ruined many would be starlet’s lives. Director Mark Robson (Peyton Place) and screenwriters Helen Deutsch (Lili) and Dorothy Kingsley (Kiss Me Kate) were attempting to update the ‘women’s picture’ genre of the 1950’s for the 1960’s.
Known for TV’s Peyton’s Place, Barbara Parkins plays Anne Welles. A young woman from a small town in New England and heads to New York. She wants to have the kind of marriage and family her parents have enjoyed, just not yet. Despite dressing in conservative dresses, her natural beauty is immediately apparent. Armed with a strong work ethic, Anne is convinced she can achieve stardom. In the blink of an eye, Anne lands a job as a secretary for a big time theatrical lawyer. On her first day, Anne meets acidic Broadway star Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). Though that meeting nearly sends her fleeing for home, she is convinced to stick it out. As Anne begins to explore the city, she befriends rising singing star Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) and struggling actress Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). While all three women achieve varying levels of success, they find themselves struggling to deal with negative repercussions of that success.
Neely O’Hara is a young, very talented singer. When we first meet her, she has a small part in a Helen Lawson musical. However, an innocent comment to the aging star gets Neely fired from the show. While Helen Lawson does what she can to deny Neely stardom, but she manages to manages to claw her way to the top, only to become addicted to pills and lose everything.
Chorus girl Jennifer Wells knows her body is her only talent. If she ever forgets it, she can always count on her never-seen mother to call her and remind her that her boobs are all that matters. Jennifer finds love with nightclub singer Tony Polar (Tony Scott) and marries him over the objections of his manager/sister, Miriam (Lee Grant). After Jennifer announces she’s pregnant, Miriam lets her in on a secret: Tony has a terrible genetic illness that will lead to insanity and then death. With her dreams of a beautiful family in tatters, Jennifer quickly has an abortion. When the doctor confirms Tony will likely have to spend the rest of his life in a sanitarium, Jennifer has to make money to pay the bills. She signs a contract to make sleazy ‘art films’ in France. She scores a few hits and makes good money, but decides to return to the States. Shortly thereafter, she finds out she’s seriously ill.
A former actress, it’s generally believed that Jacqueline Susann based the aging, vain Broadway star Helen Lawson on Ethel Merman, while airheaded starlet Jennifer North was a mix of her friend Carole Landis and sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. Neely O’Hara was based on Judy Garland (she was originally cast as Helen Lawson, only to be fired a few days into filming for reported drinking and drug use), with shades of Frances Farmer.
The plot itself is a shameless soap opera, featuring sex, drugs and booze, with plenty of backstabbing. Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara is given some of the most over the top and ridiculous dialogue in the film. After all, she needs her “dolls” so she can “Sparkle!” Just twenty at the time of filming and already an Oscar winner for 1962’s The Miracle Worker, Duke was looking to shake make her transition from child star complete. While she can be a bit shrill at times, it’s hard to deny that Duke seemed to put her heart into the role. While this definitely isn’t Patty’s best work—something she said herself quite often—she deserves an “A” for effort.
While Sharon Tate’s acting style is a bit flat at times, the emotion regularly evident on her face, often covers up other flaws. She was remarkably beautiful and clearly very much aware of that fact. When Jennifer finds out about her illness, Tate is able to convey her character’s emotions without saying a word.
Haphazard, but fun, it’s probably fair to call Valley of the Dolls a disaster. The second half of the film has so much going on, it’s hard to keep track of it all. Even so, this is a disaster of the best kind, the situations and the dialogue are so over the top that you can’t help but disappear into the world of these three ladies for a while and go along for the crazy ride.
Criterion’s 1080p release is a new 2K transfer presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are bright and vibrant, I thought a few frames had a slightly blue tint, but I’m not sure if that was just the original intention. Textures are impressive throughout and flesh tones appear normal. There are no digital anomalies to report. Anyone familiar with the 2006 20th Century Fox DVD release will see this as a significant upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master 3.0 Audio sounds quite impressive. Andre Previn’s “Theme from Valley of the Dolls” sung by Dionne Warwick among other songs, sound crisp with appropriate sound levels. Dialogue is clear and audible.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Entertainment Journalist Ted Casablanca and Actress Barbara Parkins: Recorded in 2006, the two participants are clearly having fun. Casablanca borrowed his name from a character in the film and obviously knows the material. Parkins shares plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and stories about the filming process.
- Once Was Never Enough (HD, 21:49) Recorded for Criterion in 2016, writer Amy Fine Collins discusses Jacqueline Susann’s massive literary success and her unconventional and occasionally difficult personal life. She also touches on the differences between Valley of the Dolls the novel and the film.
- Travilla: Perfectly Poised (HD, 7:37) Recorded for Criterion in 2016, writer Amy Fine Collins discusses the many outfits created for the film by the famed designer Travilla.
- Doll Parts (HD, 17:11) Recorded for Criterion in 2016, this video essay by Kim Morgan essentially offers up a defense of the film. It’s rather enjoyable.
- Sparkle Patty Sparkle!(HD, 16:09) Footage from a 2009 gala screening of Valley of the Dolls presented by Marc Huestis at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, which includes a Q&A with actress Patty Duke and writer Bruce Vilanch.
- A World Premiere Voyage (HD, 48:12) In this 1967 promotional film, hosts discuss Valley of the Dolls with members of the cast. Much of the footage was shot during the maiden voyage of the SSPrincess Italia as it traveled from Venice, Italy to California.
- Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls (HD, 50:31) Produced in 1967, we are given a closer look at the author’s career and phenomenal success, as well as the film inspired by her novel. Interview subjects include, Susann, Judy Garland, director Mark Robson,
- Hollywood Backstories: Valley of the Dolls (HD, 25:06) Originally aired on AMC in 2001, this provides a closer look at the novel and the film it inspired. Included are interviews with actors Michele Lee, Patty Duke, Judy Garland, and others, as well as archival screens tests, clips and stills, etc.
- Screen Tests (HD, 28:06) Screen tests for Patty Duke, Tony Scotti, Sharon Tate, and Barbara Parkins.
- Trailers and TV Spots (HD, 4:53)
- Radio Spots (HD, 19:54) Three original spots featuring interviews with Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, Martin Milner, Paul Burke, Susan Hayward, composer Andre Previn, and producer David Weisbart.
- Booklet: Featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny.