That Candy Box of Vulgarity: Valley of the Dolls (Mark Robson, 1967)

Upon the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls in February 2016, many noted how what at first might appear as little more than a trashy 60s time-capsule is in fact loaded with contemporary relevance. Writing for Vanity Fair, Simon Doonan typified this position:

This is not the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Valley of the Dolls is a grim fable. It’s Thomas Hardy dark. It’s Balzac bleak. It’s Dostoyevsky greige. Nothing ends well. Success corrupts. Fame destroys. Dreams become nightmares. Money corrodes. Rich men are pigs. Solid middle class men are boring. Country life is stifling. Big Cities are snake pits. Nobody is nice. Everyone is a mess. It is, in other words, the perfect mirror for today’s culture.1

A year later, Doonan’s words seem riddled with an intensified sense of urgency in the face of what is knowingly now defined as ‘Trump’s America’, applicable just as much – if not, with its aggressive razzle-dazzle and unrelenting melodramatic hysteria, even more so – to Mark Robson’s 1967 film adaptation. A critical (although not commercial) bomb on release, Valley of the Dolls rose from the ashes to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult film of the highest order. But today, in the face of a mainstream American media culture simultaneously Trumpian and Kardashian in nature, there’s a real sense of tragedy in the hyperactive, kinetic glitz of Robson’s film. It is a film about transitions: about the ‘old’ being irretrievably out of date, and the new not being worth the fight. And caught somewhere in the middle is the late Sharon Tate.

Both film and book concern the plight of three young aspiring performers with ambitions of attaining stardom. The central of these is Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), who travels to New York with big dreams that cannot be achieved in her idyllic New England hometown, and on her unexpected rise to fame she befriends singer Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) and beautiful Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). When their romantic and professional ups-and-downs begin to spiral out of control, the girls move towards the “dolls” of the title (Seconal, Nembutal and a range of other pills): the film ends with Jennifer dead, Neely an addict, and Anne – the only real survivor – back at home in New England, leaving the entire nightmare behind her.

Anne was loosely based on Susann herself: in 1962, she found her acting career all but over, her husband was jobless, her autistic son needed intensive support and she herself had been diagnosed with breast cancer. With nothing to lose, she gave writing a go and not only smashed the best-seller list with Valley of the Dolls, she went to garner extraordinary success with her later novels The Love Machine (1969) and Once Is Not Enough (1973). Valley of the Dolls was a pop cultural phenomenon, and the film adaptation seemed inevitable. Mark Robson was placed at the directorial helm, a man with a remarkable career, although one that can be fairly described as ‘uneven’: beginning as an uncredited editor on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), he would go onto a hugely productive relationship at RKO with producer Val Lewton, editing Jacques Tourneur’s classic horror films Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), and directing some of Lewton’s best other horror films of the 1940s: The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Robson was offered Valley of the Dolls largely on the back of his directorial work on the Lana Turner fronted film adaptation of Grace Metalious’s 1956 novel Peyton Place, and the Susann adaptation was filmed on the 20th Century Fox backlot alongside Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1967). The film also boasts an early CV entry for composer John Williams before he would go onto do The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), and solidifying his career with Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977).

With the proven success of its source material and no lack of talent behind or in front of the camera, Valley of the Dolls should have been an easy win. But it was, by most accounts, far from: Duke in particular was especially vocal on how tense the shoot was, noting in particular the harshness and often outright cruelty with which Robson treated his co-star Sharon Tate. Classical Hollywood star Susan Hayward stepped in to play the character of Helen Lawson, an aging has-been gracelessly usurped by Duke’s O’Hara character when Judy Garland – upon whom the character was based – herself famously pulled out of the project for unspecified “personal reasons”. Bette Davies was flagged as a potential replacement, and for the three central young women characters Robson preferred Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret, all of whom turned the film down.

