According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
The first time we see Sharon Tate as starlet Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls, she’s descending a staircase wearing a gigantic blue feathered headdress. Suddenly, she’s headless. We see her as the director does: a pair of boobs, barely concealed by a black leotard.
“600 bucks for a headdress and not a soul will see it,” he leers.
“I feel a little top heavy,” Jennifer replies.
“Oh honey, you are a little top heavy,” he quips as the mostly male crew backstage laughs.
This moment, so emblematic of the way women have been treated in Hollywood since its inception, is initially off-putting, yet another “boys will be boys” joke at a woman’s expense. But then the camera lands on Tate’s face. Her eyelids flutter downwards, in annoyance and/or shame, before she stares resolutely forward, determined to stand her ground. It’s a tiny gesture, but one that entirely changes the tone of the scene.
Valley of the Dolls was already a cultural phenomenon by the time it hit cinemas in 1967. Based on the bestselling 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann, the film centred around three young women — Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins), Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), and Jennifer North (Tate) — navigating work, love, friendship, and addiction, in New York City.
Susann couldn’t exactly be called a modern feminist — she falls squarely within the limitations of her time — but she created interesting female characters who reached for more than was expected of them. They were career-girls, glamorous superstars, independent-minded women who wanted adventure and success — even if their ultimate ambition was to settle down with a nice guy.
Those themes are even more evident in the script for the film, written by Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley, which moved much of the action to Hollywood, painting the industry as a soulless machine that views women as a product to suck dry, and then hastily dispose of.
Directed by Mark Robson, Valley of the Dolls was a huge box office success, grossing $44 million domestically — the sixth most popular movie that year. Much like the book it was based on, it was also critically savaged, pegged as a trashy movie for trashy people. In other words, it was a movie about women, for women, interested in issues that matter to women. And because of that, it was dismissed as flighty and unworthy of attention.
At the New York Times, Bowsley Crowther dismissed the “generally mediocre cast,” (specifically the “cheap, shrill and maudlin histrionics of Patty Duke”), as well as the source material, which he compared to soapy TV melodrama Peyton Place. “Shot in New York, New England and in and around Hollywood, the scenery is authentic in colour,” he wrote. “All else is false and fake.” Roger Ebert — who would co-write the even sexier parody, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970 — called it a “ dirty soap opera,” while Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader wrote that it was “too dull even to function as camp.” TV Guide called it “banal, ignorant, crass and just plain lousy.”
Most striking, however, is the contempt with the mostly male reviewers treated one of the film’s more devastating plotlines, in which Jennifer dies by suicide after finding out she has to have a mastectomy, because she’s been so brainwashed into thinking her looks are her only valuable asset.
Still, far from fading into obscurity, the film went on to develop a dedicated following as a cult camp classic, one particularly beloved by gay audiences. For many, it’s a guilty pleasure, the kind of movie you watch buzzed on a bottle of rosé, before falling down a black hole of Twiggy-inspired eye makeup YouTube tutorials. But it’s current relevance goes even beyond that.
Is Valley of the Dolls campy and salacious? Hell yes! That’s a large part of the allure. The costumes, designed by Travilla (best-known for dressing Marilyn Monroe in eight of her films) highlight the best of late 1960s fashions: gold lame mini dresses, colour-blocked pantsuits, butter yellow gowns, swooshy camel coats — this movie has all, and more, along with big glossy hair-dos, bold eye makeup, and enviable jewels. The theme song, written by Andre and Dory Previn, and crooned by Dionne Warwick, is just the right amount of melodramatic, and the shots of midtown New York are straight out of Mad Men. All this would make Valley of the Dolls a must-watch even if the movie had nothing else going for it, which happily, it does.
Susann’s book — a delicious read, by the way — focused primarily on Anne, who abandons the well-bred gentility of her New England hometown of Lawrenceville to build a life as an assistant to Henry Bellamy, a New York-based entertainment lawyer. He introduces her to the dark underbelly of showbiz, full of talented ingenues desperate to make it (Neely), beautiful women underestimated and used for their looks (Jennifer), powerhouse performers struggling to retain status as they age (Helen Lawson, played by real-life legend Susan Hayward), and suave, charming agents (Lyon Burke, played by the aptly named Paul Burke).
Parkins gives a solid performance as a good girl desperately trying to be a little less vanilla, and her outfits are so monumentally fabulous that it’s impossible for her remain unnoticed for long. Her relationship with Lyon, which forms the romantic crux of the movie, is a little less compelling in the film than it is in the book, but hers was always the most boring arc.
Luckily, the film divides its time more equally between Anne, Neely and Jennifer. We see Neely rise as a stage performer, eventually making it in Hollywood, only to be pumped full of barbiturates and amphetamines — which she nicknames “dolls,” hence the title — so that she can keep up with the frenetic pace of production. The film does a good job of warning against the dangers of drug use without shaming addiction. Neely may be a nightmare by the end of the movie, but she’s been set up by a system and culture that cares nothing about her well-being.
Her character, rumoured to be based on Judy Garland, is a tragic reminder of how many female performers were put through that grinder. Duke plays her as a nasty piece of work — she does steal Lyon Burke away from her best friend Anne, after all — but there’s truth, even in her drug-fueled rants. In one particularly poignant moment, she describes the double standard that women face in Hollywood: “They say I’m difficult. They say I’m drunk even when I’m not. Sure, I take dolls, I gotta get some sleep. I have to get up at five o'clock in the morning and ‘SPARKLE, Neely, SPARKLE!’” Like Garland, Duke was also a talented child actor who was exploited and put through the Hollywood ringer from an early age; while she ultimately survived (she died at age 69 in 2016), her own tragic origin story lends even more pathos to her Dolls performance.
Perhaps inadvertently, Valley of the Dolls sets up a compelling subplot in which men, feeling surly and belittled by the success of the women in their lives, gaslight them into thinking they’re doing something wrong. This is particularly true in Neely’s case, who comes home from a rough day on set to find her husband, designer Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion), having sex in the pool with a starlet. When she confronts him about it, he puts the blame on her. Maybe if she were home more, and not working so much, he might not feel emasculated and have to look elsewhere. Whether or not that was Robson’s original intention — I tend to think not — the scene comes off as surprisingly modern in hindsight.
Tate’s grotesque death at the hands of the Manson Family two years after the film’s release has certainly added to the myth of her character. But her performance, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination at the time, is memorable enough on its own. Tate gives Jennifer a sweet, dynamic energy, but there’s an underlying tension to her scenes, as her character struggles with being the object of male attention, even while the camera is constantly leering at her. You can almost feel the actress trying to wrestle our gaze away from where the camera is always trying to direct it.
In one scene, Jennifer visits Neely, and ends up chatting with her husband by the pool. For no discernible reason, she removes her blouse to display her bikini, finishes talking, and then leaves. She never goes into the water — the whole thing is just an excuse for the audience to catch a good look at her body. The moment implicates us.
Also notably meta is the catty confrontation between Neely and grand dame of Broadway Helen Lawson (which ends with a literal wig snatch) a testament to the way women are constantly pit against each other, stuck in a vicious cycle vying for a limited number of spots at the top. Lawson was almost played by Garland herself — the actress was cast and then unceremoniously fired because of her own struggles with alcohol and drugs — a fact that only adds to the tragedy of it all. (Garland would die of an overdose two years later at age 47.)
In 1967, Valley of the Dolls may have been a dizzying mess, straddling the rapidly changing culture. But in 2019, it’s a sexy piece of gossip, one that still feels shocking and subversive underneath its superficial cloud of hairspray and pancake makeup. It’s a time-capsule, but also a warning that women should still pay heed to today.
Correction: This piece originally mistakenly referred to Barbara Parkins as Barbara Perkins.