Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that my two favorite things in the world are mid-century cautionary tales and prescription drugs. Where else can you mix sweet oblivion with a strong moral lesson? One could go to church I guess but history shows that is neither a fun nor viable option.
I prefer to get my fix in”Valley of the Dolls.” I’m talking about the movie made in 1967 rather than the novel by Jacqueline Susann published in 1966. The only reason for this is that I recently watched the movie and haven’t read the book in ages. Trust me, it’s fantastic.
To many people “”Valley of the Dolls is known as “The Movie with Sharon Tate in it.” This is true and let me tell you, watching her on-screen is just as difficult as seeing the footage of JFK landing at Love Field in November ’63. Hindsight is too strong and not a moment goes by that I wasn’t thinking “In less than two years you will be horribly dead in a way that will eclipse all the life you had before.”
Don’t you want to run right out and see this flick? Of course, you do because despite the pall cast over everything “Valley of the Dolls” is spectacular.
The story focuses on three bright young women trying to make it in the wretched business we call show. Along the way they triumph as well as stumble, choosing the wrong men (because it’s ALWAYS about snaring the right man) and eventually succumbing to the numbing caress of barbiturates. At one point each of the girls finds themselves looking up and at the bottom. Will they find the strength to go on? Who can say? Will that strength be called Diazepam? No question.
The first and, as you’ll soon find, most important of these women is Anne Wells (Barbara Perkins). Anne is from a little town in New England called Lawrenceville. That right there is all the evidence you need to know that Anne is pure and good and kind and guileless. She lives with her aging mother and aged aunt. Her boyfriend is a vanilla dope with whom Anne skates on a frozen pond. Over hot cocoa, he presents Anne with his fraternity pin. Delta Kappa Epsilon. DKE.
Anne is smug and easy to root against. One look at her simpering face and I could scarcely wait to see her tasteful yet flawless bouffant dragged through the mud.
Anne decides that Lawrenceville is too small for her pristine goodness so she hops on the first train to New York. Upon arrival Anne is handed a secretarial job in an office specializing in entertainment law; even though she confesses that her shorthand is “lacking.” Although we don’t see her, right outside the door was an ugly girl who graduated with shorthand honors. She also hates Anne.
Within a couple of days, Anne is allowing herself to be wooed by Senior Partner Lyon Burke (Paul Burke). At this point, she hasn’t bothered to remove Vanilla Dope’s fraternity pin. In fact, she insists on wearing it to work and the theater. V card-fully intact.
It’s at the theater that Anne meets Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). They don’t have much to say to one another because they’re both women who aren’t interested in the same man. Instead, Anne looks on while various men objectify Jennifer. Clinging to Lyon’s firm arm Anne breathlessly declares show business “fascinating.”
Jennifer is vapid and beautiful. Her mother calls regularly badgering her daughter for money, then reminding her that the only thing she has going for her is her body. Jennifer acknowledges this fact and returns to her bust enlarging exercises which, unfortunately, do not consist of chanting “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”
Everything changes for Jennifer when she meets greasy lounge singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti). I’m talking actually greasy. Tony is a decent guy who loves Jennifer and treats her well. Unfortunately, he’s got a shrew of a sister/manager bossing him and Jennifer around all the time.
One (I) could go on and on about how the sister, Miriam (Lee Grant) is so awful because she’s wickedly sublimating her love for Jennifer. Sure, that’s one possible reason but the movie insists that Miriam is just looking out for her kid brother. She’s got to keep him on a tight leash because he’s got a “brain disease” that makes him both clumsy and childlike. The script alleges he has Huntington’s chorea. Before long Tony trips on some stairs and it’s off to the sanitarium for him.
In order to pay for Tony’s treatment, Jennifer flees to Paris where she gets an abortion (natch) and promptly begins making “art films.” The only way she can cope with the stress and shame is by taking lots of giant red pills, a habit she picked up from her old friend Neely O’Hara.
Neely O’Hara as played by Patty Duke is perhaps the best character of the 20th century. She’s not classy like Anne or beautiful like Jennifer. Instead, she’s a cute, plucky girl with a whole shipload of drive and vocal talent.
Neely is constantly struggling against haters; withered bitches who cut her songs because they’re jealous and frightened of her dynamism, people who force her to take Dexedrine because she’s five feet tall and weighs 115 pounds, and other people who don’t understand how difficult it is to “SPARKLE, NEELY! SPARKLE!” and how she has no choice but to gulp fistfuls of pills. Then these same people have the audacity to get pissed when she needs to sleep for 48 hours.
Assholes, every one.
I found it easy to relate to Neely because I too am put upon by the pressures of daily life such as getting out of bed and wearing pants. Sure, Neely was taking Frances Gumm-level Seconal and I take mass-market SSRIs; the point is that Neely understood better living through chemistry.
Neely is such a wounded dove. The only person who can possibly understand her is a man named Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion). It doesn’t matter that everyone including Neely herself accuses Ted of faggotry. Eventually, Neely’s bottomless pit of nastiness drives him away. (This movie tosses the faggot word around liberally yet contains no actual homosexuals. All hat and no cattle if you ask me.)
Like all good morality tales, these three women are put through the wringer with varying degrees of viewer enjoyment. Anne’s trials are obviously the most boring. She hooks up with Lyon, finally removing her fraternity pin and giving up the goods. From that moment on Lyon never fails to mention that he will never marry her.
Anne hangs around waiting for him to change his mind. I don’t know what kind of fancy New England schooling she had but somewhere along the way they nobody mentioned that in order to secure a suitable husband a girl must remain a virgin until marriage and then merely tolerate sex until she gets pregnant.
Anne must have gone to the female doctor and gotten herself a pessary because her rabbit never dies. Instead, Lyon pulls the Hollywood move, “I love you so much that I have to put 2,000 miles between us. Also, I want to be a writer.” Naturally, Anne is fully understanding of this, even moved when he comes back a few years later all famous because he wrote a book. A book about Anne.
“Snoozer of the year!” says The New Yorker.
She takes him back because she’s completely lacking imagination. Things are good for a while. He’s her rock when she has to put Neely in a sanitarium. (Tony Polar is also a resident. Apparently, this place treats both drug addiction and brain damage.) By this point, everyone’s favorite scrapper is officially hooked on dolls. There’s a wonderful scene when Neely is first admitted to the hospital. She’s strapped to her bed, screaming, “MY DOLLS! CAN’T I HAVE ONE OF MY DOLLS! MY DOLLS! MY DOLLS! MY DAAHHHHLLLS!!” The nurse’s disapproval is palpable.
When Neely gets out of treatment Lyon offers to be her new agent, get her star back on the rise. Neely thinks this is a great idea, so much so that she tells Anne in no uncertain terms that she’s going to steal Lyon away. Anne smiles blandly while Neely, ever the go-getter, does exactly that.
The loss of this great man is what pushes Anne over the edge. She too starts popping candy. You can tell that she’s not that into it though because one night she spills her dolls on a silver tray (!!) then dumps her water (vodka?) all over them. No true addict would ever let that happen.
It must’ve been a cry for help because the next time we see her she’s staggering on the beach, clad in a mere shortie robe. All it takes is one vigorous wash at high tide for her to get back onto the straight and narrow. A far more purifying climax than Neely’s.
Surprising no one Neely’s rehab lasts approximately one hot minute before she flings herself from the wagon. Lyon gets her a few jobs but Neely’s gone full Garland by this point, so drunk she rips out her fake curls and curses the director. It’s official, Neely O’Hara is box office poison. She reacts the only way a star of her caliber can: crouching in an alley, screaming her own name until she collapses into a filthy puddle.
In this time Jennifer has returned from Europe. The taint of scandal followed her across the globe, her titillating art films playing in sticky theaters up and down skid row. To her credit, Jennifer isn’t ashamed. She has no time for shame, for Jennifer is soon diagnosed with breast cancer. Way to hit her where it counts, God. No matter that she was the kindest of the bunch; she had the unmitigated temerity to be naked in public, therefore deserving of death. Bless her heart for taking the bull by the horns and gobbling enough dolls to leave a beautiful corpse.
It is impossible to watch “Valley of the Dolls” without learning several important lessons. There a girl will learn how to accurately calculate her worth, making sure to strike the right balance between looks and malleability. Talent and ambition make you shrewish. New England is the only place where a girl is able to reclaim her virginity.
I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I, Erin Lady Byrne, am partnering with Gideons International to place a copy of “Valley of the Dolls,” both print and video, in every hotel room in America.
Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be found on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne, talking about nectarines and Don Rickles.