If the film was difficult to make, it was no easier to sell to an already sceptical press. The press junket took the shape of a luxury cruise through the Bahamas with Duke, Tate, Parkins and Susann herself all aboard, alongside reviewers and critics. The latter loathed the film on its first screening, inappropriate laughter causing Susann to walk out and effectively barricade herself in her cabin for the rest of the cruise. Duke, Tate and Parkins fared little better: the three spent the bulk of their time hiding from the press, all sharing the opinion that the final film was appalling. The three women became good friends throughout the ordeal, but the press – eager to build on the Valley of the Dolls reputation – framed them as cat-fighting enemies, their off-screen relationships constructed to mirror those in the original book.

In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that the critical response once the film was released in December 1967 was savage: in publications like Time and Variety, the film was dismissed as out-of-date, a tacky potboiler out of step with the America of the late 1960s. The performances were mocked, but most venom was saved for the sensationalism of the source material itself. Betty Rollin at Look Magazine cynically decried it as low-brow cinematic junk food, stating:

Valley of the Dolls, that candy box of vulgarity with something for everyone has, at last, reached its big-money mecca. Jacqueline Susann’s super-selling book is now, what else? A motion picture, shot in, where else? Hollywood, the place that understands it best.2

Yet regardless of the critical disdain, audiences loved it. And, despite the harrowing, often scathing dismissal by critics, Williams received an Academy Award nomination for his music, Andre Previn a Grammy nomination for his score, and – most notably perhaps – a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer for Sharon Tate.

For a woman so hungry to have her name known to millions, Sharon Tate became an icon of the 1960s for the very worst reasons when she was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers on 9 August 1969, pregnant with the child she had conceived with her husband, director Roman Polanski.  Tate was not particularly fond of the novel Valley of the Dolls, but she knew the film would be big, and Jacqueline Susann adored her, claiming she was the character who in the film was the closest to how she imagined her in the book. On the back of Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1967) and Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Tate saw Valley of the Dolls as a shrewd career move. With her famous husband, however, it was perhaps inevitable that snide parallels would be made between Tate’s rise to fame and Jennifer, a character noted for both her beauty and her lack of talent: in one of the most famous lines in the film, Jennifer tells her mother on the telephone “I know I don’t have any talent…and all I have is a body”.

In an interview at the time, Tate noted “I am like Jennifer because she is relatively simple, a victim of circumstances beyond her control”. The words, in retrospect, are devastating: after years of struggling to become a star on her own merits (which she was well on the way to achieving), her incomprehensible death made her front-page news. Somewhat macabrely, the tabloid fascination with her murder meant both Valley of the Dolls and The Fearless Vampire Killers were re-released almost instantly, Tate’s name suddenly moving to star billing on marquees around the country.

But with her name attached to one of the most notorious mass murders of the 20th century, what has got lost in the shuffle is the light that emitted from Tate on-screen in the small number of films she was able to make in her brief lifetime. She shines in The Fearless Vampire Killers and glows with a knowing, perverse energy in Eye of the Devil, but it is as Jennifer in Valley of the Dolls that Tate feels the most restrained and controlled in the face of what she knew was a hysterical soap operatic script. It’s too easy to look at Jennifer and see Sharon: the hapless victim whose life was cut short. Tate is the star of Valley of the Dolls not because of who she was married to or because of who was responsible for her death, but because she was a star. Said Patty Duke of her friend and colleague, “being in Sharon’s presence was being enveloped in grace. Her inner beauty superseded her outer beauty, if you can imagine. Once in a while she’d catch me staring at her in awe”.3

 

Endnotes

  1. Simon Doonan, “Simon Doonan on Valley of the Dolls at 50: ‘The Perfect Mirror for Today’s Culture'”, Vanity Fair, 1 July 2016  www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/07/simon-doonan-on-valley-of-the-dolls-at-50-the-perfect-mirror-for-todays-culture.
  2. Betty Rollin, “The Dames in The Valley of the Dolls”, Look Magazine, 5 September 1967. Quoted in Debra Tate, Sharon Tate, Recollection (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2014) p. 127.
  3. Quoted in Debra Tate, Sharon Tate, Recollection (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2014) p. 140.

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an editor at Senses of Cinema and the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), and her book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 was released in January 2017 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series. She is a co-host on the Plato’s Cave film criticism programme on Melbourne radio station Triple R, the 2017 Australian Film Institute Research Collection Research Fellow and a researcher at the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts.